Those were the words of Pete Schoomaker, then chief of staff of the Army, to General David Petraeus, who at the time (2005) was commander of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The context of Schoomaker’s remarks was that the war in Iraq, which had been going on for more than two years, wasn’t going well. The trajectory of events was, in fact, alarming. So Schoomaker tasked Petraeus, the leader of a group of intellectual-warriors in the Army, to rethink our counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. The job was to determine the right overarching concepts and intellectual underpinnings of the war — and then to put them into practice.
Petraeus and his colleagues were dubbed the COINdinistas, and their tale is a remarkable and fascinating one. It was told, at least in part, by General Petraeus in his Irving Kristol lecture, delivered last night at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual award dinner.
There are several significant things to take away from the period General Petraeus described.
The first is a reminder that ideas indeed have consequences. For much of the Iraq war, the strategy of the Bush administration (in which I served) was based on flawed assumptions. We thought that if we knocked off the top of the Iraqi pyramid (the regime of Saddam Hussein), the rest of it would stay in place. Instead, much of it collapsed. Many in our military leadership, as well as the secretary of defense and much of our civilian leadership, believed that the right approach was a “light footprint.” Political progress, in the form of elections, would drain the insurgency of its venom. And the presence of American troops would act as an irritant and fuel the Iraqi insurgency. Our goal, then, was to head to the exits almost as soon as we arrived, in order to demonstrate that we were liberators rather than occupiers.
That approach was understandable; but for the circumstance in Iraq, it was also quite wrong.
We then put in place the right ideas, thanks primarily to the military reformers led by Petraeus, who came up with and executed the strategy, and President Bush, who showed enormous political courage in fighting on its behalf. Our new strategy focused on the security of the population, understood that human terrain is the decisive terrain, made a priority of holding and building in areas that had been cleared, distinguished between “reconcilables” (insurgents that could be won over) and “irreconcilables” (insurgents that had to be eliminated), and put a priority on civilian-military units of effort. Having done that, the situation turned around more quickly and decisively than anyone could have imagined. Iraq, a nation that had been caught in a death spiral, was, within a matter of a year, on the mend.
It is fashionable in some circles to emphasize the limits of policy when it comes to improving everyday life in a nation, particularly in one as shattered as Iraq was. That is of course sometimes the case. But in other instances, when the intellectual foundation is right and when the correct lessons from history and human experience are drawn, things can unfold much faster and much better than we anticipate.
A second lesson to draw from General Petraeus’s lecture is that we are witnessing one of the most remarkable, far-reaching reforms of an institution in our lifetime. (David Brooks devotes his column to this topic.) All large institutions are difficult to reform. Old habits are hard to uproot. People become settled in their ways, invested in policies they have advocated. Thinking becomes rutted. And there is of course a widespread human reluctance to engage in searching self-examination and to admit mistakes. All of which makes the transformation we are witnessing amazing. The intellectual orientation of the Army is significantly different from what it was less than a half-decade ago. How that occurred, and precisely how the (intellectual) tectonic plates shifted, is something that will be studied for decades to come.
A third lesson to draw is that even if the ideas are right, it takes individual human beings to execute them. History doesn’t unfold by itself; it relies on men and women to direct and shape the drama. The COINdinistas’ success was not preordained — and the obstacles and egos they had to overcome will probably never be fully known. But they persisted and prevailed — and in doing so, they have put us on the path to success in one war (Iraq) and may be in the process of putting us on the path to success in another one (Afghanistan).
We still don’t know the final outcome of their efforts, and won’t for years to come. Both wars could still end badly if the Iraqis and Afghans don’t fulfill their duties. Still, what the COINdinistas have done is quite remarkable. And in an age when almost every public institution in American life is witnessing a massive leakage of confidence and trust, the United States military is the object of our respect and esteem. It is more than merited.