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Reflections on the "Counterinsurgency Decade": Small Wars Journal Interview with General David H. Petraeus | Small Wars Journal


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SWJ: In his recent op-ed published in the New York Times, “The Pipe Dream of Easy War”, General H.R. McMaster warned against the fantasy of “a new era of war”, and especially about the dangers in the blind faith in the transformative effects that technology promises to have on war. He argued that over the past counterinsurgency (COIN) decade we relearned a few lessons that we really should keep in mind as we head into the future: “American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments”. His warning reminds me of an article you wrote in 1986 with General John Galvin about “uncomfortable wars”. You warned to take into consideration “the societal dimension of warfare”. To what extent do you see that prophecy still holding true post Iraq and post Afghanistan?

General Petraeus: I think the essence of the article back in 1986 with General Galvin was frankly the importance of the human terrain in each particular situation, and the importance of understanding the terrain, having a very nuanced, detailed feel for the context of each situation, not just nationally, but sub-nationally and literally all the way down to each valley and each village. That kind of knowledge was achieved in Iraq and helped us enormously during the Surge. We had a greater understanding there, earlier than we did in Afghanistan, just because we had so many more forces on the ground, 165,000 American military alone at the height of the surge. In Afghanistan at the height of our deployment, we had 100,000 US troopers and about 50,000 coalitional forces, and we maintained that level for a relatively brief period of time. As I noted on a number of occasions, we never really got the inputs close to right in Afghanistan until late 2010.

So, noting the importance of human terrain, I believe, is a fundamental aspect of crafting a counterinsurgency campaign. In fact, it was the biggest of the big ideas when we launched the Surge in Iraq, and we knew that since the human terrain was the decisive terrain, we would had to secure it as our principal focus – and to do so by living with the people, locating forward operating bases/joint security stations in the neighborhoods and villages, and specifically right on the sectarian fault-lines across which the heaviest fighting was ongoing in the capital. We ultimately established 77 additional locations just in the Baghdad area of operations alone, and many dozens more elsewhere throughout the country. There were other big ideas to be sure:  e.g., that you can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial strength insurgency, such as we faced, therefore you need to reconcile with as many of the insurgents as was possible, seeking to maximize the number of the reconcilables; correspondingly, we also needed to intensify our campaign of targeted operations against the irreconcilables. But I think, fundamentally, it comes back to this issue, that it is all about people, counterinsurgency operations are wars in, among, and, in essence, for the people. And the first task of any counterinsurgency campaign has to be to secure those people.

Those last two sentences are key and worth repeating: "But I think, fundamentally, it comes back to this issue, that it is all about people, counterinsurgency operations are wars in, among, and, in essence, for the people. And the first task of any counterinsurgency campaign has to be to secure those people."

SWJ: Bearing in mind some of the very possible features of the future - less political support for large footprint expeditionary operations and for nation building overseas, a dire fiscal perspective for defense - can we assume that what we are going to see only light footprint missions of the sort that had been advocated by Edward Lansdale?

General Petraeus: If you pull out the Anaconda slide (SWJ: Below) you will find out that no matter what the insurgency, no matter where the insurgency is, you need the elements of the Anaconda framework. At the core there are the insurgents that have certain needs to sustain the insurgency (money, ammunition, explosives, leadership, communications, popular support, ideology, command and control, sanctuaries). To deal with that you need a comprehensive civil-military effort that aims to squeeze the life out of the insurgency like an Anaconda snake. It tries to take away from the insurgents their access to the elements vital for their survival. And for this you need a very comprehensive effort. It cannot be done by the military alone or by civilians alone, host nations forces or the international community alone. It takes all the above. You need to have some conventional forces to carry out traditional clear-hold-build operations and special mission unit forces that can conduct high-risk targeted operations.  You need to have an element that is going to organize, train, equip, build infrastructure for the host nation forces (police as well as military).  You have to do the same with the civilian elements for local, provincial, and national governance structures for rule of law, elements beyond police (detention, penitentiary facilities, justice and legal courts). You need to enable some form of reconciliation because typically you cannot kill or capture your way out of the problem. You must take away as many of the fighters and leaders from the insurgents by convincing as many of them to be part of the solution instead of continuing to be part of the problem.  There have to be enticements for this.  Also, you need to improve basic services, education, infrastructure, access to food, health-care because that is what convinces the people that the government can provide better for them than the insurgent organization. You need a regional effort around the country to cut off the sanctuaries, lines of communications, the access and the ability of young men to travel from one area to another on a one-way plane ticket (as it was the case with Damascus and a lot of suicide bombers that came into Iraq from there). It has to be a very comprehensive effort on all of these very different lines of operations. Now, as we move forward, we should expect that most future campaigns will be comprehensive civil-military endeavors, requiring to employ every available tool in our diplomatic, economic and defense arsenals in complementary fashion and to do so in concert with coalition partners and host-nation elements.

Thanks for posting this, btw.  It has been shared again and again.

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