The disgrace of David Petraeus has ended more than a great military career. It is also the symbolic end of a major chapter in American security strategy. The fall of the former Iraq and Afghanistan commander adds a tawdry exclamation point to the decline of counterinsurgency, the military theory for which Petraeus offered a heroic public face.
Flash back to the mid-2000s. The Iraq war was an unmitigated disaster, with no apparent hope in sight. Confronted with a potent insurgency, the occupying U.S. forces often fought back with a brute force that backfired, further alienating a hostile population. Along came the Princeton-educated Petraeus, preaching the gospel of counterinsurgency. Defeating an indigenous resistance, the thinking went, required a unique approach to warfare. To oversimplify, it was less about killing the enemy than winning over and protecting the local population; less about guns and bombs than about hearts and minds. That meant forging personal relationships, training local security forces and investing in expensive development projects. In short, it meant nation building. It was often described as the Petraeus Doctrine.
As Iraq began to stabilize in 2007 and ’08, counterinsurgency got much of the credit. Soon the theory caught fire in Washington: think tanks hired and the media spotlighted some of the doctrine’s many well-educated (and combat-tested) proponents. The U.S. military developed more counterinsurgency training programs for its troops, offering tips on things like making nice with village elders and knowing when to let the enemy escape rather than risk high civilian combat casualties. This was a form of warfare that even many liberals (perhaps misguidedly) saw as kinder and gentler enough than the usual shock and awe to tolerate.
Petraeus and the counterinsurgency he waged as George W. Bush’s top general in Iraq probably get too much credit for turning around that war. Other factors, including the way disgusted Sunni sheiks in Iraq’s Anbar province turned against al-Qaeda fighters, were at least as important. But plenty of people, including military and political leaders in Washington, wanted to believe that what Petraeus had done for Iraq could also be done in Afghanistan. Soon after Barack Obama took office, his commander there, General Stanley McChrystal, devised an ambitious counterinsurgency strategy for the country. The White House seemed to accept the idea. Later that year, Obama sent 30,000 more troops to the country — fewer than what McChrystal had requested, but perhaps close enough. When Obama dispatched Petraeus to replace McChrystal in 2010 after the latter’s firing, some people wondered if the Petraeus Doctrine might salvage another wrenching conflict.
It wasn’t to be. The final chapter of the Afghanistan war has yet to be written, but the U.S. seems to have run out of patience — both with that war and with the expensive and grinding work of counterinsurgency. In the 2012 election, Mitt Romney agreed with Obama that the U.S. should aspire to be out of the country by 2014. A few weeks ago, the New York Times published a long editorial calling for an even faster end to the war and warning against more such interventions. (“America’s global interests suffer when it is mired in unwinnable wars in distant regions,” the Times wrote.) In his third debate with Romney, Obama delivered a memorable sound bite that seemed to complete Washington’s abandonment of counterinsurgency: “What I think the American people recognize is that after a decade of war, it’s time to do some nation building here at home.”
Even before he was sworn in as CIA director in September 2011, Petraeus was bending the rules of his own doctrine in Afghanistan. He reversed McChrystal’s counterinsurgency-inspired limits on air strikes, which can cause heavy civilian casualties, and bombed the hell out of the Taliban. He also oversaw a steep increase in Special Forces raids and armed drone strikes. Petraeus brought that attitude to the CIA, fighting to expand the spy agency’s drone fleet so that it can more easily kill suspected terrorists from Pakistan to Yemen to North Africa.
Those sort of targeted assassinations aren’t quite the opposite of counterinsurgency. (That would be carpet bombing.) But they fly in the face of the doctrine in multiple ways. Drone strikes — which often kill unlucky civilians — enrage local populations in countries like Pakistan and Yemen and risk “damaging and counterproductive” effects for U.S. interests. At least one recent would-be terrorist who plotted to attack the U.S. said he was motivated by drone attacks in Pakistan. Counterinsurgency requires huge numbers of troops to protect and build relationships with local populations. Drone-based counterterrorism strategy requires few if any boots on the ground. Death is rained down anonymously, usually with no explanation or apology for collateral damage.
This is the new American strategy. Hearts and minds have been replaced by drones and SEALs. Working a tribal council is a less valuable skill than piloting a Predator. By the end of his career — in a country exhausted by war and slashing its budget — Petraeus had embraced that shift. He had lowered his profile too far to become the drone war’s public face. But to those watching closely, the Petraeus Doctrine had morphed into something different. Counterinsurgency was finished. Much like the general’s career.