'Insurgents' Hoped To Change Military From Within National security reporter Fred Kaplan's new book is called The Insurgents, but the insurgents of the title are actually American military intellectuals — including Gen. David Petraeus — determined to change the way the Army thinks about counterinsurgency operations.

'Insurgents' Hoped To Change Military From Within

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Fred Kaplan was the first to publicly link Paula Broadwell to the Petraeus scandal last fall, but that's not the topic of his new book. In fact, it's barely an addendum. Instead, this national security reporter focuses in depth on counterinsurgency, a cornerstone of General Petraeus' legacy. Fred Kaplan is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of "The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War."

The title is a play on words. The insurgents in this case are Americans: colonels and generals educated at West Point.

FRED KAPLAN: Right. I'm talking about a small band of intellectual officers within the Army, who rose within, determined to mount a revolution from inside the Army. You know, Before Petraeus went to Iraq in 2006, for a couple of decades, the Army's definition of war was large, set-pieces with tanks, you know, battles against major foes.

Conflicts against insurgents, terrorists, that sort of thing, it was officially called, in capital letters, Military Operations Other Than War. It wasn't even war, and yet, at the same time, people like David Petraeus and other junior officers who were coming up in the '80s and early '90s, they were going to El Salvador, to Somalia, to Bosnia, these places that sure felt like war to these people. But it wasn't recognized.

And so as these people came up through the ranks and they discussed the situation with their fellow officers, they realized that the Army had to change, and it wasn't going to change by itself. And so they had to change it from within, and therefore they were the insurgents within the United States Army.

MONTAGNE: And they weren't able to do much with this new thinking until the Iraq war.

KAPLAN: Right. I mean, large organizations sometimes change when there's a catastrophe, and there was a catastrophe in Iraq. You know, we invaded with kind of a blitzkrieg dash up the desert, and then found ourselves being an occupying power and then facing an insurgency.

The Secretary of Defense, and not just Donald Rumsfeld, but the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, they were against even calling it an insurgency, because that would mean you might have to develop counterinsurgency strategies, which would require a lot of troops staying on the ground for a long time, and they were not interested in that at all.

It was in this context that this plot to change the American military from within really got underway, because it became a matter of urgency.

MONTAGNE: When you say plot, how do you mean that?

KAPLAN: I mean it was a plot. The people involved in it, they called themselves the cabal or the West Point mafia. It all started with a conference that was held at Basin Harbor, Vermont, by a defense intellectual named Eliot Cohen. He went to Iraq. He saw that it was a disaster, so he basically called up everybody who had written an interesting article about counterinsurgency in a military journal.

There's about 30 people. And the pivotal thing about this meeting was that a lot of these people didn't know each other, they'd thought that they were out in the wilderness, writing this stuff by themselves, and they saw that, in fact, they formed a community. Now, at about the same time, by coincidence, David Petraeus was coming back from Iraq. He was going to head up the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

He realized that the Combined Arms Center was potentially the intellectual center of the Army. They wrote doctrine. And Petraeus knew some of these people who were in the Basin Harbor group, and these people became the co-conspirators, if you will, in writing a new field manual on counterinsurgency. And by the time Petraeus went back to Iraq, in early 2007, all the pins were in place for him to apply the strategy that he'd been trying to work into the mainstream of the Army for 25 years.

MONTAGNE: Give us, in a nutshell, the strategy.

KAPLAN: The strategy stemmed from an insight that insurgencies grow out of some kind of conditions on the ground. To the extent that they're successful, they gain popular favor, and it's not always entirely through fear. It's because the government that isn't doing a good job. So the point of a counterinsurgency campaign is not just to kill and capture the enemy. It's also to infiltrate the community, to say, we are here to provide you security, and also to reform the government.

I mean, and in some places, it works. When you can set up a relationship with the local powers, and you have common interests, then it can work.

MONTAGNE: That would be the surge in Iraq.

KAPLAN: Right. But here's where things went wrong. Petraeus said, right up front, he said, look, what we're doing here is we're creating some breathing space, a zone of security so that the factions in Iraq can get their act together without worrying about getting blown up every five minutes.

The problem was, as we now see, Prime Minister Maliki had no interest in getting his act together. So in the long run, the surge and all that worked tactically, but in terms of achieving strategic objectives, it didn't work, because what overrode the strategy was the interests of the ruling elites on the ground.

MONTAGNE: And that problem was writ large when the counter insurgency, the theories that partly worked or worked at least temporarily in Iraq, were transferred over to Afghanistan.

KAPLAN: Right. You know, after Iraq, Petraeus was viewed as a miracle worker. And he was a very brilliant strategist and an angler, but he wasn't a miracle worker. A myth had built up around him, and he had helped cultivate this myth quite deliberately, as a way of gaining loyalty and favor. A lot of generals do this.

He was sent to Afghanistan with the idea that, well, he worked miracles in Iraq, maybe he can work them in Afghanistan. By his own admission, he knew nothing about Afghanistan. You know, David Petraeus was heavily influenced by this book by a French colonial officer name David Galula, called "Counterinsurgency Warfare." There is a chapter - and Petraeus read this book and reread it many times - a chapter called "Conditions Favorable to an Insurgency." And it listed several things where an insurgency would be very effective: a corrupt central government, a largely rural, illiterate population, a neighboring country that can serve as a sanctuary for an insurgency.

You add up all these conditions, it's a dead ringer for Afghanistan. This thing was just never going to be susceptible to classic counterinsurgency techniques. Petraeus convinced a lot of people that we should give it a try. President Obama gave it a try, for about 18 months, and it didn't work, and so he cut back on the strategy, which is what we're seeing now.

MONTAGNE: So in a weird way, the very generals - and this included many others besides General Petraeus - these generals who would've always said they weren't fighting the last war, at least in this instance, were fighting the last war.

KAPLAN: Yeah, that's the irony. They also said things like, counterinsurgencies are local wars, you have to adapt to each local condition, but they just tried to apply the same very abstract principles, and it didn't work. You know, one thing - history teaches us, over and over, that sometimes, when you get intellectuals in positions of power, and especially once they have a triumph or two, the fall, when the fall comes, can be particularly brutal.

MONTAGNE: Fred Kaplan writes the column "War Stories" in Slate and his new book is "The Insurgence: David Petraeus in the Plot to Change the American Way of War." Thanks very much.

KAPLAN: Thank you.

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