The Basin Harbor Gang

8. The Basin Harbor Gang

Every summer since the start of the decade, Eliot Cohen had organized a weeklong national-security workshop at the Basin Harbor Club along the sparkling shores and verdant hills of Lake Champlain, Vermont. Cohen was director of the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. The point of the workshops was to bring together a couple dozen professors in national-security programs from universities around the country and discuss better ways to teach and research the subject. But early in 2005, Cohen decided to do something different, more urgent, in the coming summer: he would assemble a group of counterinsurgency specialists—a few academics, but mainly military officers, government officials, and veterans of past COIN operations—to discuss how to fight a better war in Iraq.

Cohen had given a talk at the Irregular Warfare Conference at Quantico in October 2004. (Its cosponsor, Jim Thomas, had been one of his graduate students at SAIS a decade earlier.) More pertinent, the previous May, as a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, an outside advisory council appointed by the secretary of defense, Cohen had traveled to Iraq. The only board member to make such a trip, he’d stayed for eight days, visited several Army and Marine bases, talked with commanders, junior officers, and grunts, as well as some Iraqis—and came away with the grim sense that the United States was losing the war and that the failings were entirely those of its own political and military leadership.

At age forty-nine, Cohen was one of the country’s most respected military scholars and, from appearances, the least likely. A bit dweebish in appearance, he wore glasses, a patrician’s trim moustache, and—always—a bow tie. Officers who disparaged academic advisers on principle referred to him behind his back as “Professor Bow Tie.” But many others, especially younger officers, were respectful, even admiring.

For one thing, Cohen was an Army Reserve officer himself. Born and raised in Boston, he’d immersed himself as a boy in the region’s history, especially the landmarks of the Revolutionary War, which sparked a fascination with military matters generally. He’d also grown up in a devoutly Jewish family, learning early about the Holocaust—an aunt had been liberated from the German concentration camps—which imbued him with an awareness of evil in the world and the occasional need to fight it. In the late 1960s, when Vietnam made much of his generation viscerally hostile to all things military, Cohen was affected more by Israel’s triumph in the Six-Day War.

As a graduate student at Harvard (where he’d also been an undergrad in the class of 1977), he felt guilty that he’d probably spend his life studying the military without being in some way a part of it. So he signed up for ROTC and, twice a week, took the subway to the other side of Cambridge for Reserve officers’ training exercises on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (The program didn’t exist at Harvard.)

In 1982, after earning his PhD, he taught at Harvard for three years, moved to the Naval War College for four more, then spent a year in the Pentagon as a lieutenant in the Army Reserve, working for Andy Marshall in the Office of Net Assessment. From watching Marshall, Cohen learned not only the enterprise of defense analysis but also the craft and benefits of professional networking. Through the 1990s, as a tenured professor at SAIS, Cohen proved to be a popular teacher (twice winning awards for excellence) as well as an agile practitioner of the Marshallian art, creating a program in “executive education”—basically an advanced course in military history and strategy—for general officers and senior Defense Department officials.

Over the next few years, Cohen emerged as a prominent member of the neoconservative movement, and was among the first to sign petitions and write op-ed columns calling for the ouster of Saddam Hussein through American military force. But Cohen possessed an independent streak that most of his fellow neocons lacked: he had looser ties to the Republican Party and harbored less overt ambition for public office;* he was more a scholar, and sometimes a critical one.

In 1991, after Desert Storm, Don Rice, the secretary of the Air Force, commissioned Cohen to conduct a detailed study of how the air campaign had affected the war. Rice anticipated that the study, which he called The Gulf War Air Power Survey, would vindicate the revolution in military affairs and thus make a case for Air Force dominance in future defense plans and budgets. But Cohen’s multivolume report concluded that the new smart bombs and high-tech computer systems had not been as crucial as many had assumed. He turned the study’s executive summary into a book, published by the US Naval Institute Press under the title Revolution in Warfare? (The question mark was significant.)

The year before, Cohen had coauthored a book called Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War. In it, he examined three failures—the disaster at Gallipoli in 1915–16, the fall of France in 1940, and the rout of the US 3rd Army at the start of the Korean War in 1950—and attributed them not to the performance of the troops but rather to the incompetence of the commanding officers: specifically their failure to learn, to anticipate the enemy’s moves, and to react to those moves when they happened.

Coming back from his trip to Iraq in May 2004, Cohen worried that the American commanders and officials he’d just seen in action were making the same mistakes. They displayed no insight, or even much curiosity, about the enemy’s motives, goals, or organizational structure; the program to train Iraqi security forces was ill conceived and poorly resourced. More to the point, the US military command was in total disarray: the general officers at headquarters had formulated no strategy, issued no guidance, and were out of touch with the fight on the ground. The civilian authorities, in both the embassy and Jerry Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority, were useless. The officers out in the field were left to their own devices in a war for which they hadn’t been trained: a few were doing well nonetheless; most weren’t.

Cohen was not a COINdinista, but his knowledge of military history ran broad and deep. He knew what an insurgency looked like, and he knew what a counterinsurgency had to do. Back in 1984, when he wasn’t quite thirty, he wrote an article for the journal International Security called “Constraints on America’s Conduct of Small Wars,” in which he decried “two dominant characteristics” of the American military’s institutional culture: “the preference for massing a large number of men and machines and the predilection for direct and violent assault.” It was the same syndrome—the same belief that firepower, and more of it, could solve every strategic problem—that Galvin, Petraeus, Nagl, Krepinevich, and others observed in their critiques of America’s failure in Vietnam. And now Cohen was seeing it again, not in books but before his own eyes, in Iraq.

There was another factor deepening Cohen’s worries: his oldest son, also a Harvard graduate, had joined the Army a year earlier and was now about to be deployed as an infantry platoon leader in Iraq. Cohen was proud of his son’s decision, but he was angry that the administration’s bungling of the war—its failure to plan for the aftermath of Saddam’s ouster, its refusal even now to change strategies or so much as acknowledge the rise of an insurgency—was putting his son’s life at greater risk than necessary. And this was an administration that he’d been advising; it was a war that he’d not only supported but long urged. He felt embittered by his own complicity. His feelings didn’t turn Cohen against the war, but they did rouse a sense of responsibility for its consequences and for doing what he could to forestall the impending disaster.

And so, he decided that the Strategic Studies Conference for the summer of 2005 would be devoted to a workshop on irregular warfare. He consulted his Rolodex and his library in deciding on the list of participants. David Kilcullen was a natural: Cohen had met him at the Quantico conference and knew that he was now working on the irregular-warfare chapters of the Pentagon’s QDR. Another one was John Nagl: he’d read the New York Times Magazine profile, which led him to read Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. When Nagl started working for his friend Paul Wolfowitz at the Pentagon, Cohen invited him a couple of times for lunch.

Others on Cohen’s list included John Waghelstein, the former US MilGroup commander in El Salvador, still teaching at the Naval War College; Frank Hoffman, a Marine colonel who’d helped organize the Quantico conference; T. X. Hammes, a retired colonel, former CIA officer, and now a professor at the National Defense University, whose writings on “fourth-generation warfare” (his term for counterinsurgency) were gaining adherents; Robert Killebrew, another retired but still influential colonel (he was the one who’d brought Dave Petraeus to Haiti); Henry “Hank” Crumpton, a CIA officer who was about to be named the State Department’s special adviser on counterterrorism; Steve Metz, the longtime scholar of low-intensity conflicts at the Army War College; and Janine Davidson, a former Air Force pilot who’d flown humanitarian supply missions into Bosnia and would soon be working in the Pentagon’s Office for Stability Operations.

And, at the last minute, Cohen invited Kalev Sepp. The two had never met; Cohen had never heard of him. But his article on counterinsurgency’s best practices in the May–June issue of Military Review made him, in one stroke, a major figure in this still somewhat underground field.

The group, numbering thirty altogether, assembled at Basin Harbor on Monday evening, June 6, and stayed until noon on Friday, June 10. They met twice a day in the sun-soaked Terrace Room, with its grand view of the lake and the woods—once in the morning, again in the afternoon, each session lasting two and a half hours—for panel discussions on the comparisons between Iraq and Afghanistan, the relevance of counterinsurgency theory, the problem of dealing with “failed states,” the best techniques for advising and training indigenous armies, and the impact of globalization on irregular warfare.

Some of the participants recited arguments they’d been formulating for a while in books, articles, or their own thoughts: the importance of human intelligence to build support among the local people and to isolate them from the insurgents; the need for nation-building, so that the host government can sustain this popular support; the need for more civilian personnel from the State Department and the Agency for International Development (AID); the need somehow to overcome the Army’s institutional hostility toward small wars (the moot-wah syndrome); and the need to cultivate senior officers with the agility to command such wars, since a general who was comfortable at leading the thunder run to Baghdad might be unsuitable for conducting Phase IV operations once the invasion was over.

Some of the discussions were contentious. What was the definition of victory in these sorts of wars? Should foreign armies confine themselves to a small footprint, as US Special Forces had done in El Salvador? Or did some situations—for instance, a host government with almost no capacity to govern—require a larger intervention, and, if so, could such a thing succeed in a country that distrusted outsiders? Beyond these questions, could the American military change its cultural stripes? Was it institutionally capable of absorbing and adapting to the best practices of counterinsurgency? And what about support on the home front? John Nagl pointed out that it had taken twelve years for the British to put down the insurgents in Malaya; no US war had gone on nearly that long before exhausting the American people’s patience and will. Finally, were historical precedents relevant? The insurgencies in Malaya, the Philippines, Vietnam, and El Salvador—the examples usually discussed—were ideological in nature, inspired by the writings of Marx, Lenin, and Mao. Did they hold any wisdom for fighting the sectarian insurgencies in Iraq or Afghanistan? And if not, were the broader theories of counterinsurgency irrelevant, too?

But Basin Harbor’s larger impact flowed not so much from the substance of the discussions as from the fact of the meeting itself: the meals in between the panels, the hikes through the woods, the evening strolls along the lake, the cigars and brandies on the veranda, the personal chats, the exchanges of phone numbers and email addresses—the dawning realization among these scholars and officers and officials, many of whom were meeting one another for the first time, that they formed a community; that their ideas and interests had common grounding and intellectual heft; and that, in the context of the country’s two floundering wars, which the current political and military leaders seemed to have no idea how to handle, they—this insurgency of counterinsurgency thinkers—might be of use, might have impact.

This self-awareness as an emergent counter-elite, imbued with deeply relevant but uncommon knowledge, received a major jolt the last night of the conference when Lieutenant General Ray Odierno delivered the after-dinner speech.

Odierno was the assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. More to the point, he had been commander of the 4th Infantry Division during the first year of the Iraqi occupation, patrolling the heart of the Sunni Triangle, the country’s most violent sector, which included Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit. Odierno had graduated from West Point, class of 1976, but hadn’t taken more than the required courses in the Sosh department. Afterward, he got a master’s degree in nuclear engineering at North Carolina State University. He’d risen through the Army’s ranks as an artillery officer. An artillery unit’s task was to fire rockets at targets, and so the Army’s cultural disposition to view war as little more than a clash of firepower resonated with him instinctively.

The 4th Infantry had entered the war late. It was supposed to have been a part of the invasion, rolling into northern Iraq from Turkey. When the Turkish parliament blocked that plan, its soldiers and equipment traveled by boat to Kuwait and, like the units before it, moved into Iraq from the south. By this time, Saddam’s army had collapsed and his regime had fled; Petraeus’s 101st Airborne Division, already as far north as Baghdad, was sent to occupy the northern districts, including Mosul. So Odierno’s 4th Infantry was sent to the central districts, including Tikrit. Possessing no strategic guidance from headquarters, frustrated at having missed the fight, and facing violent resistance from Saddam’s holdouts, much more so than Petraeus faced in Mosul, Odierno and his men did what they’d been trained to do: assume the enemy was all around them, capture and kill as many of them as possible, and if some innocent civilians got caught in the crossfire, well, war is hell.

Some of Odierno’s brigade and battalion commanders had some background in counterinsurgency, having served in Bosnia or one of the other moot-wah wars of the previous decade. Odierno, too, understood, in a vague way, that part of his mission should include political and economic reconstruction, but he didn’t know how to integrate those pieces with the military strands. Like Petraeus, he’d asked Jerry Bremer for an exemption to the order banning Baathist Party members from holding government office in the new Iraq. But his request was turned down. So Tikrit fell apart, spurring Odierno to step up the pressure, compelling many previously neutral Iraqis to aid or join the insurgency, which threw Tikrit into deeper chaos, spurring Odierno to escalate still further, and on and upward the cycle of violence spiraled.

By the time the 4th ID left Iraq in April 2004, Odierno knew that he hadn’t handled things well. He would educate himself over the next two years before going back. But when he was asked to come speak at Basin Harbor, this learning process was in the early stages. The invitation had come through one of his brigade commanders in Iraq, Colonel Jim Hickey, who’d studied with Eliot Cohen as a graduate student at SAIS. So, on the afternoon of Thursday, June 9, Odierno took a military plane from Washington to Vermont.

Dave Kilcullen was apprehensive when he saw Odierno’s name on the program. As part of his work on the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, Kilcullen had analyzed the operations of all the US Army and Marine units in Iraq. The 4th Infantry Division was among the worst, a textbook case of how not to deal with an insurgency.

Odierno cut an imposing figure. He even looked a bit like an artillery rocket: six-foot-five with an iron physique and a gleaming shaved head in the shape of a bullet. Yet he failed to get a lock on his target that evening at Basin Harbor. In his opening line, he congratulated his audience for holding such an “interesting” conference, adding, “We in the Army don’t think much about counterinsurgency.” Some of those listening looked around, slightly jaw-gaped. Was this an admission of guilt, a dismissive shrug at the topic, an attempt at a joke?

The remainder of the talk was no more assuring. It was a string of banalities, a stock after-dinner speech that a visiting general might deliver to a Kiwanis Club. Halfway through, Odierno himself seemed aware of the mismatch: he was clearly uncomfortable, borderline nervous, and confused. It was a cool evening, a breeze wafted through the windows in the hall, yet Odierno’s head glistened with beads of sweat.

During the question-answer period, Kalev Sepp asked the general to define the American mission in Iraq. Odierno replied that his first priority was to get the best equipment into the hands of his soldiers, so they can protect themselves as much as possible. Sepp was dumbstruck. He thought to himself, “If the main objective is protecting our soldiers, then take them back to Fort Carson.” Others in the audience rolled their eyes, too. Obviously, many of them reflected, commanders should do what they can to minimize unnecessary deaths, but what’s the point of the war, what are the troops who’ve been sent there supposed to do?

Odierno flew back to Washington that night. The next morning at Basin Harbor, over breakfast, his speech was all anyone could talk about. John Nagl tried to shout down the grumblings of how appalling it was, how shocking, how demoralizing. Look, Nagl told his colleagues, the Army still needs war fighters, and Odierno’s a good one. Besides, you have to recognize his constraints: he’s working in the Pentagon, under a defense secretary who still won’t allow anyone in his presence to utter the word “counterinsurgency.” In fact, Nagl went on, we should see his speech as positive: Odierno at least mentioned the C word, said its ideas were “interesting”; it may not seem like much, but a year ago, he couldn’t have done even that. It may be the best that the Army, at this point, can offer.

His pleas didn’t quiet the grumblers, who recognized that Nagl, too, was speaking under constraints: the obligation of a lieutenant colonel to stand up for a lieutenant general. Still, if Odierno did represent the Army at its best, then the Army had to change. And it seemed to the assembled discontents that they would have to be the ones to prod the changing.

  • Cohen changed in the 2012 presidential election, not only advising Republican candidate Mitt Romney, but appearing as one of his spokesmen.