The Insurgent in the Engine Room of Change

10. The Insurgent in the Engine Room of Change

Had it been up to a handful of generals, David Petraeus’s Army career might have sputtered to an end soon after his second tour in Iraq.

In the spring of 2005, Colonel Mike Meese, the West Point Sosh professor who had been Petraeus’s executive officer in Bosnia and his special assistant in Mosul, was working on loan in the Pentagon as head of the transition team for Francis Harvey, the newly confirmed Army secretary. Harvey mentioned casually that the higher-ups were thinking about making Petraeus the academy’s next superintendent.

Meese was appalled. “Sir,” he said, “that is the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” The West Point “supe,” he explained, was a terminal assignment; if that was Petraeus’s next posting, it would mean that one of the Army’s most creative strategists would end his service days as a three-star general stuck with administrative duties, far from the battlefield or planning rooms, while two wars were raging.

Petraeus’s second tour in Iraq hadn’t been as stellar as his first. In May 2004, just a few months after leaving Mosul with the 101st Airborne Division, he was brought back to take charge of the mission to train the new Iraqi security forces. It was a thankless task: Jerry Bremer’s CPA order from the year before, disbanding the Iraqi army, meant that Petraeus had to start pretty much from scratch, and the Army was sending him second-rate soldiers to do the training—understandable, since too few first-raters were available for the higher-priority combat missions, thanks in good measure to Donald Rumsfeld’s decision at the start of the war to send half as many troops as the generals had requested. Petraeus had felt the additional pangs of watching from the sidelines as his successor in Mosul—with half the number of soldiers, no feel for counterinsurgency, and no strategic guidance of any sort—let northern Iraq, his legacy, collapse into chaos, along with much of the rest of the country.

Relations with General Casey had also been tense, as had those with Donald Rumsfeld. Petraeus had first encountered Rumsfeld back in Bosnia. The secretary had came through for a briefing on counterterrorist operations. At one point, Petraeus was listing the various jihadist front organizations, noting that they included the Red Crescent, when Rumsfeld interrupted him with a dismissive snicker.

The Red Crescent is like our Red Cross, Rumsfeld said in a tone half condescending, half bullying.

Petraeus had no patience for either attitude, and he smacked back hard. That’s very good, he replied in a slow, singsong voice, as if he were teaching math to a slow third-grader. But, he went on, we have very firm intelligence that a slice of Red Crescent is supporting terrorist operations.

Rumsfeld respected a certain amount of pushback; he’d been puzzled why so many generals cowered at his criticism. (Most of these generals, in turn, wondered if Rumsfeld didn’t grasp the American officer corps’s post-MacArthur allegiance to the principle of civilian control, which made them disinclined to talk back to a secretary of defense.) After their exchange, Rumsfeld never gave Petraeus a hard time again; he would even call him in Iraq now and then to ask how things were going. But Petraeus had gone further in his pushback—he’d been more overtly scathing—than Rumsfeld liked. Nor was the secretary a big fan of what the major general had done in Mosul: Petraeus’s penchant for nation-building and his tendency to go rogue, to exercise more autonomy than his rank allowed, rubbed against Rumsfeld’s views on military strategy and hierarchy of command.

But Petraeus’s biggest problem lay with some of his fellow generals, who’d never liked him, who regarded him as a showboat, a self-aggrandizer, and who bad-mouthed him to one another—and to Rumsfeld, reinforcing his own suspicions—at every chance.

Ricardo Sanchez, the three-star general who commanded US forces in Iraq during the first year of the occupation, found Petraeus particularly annoying. Sanchez was an incompetent commander, he half knew that he was in over his head, and he was known to feel bitter about the swooning press coverage that Petraeus had elicited and received for his work in Mosul. Just before he returned to Iraq in the spring of 2004, Petraeus had appeared on the cover of Newsweek along with the headline: “Can This Man Save Iraq?” Sanchez called a meeting of the headquarters staff in Baghdad to meet him. During the question-answer period, Petraeus took all the questions, as if Sanchez—his superior—weren’t in the room.

Finally, one of the staff officers directed a question specifically at Sanchez.

“I don’t know,” Sanchez dryly replied. “Why don’t we let the messiah take that one.”

Every staffer in the room looked down at the floor in shock and embarrassment. Petraeus answered the question without flinching.

At Mike Meese’s urgings, Francis Harvey implored Rumsfeld to keep Petraeus out of West Point. Rumsfeld agreed, though not with enthusiasm. Ordinarily, the next assignment for a rising three-star with Petraeus’s record would be director of the Joint Staff or assistant to the chairman. But Petraeus was notified in the summer of 2005 that his next job, after leaving Iraq in September, would be commander of the Combined Arms Center in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Petraeus’s detractors were fine with the appointment; they took it as a sign that the fair-haired boy was being sent, literally, out to pasture. The general he’d be replacing, William Scott Wallace, had been the corps commander in Iraq who told a reporter during the invasion that the enemy was different from the one he’d war-gamed against—a remark that ticked off Rumsfeld and several other senior administration officials. At first Wallace, too, had viewed his assignment to Leavenworth as punishment, the purgatory before retirement. Petraeus’s outlook on his own status wasn’t quite that bleak, though when he first got the notice, he did wonder what there was to do out there, what the job was about.

In early October, Petraeus stopped off at the Pentagon before heading out west. One of the first officers he visited was General Schoomaker, the former Special Forces commander who’d been called out of retirement to be the Army chief of staff. The two had met in the mid-1990s, when they were both stationed at Fort Bragg, Petraeus as a brigade commander with the 82nd Airborne Division, Schoomaker as a Special Forces officer. Five days after Schoomaker took over as chief of staff, he flew to Iraq for a fact-finding mission. Petraeus met him at Baghdad airport and promptly took him on a two-hour helicopter ride to Mosul, briefing him (replete with PowerPoint slides) the entire way, then, once they landed, walked him through the city streets, introducing him to the mayor, the police chief, the provincial governor, taking him to the market, the town hall. It was exhausting but impressive—and a contrast to the bleakness Schoomaker found elsewhere in Iraq.

Schoomaker now confided to Petraeus that he planned to send him back to Iraq as commander after Casey’s term expired. Meanwhile, he further assured him, Fort Leavenworth was far from a diversion or demotion. A lot went on out there. Schoomaker had grown up in Leavenworth, when his father, who’d fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, studied there in the late 1950s. Schoomaker himself had been stationed there in the early eighties, when Huba Wass de Czege was writing the AirLand Battle field manual. He’d returned there again right after retiring from the Army, to teach a course called Leading Change at its School of Advanced Military Studies.

He told Petraeus that, at this very moment, Leavenworth’s Combined Arms Center was putting together a new field manual on counterinsurgency, the Army’s first in twenty years. It was just an interim manual, and it had problems. But that meant Petraeus could throw it out and write his own, and then instill its principles into the curriculum of the Command and General Staff College. He could reshape not only the strategy of the war but also the future of the Army.

Petraeus was relieved that he had Schoomaker’s backing for a return to Iraq as top commander. But he was also now intrigued with the implications of running Leavenworth. During his most recent stint in Iraq, training the country’s new security forces, he hadn’t focused much on American counterinsurgency policy, or the lack of it. But COIN had always been his passion, and now he felt it reigniting.

As the two parted, Schoomaker said, “Go out there and shake up the Army, Dave!” Petraeus marched out, determined to do just that.

Later that day, Petraeus dropped in on Brigadier General Frank Helmick, an old friend who’d been one of his assistant division commanders in Mosul and who was now the senior military assistant to Gordon England, the deputy secretary of defense. In the course of that reunion, he ran into England’s junior military assistant, John Nagl.

The two had kept in touch since their summer in Europe two decades earlier. They’d seen each other a few times: at West Point, when Petraeus made visits while Nagl was on the faculty, and in Iraq just the year before, when their tours overlapped. More recently, they’d talked on the phone several times during Nagl’s present tenure in the Pentagon.

Nagl asked Petraeus if he could have a word in private, then took him into England’s office. (England was away at the time.) Still full of missionary steam from the Basin Harbor conference a few months earlier, Nagl lectured his old mentor on all the things he could do as commander at Leavenworth. Above all, he could rewrite the field manual on counterinsurgency, pulling together contributions from officers—including fellow members of the Sosh mafia—who had studied COIN and fought in Iraq; Nagl already had a list of suitable names in mind, and could pass it along. He also suggested that Petraeus hold a workshop where experts would vet the new manual; friendly members of the press could be invited to sit in, too, and, afterward, promote it.

Petraeus had been thinking along the same lines since his meeting with Schoomaker, but Nagl’s urgings quickened his newborn excitement about the job. It had been Petraeus’s ambition for a quarter century to change the Army, to maneuver the outlaw ideas of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency into the mainstream of Army doctrine and culture. Could he be on the verge of making this happen?

It was a long drive from Washington to Leavenworth, and, at one point, to fill the time, Petraeus played a CD of the “end-of-tour interview” that General Wallace had recently given to an Army historian. What Petraeus heard so astonished him that he would play the disc twice more before the trip was over.

Wallace told the historian that at the start of his assignment, he’d figured his main job would be supervising the Command and General Staff College, so he’d probably play golf most afternoons. As it happened, though, he spent almost no time with the college, which pretty much ran itself. His main job turned out to be running all the other things that the Combined Arms Center controlled. He quickly discovered, for instance, that the CAC commander was also deputy head of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, which gave him power over all the combat schools (including their curricula), the National Training Center and the Joint Readiness Training Center (where soldiers between deployments played war games and held live-fire exercises), the Battle Command Training Program (where troops received their final preparation before heading off to combat), and the Center for Army Lessons Learned (where military historians analyzed the combat operations of all the units in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Wallace recalled looking over all of these billets of authority and realizing that Leavenworth wasn’t the backwater it seemed—that, in fact, if you wanted to make big changes in the Army, it was, at least potentially, the place to be. The whole cycle of change took place at Leavenworth or at places that Leavenworth controlled. The Combined Arms Center wrote new doctrine; the Command and General Staff College taught the doctrine; the National Training Center tried it out in exercises; the Center for Army Lessons Learned evaluated the results on the battlefield and noted areas for improvement. And then the cycle began all over again: the doctrine was altered to reflect the lessons, the teaching and training shifted to adjust for that, and on it went—or on it could go, if the commander wanted to make it so—in a continuous loop of learning, adaptation, action, learning, adaptation, action.

Petraeus’s new job began on October 20. He arrived at the base a few days early, met with Wallace—the first time they’d seen each other since the early days of the Iraq War—and discussed these issues in greater detail. Toward the end of their conversation, Wallace highlighted the point about the command’s multiple domains and the way they interconnected by recalling a phrase that his chief of staff, Colonel Dave Buckley, had coined to capture Leavenworth’s possibilities: it was, he said, the Army’s “engine of change.”

Petraeus sat in what was soon to be his office, feeling a shiver of amazement. “Holy cow,” he thought to himself. “They’re putting an insurgent in control of the engine of change.”

•  •  •

A few days into the job, Petraeus discovered that Wallace had already laid a fair stretch of the path to be paved. He’d beefed up the Center for Army Lessons Learned; reports were pouring in on how units in Iraq were performing and how future units could be trained in advance to do better. He’d opened up the curriculum at the college to comments from the students, many of whom had just come from Iraq and thus, in some senses, knew more than their instructors about that kind of warfare. More impressive still, Wallace had initiated a complete overhaul of the National Training Center, the vast war-game complex in the California desert. Not only had he changed the nature of the games, from Cold War tank-on-tank combat to modern-day urban stability operations, he’d also erected mock Iraqi villages, devised a range of tense scenarios (involving political rivalries and street riots, as well as guerrilla assaults), and hired Iraqi émigrés to play the various figures (mayors, tribal elders, jihadists, even ordinary citizens complaining about the lack of services or the unjust shooting of a cousin) that American soldiers were having to deal with in the real Iraq.

But there were still gaps. Early on, Petraeus visited Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to observe the training of field artillery officers who were about to be promoted to captain. The room simulating a command center was impressively up to date, with digital controls and high-def screens displaying interactive video animation of a firefight in Baghdad. In the scenario for the exercise, intelligence reports cited the coordinates of an insurgent hideout; the artillery officer in the field called for a mortar strike; the mortar shell was fired; it hit the target in one shot. The officers in the room shouted, “Hoo-ah!”

Petraeus was alarmed. He asked the staff sergeant running the game if he’d been in Baghdad.

Yes, sir, the staff sergeant replied.

Did you ever use mortars in Baghdad? Petraeus asked.

Hell, no, sir, he answered. Mortars would miss the target and kill a lot of civilians.

Who’s training on this simulator? Petraeus asked.

Every lieutenant going to Iraq, he replied.

So, Petraeus pressed, you are telling every lieutenant that they should call in mortar fire in Baghdad, even though you know that’s a stupid thing to do?

Petraeus told the staff sergeant to shut down the simulator until the program had been changed. Back at Leavenworth, he called around to the captains’ training courses for the other branches of the Army—armor, infantry, and so forth—and discovered that, in some cases, the captains themselves were rewriting the scenarios after returning from Iraq. Petraeus thought that was a great idea and ordered the whole network of courses to shut down until the revisions were complete.

One day, Petraeus took an Army training manual that he’d been going through, crossing out lines or whole paragraphs and scribbling in new ones, and asked a staff officer to print out a legible version of the changes.

Sir, the staffer told him, it’s impermissible to change more than 10 percent of a field manual on your own.

Where does it say that? Petraeus asked.

The staff officer looked into the matter. It turned out that there was no such rule; it apparently was a myth passed down over time. Petraeus kept crossing out old ideas and scribbling in new ones.

There was still a lot of changing to do.

One big challenge was coordinating the changes from one realm of his new estate to another, making sure that a reform in the college was followed through at the combat training centers and followed through from there to tactics and operations. The key to synchronizing all this was getting the “big ideas” right and carving them in the stone of doctrine. And that was where Petraeus’s top priority came into the picture: writing a new Army field manual on counterinsurgency and using that as the wedge, the scripture from on high, to lock in place a new strategy for the present war and a new way of thinking about and fighting wars generally.

•  •  •

Scott Wallace had tried to launch a new COIN field manual back in February 2004, a little over a half year after his stint at Leavenworth began. The officers of the Army’s III Corps had just come through the base for their Battle Command Training Program’s “mission-readiness exercise,” the final stage of preparation before heading out to Iraq. Wallace noted a mismatch between what the officers were doing in the exercises and the kinds of things they’d really have to do in Iraq. The official “after-action review” confirmed his impression: the corps’s leaders had come away from the exercise with little understanding of counterinsurgency. The training program, Wallace realized, was dangerously out of date, and the main reason was that the Army’s doctrine was out of date.

Wallace ordered the director of Leavenworth’s doctrine division, Colonel Clinton Ancker, to produce a new COIN field manual within the next six months. Field manuals usually took two years to prepare, write, edit, send up the chain, elicit comments, debate revisions, and hammer out a consensus. But a war was on, there was no doctrine on how to fight it, so the essential task was to get something out there quickly.

Ancker had been waiting a long time for a commander to say this. As a cadet at West Point, class of 1970, he’d taken the Revolutionary Warfare course. The Vietnam War was at its peak; counterinsurgency hadn’t yet been barred from the Army’s lexicon; the books by Galula, Thompson, and Larteguy were still in print—and Ancker imbibed it all. A decade later, when he returned to West Point as an instructor, he put in a request to teach the Revolutionary Warfare course for all three years of his tenure.

He’d taken over Leavenworth’s doctrine office in February 1996. Two weeks later, an Army civilian came into his office a bit panicked: he’d been writing a new field manual on low-intensity conflicts; he hadn’t finished, and he was about to retire. Ancker was keen to take it over and sought permission from the deputy commandant of the base.

“Don’t bother,” the deputy told him. “The Army will never again commit conventional forces to counterinsurgency, so go focus on something we will do.”

Now with Wallace’s order, the tide was rolling back in.

Ancker passed on the assignment to Lieutenant Colonel Jan Horvath, the new doctrine writer in his office. Horvath had never been in Iraq or studied counterinsurgency. But he had been through Special Forces training, he’d planned joint operations in Korea, and he’d been a doctrine officer at Fort Hood. That made him the best man available for the job.

Horvath was smart enough to know what he didn’t know, so the first thing he did was fly to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the Special Forces’ headquarters, with the intent of riffling through its library for old field manuals, operational plans, whatever documents on the topic were on file. To his astonishment, the library had nothing of the sort; it had all been thrown out years before.

Upon his return to Leavenworth, he asked Ancker for a reading list and holed himself up in the Combined Arms Center’s research library for the next week, poring over a stack of books on the theory and history of counterinsurgency. After reading Galula, he grasped the concepts and the terminology but still needed a model for how to write a field manual on the subject. He went through all the Army field manuals that might have some relevance, but found nothing.

So he called some of his old friends from Special Forces days, asking them to recommend a consultant. A few of them mentioned Tom Marks.

Marks was a self-styled throwback to the romantic era of shadow soldiers’ derring-do. As a cadet at West Point, class of 1972, he’d taken the course on Revolutionary Warfare and read the COIN classics, but he was quicker than most to extend his studies into action. His father was a Navy doctor stationed at a Marine base in Thailand. During school breaks, Tom would visit him and finagle a way to go out on patrols with some marines in Vietnam across the border. He left the Army soon after his five-year commitment expired, bored with his prospective assignments, and got a job as chief correspondent for Soldier of Fortune magazine. Marks traveled with spies, mercenaries, and foreign armies’ Special Ops commandos through wars across jungles, swamps, and mountains worldwide, and, when his editors let him, he wrote serious analyses of these conflicts as well.

When Horvath called him, Marks was just finishing up twenty years as lead instructor at the Joint Special Operations University, the last academic holdover from President Kennedy’s COIN creations. He said he’d be happy to help with the project.

“They’ve got a tiger by the tail,” Marks said of the American commanders in Iraq, “and they don’t know it’s a tiger.”

Horvath flew back to Fort Bragg, enjoyed several hours talking with Marks about old times and new plans, and persuaded him to write the first chapter, which, in the format of field manuals, would set the tone and define the terms: the nature of an insurgency, the nature of a counterinsurgency, their respective goals, dynamics, and historical origins. This stuff was second nature to Marks; he dashed it off in a single day.

The language came right out of the classic COIN literature. An insurgency, Marks wrote, “is a protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken government control and legitimacy while increasing insurgent control . . . Political power is the central issue in an insurgency . . . The support of the people is the center of gravity.” The counterinsurgency’s goals were to “protect the population, establish local political institutions,” and “eliminate insurgent capabilities,” in part by exploiting intelligence “from local sources.”

Horvath took Marks’s contribution as the conceptual base and found specialists in the relevant branches of the Army to write or at least outline subsequent chapters on rules of engagement, command and control, civil-military relations, intelligence procedures, psychological operations, legal issues, and the like.

He made the deadline, finishing the manual in August, but he wasn’t happy with it. Some sections were too abstract, some too detailed. Civilian officials and sergeants might get something out of it, but not the commanders and junior officers who turned to field manuals for strategic and tactical guidance.

Ancker sent the draft around to the various Army commands for comment. On his own, Horvath sent it informally to some of the friends and colleagues he’d consulted over the months. One of them suggested that he contact Kalev Sepp.

Sepp hadn’t yet been to Iraq; his work with Bill Hix on General Casey’s staff wouldn’t start for another couple of months. Meanwhile, the fall semester had just begun at the Naval Postgraduate School. Several of Sepp’s students were Special Forces captains and majors who’d just returned from, or were about to go to, Iraq; he made copies of Horvath’s draft and had them write comments as a class assignment.

The students were brutal. One noted that the manual assumed that once a society was stabilized, insurgents couldn’t thrive, when, in fact, they could. Another criticized the manual for referring to the insurgency’s followers as a “mass,” when they often consisted of disparate factions; a COIN manual, the student wrote, should direct Army intelligence to help weaken the insurgents by identifying the factions’ interests and exploiting their fissures. Others complained that in discussing a local “culture,” the manual made no mention of tribes, clans, religious or ethnic groups, or ideological parties; soldiers who read the manual wouldn’t know what cultural indicators to look for. Even the fundamental idea of “winning hearts and minds” was presented in the manual as mainly a PR gambit, not as a COIN campaign’s central goal. There was no recognition of the links between military tactics and political strategy, or the principle of building trust among the people, so that they, in turn, would provide intelligence about the insurgents. In short, the students’ common critique was that the manual didn’t really get what “counterinsurgency operations”—the manual’s title—were about.

Horvath agreed with everything the students wrote—the manual was a rush job—and inserted some revisions that dealt with their concerns to some extent. Ancker and Wallace thought the effort was good enough for now: it was better than any other manual out there; and the title alone would make clear to commanders and soldiers in the field, as well as to officials in the Pentagon, that the Iraq War was an insurgency war and that counterinsurgency was now an element of official Army doctrine—notions that were still far from universally accepted. They ordered a print run of five hundred copies and had them distributed to all relevant Army commanders, including those in Iraq.

The manual was published in October 2004 as FMI 3-07.22. “FMI” stood for Field Manual Interim, a very unusual designation. The cover stated explicitly that the manual would expire in two years, a sign that Wallace and Ancker weren’t completely pleased with it, either. They knew they had to come up with something better.

•  •  •

When Petraeus took over Leavenworth in October 2005, Horvath had started work on a follow-up manual, but what Petraeus had seen of it struck him as falling short; the project required officers with more experience and higher academic caliber. Petraeus knew where to find these sorts of people: among the officer-PhDs of the Lincoln Brigade, the Sosh mafia. That’s where he’d found them in earlier crises, and he was working with some of them still.

First, though, the project needed a set of overarching principles—“big ideas,” Petraeus liked to call them—from which the tactical minutiae would follow logically. Even before he arrived at Leavenworth, he’d started putting together a PowerPoint briefing called “Thirteen Observations from Soldiering in Iraq,” drawn mainly from his experiences in Mosul. He finished the slide show during his first couple of weeks on the new job, presented it to a packed hall of students and officers, and, at Bill Darley’s urging, turned it into an essay for Military Review under the title “Learning Counterinsurgency: Observations from Soldiering in Iraq.” (The first word—“learning”—was meant as a nod to his once and future acolyte John Nagl.)

In early November, Petraeus flew to Washington for some meetings in the Pentagon and the first of many public speeches on the war in Iraq. He made two appearances. The first, on Monday the 7th, was a wrap-up of old business: a PowerPoint briefing to the think-tank conservatives of the Center for Strategic and International Studies on what he called the “great strides” made by the Iraqi army under his recent tenure as commander of its training program (an assessment that would soon prove premature, to say the least).

The second appearance, the next day, marked something pivotal: Petraeus’s debut as a public promoter for the cause of COIN. The event was a conference called “Counterinsurgency in Iraq: Implications of Irregular Warfare for the United States Government,” cosponsored by the Army War College and Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. The two institutions may have seemed strange bedfellows, but they’d been quietly holding joint conferences like this every year or so for much of the past decade, a result of the peculiar proclivities of the Carr Center’s director, Sarah Sewall.

Sewall had developed an interest in military matters as a Harvard undergraduate in the early 1980s. It was a time when critics of US defense policy had to master the gritty details of strategy and weapons systems to be credible, and Sewall plunged in deeply. Her first job was at the Federation of American Scientists, calculating the ellipses of military-satellite orbits for a critique of President Ronald Reagan’s space-based missile-defense program, nicknamed “Star Wars.” But around this time, real wars were erupting in Central America, and Sewall found them more compelling. She went off to grad school at Oxford from 1984 to 1986 and spent endless hours on the floor of Blackwell’s bookstore, reading the tomes it stocked on guerrilla warfare. She earned a master’s degree, writing a thesis on the Vietnam War, came back to Washington, worked on Capitol Hill, then landed an appointment, in the early years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, as the Pentagon’s first-ever deputy assistant secretary of defense for peacekeeping operations and humanitarian assistance.

When her husband found a job in Boston, Sewall moved with him but commuted to Washington during the week, until she gave birth to triplets and realized that she couldn’t spend many days away from home again. After maternity leave, her friend Samantha Power, who taught at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, persuaded her to come work at the school’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

Sewall wasn’t interested in human rights per se, but she had been troubled by the debate over the US intervention in Kosovo. She supported the intervention and was annoyed that many human-rights activists didn’t—or, worse still, that they’d supported American military action until some people started getting killed as a result, at which point they grew horrified and turned against it. She found their stance naïve, their conversations uninformed. Yet at the same time, she was disturbed by the cavalier way in which so many US military officers dismissed the topic of civilian casualties. “Collateral damage,” they called it: a ghastly phrase from the Vietnam War, dreadful enough when it referred to a conventional war but simply fatuous—contrary to the nation’s political goals—when applied to a war like Kosovo, which was supposedly fought to protect civilians from repressive tyrants.

Sewall decided that she’d use her new position at the Carr Center to organize a forum for dialogue between the two communities—human-rights advocates and military officers (she had plenty of contacts among both)—about the moral and strategic issues surrounding civilian casualties in modern warfare.

The forums started out small and low-key, with a dozen or so people from each of the two worlds talking off the record. Sewall tried to frame the discussions so that the human-rights advocates felt comfortable talking about war without opposing it on principle and the officers felt comfortable talking about casualties without coming off as pacifists.

After Desert Storm, attendance at these meetings swelled. The human-rights people saw more clearly that wars were sometimes justified; the officers saw that the new emphasis on air strikes raised strategic and ethical questions that could no longer be evaded.

Conrad Crane, the chief military historian at the Army War College, heard about the conferences, understood their importance, and drew in a wider circle of officers. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the range of interested parties expanded further. Sewall was scheduling four or five conferences a year, some of them in conjunction with the war college, attracting as many as a hundred people.

In the summer of 2003, it was clear to many that Iraq was devolving into an insurgency war. So Sewall decided to plan some conferences on Iraq and counterinsurgency. It was a logical connection: not only did Sewall have a long-standing interest in COIN, but one of the doctrine’s central tenets—protecting the population—converged with her present passion of finding ways to fight wars while minimizing civilian casualties.

One conference, hosted by the Kennedy School in June, dealt with the ethical dilemmas of special operations, and she brought in several Special Forces officers, who were about to deploy to Iraq, to discuss hypothetical scenarios with regional specialists: What do you do if you’re stuck in traffic, and a local man gets out of his car with a gun? Do you have the right, and is it a good idea anyway, to shoot him without hesitation? Are there signs to watch for, or facts about the local culture, that might provide clues to the man’s intentions?

By mid-2005, Sewall sensed it was the right time to hold a broader conference on the topic. She knew about the community taking hold: the articles in Military Review, the impending Quadrennial Defense Review with its section on irregular warfare, Eliot Cohen’s recent workshop at Basin Harbor, and the news that David Petraeus, the COIN hero of Mosul, was about to come home to Leavenworth.

She’d met Petraeus once before, back when she worked in the Pentagon and Haiti was the big US peacekeeping operation. Petraeus, a lieutenant colonel at the time, had sat in on some of the interagency policy meetings before heading down to Haiti himself. She remembered his surprise (it seemed to be a delighted surprise) that the three administration officials most closely involved in running the operation were women: Susan Rice at the National Security Council, and Sewall and Michèle Flournoy in the Pentagon. He said that he’d never seen that before.

Sewall wanted Petraeus to come speak at this conference. Conrad Crane, the Army War College historian with whom she’d organized earlier workshops, helped on this; it turned out that the two had been classmates at West Point. Sewall phoned Petraeus and introduced herself.

“Sarah, it’s so good to hear from you again!” he exclaimed.

She hadn’t expected him to remember her. (She would soon realize that Petraeus remembered everybody who might advance his ambitions.) She asked him to speak at the conference; again to her surprise, he consented without hesitating.

Sewall also called John Nagl. She’d read the article about him in the New York Times Magazine. Nagl, too, was eager to take part and helped her organize the attendance list.

And so, among the ninety speakers and observers who gathered for two days in the large conference room at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington—mostly Sewall’s usual mix of officers, think-tank analysts, and human-rights activists—several of them were beginning to recognize one another.

Besides Crane and Nagl (who gave his usual talk about Malaya and Vietnam), there were Kalev Sepp (much in demand since the publication of his article on COIN’s best practices), Bill Hix (who’d worked with Sepp under General Casey in Iraq), Bruce Hoffman of the RAND Corporation (who’d served on Hix’s advisory team of “doctors without orders”), Richard Lacquement (Nagl’s former faculty colleague at West Point) and his office mates in the Pentagon’s Office for Stability Operations, Jeb Nadaner and Janine Davidson (who, at the time, were putting the final touches on Directive 3000.05), Frank Hoffman of the Marines’ Warfighting Lab (who’d organized the Irregular Warfare Conference at Quantico a year earlier), Steve Metz from the Army War College (who’d invited Nagl and Kilcullen to speak in the spring), as well as such emerging regulars as T. X. Hammes (author of The Sling and the Stone) and Michèle Flournoy, who was writing studies of COIN at a nearby think tank and who, a few years later, would become an undersecretary of defense. (Dave Kilcullen was invited, but he’d been called back to Australia to help with counterterrorism policy after a bombing in Bali.)

Petraeus was the lunchtime keynote speaker on the conference’s second day. His article, “Learning Counterinsurgency,” wouldn’t be published in Military Review for another couple of months, so he decided to deliver a précis of the original briefing, condensing its “thirteen observations” to ten and delivering them without PowerPoint slides (so uncharacteristic of Petraeus that he cracked a joke about it).

“Observation number one,” Petraeus began. “T. E. Lawrence, ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ had it right: ‘Do not try to do too much with your own hands . . . Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war . . . and you are there to help them, not win it for them.’”

This was one of the few principles derived less from Mosul than from Petraeus’s latest stint training the Iraqi military, and in the coming years, some would invoke it to highlight a contradiction, or at least a tension, in COIN doctrine: the need to do the job quickly, as Lawrence urged, versus the reality that insurgency wars were protracted by nature and can thus rage on for many years.

Observation number two was related and similarly paradoxical: “Every army of liberation has a half-life, beyond which it turns into an army of occupation.” This half-life, Petraeus said, can be extended through humanitarian projects, but it’s still a race against time. At some point, the people come to see the checkpoints as too inconvenient, the helicopters as too noisy, the accidental killings and mistaken detentions as too appalling—and the bloom wears off.

Number three, like all the subsequent points, harked back to Petraeus’s time in Mosul: “Money is ammunition.” Sometimes it can be even more important than ammunition. The trick, though, was not just to scatter money around (as, Petraeus thought but didn’t say out loud, most of the other commanders had done with Saddam’s stash of cash in the summer of 2003) but rather to focus on the most urgent needs and on agents who can spend it most shrewdly.

Fourth: The point of “winning hearts and minds” is not to make the Iraqi people love or thank us but rather to ensure that they have a stake in the success of the new Iraq.

Fifth: Before carrying out a military operation, an officer should ask, “Will this operation take more bad guys off the street than it creates by the way it’s conducted?” That is, will the violence tick off so many Iraqis that they join the insurgency in their outrage? (Again, Petraeus didn’t say so, but that’s what was happening all over Iraq.) If the answer is “No,” if it looks like the operation will spawn more bad guys than it kills . . . well, we might have to start shooting anyway. No one, he stressed, should think that he and his men had been “reticent” about “going after the Saddamists, terrorists, or insurgents.” One night in Mosul, they had to attack thirty-five bad guys simultaneously and took down twenty-three of them. Still, the point was, you should think very hard about whether you really had to go that route.

Sixth: The key thing in these kinds of operations is to have good intelligence, most of it from human sources on the ground. That night in Mosul, he said, his men fired no more than one or two shots per target—sometimes they didn’t need to shoot at all—and they knocked on doors; they didn’t break them down or cordon off whole neighborhoods.

Seventh (and back to the main point): “Defeating insurgents requires more than just military operations.” A COIN strategy also involves “efforts to establish a political environment that helps reduce support for the insurgents and undermines the attraction of whatever ideology they may espouse.” These efforts include economic recovery, education, and supplying basic services.

Eighth: It’s important to cultivate Iraqi leaders who are seen by their people as legitimate at all levels.

Ninth: In COIN campaigns, lieutenants, sergeants, and even corporals have to make strategic decisions, so they must be trained how to think strategically ahead of time.

Finally, tenth: The critical job for a commander is to “set the right tone.” If he’s seen to be more enthusiastic about shooting bad guys than handing out aid or negotiating with tribal leaders, his men will take that as a cue to do the same. In Mosul, Petraeus said, he had to make clear to some of his battalion commanders that helping with reconstruction wasn’t an option; it was crucial, and had to be treated with the same priority as firefights and raids.

These were the basic guidelines that Jan Horvath’s interim field manual hadn’t quite articulated and that Petraeus would keep hammering away at over the next six years—first at Leavenworth, then back in Iraq, and finally on to Afghanistan—with uneven degrees of success.

•  •  •

After the speech, Petraeus sat down at the head table for lunch. In the course of multiple conversations, someone sitting near him asked how well the Army was adapting to counterinsurgency.

“Not as well as it should,” he replied, “and that’s why John Nagl is going to write the Army’s new COIN field manual.”

As he said this, Petraeus nodded toward Nagl, who was sitting at the same table and heard every word. Nagl kept a straight face, but, in fact, he was flabbergasted. This was the first he’d heard of such an assignment. He’d urged Petraeus to commission a new field manual when the two ran into each other in the Pentagon a few weeks earlier; but Petraeus hadn’t contacted him since about actually getting the project going, much less letting him lead it.

This, of course, had been Nagl’s fantasy for years. He’d described in his dissertation how Sir Gerald Templer defeated the insurgency in Malaya in part by commissioning a handbook for colonial soldiers that codified his ideas into official British army doctrine. Now, it seemed, Nagl would be writing the book that might do the same thing for his fellow American soldiers in Iraq.

Nagl couldn’t wait to get started. Early that evening, after the conference wrapped up, he grabbed a few like-minded friends—Lacquement, Davidson, and Erin Simpson, a Harvard graduate student in her twenties who was teaching a course on counterinsurgency at Quantico’s Marine Corps University—and took them to the Front Page, a nearby restaurant. On the way, they ran into Kyle Teamey, who had been Nagl’s intelligence officer in Iraq and was now, thanks to a recommendation from Nagl, an analyst on an Iraq task force at the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Pentagon. Teamey, who was also attending grad school, studying under Eliot Cohen at SAIS, happened to be walking toward the Dupont Circle subway station after a class when he heard someone call out his name.

It was Nagl. “Come with us to the Front Page,” he said. “I’m writing the Army’s new counterinsurgency field manual.”

•  •  •

The five of them sat at a table in the back of the restaurant, discussing the project, Nagl scribbling a rough outline of the manual on a large napkin. His notes closely anticipated the published document’s actual outline. Chapter 1: Insurgency and counterinsurgency—definitions, overview, Mao, Philippines case study. Chapter 2: Unity of command—political/military integration. Chapter 3: Intelligence as the element that drives military activities. Chapter 4: Operations—population support as the key. Chapter 5: Information operations—the importance of message and public opinion, with Malaya as a possible case study . . . And on it went through Chapter 10: Leadership and ethics, followed by an annotated bibliography.

Nagl was still the junior military assistant to the deputy secretary of defense. The next morning, he asked his boss, the senior assistant, Brigadier General Frank Helmick, for permission to take on the task. Helmick was amazed that Nagl could even ask such a question. No Army officer doing staff work for a top-level Pentagon civilian could get involved in such a sensitive matter of policy. Helmick said he’d let him take brief leaves and as much personal time as he wanted to help out on the manual, but no way could he be the guy in charge.

Nagl was disappointed, but he would take Helmick’s words on what he could do informally as a mandate to do a lot—and wound up being, in effect, the project’s deputy, coauthor, cheerleader, and, once it was published, chief promoter. Petraeus would refer to him, soon after the project took off, as “the ubiquitous John Nagl.”

•  •  •

Eliot Cohen had been in Leavenworth giving a lecture soon after Petraeus took command of the Combined Arms Center. The two had met at various academic conferences in the 1980s, when Petraeus was an instructor at West Point and Cohen was teaching at Harvard. Cohen had seen a draft of Jan Horvath’s interim field manual and found it wanting. He dropped in on Petraeus after his lecture, to say hello and to urge him to take control of the project and start all over. Petraeus assured him that doing so was his top priority.

The two met again at Sarah Sewall’s COIN conference in Washington. Five days before then, on November 2, Cohen had held a workshop at SAIS called “US Military Operations in Iraq: Planning, Combat, and Occupation.” One of the speakers was Conrad Crane. Cohen was very impressed with Crane’s talk and advised Petraeus to get him to write the new field manual.

Cohen didn’t know that Petraeus and Crane were already acquainted from West Point, first as classmates and, a dozen years later, as fellow faculty members, Petraeus in the Sosh department, Crane in History.

In any case, Crane was a good match for the job. Back in early 2001, soon after retiring from the Army and joining the war college staff as a civilian historian, Crane had been recruited by the Pentagon to conduct a study on the roles that the various military services had played in crises. As part of his research, he drew a timeline marking the four phases of conflict. He saw that in almost every war that America had entered in the post-WWII era, the Air Force and the Navy had thrown in their peak forces during the most intense fighting, then left the scene in the “post-combat” phase. The Army, it turned out, had been the only service whose troops stayed in the war zone after—in some cases, long after—the shooting had stopped, the period known as Phase IV or stability operations. Crane wrote a paper, concluding that since the Army had spent so much time doing stability operations, it ought to take a closer look at what it takes to do them well, something it hadn’t done in decades. Bill Darley, the editor of

Military Review, read the paper and published a shortened version in the May–June 2005 issue—the same issue that carried Kalev Sepp’s “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency”—under the title “Phase IV Operations: Where Wars Are Really Won.”

From that paper, Crane acquired a reputation in Army planning circles as “the stability-operations guy” or “the COIN guy.” In October 2002, as the Bush administration geared up to invade Iraq, some of the top officers in the Pentagon, knowing that the Army would get stuck with the aftermath’s dirty work, asked the war college to set up a team to examine the issue. Crane led the team and wrote the resulting monograph, called Reconstructing Iraq. Published in January 2003, two months before the war started, it concluded that the post-combat phase would be the hardest of all—that the US occupation might trigger resistance, in which case it would take more troops to win the peace than it had to win the war.

The monograph was circulated widely after it proved prescient. As its author, Crane started receiving invitations to lecture or sit on panels from a wide assortment of national-security centers and think tanks—which was how he came to speak at Eliot Cohen’s workshop, which led to Cohen’s chat with Petraeus at Sarah Sewall’s conference.

After that chat, Petraeus approached his old classmate and said he’d like to talk with him sometime about a COIN field manual that he was putting in the works. Eight days later, he emailed Crane from Leavenworth, asking if he would be interested in heading up the project. Crane was surprised, but after clearing it with his boss the next day, he accepted the offer. “It is an imposing task, but an important one,” he replied.

Petraeus wrote back, “Super news, Conrad . . . I think this is a unique opportunity to be the ‘Wass de Czege’ of our generation,” a reference to Huba Wass de Czege, the general who’d written the Army’s AirLand Battle field manual in the mid-1980s. Petraeus added that he hoped a draft could be finished around the Christmas holidays, followed by a two-day conference in late January or early February that would “pull together 25 or so great minds to comment on the draft and then help nail down the final version in the subsequent months.”

Crane expressed just one caveat: he’d recently undergone a medical exam, and one of the lab results was ambiguous; he was scheduled for a follow-up in December. If it turned out badly, he noted, he might have “some major distractions,” so it would “probably be a good idea to have a strong coauthor for the project, somebody like John Nagl, if he is available.”

Nagl certainly was available, and Petraeus had already decided to make him a big part of the project, regardless of Helmick’s hesitation or Crane’s health (which turned out to be fine).

Petraeus sent Crane his “super news” email at 11:03 p.m. on November 17. At 7:57 the next morning, Nagl sent Crane an email expressing “congratulations . . . and sincere concern for your health as well.” He explained that Petraeus had cc’d him their correspondence about the COIN field manual. “I want to help with this as much as I can from this desk,” Nagl wrote. “In furtherance of that effort, I attach my proposed outline for the manual and my suggestions for the folks who should attend the COIN conference”—the one that Petraeus had proposed in his email to Crane the night before—“to work it and to roll it out.”

The outline Nagl attached was an elaboration of the one he’d scrawled on the napkin at the Front Page ten days earlier, along with suggestions of who might be assigned to write each chapter. Nagl also attached a list of thirty-two people who should be invited to the conference: most of them the officer-scholars and civilian analysts who’d formed the nascent COIN community at Eliot Cohen’s Basin Harbor conference and renewed it at Sarah Sewall’s Carr Center conference.

•  •  •

By the time Petraeus’s two-day COIN conference took place—in late February, as it happened, and in front of 106 invited guests and speakers, not the mere 32 on Nagl’s list—an all but final draft of a new field manual had already been written.

Two months earlier, on December 15, Nagl and Crane had flown to Leavenworth, in part to attend a conference on a related topic but, more important, to write a detailed outline of the manual and to decide which of their friends they should ask to draft which chapters.

As a fitting coincidence, the conference taking place during their visit was on the subject of “information operations,” or IO, the Army’s term for any activity that enhanced combat power by influencing, disrupting, or manipulating perceptions of the battlefield. These activities could include electronic jamming, deception, psychological operations, and counterintelligence. They could also include dealing with the news media, molding public opinion, and shaping the views of elite decision-makers—the enemy’s in the war zone or one’s own back home.

In Petraeus’s mind, IO—the very term—harked back to the War of Information that he and General Galvin had plotted all those years ago at the 24th Infantry Division and again at US Southern Command. It was a key element of counterinsurgency (the French COIN strategists called it, less euphemistically, “propaganda”), and it was a key element of Petraeus’s upcoming conference on the COIN field manual.

Hundreds of Army field manuals had been published without fanfare; they were meant as instruction booklets for commanders and their troops, covering specific aspects of tactics or training for specific kinds of battles. But this field manual would be something different: a how-to book for a kind of war that the Army’s leaders had decided long ago to stop fighting, yet here they were fighting precisely this kind of war and doing it badly. By its very existence, the manual would burst forth as a manifesto, an urgent assault on the Army as an institution.

This was a serious, risky business: the mounting of an intellectual insurgency from within the Army itself.

And so Petraeus and his emerging circle knew that getting the field manual accepted, and acted upon, would require some information operations of their own. They needed endorsements—“buy-in,” as Petraeus liked to call it—from all the branches of the Army, from other military services if possible, from civilian agencies experienced in overseas reconstruction, and, not least, from critical segments of the public, which needed to see a change in policy, a chance for victory, a reason for not giving up on the war just yet. Petraeus had to “win hearts and minds” on the home front. Winning hearts and minds in Mosul had meant making the Iraqi people feel invested in the success of the new Iraq. Now, when it came to this field manual (and this war), he knew that he needed to make the American people—which, as a first step, meant American politicians and opinion leaders—feel invested in the success of counterinsurgency.

The core of the conference would consist of the COIN stalwarts on Nagl’s list. But Petraeus also invited his counterpart in the Marine Corps, Lieutenant General Jim Mattis, whom he knew from Iraq, to take part and, in the end, cosign the manual. He brought in officials from the CIA, the State Department, and AID. He called up the older generation of spies and Special Forces who’d done counterinsurgency in El Salvador and Vietnam. He invited everyone who’d written an interesting article about COIN or the war in Military Review. He urged a few critics to attend: maybe they’d be converted; if not, their dissent would be noted; they couldn’t complain that they’d been excluded.

And he invited a few members of the mainstream press. Petraeus liked to talk with reporters. It was one reason many of his fellow officers considered him a showboat, though he was baffled by this disdain. He would frequently tell his fellow officers that reporters were going to find out things, they were going to write critical articles; better to cooperate with them, to help them understand your perspective, than to leave them to their own devices. Treat them well, they’ll treat you well; they might even adopt your viewpoint. This wasn’t just Information Operations 101; it was basic human nature.

Finally, Conrad Crane told Petraeus that he’d mentioned the COIN conference to Sarah Sewall, who expressed interest in cosponsoring it and even getting the Carr Center to kick in some money, if she could use it to defray the expenses for a dozen of “her people”—human-rights activists and aid-group executives—to attend. Petraeus thought this was a great idea: what better way to signal to everyone that this project constituted something new!

Not long after Crane took the assignment of chairing the effort, he had a long discussion with Petraeus about what the manual should emphasize. Petraeus gave him a copy of his forthcoming Military Review article, “Learning Counterinsurgency,” with its thirteen (in his final draft, he’d expanded it to fourteen) observations from soldiering in Iraq.

Make sure these observations get into the manual, Petraeus stressed. They should form its basic principles.

•  •  •

On the first day of the IO conference in December, Nagl gave his usual lecture on learning counterinsurgency in Malaya and Vietnam. On the second day, he and Crane skipped the proceedings and went off to a nearby room with Jan Horvath and some other members of Leavenworth’s doctrine-writing team to work on their main project.

Crane had prepared a list that he labeled “COIN Principles, Imperatives and Paradoxes.” It was inspired by several sources: Petraeus’s fourteen observations, Kalev Sepp’s “Best Practices” article, his own essay on Phase IV operations, certain sections of Nagl’s book, and a rereading of Galula.

He wrote out the list on a whiteboard, which had been set up on an easel, and talked his colleagues through the points:

“Legitimacy is the main objective” (building popular support for the host nation’s government is crucial).

“Unity of effort is essential” (military operations must be geared to the political goals).

“Understand the environment” (you can’t appeal to the people, or know what they want, without understanding their society and the culture).

“Security under the rule of law is essential” (the main focus is not so much killing the bad guys as protecting the population).

“Insurgents must be isolated from their cause and support” (they must be cut off from the people, and their ideas must be co-opted or discredited).

“Intelligence drives operations.”

“Use measured force” (massive firepower kills innocent civilians, and killing five insurgents is futile if “collateral damage” sires the recruitment of fifty).

“Prepare for a long-term commitment” (the people won’t support the counterinsurgent unless they’re convinced he’s staying till he wins).

Some of these principles Crane then reworded into paradoxes, a literary form that he’d always enjoyed:

“The more you protect your forces, the less secure you are” (retreating to remote bases, as the US military was doing in Iraq, means you can’t engage with the people or build their trust, meaning the insurgents grow stronger in the vacuum).

“The more force you use, the less effective you are” (the collateral damage problem).

“Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction to a provocation.”

“The best weapons for COIN don’t fire bullets.”

“Sometimes it’s better for the local people to do something poorly than for us to do it well.”

“If a tactic works this week, it won’t work next week; if it works in one province, it won’t work in the next province” (the insurgent learns and adapts, so the counterinsurgent needs to do the same).

“Tactical success guarantees nothing” (America won every head-on battle in Vietnam, but that had no effect on the war).

“Most important decisions are not made by generals” (this is a block-by-block war; lieutenants and even corporals must make “strategic” decisions—hence the importance of this manual).

The group discussed these concepts for the rest of the day. The paradoxes in particular would unleash enormous controversy; Crane knew they would, and acknowledged that some were probably overstated. He meant for them to dramatize how different this kind of war was from the wars the Army was accustomed to fighting—and how differently commanders and soldiers would have to think in order to meet its challenges. After all, it was called irregular warfare.

Nagl, meanwhile, had refined the outline that he’d sent Crane a month earlier and jotted down a list of candidates to write each section, figuring correctly that Petraeus himself would have a hand in writing and rewriting a good deal of it, too.

Chapter 1. “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency”—Crane and Nagl.

Chapter 2. “Unity of Effort”—Rich Lacquement.

Chapter 3. “Intelligence”—Kyle Teamey.

Chapter 4. “Operations”—Horvath and Nagl.

. . . and so forth, capped with:


The bibliography—the very act of including a bibliography—was, in some ways, Nagl’s favorite part of the project. It would send out the word that this was not just a how-to manual, that this kind of war was intellectual as well as physical, that it required further study, deep thinking, imagination, and creativity at every echelon of command, from general officer down to corporal.

During his oral presentation at the COIN conference two months later, Nagl would say he was “proud” that this was the first Army field manual to contain an annotated bibliography. In the published version of the manual, as an epigraph at the top of chapter 1, he quoted a remark by a friend who was a Special Forces officer in Iraq:

“Counterinsurgency is not just thinking man’s warfare—it is the graduate level of war.”