The Workshop at Tatooine

11. The Workshop at Tatooine

Thursday, February 23, 2006, was an unusually warm winter morning on the banks of the Missouri River. The hundred-plus guests at Hoge Barracks, the quaint hotel inside the gates of Fort Leavenworth, assembled in the parking lot and boarded the vans waiting to take them to Tice Hall, a squat building on a far corner of the base. There, in a large classroom with tiered rows of desks and chairs, normally used by the Battle Command Training Program, Lieutenant General David Petraeus welcomed them to the Counterinsurgency Field Manual Workshop.

Many of the guests knew one another by now from similar conferences or from COIN campaigns of yore. There were the officers and scholars who’d been at Eliot Cohen’s Basin Harbor workshop and Sarah Sewall’s Carr Center conference: Dave Kilcullen, Kalev Sepp, Bill Hix, Steve Metz, Janine Davidson, Michèle Flournoy, and, of course, the sponsors themselves. There were Special Forces vets who’d worked the trenches of El Salvador—Tom Marks, who’d written the first chapter of Jan Horvath’s interim field manual, John Waghelstein, T. X. Hammes, and a half dozen more. There were a handful of midlevel CIA officers who were working similar trenches at the moment. There were Sewall’s associates. And there were a few journalists, some of whom had written critical articles about the war and had been invited not to report on the workshop’s proceedings (which were off the record) but to participate in them: the Atlantic’s James Fallows, the New Yorker’s George Packer, the Wall Street Journal’s Greg Jaffe, and U.S. News & World Report’s Linda Robinson (who was also writing a book about Petraeus in Iraq).

No one in the Army had ever gathered such an eclectic crew in one place for any purpose, certainly not to vet a field manual. On the night between the two sessions, when several dozen of them went to the bar in the basement of the officers’ club to chat, argue, reminisce, tell dirty jokes, and, above all, to drink, Michèle Flournoy, looking around, couldn’t help but recall the scene in Star Wars where the motley monsters from the far corners of the galaxy get plastered and break into fistfights at the Mos Eisley Cantina on the planet Tatooine.

It had been a hectic two months pulling the conference together. Nagl’s team of writers had churned out their manuscripts over the holidays. Crane and Horvath had spent the subsequent weeks editing and refining the drafts. They’d all met the day before the conference began to go over the results. The latest issue of Military Review, containing Petraeus’s article, “Learning Counterinsurgency: Observations from Soldiering in Iraq,” had just come off the presses. He made sure that all the guests received a copy as they checked into the hotel.

Meanwhile, to prep himself, Petraeus was rereading the classics—Galula, Kitson, a bit of Nagl, and, several times, the article on “Uncomfortable Wars” that he’d ghostwritten for General Galvin twenty years earlier—to pound the themes and arguments into his head.

Finally, on the first morning, Petraeus brought the meeting to order. Standing at the podium, he recited the litany of changes that had transformed Leavenworth into the Army’s “engine of change”: the new curriculum at the college (including two hundred hours of instruction in COIN), the shift in training brought on by reports of lessons learned from the battlefield, the radical revamping of the National Training Center from a vast terrain for tank-on-tank war games (“a big-time thing of the past!” Petraeus exclaimed) to a vast complex of mock Iraqi villages, with foot soldiers facing real Iraqi role players and insurgents (“lessons learned on steroids!” he extolled).

The Army was now “a learning organization” (invoking Nagl’s term), and Leavenworth was the “catalyst” of the learning. These innovations, Petraeus said, formed the backdrop of this conference. The new field manual, which they were about to discuss, would codify the results of this learning, ushering it into the military mainstream.

Sarah Sewall got up to speak. Some in the audience couldn’t help but squint or squirm. In one of the vans on the way over from the hotel, several men had asked her what a human-rights advocate from an Ivy League college was doing there, much less cosponsoring the event.

“We don’t take a purely legalistic or critical approach to war,” she now explained. The principles of COIN converged with the principles of human rights: both had as their central aim the protection of civilians caught up in war. The military had perfected high-intensity, quick-fix warfare. Now it was trying to deal with the slowest, messiest kind of war there was. The two groups had a lot to say to each other about the complexities.

Petraeus made a point of sitting next to Sewall, front row center, and staying there at her side throughout both days of the conference, thus signaling to those present that this liberal woman from Harvard was a cosponsor of the event in more than mere name, that he took what she said very seriously, and that they should, too.

After Sewall finished speaking, Conrad Crane stepped to the podium. Crane would be running the show from here on out, introducing the speakers, moderating the discussions, organizing the backroom revisions that took place after hours, and forwarding them to Petraeus for his final edit.

Crane flicked on a slide, which read, “Why Are We Here?” He flicked on a second slide: a photo of the grave of Lieutenant David Bernstein, above a caption reading, “To Minimize This.” Bernstein, West Point class of 2001, had been killed in Iraq on October 18, 2003, early on in the insurgency, before the political and military leaders admitted that there was an insurgency—in short, as Crane put it, “while we were flailing around.”

He didn’t say so, but this was a personal matter to Crane. Bernstein had been a friend of his niece’s, the valedictorian of her high school class in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Crane got to know the boy and came to regard him as the best that West Point had to offer: a natural leader, venerated by his classmates. On the day he died in Iraq, Bernstein’s convoy had come under rocket fire. His gunner was killed, and his driver was thrown from the vehicle, trapped under the wheels as it rolled to an embankment. Bernstein jumped out, firing; the insurgents fired back, hitting him in the thigh, severing his femoral artery. He managed to climb back in and steer the Humvee off his driver. Then he limped out and pulled him to safety. The driver lived; Bernstein collapsed from a loss of blood and never regained consciousness.

Bernstein had once joked to Crane that he was miffed over graduating fifth in his class at West Point. The top four cadets won gold medals; number five got nothing. At the prompting of his family, the academy remedied this after his death. Each year since, the fifth-ranking cadet has been presented with the 1st Lt. David R. Bernstein Memorial Award.

“Why are we here?” Crane repeated, pointing to the picture of the gravesite. “To minimize this.” He paused.

“You are the best and brightest of COIN,” he went on, with none of the irony that the phrase had implied in the Vietnam era. “That’s why you’re here.”

Over the course of the next two days, the manual’s writers would step to the podium and summarize their various chapters. Someone who’d been sent the draft ahead of time would comment. Then the floor would open for discussion.

Crane started with chapter 1. There was nothing new here, he stressed. Its themes drew on Galula, Kitson, Thompson, Lawrence, the Marine Corps’s Small Wars Manual, “the Marx Brothers (Lenin, Mao, Ché, and Giap),” the RAND Corporation’s studies from the early sixties, the West Point course on Revolutionary Warfare from the seventies, Leavenworth’s latest lessons-learned reports, Petraeus’s “Observations from Soldiering in Iraq,” and the book by “the ubiquitous John Nagl, the project’s designated gadfly.”

But, of course, in the context of official current thinking, this was all very new.

Crane rattled off the “principles, imperatives, and paradoxes” that he, Nagl, Horvath, and Cohen had jotted down and refined a couple of months earlier. “Some of it is exaggerated a little bit,” he acknowledged. “The idea is to get people to think differently.”

Finally, he raised some questions that the group should debate: Was the chapter’s concept of an insurgency based too much on Mao? The goal of a counterinsurgency campaign is to build the people’s loyalty to a legitimate government, but how do we measure “legitimacy,” how do we determine what it is? What should we call the appropriate level of force: “measured force,” “minimal force,” “discriminate action”? Is the manual broad enough to cover all insurgencies but specific enough to cover the wars we’re currently fighting?

Most of what followed was, to the core group, familiar stuff. Tom Marks stressed that COIN was “a battle for legitimacy,” likening it to a political campaign that “has violence as one of its means,” and noting that “winning hearts and minds” doesn’t mean the people have to like you, “but they have to respect you; they have to accept that the system works for them.” Rich Lacquement, in his summary of chapter 2 (“Unity of Effort”), quoted Galula to the effect that the elements of COIN are a matter of multiplication, not addition—it’s “military times civilian government times judicial,” and “if one of those factors is zero, the whole is zero.” Kyle Teamey, talking about chapter 3 (“Intelligence”), noted that, in conventional war, the most important intelligence concerns the enemy army’s order of battle, but in COIN it concerns “cultural awareness” of social networks, such as tribes. His chapter’s coauthor, Montgomery “Mitzy” McFate, an anthropologist with an interest in the military, stressed the need to understand a culture’s rituals and narratives, its core motivations, in order to devise incentives that might lure the people away from an insurgency. Another officer, James Corum, who’d written the chapter on training indigenous security forces, said that while Special Forces had done a good job of doing this in the past, the regular Army had to get involved now.

Most of those in attendance agreed with the premise, but their discussions and disagreements went beyond mere details.

Several raised the urgent need for more translators. (Nagl agreed, saying that some of his biggest problems in Anbar Province had stemmed from a shortage of interpreters, not of bullets or armored vehicles.) A few wondered how to calculate the number of troops that were needed for a given insurgency. Another, more complicated matter: given that COIN is often a shifting mosaic of offensive, defensive, and stability operations (a “three-block war,” as General Charles Krulak had put it, where a unit might fight on one block, keep the peace on the next block, and hand out humanitarian aid on the block after that), how do soldiers determine which phase they’re in, and how should they change their behavior, their perception of the mission, accordingly? (Michèle Flournoy ended up drawing an elaborate chart that spelled out the elements of the transitions and provided guidance on what to do in each phase.)

But there were some comments that challenged, or at least raised serious questions about, the doctrine’s fundamental tenets.

Steve Metz, Con Crane’s colleague from the Army War College and a longtime scholar of small wars, opened up the discussion. He knew that Crane had consulted a fellow faculty member, Max Manwaring, on the question of “legitimacy.” Back in the 1980s, as a Special Forces officer in El Salvador, Manwaring had conducted a quantitative study of the variables that determined (or at least were correlated with) success or failure in COIN campaigns since World War II. He concluded that the most significant factor was whether the local population viewed its government as legitimate. But Manwaring had imposed a Western definition of legitimacy, involving democratic governance, rule of law, and a pluralistic society. Metz warned that this standard set the bar too high and that, in any case, people in other cultures might have different values, a different level of tolerance for corruption, different ideas about what makes a regime worthy of their loyalty—which is to say, what makes it legitimate.

(In the manual’s final draft, Crane, taking these comments into account, would write that troops in a COIN campaign “should strive to avoid imposing their ideals of normalcy on a foreign cultural problem.” He also inserted, in a list denoting indicators of legitimacy, that one such sign might be “a culturally acceptable level of corruption.”)

Françoise Hampson, a human-rights activist and professor of law at the University of Essex in England, raised the stakes on the question of legitimacy. In many places in the world, if a government has to call in foreign armies to help maintain its power, that fact alone makes it illegitimate. Once your army is there, she said, it’s fine to figure out ways to reduce the people’s opposition to your presence; but the issue is what they want and their view of power, not what some Western power thinks they should want. “There are a lot of Americans,” she said, “who don’t think government should be responsible for health care. Is that legitimate?” A few people around her chuckled; a few others gasped.

Some of the Special Forces veterans in the room had a problem with the idea of running a large-scale counterinsurgency campaign in the first place. James Steele, who’d been in El Salvador and had briefly advised Petraeus in Iraq, said that any American intervention should be kept to a “small footprint” and that the advisers should build up the host country’s security forces as quickly as possible.

“It’s about the host country,” he said. “It’s really about the host country.” Every day in Salvador he’d cursed the congressional mandate that limited the number of American advisers to fifty-five, but in retrospect he saw it as a blessing: it had forced him and his fellow officers to focus on advising the host country and kept them from doing too much themselves. “A protracted war for us,” he said, “is a bad thing.” And for any ally, the presence of foreign troops—including American troops—“is almost always a liability.”

John Waghelstein, who had been the MilGroup commander in Salvador and the author of the study that inspired the country’s National Campaign Plan agreed. “I see too much gringo in this,” he said of the field manual’s first draft. “It took ten years to do this in Salvador, a country the size of Massachusetts with five million people. To assume we’re going to produce a document with a road map that solves the career problems of the people in this room—I think you’re smoking little green cigarettes.”

Colonel John Martin, a professor in the Counterinsurgency Center that Petraeus had recently set up at Leavenworth, wondered about the relevance of historical examples, or at least of those chosen by the manual’s authors, especially the British in Malaya. In that case study, the counterinsurgents were the sovereign power; they set the national policy, and could appoint and fire commanders and ministers at will. By contrast, in Iraq and Afghanistan, we may have vetted or selected the provisional leaders, and they may remain dependent on our largesse. But their countries were nominally independent; they had to answer to their own constituents and power groups, whose interests may differ from ours.

Molly Phee, a Foreign Service Officer who’d recently spent seven months as a provincial governor in southern Iraq, took that point further, noting that some of the power groups that a nation’s leader needs to placate may be the insurgents themselves. She questioned some of the manual’s premises about a COIN campaign’s goals, especially the “isolation of the insurgency from the population” and “the destruction of the insurgency political organization.” The problem was that in some cases (Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and, very much to the point, certain militias in Iraq), the insurgency was the population or an important segment of it. If, as the manual stated, a purely military solution isn’t possible, if these kinds of wars usually end with a political negotiation, this poses a problem. “You can’t just pick people up and move them out,” she said (though that was precisely what the British and Americans had done, in an earlier era, in Malaya and the Philippines). “And I don’t know if you want to destroy their organizations,” not if you might need to negotiate with them in the endgame.

The chapter on leadership and ethics had been farmed out to Colonel Richard Swain, who taught a course on the subject at West Point. “You have to remember,” he told the group, “not all Iraqi people are insurgents.” Swain was upset that one draft chapter had cited Algeria as a COIN case study. “This was a colonial war to impose foreign authority,” he said. “Do we want to cast our doctrine in that kind of situation?” We have to get over this romance of colonialism, he stressed, adding, “We have to get over The Centurions.”

Petraeus agreed. “Let me assure you,” he said, not only addressing Swain but turning now and then to face the rest of the group, “this section of the field manual is wrong and will be fixed. The Algiers example is not appropriate. You can’t sacrifice your principles as an American service person.” He added, “I have a ‘Front Page of the Washington Post Rule’: If you don’t want to see something on the front page of the Washington Post, then don’t do it, don’t say it.”

This was a bold statement on Petraeus’s part. He was taking a policy stance that went beyond his station, and many of those in the room knew it. He had been the one to insist on an ethics chapter from the outset. The news stories about torture at the Abu Ghraib prison had broken not long before the field manual was planned; the damage inflicted not only on America’s moral position but also on its strategic interests in Iraq, the entire region, and the global war on terror were too obvious to overlook. The Army was, at the same time, drafting a new field manual on interrogation; whether to inflict torture and under what circumstances was a live issue all through the Army. Petraeus, on his own authority, was settling the matter; he was saying, Don’t do it, period.

His statement also marked a step of personal independence: he was carving out a separate path, in certain crucial ways, from his elders. General Bruno Bigeard, the model for the protagonist of The Centurions, and long a hero to Petraeus, as well as a correspondent and friend, had been tainted by the practice of torture in Algeria. Even Galula, his other model, had allowed his men on occasion to place detainees in a brick oven and threaten to light it up as a way of getting them to talk. Petraeus decided he wouldn’t go there.

The notion of “a culturally acceptable level of corruption” would have its limits.

The most hostile comments on the manual came from Francis “Bing” West. This was expected. Petraeus had invited him as one of the likely stock critics. West was a legendary figure, a retired marine, gruff but also something of a policy intellectual; he’d spent a few years as an analyst at the RAND Corporation and in the Pentagon as an assistant secretary of defense. He was also a prominent writer. His book The Village, published in 1972, about a squad of marines who took back a string of South Vietnamese hamlets from the Viet Cong, was still regarded as a classic in counter-insurgency literature. West had been one of the marines in that book, and even now, at age sixty-five, he craved the action. When the United States invaded Iraq, West embedded with the 1st Marine Division as a journalist, stayed with them all the way from Kuwait to Baghdad, and coauthored a book about the adventure, called The March Up.

West had read the draft field manual’s first two chapters, and now sat listening to the authors recite their conclusions, with growing dismay and occasional disgust. He disliked Crane’s “paradoxes” most of all, the notion that the best weapons didn’t shoot bullets. This was crap. At bottom, West didn’t believe in nation-building, didn’t think Americans knew how to do it. “Population protection”—what did that mean to a soldier with a rifle who didn’t speak the local language? Yes, West and his squad had protected the Vietnamese villagers, but they did it by going out on patrol every night and killing every Viet Cong they could find.

“An insurgency—it’s war!” West bellowed. “The weapons we have, the reason people want us there, is we kill people!” The manual had to address this fact. There needed to be a section on the fighting that goes on in an insurgency war: when soldiers do apply firepower, as well as when they do not.

Petraeus took up the challenge. “We do need to address the balance of kinetic and nonkinetic,” he acknowledged (“kinetic” being the Army word for shooting people), “and we may have gone too far in one direction.” But that was because soldiers were predisposed to go the other direction. You didn’t need to tell a nineteen-year-old soldier with a rifle that sometimes he had to shoot bad guys. You needed to emphasize that sometimes shooting bad guys caused more problems than it solved. “But,” he conceded, not wanting to make waves and, more than that, knowing that West had a valid point, “you have to require balance, you still have to do war-fighting, it’s still a big part of the picture.”

West was alone in his views on this issue. Most of those in the room, including the ones who weren’t COIN enthusiasts or human-rights activists, understood that killing was a large part of war, even this kind of war; the manual’s draft noted explicitly and repeatedly that irreconcilable foes had to be captured or killed.

Still, some agreed with one of West’s criticisms: How do you make the distinction between when, and whom, you fight and don’t fight? How do you resolve the host of ambiguities posed by an insurgency war? The field manual didn’t offer a clue.

This was a problem that Huba Wass de Czege had with the whole project: not so much the issue of killing or not killing, but whether the dilemmas and ambiguities ever-present in these kinds of wars might simply be too hard to untangle. Wass de Czege was something of a legend as well: the founder of the School of Advanced Military Studies, the author of the mid-1980s’ AirLand Battle field manual, the general most responsible for turning Leavenworth into the Army’s intellectual center. He’d retired from the Army long ago, as a one-star general, but he’d kept his hand in war games and conferences such as this one, and he still lived on the outskirts of town.

Wass de Czege worried that the manual was taking “an engineering approach” to insurgencies. “You’re underrepresenting the difficulty of doing this,” he said. “It needs more practical advice about how to do the difficult things.” This is an art, and it’s a mosaic; each local setting, even within a single theater of war, is different, requiring a different approach. “This fact doesn’t come through.” And, most important, he said, you need to know how difficult it is ahead of time, because if what you can bring to the conflict—in the way of troops, intelligence, time, or whatever—isn’t enough to win the battles, then it’s better to stay out.

Some of the manual’s authors knew there was plenty of truth here. Before, after, and in between the sessions of the Leavenworth conference, they held a number of informal conversations on whether counterinsurgency was even possible. The question had two parts. Was the US Army up to the task? And, at least as uncertain, were the American people?

The field manual’s first chapter stated that successful counterinsurgency campaigns required soldiers and marines “at every echelon” to possess a daunting set of traits, including “a clear, nuanced, and empathetic appreciation of the essential nature and nuances of the conflict” and an “understanding of the motivation, strengths, and weaknesses of the insurgent,” as well as a rudimentary knowledge of the host country’s culture, behavioral norms, and leadership structure.

It was a logical requirement, given what this kind of war entailed, but was it a reasonable expectation? Could any nation’s military—not just its officers but the “soldiers and marines at every echelon”—be recruited and trained to such a high standard? (In the manual’s final draft, the phrase “a clear, nuanced, and empathetic appreciation” was toned down to “a clear appreciation,” but the question still held.)

As for the American people, the manual noted that these kinds of wars were “protracted by nature,” requiring “firm political will and substantial patience,” along with “considerable expenditures of time and resources.” Phrases to this effect were repeated several times. The emphasis was deliberate. This was an Army field manual, not a policy statement. It would have been out of place for the authors to pass judgment on whether the country should get involved in these kinds of wars. The manual’s mandate was to say: If the Army is ordered to wage counterinsurgency warfare, here is the official guide on how to do it. But the cautionary passages about firm will and patience were intended as warnings. Conrad Crane had been against the idea of invading Iraq, precisely because he figured the aftermath would be a slog. Some of the manual’s authors, especially Kalev Sepp (whose list of COIN best practices was reproduced in one of its chapters), wished that they could spell out the corollary of those cautionary passages, something like: “If the nation and its leaders are unprepared for the long, hard fight that counterinsurgency entails, they should not begin one in the first place.” But they couldn’t say that explicitly; they could only hope that the message came through between the lines.

There was another fine line that the manual finessed: the paradox, or perhaps contradiction, between Petraeus’s warning that “every army of liberation has a half-life before it becomes an army of occupation” and the field manual’s observation that counterinsurgency requires “a long-term commitment.” Petraeus qualified his warning, noting that you could extend the half-life—sway people to tolerate the stifling burdens of occupation—by providing them with security, basic services, and good governance. The trick was striking the right balance. As he would tell skeptics, that was a big reason why it was so important to focus on the nonkinetic side of the war: why COIN was “20 percent military, 80 percent political.” The people needed rewards to put up with the checkpoints, the low-flying helicopters, the occasional miscreants and misfires; that was the only way they’d extend the half-life. It was also why, Petraeus and Nagl would say, they called COIN “graduate-level warfare.” It wasn’t for amateurs.

Petraeus sometimes talked about an army of “pentathlete” soldiers and counterinsurgency as one piece in a broader doctrine of “full-spectrum operations”: the art of conducting offense, defense, and stability operations not just over a three-block span, as General Krulak had envisioned, but simultaneously across an entire province or country.

But this raised Wass de Czege’s question all over: Was the concept realistic? Not all students were graduate students; not all athletes were pentathletes. Could all soldiers be three-block warriors and full-spectrum operators? Was this, as Wass de Czege insisted, a lot harder than the manual implied—a lot harder than the Army and the nation could manage?

Over the next few weeks, the draft chapters were revised to tie up loose ends, tone down exaggerations, and fill gaps that the discussions had uncovered. A few bureaucratic battles would persist for several months over a handful of these issues. But the larger critiques—whether historical parallels were valid, how to balance the three-block war, how to define “legitimacy,” and whether COIN was a feasible goal for the American Army in the modern world—were left unresolved, for the most part unaddressed.

•  •  •

On the second morning of the conference, before the discussions resumed, Crane, Nagl, Horvath, and Eliot Cohen woke up early and met at the Santa Fe Depot Diner in downtown Leavenworth to discuss writing an article for Military Review: a précis of the first two chapters that would serve as a bit of “advertising and marketing,” as they called it, for the full field manual to come. They dashed off an outline over breakfast; Nagl and Crane tweaked the prose. Bill Darley, the journal’s editor, published the article in the next issue under the title “Principles, Imperatives, and Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency.”

Petraeus had suggested the idea. His goals in this whole enterprise were twofold. First, he wanted to have an Army doctrine on counterinsurgency in place by the time he went back to Iraq, so that he’d have official cover for the new strategy he was intent on imposing. (The finished manual would be published as FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency in December 2006, two months before his return.)

Second, over the long haul, he wanted to force a change in mind-set, to drive a wedge into mainstream Army thinking, to broaden and overhaul the official definition of war in a way that he’d been thinking about and advocating for over twenty years.

This was what the two days in Leavenworth were ultimately about: giving Petraeus the chance to lay out his “big ideas” to a broad range of professionals who would be needed, in one way or another, to join or support the two wars: the fighting war going on now in Iraq and the political war that would go on inside the Pentagon, perhaps for years to come.

Some of the old hands knew what was up. As the session came to a close, Tom Marks turned to one of his Special Forces mates and said, “This cake was already baked. We were the icing.”

For the most part, Marks had no problem with that. In fact, he admired Petraeus’s craft. This was classic information operations, this was what insurgents do—and Marks saw very clearly that Petraeus was staging an insurgency against “big Army.”

In that sense, the conference was a success. In his concluding remarks, Petraeus told the group, “I want to keep the dialogue going. We have a community now.” It started, he said, with Sarah Sewall’s conference in Washington. Actually, it had started well before then. But now it had a leader who wore stars on his epaulets.