Where’s My Counterinsurgency Plan?

7. “Where’s My Counterinsurgency Plan?”

In May 2004, as the insurgency’s existence could no longer be denied, General George Casey, the newly appointed commander of US forces in Iraq, went to see General Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, to discuss the changing nature of the war.

Early on in the conversation, Schoomaker gave Casey a book and urged him to read it right away. It was John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. Casey noticed a dozen or so copies of this book on a table behind the chief’s desk. Schoomaker said that he’d been handing them out to all the four-star generals, that it offered the clearest analysis he’d read of how to think about counterinsurgency.

One year earlier, Donald Rumsfeld had called Schoomaker out of retirement—which he’d been enjoying for the previous three years—to come back and serve as the Army’s top officer. To Rumsfeld’s mind, there were no active-duty four-star generals qualified for the job. More than that, Schoomaker seemed ideally suited for steering the Army in the direction Rumsfeld wanted it to go.

The two had met briefly in the weeks after the September 11 attacks. Schoomaker was part of a small team of retired generals assembled by the Army War College to write a transition plan to help the Army shift from a peacetime establishment to a wartime expeditionary force. Afterward, Rumsfeld pulled him aside to talk about how Special Forces might be used in the impending invasion of Afghanistan.

Schoomaker had risen through the Army’s ranks primarily as a Special Forces officer; his final posting, before retiring in 2000, was commander of the US Special Operations Command. Rumsfeld liked the Special Ops branch; it exemplified what he thought the entire Army ought to be in the transformation age: fast, agile, and, above all, small.

Special Forces had also long been in the business of irregular warfare. Schoomaker had done time in Grenada, Panama, Haiti, and northern Iraq, where, in the wake of Desert Storm, he helped quell rioting among Kurdish refugees along the Iraqi-Turkish border, then organized a program of humanitarian assistance. Two years before retiring, he’d written an article arguing that the Army as a whole should “become more like” Special Forces.

But the general’s reasoning on this point was different from that of the defense secretary. Schoomaker thought that in the future the United States would face fewer big wars but many more small conflicts, and so American soldiers should be trained as “warrior-diplomats,” ready for combat and nation-building. (In the year Schoomaker wrote that article, Special Forces teams were deployed in 152 countries and foreign territories, to deal with everything from clearing land mines, to capturing drug lords, to distributing food, to fighting insurgents—though, of course, the chiefs of the day regarded none of those deployments as “combat.”)

George Casey was a more conventional Army officer. He’d grown up in an Army family; his father, also named George Casey, was one of a dozen American generals killed in the Vietnam War: in his case, the casualty of a helicopter crash in 1970, when George Jr. was not quite twenty-two. Thirty years later, he took command of the 1st Armored Division, matching the career peak of his father, who was commander of the 1st Cavalry at the time of his death. Then came three consecutive assignments in the Pentagon—as director of strategic plans, and policy, then director of the Joint Staff, and finally vice chief of staff—a pattern that usually denoted a prelude to retirement.

And so it came as a complete surprise when President Bush awarded him a fourth star and named him commander of multinational forces in Iraq. Casey had never been in combat and had scant experience of any sort in the Middle East.

Nor had he ever been interested in any kind of war except the big kind. In 1974 he’d gone to Ranger School and scored first in his class. (Dave Petraeus would do the same in the following session.) But Casey put himself through its rigors mainly as a personal test; he had little desire to follow up and even turned down an offer to join the elite Delta Force.

His only deployment in a low-intensity conflict had been as an assistant division commander of peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, and it left him with a sour taste for the whole idea. Unlike Schoomaker or Petraeus, who regarded Bosnia as a model for future conflicts, Casey saw it as a case study in what to avoid. The observation he took away was that when American soldiers were sent abroad to do good or to help settle conflicts, they had a tendency to do everything themselves. In some ways, this was commendable; it reflected the Army’s can-do spirit. But ultimately it was a trap: the more the Americans did, the less the native soldiers did, and so the Americans wound up staying longer; and the longer they stayed, the more the local people resented them. It seemed a losing game.

Casey left Schoomaker’s office with Nagl’s book in tow, and he read it over the weekend. It was the first book he’d ever read about counterinsurgency. He found it interesting, but not interesting enough to seek out a second book.

Still, it did acquaint him with the subject, and he knew that Schoomaker’s interest meant he had to take an interest, too. So, upon arriving at Baghdad headquarters on July 1, one of the first questions Casey asked at his first staff meeting was, “Where is my counterinsurgency plan?”

No answer. Clearly, there wasn’t a plan.

Casey’s second question: “Who is my counterinsurgency expert?”

The nominal chief strategist, an Air Force brigadier general named Stephen Sargeant, perhaps embarrassed by the silence that greeted the new boss on his first day, piped up that he was the COIN expert.

Casey, a bit doubtful, asked for his qualifications. Sargeant replied that he’d read Mao Zedong. Casey knew that didn’t quite cut it. But since Sargeant had been bold enough to take the bait, Casey put him in charge of finding a team of experts to do better.

It took Casey little time, and no prompting from experts, to figure out that Iraq was in shambles and so was the war. His predecessor, Ricardo Sanchez, a three-star general who’d apparently spent his year as commander in a constant state of cluelessness, had left him nothing to build on. Not only was there no counterinsurgency plan, there was no plan of any sort: no strategy, no mission statement, no criteria or benchmarks for how to measure, or even define, success or failure.

“George Bush has given me a pile of shit,” Casey mumbled more than once.

Meanwhile, Sargeant riffled through the military’s personnel records, looking for officers with some experience at planning strategy for this kind of war. Then, on August 5, a month and a few days into Casey’s command, strictly by chance, a colonel named William Hix walked into his office. Sargeant’s title was director of strategy, plans, and assessment. He already had two colonels working as deputies, one on plans, the other on assessment; Hix was reporting for duty as the deputy in charge of strategy.

The son of a career CIA agent, Hix had graduated from West Point in the class of 1981 with a concentration in the Social Sciences Department. He joined the 82nd Airborne Division right out of the academy, then segued into Special Forces, where he advised counterinsurgents in the Philippines, trained peacekeepers in the Sinai, and fought in the shadows of Desert Storm.

He was unlike any Army colonel whom Sargeant or Casey had ever met. His demeanor was intense, single-mindedly professional, but also casually brazen. He took delight in saying whatever he felt like, with no apparent worry about the consequences for his career. In short, Bill Hix was just the guy Sargeant was looking for. And since Sargeant was confident enough in his own position to delegate authority without feeling threatened, he gave his new strategist direct and unlimited access to Casey.

Unfortunately, the day Hix arrived, Casey had just signed off on a twenty-eight-page campaign plan for the next phase of the occupation. To Casey’s astonishment, Sanchez had never written a campaign plan—the basic outline of a commander’s strategy and how he intended to achieve it with the available resources—so he was under pressure from the White House and the Pentagon to come up with something, and quickly. More flustering still, Casey was dealing with contradictory mandates. Rumsfeld had told him, in a conversation before he left, not to do too much, to focus on setting the stage for withdrawal—a sentiment that Casey shared, given his own experience in Bosnia. But Schoomaker wanted a counterinsurgency plan, which, Casey knew from reading Nagl, would require doing quite a lot and staying for quite a while (“messy and slow,” as Nagl quoted Lawrence, “like eating soup with a knife”).

With no time for outside experts to materialize, Casey put together a team of personnel within reach of headquarters—officials from the State Department and the CIA, as well as a few military officers—to write an assessment of the situation. From that, he and Sargeant cobbled together a campaign plan on their own, even though Casey had barely unpacked and could claim only the slightest grasp of counterinsurgency concepts, while Sargeant, a former A-10 attack plane pilot, had a looser grip still.

Hix read the Casey-Sargeant campaign plan, titled “Partnership: From Occupation to Constitutional Elections.” At least it was a plan; there hadn’t been one before. It acknowledged the threat of an insurgency, which hadn’t been accepted universally. But beyond that, the paper was a mess. Any brigade commander who read it would have only a vague idea of what to do. In some passages, the plan defined the mission as “full-spectrum counter-insurgency operations” to isolate the people from “former regime extremists and foreign terrorists” and to “enhance the legitimacy” of the new Iraqi government. But there was no guidance on how to do this. It was all boilerplate, pidgin-COIN talk: the right words, bereft of meaning. The plan listed “key strategic tasks,” which included protecting Iraqi leaders, the local UN mission, and the occupation authority’s credibility—but it said nothing, anywhere, about protecting the Iraqi population, the centerpiece of any real counterinsurgency strategy.

In other passages, the plan more crisply defined the mission as maintaining offensive operations against the insurgents and accelerating the training of Iraqi security forces, so that, after the upcoming elections, the United States and its multinational coalition could hand off authority to the new Iraqi government and start moving out. The plan estimated that the transfer would take place in “key cities” by the end of the year and throughout Iraq by July 2005, at which point the “liberation/occupation” phase would wrap up and the “transition” phase would be well under way.

Hix knew that wars of this sort just didn’t go so smoothly or quickly, especially in a country like Iraq, which had no democratic traditions and, at the moment, no functioning government. And, in any case, if miracles did somehow occur, the plan’s two themes—full-spectrum COIN and speedy transition—were contradictory; you couldn’t do both at the same time.

The whole plan would have to be rewritten, reconceived.

At their first meeting, Casey gave Hix carte blanche to do just that. Sargeant had put together a group of PhDs, mainly from the RAND Corporation, to help with advice. (They soon became known as the “doctors without orders,” a play on the international health group Doctors Without Borders.) But Hix knew that there was someone else he needed to call: a former fellow Special Forces colonel and Harvard PhD named Kalev “Gunner” Sepp.

•  •  •

Kalev Sepp was no longer in the Army; he’d retired in frustration five years earlier. But it was only slight exaggeration to say that he was born for this assignment.

His father, Sulev Sepp, was born and raised in Estonia. In the winter of 1940–41, at age sixteen, Sulev joined a resistance movement against the Soviet occupation. After World War II, he went west, settling in Southern California, first picking oranges with Mexican migrants, then working at a lock factory amid the region’s Cold War prosperity. As his English improved, he joined the Air National Guard and, in 1950, signed up to fight in Korea, happy to do battle once more against communists, this time as a member of the American armed forces. After that war, Sulev got a job as a paratrooper with a Special Ops unit based in Marin County. His mission: in the event of a nuclear war, he would be flown over the area where a Soviet bomber had been shot down, parachute near the wreckage, and retrieve whatever materials were still extant.

As a boy, Kalev watched his father and the other men of the unit practice their parachute jumps onto nearby farm fields. The men were all lean, sunburned, and happy. Kalev thought, “I want to be like that.”

Sulev Sepp had never finished high school, but he spoke five languages and was a voracious reader of history. Kalev grew up listening to stories about the Estonian resistance. Much later, he discovered that, in 1960, when Kalev was seven years old and living with his family in West Germany, his father had run agents across the East German border. After that (this part was known at the time), he’d served two tours in Vietnam as an intelligence specialist.

For as long as he could remember, Kalev wanted to join the military. His poor eyesight ruled out the Air Force; he was too tall for the submarine Navy; so that left the Army. He graduated high school in 1971. A guidance counselor who knew nothing about military academies had told him that West Point was an engineering school (strictly speaking true, as all its students got degrees in engineering); Kalev had no interest in that, so he applied to the Citadel and got in. From there, following in his father’s footsteps, he signed up for jump school, where he scored fourth in a districtwide summer class of 1,600, and that landed him a Ranger’s slot in the 82nd Airborne Division.

The Vietnam War had recently ended. Sepp’s instructors were all captains and majors who’d fought in the war and, in an attempt to prolong the experience, pushed hard to turn their new crop of trainees into combat leaders. Sepp and the other paratroopers found themselves jumping out of airplanes all the time. And because the division had tons of ammunition, stockpiled for Vietnam but not shipped in time, their infantry training on the ground included lots of live-fire exercises—artillery shells whizzing over their heads and jet fighters dropping napalm at their feet. A few young officers were killed amid this derring-do. For the others, it became a point of pride, a sign of experience and fearlessness, to walk around the base, their pant legs and boot cleats streaked with the white stripes of dry napalm, which, it was well known, would never wash out.

This was in the late 1970s, not long after the West German commandos rescued the Lufthansa airline hostages at Mogadishu airport. Special Forces were suddenly fashionable again. Sepp was aching to join up, but his superior officers told him that he’d ruin his career if he went in that direction. They also invoked a technical restriction: Sepp was an artillery officer at the time (it was during a training exercise that he picked up the nickname Gunner), and Special Forces had no need for artillery. He was reassigned to South Korea, where he started petitioning again for a transfer and finally found a general to sign the paperwork. In December 1986, nearly a decade after he’d put in his first request, Sepp was transferred to the Green Berets at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and from there to Honduras, as a team leader training local paratroopers, infantry soldiers, and military police.

Then it was on to El Salvador as one of the fifty-five US military personnel, training a battalion in 1989–90, during the final offensives of the civil war. This was Sepp’s first direct exposure to counterinsurgency operations. He was a lowly captain, but he came under attack almost constantly—from mortar shells, ambushes, and machine gun fire—while also immersing himself in civil affairs, psychological operations, training local police, trying to reform district governments, and analyzing how the cycle of the coffee harvest affected popular support for the guerrillas. He and the other Special Forces officers had to do all of this, in part because there were so few of them to go around.

Sepp found the whole scene thrilling but also chastening. Back when he was a Ranger in the 82nd Airborne, he’d undertaken a study of counterterrorism, poring over classified reports on operations by Israeli commando teams. The Israelis had done more hostage rescues than anyone and were most celebrated for their boldness and skill. Yet it turned out, to Sepp’s surprise, that even they’d racked up almost exactly as many failures as successes; plenty of their missions had ended with the hostages killed or the terrorists escaping. Sepp began to realize this was a dicey business.

The impression was reinforced when he went through the rigorous training exercises in the Carolina sandhills west of Fort Bragg. When he’d gone through the conventional Army’s training regimens—the schools for infantry, armor, and artillery—every scenario had a “school solution”: if you followed the right procedure, you succeeded. The Special Forces’ regimen was murkier. There were no set solutions: you could do everything right, and things still wound up wrong; the best you could do was wreak the least amount of havoc.

The difference, Sepp concluded, had a lot to do with the trainers running the schools. The conventional Army’s trainers hadn’t fought a war lately—not a big war, tank on tank, major power versus major power. The Special Forces’ trainers were retired officers who’d served with the Green Berets in Vietnam or with the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, in World War II. They knew what it took to raise guerrilla armies in contested terrain, and they’d learned, from hard experience, the deep grayness of these sorts of fights, the infiltrators in your midst, the vast unknowns all around you.

Sepp wanted to be deployed with Special Forces in Operation Desert Storm, but the brass sent him to the Command and General Staff College at Leavenworth, then urged him to get an advanced degree at an Ivy League grad school, at the Army’s expense, followed by a teaching stint at West Point.

He studied history at Harvard, got his degree (minus the dissertation, which he started but didn’t complete until later), then at West Point created a course in the History Department called Revolution, Insurgencies, and Civil Wars.

The West Point History Department had once been a part of the Sosh department, but it splintered off a few years before Sepp’s arrival, and a good-natured rivalry hardened the divide. The history professors saw themselves as the serious scholars and the Sosh crew as the go-go policy elite, polishing their CVs for the impending inside-track job arranged by a fellow star man from the Lincoln Brigade. Sepp liked to sum up the cultural difference this way: at lunch, the history profs would be discussing a new book on the politico-military impact of the longbow, while the Sosh profs debated the merits of the new BMW and the Saab.

Sepp was more a midcareer man than most of the faculty in either department. He’d already seen a fair bit of action, so he used his time at West Point to settle in and deepen his knowledge, reading voraciously about the subject of his teaching, insurgency wars throughout history.

After his three years at West Point, Sepp was assigned to TRADOC, the Training and Doctrine Command, where he was put to work in an adventurous think tank called Army After Next, which was set up after the end of the Cold War to explore ideas and scenarios, without restriction, about the nature of warfare and the requirements of security twenty years in the future. Sepp loved this job. But a year into it, TRADOC got a new commander who saw no point in long-range thinking and twisted Army After Next into a rubber stamp for the Army’s most cherished weapons programs. No longer were there free discussions about the possibilities and implications of an antisatellite war with China; instead, there were studies on whether the Army’s new fighting vehicle should have six wheels or eight. One part of Sepp’s new job involved writing thank-you letters to the study’s participants.

He was rescued by a phone call from a housemaster he’d befriended at Harvard, offering him a job as a resident scholar. Sepp retired from the Army, took the job at Harvard, and finished his dissertation. (He reached some of the same conclusions that Petraeus had reached in his thesis about the Army’s disinclination to take small wars seriously. But Sepp, who didn’t know Petraeus at the time and hadn’t read his dissertation, was a bit more jaundiced: after interviewing all the senior officers, whom he’d never seen while stationed in El Salvador, he realized that the real mission, which had been highly classified at the time, was to build regional support for the contra guerrillas’ struggle to overthrow the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua.)

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Sepp was recruited by the historian’s office at Fort Bragg to write an analysis of the Special Forces’ role in the invasion of Afghanistan and the ouster of the Taliban. The charter was to pull no punches. Sepp interviewed dozens of officers and examined all the documents. Midway through, the charter changed. It became a puff job: all the screwups, miscommunications, and near-disasters were expunged; the final version, published by the Command and General Staff College Press under the title Weapon of Choice: U.S. Army Special Operations in Afghanistan, read like a Tom Clancy novel and was nearly as fictitious. Still, Sepp had done the real research; it gave him insight into how these things worked, and it hooked him into a network of senior Special Forces officers. Soon after, he got a job teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, where Special Forces captains and majors went for a yearlong academic respite.

While in Monterey, Sepp got the phone call from Bill Hix. The two had met while working on long-range analysis at Army After Next during its heyday. They’d become friends, talked often about their common backgrounds in the shadow Army, left at around the same time (after the new commander wrecked the place), and stayed in touch. When Hix got approval to form a team to write a new campaign plan for Casey, it was only logical that he’d ask Sepp to come join him.

•  •  •

Sepp arrived in Iraq in early November 2004. Not long after, he sat in on a meeting with Hix and Casey, and he was stunned by the dynamics. Casey was leaning back in a big red leatherette easy chair; Hix sat on a nearby couch, leaning forward, explaining some concept in the new campaign plan that he was working on. Casey would try to summarize one of the points, and Hix would say, in an annoyed tone, “No, that’s not it at all!”

In all his years in the Army, Sepp had never seen a colonel sitting in a room with a four-star general, just the two of them, talking as if equals. But this was an odder scene still. It played out like a teacher tutoring a student, or Aristotle instructing the prince, with Hix in the role of the philosopher-mentor. Sepp didn’t know which was more dizzying: Hix’s assertiveness or Casey’s indifference to the decorum of rank for the sake of getting something done.

One day, early on in Sepp’s tenure, Hix leaned into his office and said he needed a research paper, something like what they do in the business world to explore how different companies perform a certain task or sell a particular product, how they analyze which techniques work, which techniques don’t—you know, what do they call it (he snapped his fingers to speed up his thinking), a “best practices” paper, that was it. “I need a paper,” Hix said, “on ‘best practices’ for counterinsurgency.”

Then he turned around and left Sepp alone to get started.

Sepp spent the next thirty-six hours working on the paper: thirty hours of thinking and writing, six hours of sleeping in one- to two-hour breaks. He drew on everything that he’d taught at West Point and Monterey, studied at Harvard, done in Honduras and El Salvador, and learned from his father. It was a summation of his entire professional life and a good bit of his personal life, too.

As a first step, he wrote out a list of all the insurgency wars in the twentieth century. He came up with fifty-three: the Anglo-Boer war, the Philippine insurrection, the Arab revolt against the Turks, the Nicaragua interventions (in the 1920s and the 1980s), the Greek civil war, and on and on through Malaya, Kenya, Algeria, Cuba, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, the Soviet-Afghan war, Somalia, and, of course, the ongoing struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Then, jotting down the factors that led to victory or defeat in each conflict (some of the data pulled from memory, some from files of class notes or the internet), he spelled out in detail roughly a dozen common denominators of victory and nine common elements of defeat.

After writing the paper, Sepp summarized its conclusions in a chart labeled “Successful and Unsuccessful Counterinsurgency Practices.” The list of “Successful” practices included “Focus on population, their needs and security . . . Insurgents isolated from population . . . Emphasis on intelligence . . . Amnesty and rehabilitation for insurgents . . . Conventional military forces reoriented for counterinsurgency . . . Special Forces, advisers embedded with indigenous forces . . . Insurgent sanctuaries denied.”

The “Unsuccessful” practices included “Priority to ‘kill-capture’ enemy, not on engaging population . . . Military units concentrated on large bases . . . Building, training indigenous army in image of US Army . . . Special Forces focused on raiding . . . Open borders, airspace, coastlines.”

None of this was new. The ideas were straight out of the basic COIN curriculum: Galula, Nagl, Lawrence, Kitson, the Marine Corps’s Small Wars Manual, and the rest. But the novelty of Sepp’s paper was its empirical grounding. Nobody had tested, and confirmed, the theories against the expanse of modern history, the accumulated data of the entire past century.

But the paper also cut deep in an immediate way. Those reading it inside Casey’s headquarters couldn’t possibly miss its implications: the list of unsuccessful practices matched precisely what most US military forces were doing in Iraq; and the successful practices were being followed by very few, especially after Petraeus’s departure from Mosul nine months earlier.

Sepp’s paper amounted, in short, to a sweeping critique of US war strategy—and, as he and Hix intended, the foundation for a new counter-insurgency campaign plan in Iraq.

Hix was enthusiastic about Sepp’s paper and, after some minor editing, brought the paper into Casey’s office along with a proposal. He wanted to append it as an unclassified annex to the next campaign plan—a novel notion in itself, since everything about campaign plans was usually secret—and, in the meantime, to submit the paper to Military Review, the US Army’s leading professional journal, so that officers and soldiers throughout the chain of command could understand the war and their role in it, since they hadn’t been told up till then.

Casey gave the go-ahead to both proposals.

•  •  •

To the extent that there was any discussion about these kinds of wars in Army circles, it was taking place in the pages of Military Review. The journal, published bimonthly by the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, had been around since 1922. In the decade after Vietnam, it served as a widely read forum for the intense debate over the new Army doctrines on conventional combat: the field manual on Operations authored by General DePuy in the 1970s and the revision on AirLand Battle by General Wass de Czege in the 1980s. But in the decade since Desert Storm, the magazine had gone steeply downhill, turning into a notepad for senior officers who wanted to beef up their CVs and for academics seeking outlets for theoretical treatises on the dynamics of conflict. In the wake of the victories in the Cold War and the Persian Gulf, the Army’s journal of ideas had become irrelevant.

When Lieutenant General William Scott Wallace took over as Leavenworth’s commander in June 2003, he was determined to change that, among many other things. Wallace had been the deputy commander of US forces in the invasion of Iraq. One week into the war, when the American advance was thwarted by Iraqi militiamen firing bazookas from the back of Toyota pickup trucks, Wallace told a reporter, “The enemy we’re fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against.” The remark put the general on the outs with Donald Rumsfeld, and his assignment to Leavenworth, Kansas, was widely seen as an act of exile.

Wallace came into the job full of fire, wanting to turn Leavenworth into a pertinent player in the war, even if from halfway around the globe, and he saw the renovation of Military Review as a big part of this upheaval. His first act on that front was to hire a new editor, and his choice was a public affairs officer he’d known in Iraq named William Darley.

Darley, a career staff officer in the Army’s Special Forces, had spent the previous decade in the public-affairs branches of US Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations in the Pentagon. When Wallace called him, he was in Iraq, handling public affairs for Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez. Darley saw clearly that an insurgency was bubbling up, and he was angered, not just professionally but personally, that the higher-ups were refusing to acknowledge it.

He came to Leavenworth for his new job in mid-March 2004. At their first meeting, Wallace laid down three rules for the journal’s new incarnation. First, its articles had to be relevant to the war. Second, it would no longer publish articles by and for academics; anyone could write for it, and if an academic had something interesting to say, that was fine, but this was a journal for soldiers. Third, he shouldn’t be afraid of controversy, although he shouldn’t be outrageous for its own sake. As long as Darley followed those guidelines, Wallace would give him editorial free reign.

When Darley walked into the journal’s office, he was appalled. There was a stack of 190 articles, all approved but not yet published, some dating as far back as four years. He skimmed through them and instantly threw out more than 100. Over the next few weeks, he pored over official documents and conference reports, looking for specialists who seemed to have insight on the war, then sought them out to write for him.

In the year before Darley’s arrival, the journal had published only nine articles having the slightest connection to counterinsurgency. In Darley’s first year, he published twenty-nine—an average of nearly five per issue—many of them by officers or consultants who’d recently been on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan.

When Sepp’s essay on best practices came through the mill, Darley knew he had a classic on his hands. He emailed Sepp, saying that he wanted to publish it as soon as possible but that it needed footnotes. After all, most readers had never heard of Kalev Sepp; the article made a lot of provocative claims, and he needed to back them up.

Sepp spent the better part of the next four days double-checking all the facts and jotting down the exact page numbers where they appeared in various books. (By this time, he’d returned to Monterey, so had access to his personal library; he would go back to Iraq the following summer.)

The footnoted essay appeared in the May–June 2005 issue, along with eight other articles on COIN-related themes (out of sixteen articles altogether), written by an assortment of scholars and officers who hadn’t previously known of one another’s existence. The articles included an anthropologist’s analysis of the “social context” of the Iraqi insurgents’ roadside bombs, arguing that US forces should track down the bomb-makers through contacts with tribal sheikhs; a review of the British army’s experience with counterinsurgency; an essay on the US pacification campaign in the Philippines from 1899 to 1913 and the lessons it held for today’s commanders in Iraq; and a historical survey by an Army War College historian titled “Phase IV Operations: Where Wars Are Really Won.”

It was with articles like these, in issue after issue, that Military Review was reemerging as a must-read journal for Army officers and defense intellectuals. A community was forming; a conversation about the Army’s policy and culture was under way.