The End of the Age of Petraeus

The Rise and Fall of Counterinsurgency

The downfall of David Petraeus sent such shock waves through the policy establishment when it hit the news in November because the cause was so banal: the most celebrated and controversial military officer of our time compelled to resign from his dream job as CIA director as the result of an extramarital affair. Yet long after the headshaking details are forgotten, Petraeus' larger significance will remain, as his career traced one of the era's crucial strategic narratives -- the rise and fall of counterinsurgency in U.S. military policy.

As recently as 2006, the country's top generals were openly scorning counterinsurgency as a concept; the secretary of defense all but banned the term's utterance. One year later, it was enshrined as army doctrine, promoted at the highest levels of the Pentagon, and declared official U.S. policy by the president. Then, five years after that, a new president and new defense secretary barred the military chiefs from even considering counterinsurgency among the war-fighting scenarios used to calculate the military's force requirements.

The swerves reflected the changing courses of the wars being fought on the ground. The George W. Bush administration had invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 with a "light footprint" strategy, designed to defeat the enemies and get out quickly to avoid getting bogged down. That approach, however, revealed its limits as Iraq began unraveling soon after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, and by mid-2006, the country had slipped into a vicious, chaotic civil war. A desperate Bush decided to gamble on counterinsurgency in a last-ditch effort to head off disaster, and he picked Petraeus, the author of a new army manual on the subject, to lead the effort. The apparent success of the new approach in stanching the bleeding inspired commanders, including Petraeus himself, to apply it to the worsening conflict in Afghanistan as well. But its apparent failure there led President Barack Obama -- never a huge fan -- to back away from the strategy not only there but in general.

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