Part of The Best Books of 2013 on Military, Scientific, and Technological Subjects

The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War

Much has already been written about the 2007 “surge” of U.S. forces in Iraq, which led to a marked improvement in the country’s security situation. A good deal of the attention has gone to General David Petraeus’ role in shaping the strategy, which was the culmination of an insurgency of sorts within the U.S. Army. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the army had developed an institutional allergy to counterinsurgency (or COIN), since it was considered to be something “other than war” and therefore not worthy of the army’s attention. The story of how Petraeus’ “COINdinistas” overcame that aversion to their thinking and changed army doctrine and practice is already familiar. But Kaplan has a gift for bringing to life what might otherwise seem like arcane strategic debates by linking them to the personalities and biographies of the main participants, and he vividly captures the drama of Petraeus’ struggle against a Pentagon establishment that Kaplan portrays as delusional and myopic. 

The COINdinistas come across as smarter than their rivals in the military bureaucracy -- but this is also a tale of hubris. Buoyed by their relative success in Iraq, Petraeus and his allies believed that the surge there offered a model for Afghanistan, despite being well aware that the two situations were very different. But the Afghan surge, which President Barack Obama announced in late 2009, did not lead to a decisive breakthrough, partly because its key architects were unable to see the policy through to its conclusion. General Stanley McChrystal, a late but zealous convert to COIN, took command of the international forces in Afghanistan in 2009 but retired the following year after Rolling Stone published critical comments he and his staffers had made about Obama and his administration. Petraeus took McChrystal’s post briefly but soon left the army to become the director of the CIA -- only to resign last year after it emerged that he had engaged in an extramarital affair.

Latest Commentary & News analysis