Commentary Magazine


Topic: Lieutenant General

Hype and Reality over Rules of Engagement

Having recently returned from more than two weeks in Afghanistan, I was struck by how overblown the whole debate over “Rules of Engagement” has become. Back home, bloggers are becoming apoplectic, claiming that, as one website put it, “Obama’s Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan Costing Our Troops Lives.” From such hyperbolic reporting, you would think that American soldiers and Marines are routinely being killed in firefights that they might have won had they been able to summon air or artillery support. Not so. The biggest killer of our troops is IEDs, which no amount of bombing can stop. In fact, too much expenditure of firepower can make it harder for our troops to uncover these deadly booby traps, because it alienates the population — the prime source of intelligence.

The National Bureau of Economic Research has just released an interesting paper on the effects of civilian casualties. It is written by four social scientists, one of them a U.S. Army colonel (Joe Felter) currently serving in Afghanistan. Through a careful study of collateral-damage incidents, they determined that every coalition-caused civilian death results in “6 additional violent incidents in an average sized district in the following 6 weeks.” In other words, being too indiscriminate in the application of firepower creates more enemies than our operations can remove. Which is precisely why General Stanley McChrystal — not President Obama — instituted tight limits on the use of force.

His restrictions have been in part responsible for a decline in American air strikes and in Afghan civilian deaths. As CNN notes: “Civilians killed by U.S. and NATO forces ‘reduced considerably’ to 210 during the period [the first half of the year] because of restrictions imposed on the use of airstrikes. … Deaths in airstrikes dropped by more than 50 percent to 94.” That means, in effect, that U.S. troops created fewer enemies for themselves than they have in the past.

The risks incurred by U.S. troops under this policy are somewhat ameliorated by the fact that their numbers have tripled over the past year. That means they can win more fights without having to call in air support. But there is no doubt that the tight restrictions on air strikes have somewhat increased the risks faced by ground forces, even though McChrystal always made it plain that troops have a right and a duty to act in self-defense.

This has resulted in a handful of highly publicized cases, recycled many times in news accounts, in which troops complain that they were prevented from calling in badly needed air strikes. It appears likely that McChrystal’s broad directives, while well-intentioned, were interpreted too bureaucratically and too narrowly by some units. That is something that General David Petraeus and his operational commander, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, are now studying to determine whether adjustments are necessary.

But don’t expect Petraeus to declare Afghanistan a free-fire zone. Nor should he. He is mindful, as McChrystal was, that the Soviets killed more than a million Afghans in the 1980s and still lost the war. The “kill them all” approach to counterinsurgency seldom if ever works, and it is certainly not an option for the armed forces of a liberal superpower that must operate under the glare of media scrutiny. Our armed forces must strike a delicate balance between aggressively hunting insurgents and sparing the population among whom the insurgents hide. That is hard to do, and it requires tremendous discipline and fortitude on the part of the troops, but it is the only way to win a war like this one.

Having recently returned from more than two weeks in Afghanistan, I was struck by how overblown the whole debate over “Rules of Engagement” has become. Back home, bloggers are becoming apoplectic, claiming that, as one website put it, “Obama’s Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan Costing Our Troops Lives.” From such hyperbolic reporting, you would think that American soldiers and Marines are routinely being killed in firefights that they might have won had they been able to summon air or artillery support. Not so. The biggest killer of our troops is IEDs, which no amount of bombing can stop. In fact, too much expenditure of firepower can make it harder for our troops to uncover these deadly booby traps, because it alienates the population — the prime source of intelligence.

The National Bureau of Economic Research has just released an interesting paper on the effects of civilian casualties. It is written by four social scientists, one of them a U.S. Army colonel (Joe Felter) currently serving in Afghanistan. Through a careful study of collateral-damage incidents, they determined that every coalition-caused civilian death results in “6 additional violent incidents in an average sized district in the following 6 weeks.” In other words, being too indiscriminate in the application of firepower creates more enemies than our operations can remove. Which is precisely why General Stanley McChrystal — not President Obama — instituted tight limits on the use of force.

His restrictions have been in part responsible for a decline in American air strikes and in Afghan civilian deaths. As CNN notes: “Civilians killed by U.S. and NATO forces ‘reduced considerably’ to 210 during the period [the first half of the year] because of restrictions imposed on the use of airstrikes. … Deaths in airstrikes dropped by more than 50 percent to 94.” That means, in effect, that U.S. troops created fewer enemies for themselves than they have in the past.

The risks incurred by U.S. troops under this policy are somewhat ameliorated by the fact that their numbers have tripled over the past year. That means they can win more fights without having to call in air support. But there is no doubt that the tight restrictions on air strikes have somewhat increased the risks faced by ground forces, even though McChrystal always made it plain that troops have a right and a duty to act in self-defense.

This has resulted in a handful of highly publicized cases, recycled many times in news accounts, in which troops complain that they were prevented from calling in badly needed air strikes. It appears likely that McChrystal’s broad directives, while well-intentioned, were interpreted too bureaucratically and too narrowly by some units. That is something that General David Petraeus and his operational commander, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, are now studying to determine whether adjustments are necessary.

But don’t expect Petraeus to declare Afghanistan a free-fire zone. Nor should he. He is mindful, as McChrystal was, that the Soviets killed more than a million Afghans in the 1980s and still lost the war. The “kill them all” approach to counterinsurgency seldom if ever works, and it is certainly not an option for the armed forces of a liberal superpower that must operate under the glare of media scrutiny. Our armed forces must strike a delicate balance between aggressively hunting insurgents and sparing the population among whom the insurgents hide. That is hard to do, and it requires tremendous discipline and fortitude on the part of the troops, but it is the only way to win a war like this one.

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A Lie: David Petraeus, Anti-Israel

Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” As if to illustrate the point, consider the misleading commentary that continues to emerge, attributing anti-Israeli sentiment to Gen. David Petraeus. I already knocked down one fallacious Web item written by terrorist groupie Mark Perry on Foreign Policy’s web site. The meme has also been refuted by other Foreign Policy contributors.

But Media Matters, the far-Left activist group founded by David Brock, continues to peddle this twaddle. Its website proclaims: “On The Middle East: It’s Palin vs. Petraeus & New Poll.” They quote statements made by Sarah Palin supportive of Israel and critical of the Obama administration’s attempts to pressure Israel on West Bank settlements and then gleefully proclaim: “But that isn’t how Petraeus sees it.” The item goes on:

Speaking about the Israeli-Palestinian issue before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Petraeus said:

“The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests… Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the [region] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas….”

Actually, that’s not what Petraeus said. Rather, it’s pulled from the 56-page Central Command “Posture Statement” filed by his staff with the Senate Armed Services Committee. A better indication of what is on the general’s mind is what he actually said. If you check the transcript of the hearing (available on Federal News Service) you will find that he doesn’t mention Israel or its settlements in his opening statement, which provides an overview of the most pressing issues that he sees affecting his Area of Responsibility. He talks about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Iran, information operations, and cyberspace — but not Israel. The only time Israel came up was when Senator McCain asked Petraeus for his views. Here is what Petraeus said, in its entirety:

We keep a very close eye on what goes on there [in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip], because of the impact that it has, obviously, on that part of CENTCOM that is the Arab world, if you will. And in fact, we’ve urged at various times that this is a critical component. It’s one reason, again, we invite Senator Mitchell to brief all of the different conferences that we host, and seek to support him in any way that we can when he’s in the Central Command part of the region, just as we support Lieutenant General Dayton, who is supporting the training of the Palestinian security forces from a location that is in the CENTCOM AOR as well.

And in fact, although some staff members have, various times, and I have discussed and — you know, asking for the Palestinian territories or something like that to be added to — we have never — I have never made that a formal recommendation for the Unified Command Plan, and that was not in what I submitted this year. Nor have I sent a memo to the White House on any of this — which some of this was in the press, so I welcome the opportunity to point that out.

Again, clearly, the tensions, the issues and so forth have an enormous effect. They set the strategic context within which we operate in the Central Command area of responsibility. My thrust has generally been, literally, just to say — to encourage that process that can indeed get that recognition that you talked about, and indeed get a sense of progress moving forward in the overall peace process, because of the effect that it has on particularly what I think you would term the moderate governments in our area. And that really is about the extent of our involvement in that, Senator.

So there you have it. General Petraeus obviously doesn’t see the Israeli-Arab “peace process” as a top issue for his command, because he didn’t even raise it in his opening statement. When he was pressed on it, he made a fairly anodyne statement about the need to encourage negotiations to help moderate Arab regimes. That’s it. He didn’t say that all settlements had to be stopped or that Israel is to blame for the lack of progress in negotiations. And he definitely didn’t say that the administration should engineer a crisis in Israeli-U.S. relations in order to end the construction of new housing for Jews in East Jerusalem. In fact, his view, as I mentioned in my earlier post, is that settlements are only “one of many issues, among which also is the unwillingness to recognize Israel and the unwillingness to confront the extremists who threaten Israelis.”

I doubt that Sarah Palin would disagree.

Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” As if to illustrate the point, consider the misleading commentary that continues to emerge, attributing anti-Israeli sentiment to Gen. David Petraeus. I already knocked down one fallacious Web item written by terrorist groupie Mark Perry on Foreign Policy’s web site. The meme has also been refuted by other Foreign Policy contributors.

But Media Matters, the far-Left activist group founded by David Brock, continues to peddle this twaddle. Its website proclaims: “On The Middle East: It’s Palin vs. Petraeus & New Poll.” They quote statements made by Sarah Palin supportive of Israel and critical of the Obama administration’s attempts to pressure Israel on West Bank settlements and then gleefully proclaim: “But that isn’t how Petraeus sees it.” The item goes on:

Speaking about the Israeli-Palestinian issue before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Petraeus said:

“The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests… Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the [region] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas….”

Actually, that’s not what Petraeus said. Rather, it’s pulled from the 56-page Central Command “Posture Statement” filed by his staff with the Senate Armed Services Committee. A better indication of what is on the general’s mind is what he actually said. If you check the transcript of the hearing (available on Federal News Service) you will find that he doesn’t mention Israel or its settlements in his opening statement, which provides an overview of the most pressing issues that he sees affecting his Area of Responsibility. He talks about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Iran, information operations, and cyberspace — but not Israel. The only time Israel came up was when Senator McCain asked Petraeus for his views. Here is what Petraeus said, in its entirety:

We keep a very close eye on what goes on there [in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip], because of the impact that it has, obviously, on that part of CENTCOM that is the Arab world, if you will. And in fact, we’ve urged at various times that this is a critical component. It’s one reason, again, we invite Senator Mitchell to brief all of the different conferences that we host, and seek to support him in any way that we can when he’s in the Central Command part of the region, just as we support Lieutenant General Dayton, who is supporting the training of the Palestinian security forces from a location that is in the CENTCOM AOR as well.

And in fact, although some staff members have, various times, and I have discussed and — you know, asking for the Palestinian territories or something like that to be added to — we have never — I have never made that a formal recommendation for the Unified Command Plan, and that was not in what I submitted this year. Nor have I sent a memo to the White House on any of this — which some of this was in the press, so I welcome the opportunity to point that out.

Again, clearly, the tensions, the issues and so forth have an enormous effect. They set the strategic context within which we operate in the Central Command area of responsibility. My thrust has generally been, literally, just to say — to encourage that process that can indeed get that recognition that you talked about, and indeed get a sense of progress moving forward in the overall peace process, because of the effect that it has on particularly what I think you would term the moderate governments in our area. And that really is about the extent of our involvement in that, Senator.

So there you have it. General Petraeus obviously doesn’t see the Israeli-Arab “peace process” as a top issue for his command, because he didn’t even raise it in his opening statement. When he was pressed on it, he made a fairly anodyne statement about the need to encourage negotiations to help moderate Arab regimes. That’s it. He didn’t say that all settlements had to be stopped or that Israel is to blame for the lack of progress in negotiations. And he definitely didn’t say that the administration should engineer a crisis in Israeli-U.S. relations in order to end the construction of new housing for Jews in East Jerusalem. In fact, his view, as I mentioned in my earlier post, is that settlements are only “one of many issues, among which also is the unwillingness to recognize Israel and the unwillingness to confront the extremists who threaten Israelis.”

I doubt that Sarah Palin would disagree.

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Proper Promotions

An unusual amount of interest has attended the army’s latest promotion list to brigadier general because of a perception that, up until recently, the army was still operating a peacetime personnel system even in wartime. There seemed to be little correlation between battlefield success in Iraq or Afghanistan and the promotion process. Some outstanding officers, such as Colonels H.R. McMaster and Peter Mansoor, had been passed over by previous boards even though they were integral to the greater success we’ve been having in Iraq. (Mansoor got tired of the whole process and decided to accept a tenured professor’s job teaching military history at Ohio State–a great consolation prize.)

But now, reports the Washington Post, McMaster and some other battle-tested leaders–including Colonel Sean McFarland, who engineered the amazing turnaround in Ramadi, and Colonel Ken Tovo, who has distinguished himself over multiple tours as a Special Forces officer in Iraq–will get overdue promotions to brigadier general. These promotions–if in fact they actually occur; the Army has said nothing publicly yet–will be the result of an unusual decision by the Army chief of staff George Casey and Army Secretary Peter Geren to ask David Petraeus to take a brief break from his duties in Iraq to chair the promotion board. Other officers with considerable Iraq experience on the board included Lieutenant General Stanley A. McChrystal, who has headed the Joint Special Operations Command (home of our Tier 1 commandos), and Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who served two tours in Iraq.

The (rumored) decisions of this promotion board mean that some of the army’s great innovators in counterinsurgency are being put into influential positions where they will be able to shape the future course of the armed forces. That’s good news not only for these officers and their families, but also for everyone who worries about whether our military can adapt to the challenges ahead.

An unusual amount of interest has attended the army’s latest promotion list to brigadier general because of a perception that, up until recently, the army was still operating a peacetime personnel system even in wartime. There seemed to be little correlation between battlefield success in Iraq or Afghanistan and the promotion process. Some outstanding officers, such as Colonels H.R. McMaster and Peter Mansoor, had been passed over by previous boards even though they were integral to the greater success we’ve been having in Iraq. (Mansoor got tired of the whole process and decided to accept a tenured professor’s job teaching military history at Ohio State–a great consolation prize.)

But now, reports the Washington Post, McMaster and some other battle-tested leaders–including Colonel Sean McFarland, who engineered the amazing turnaround in Ramadi, and Colonel Ken Tovo, who has distinguished himself over multiple tours as a Special Forces officer in Iraq–will get overdue promotions to brigadier general. These promotions–if in fact they actually occur; the Army has said nothing publicly yet–will be the result of an unusual decision by the Army chief of staff George Casey and Army Secretary Peter Geren to ask David Petraeus to take a brief break from his duties in Iraq to chair the promotion board. Other officers with considerable Iraq experience on the board included Lieutenant General Stanley A. McChrystal, who has headed the Joint Special Operations Command (home of our Tier 1 commandos), and Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who served two tours in Iraq.

The (rumored) decisions of this promotion board mean that some of the army’s great innovators in counterinsurgency are being put into influential positions where they will be able to shape the future course of the armed forces. That’s good news not only for these officers and their families, but also for everyone who worries about whether our military can adapt to the challenges ahead.

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Odierno’s Departure

Nadia Schadlow has an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal pointing out why it would be folly to move General Petraeus out of Iraq prematurely. This is a point that others, including me, have previously made, but Nadia adds an important historical dimension by noting all of the major generals, from George Washington to Creighton Abrams, who have spent years overseas directing American war efforts. By those standards, Petraeus’s deployment abroad, while lengthy and strenuous (counting a tour in the Balkans, since 2001 he has spent 50 months, or more than four years, overseas), is not out of the norm.

What is abnormal, as Schadlow shows, is the American military’s current penchant for rotating almost everyone in the war zone after six, twelve, or, at most, eighteen months. (The State Department and CIA operate under similar policies.) That rotation policy is understandable when it comes to grunts who have to deal with combat and all its stresses. It makes less sense for headquarters staffers who serve in relative comfort and safety. (I stress relative, since life in Iraq or Afghanistan will always be a lot less safe and less comfortable than being stateside.) Turning over personnel constantly can lead to a loss of invaluable experience. Newcomers can take months to get up to speed, and in the meantime momentum may be lost.

That is a real concern because right now the entire headquarters staff of Multi-National Corps-Iraq is leaving Iraq along with its commander, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno. They are being replaced by an entirely new group of staff officers led by Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin. While Austin arrives to positive publicity, he has not wracked up the kind of invaluable experience that Odierno has during the past year while working with General Petraeus to direct the successful surge. Odierno arrived to some negative notices (in particular from Tom Ricks, author of Fiasco) but he is leaving to almost universal acclaim. The changeover will probably go smoothly, but there is a real risk of friction and loss of momentum.

The Defense Department should rethink its rotation policies. After Vietnam, the military rebelled against the policy of replacing individuals rather than entire units. The individual-rotation policy meant that often combat formations were made up of strangers—a deadly handicap in the heat of battle when esprit de corps is all-important. But while the unit rotation policy and 12- to 18-month tours make sense for combat units, they make less sense for staff officers, who could be deployed for longer periods and whose departures could be staggered to avoid a vast loss of experience such as the one we are now facing in Iraq.

Already General Petraeus and his predecessor, General George Casey, have served for longer than a year at a time, and so have a few of their key subordinates. It would make sense to extend that policy a bit more broadly.

Nadia Schadlow has an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal pointing out why it would be folly to move General Petraeus out of Iraq prematurely. This is a point that others, including me, have previously made, but Nadia adds an important historical dimension by noting all of the major generals, from George Washington to Creighton Abrams, who have spent years overseas directing American war efforts. By those standards, Petraeus’s deployment abroad, while lengthy and strenuous (counting a tour in the Balkans, since 2001 he has spent 50 months, or more than four years, overseas), is not out of the norm.

What is abnormal, as Schadlow shows, is the American military’s current penchant for rotating almost everyone in the war zone after six, twelve, or, at most, eighteen months. (The State Department and CIA operate under similar policies.) That rotation policy is understandable when it comes to grunts who have to deal with combat and all its stresses. It makes less sense for headquarters staffers who serve in relative comfort and safety. (I stress relative, since life in Iraq or Afghanistan will always be a lot less safe and less comfortable than being stateside.) Turning over personnel constantly can lead to a loss of invaluable experience. Newcomers can take months to get up to speed, and in the meantime momentum may be lost.

That is a real concern because right now the entire headquarters staff of Multi-National Corps-Iraq is leaving Iraq along with its commander, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno. They are being replaced by an entirely new group of staff officers led by Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin. While Austin arrives to positive publicity, he has not wracked up the kind of invaluable experience that Odierno has during the past year while working with General Petraeus to direct the successful surge. Odierno arrived to some negative notices (in particular from Tom Ricks, author of Fiasco) but he is leaving to almost universal acclaim. The changeover will probably go smoothly, but there is a real risk of friction and loss of momentum.

The Defense Department should rethink its rotation policies. After Vietnam, the military rebelled against the policy of replacing individuals rather than entire units. The individual-rotation policy meant that often combat formations were made up of strangers—a deadly handicap in the heat of battle when esprit de corps is all-important. But while the unit rotation policy and 12- to 18-month tours make sense for combat units, they make less sense for staff officers, who could be deployed for longer periods and whose departures could be staggered to avoid a vast loss of experience such as the one we are now facing in Iraq.

Already General Petraeus and his predecessor, General George Casey, have served for longer than a year at a time, and so have a few of their key subordinates. It would make sense to extend that policy a bit more broadly.

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Petraeus to NATO? A Bad Idea.

Would it have made sense to replace Eisenhower in early 1945 or Grant in early 1865? Only someone who thinks the answer to those questions is “yes” would be in favor of replacing David Petraeus as the senior commander in Iraq anytime soon. Yet, according to this New York Times article, there is serious consideration being given to sending him to NATO as Supreme Allied Commander later this year

I just got back from eleven days in Iraq and was greatly impressed by the turnaround wrought by U.S. forces in the past year. Streets that were once war zones are seeing a semblance of normality returning, yet much work remains to be done. The accomplishments of the past year are due of course to much hard work by American and Iraqi forces, but ordinary troops have been fighting hard for years without making much progress because they lacked good direction at the top.

In the past year we have finally found a winning team to direct the war effort: Petraeus as head of Multi-National Forces-Iraq, responsible for setting the strategic direction, and Lieutenant General Ray Odierno as head of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, the headquarters responsible for the day to day fight. Odierno is about to leave Iraq along with his entire headquarters staff. That rotation puts in peril some of the recent progress. Moving out Petraeus not long after Odierno leaves would constitute an unacceptable risk.

That doesn’t mean that Petraeus needs to stay in Iraq forever. He’s already logged plenty of time in the war zone, and it would be understandable if he tires of the crushing burden of command. But it would be a waste of the insights that he has accumulated to send him to NATO, where he would be out of the Iraq fight. It would make more sense to send Petraeus to Central Command, replacing the unimpressive Admiral Fox Fallon, and thereby allowing Petraeus to stay involved in the command loop not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan as well. As for his replacement in Iraq, who better than Odierno, after he has a chance to rest and recharge his batteries stateside? That would keep the winning team together.

Would it have made sense to replace Eisenhower in early 1945 or Grant in early 1865? Only someone who thinks the answer to those questions is “yes” would be in favor of replacing David Petraeus as the senior commander in Iraq anytime soon. Yet, according to this New York Times article, there is serious consideration being given to sending him to NATO as Supreme Allied Commander later this year

I just got back from eleven days in Iraq and was greatly impressed by the turnaround wrought by U.S. forces in the past year. Streets that were once war zones are seeing a semblance of normality returning, yet much work remains to be done. The accomplishments of the past year are due of course to much hard work by American and Iraqi forces, but ordinary troops have been fighting hard for years without making much progress because they lacked good direction at the top.

In the past year we have finally found a winning team to direct the war effort: Petraeus as head of Multi-National Forces-Iraq, responsible for setting the strategic direction, and Lieutenant General Ray Odierno as head of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, the headquarters responsible for the day to day fight. Odierno is about to leave Iraq along with his entire headquarters staff. That rotation puts in peril some of the recent progress. Moving out Petraeus not long after Odierno leaves would constitute an unacceptable risk.

That doesn’t mean that Petraeus needs to stay in Iraq forever. He’s already logged plenty of time in the war zone, and it would be understandable if he tires of the crushing burden of command. But it would be a waste of the insights that he has accumulated to send him to NATO, where he would be out of the Iraq fight. It would make more sense to send Petraeus to Central Command, replacing the unimpressive Admiral Fox Fallon, and thereby allowing Petraeus to stay involved in the command loop not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan as well. As for his replacement in Iraq, who better than Odierno, after he has a chance to rest and recharge his batteries stateside? That would keep the winning team together.

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Sanchez’s Chutzpah

It seems like only yesterday that Democrats were frothing at the mouth about the “climate of abuse” that made possible the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal that occurred while Lieutenant General Ricardo “Rick” Sanchez was the senior U.S. military commander in Iraq. The damage to Sanchez’s reputation was so severe, not only from Abu Ghraib but also from a general perception that he mismanaged the war effort in the crucial first year after the fall of Saddam Hussein, that any hope of promotion was blocked.

The New York Times, the leading voice of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, poured withering scorn on the very idea of giving Sanchez a four-star job, writing in one editorial that Sanchez “set aside American notions of decency and the Geneva Conventions” and that he was only “exonerated” on charges of serious misconduct because the investigations were “meant to keep the heat off top generals and civilian policy makers.”

That was then, this is now. On Saturday the Democratic Party chose guess who to deliver their weekly radio address. You got it: the general who has, wrongly or rightly, become the poster child for American military abuse.

The address was, as you might expect, a case study in chutzpah. Sanchez began: “I saw firsthand the consequences of the Administration’s failure to devise a strategy for victory in Iraq that employed, in a coordinated manner, the political, economic, diplomatic, and military power of the United States.” The criticism is fair enough, but there is a disturbing lack of a mea culpa given that Sanchez, as the senior general on the ground, shared fully in the failures of Bush and Rumsfeld and other higher-ups.

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It seems like only yesterday that Democrats were frothing at the mouth about the “climate of abuse” that made possible the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal that occurred while Lieutenant General Ricardo “Rick” Sanchez was the senior U.S. military commander in Iraq. The damage to Sanchez’s reputation was so severe, not only from Abu Ghraib but also from a general perception that he mismanaged the war effort in the crucial first year after the fall of Saddam Hussein, that any hope of promotion was blocked.

The New York Times, the leading voice of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, poured withering scorn on the very idea of giving Sanchez a four-star job, writing in one editorial that Sanchez “set aside American notions of decency and the Geneva Conventions” and that he was only “exonerated” on charges of serious misconduct because the investigations were “meant to keep the heat off top generals and civilian policy makers.”

That was then, this is now. On Saturday the Democratic Party chose guess who to deliver their weekly radio address. You got it: the general who has, wrongly or rightly, become the poster child for American military abuse.

The address was, as you might expect, a case study in chutzpah. Sanchez began: “I saw firsthand the consequences of the Administration’s failure to devise a strategy for victory in Iraq that employed, in a coordinated manner, the political, economic, diplomatic, and military power of the United States.” The criticism is fair enough, but there is a disturbing lack of a mea culpa given that Sanchez, as the senior general on the ground, shared fully in the failures of Bush and Rumsfeld and other higher-ups.

But what makes this far more disturbing than the usual attempt to deflect blame is that Sanchez didn’t acknowledge that anything has changed. “That failure continues today,” he went on. He makes no attempt to recognize the stunning successes scored by U.S. troops in recent months under the leadership of General David Petraeus and Lieutenant General Ray Odierno. Instead, Sanchez repeats the same old bromides about how “the keys to securing the future of Iraq” aren’t military action but “aggressive regional diplomacy, political reconciliation, and economic hope”—the very same thinking that underlies the failed strategy of the past four years, including the year that Sanchez presided over U.S. operations.

As if the surge had never taken place, Sanchez urges the U.S. to “move rapidly to minimize our force presence” and endorses legislation passed by House Democrats that would set a goal of withdrawing all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by December 15, 2008.

It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry at these pronouncements, considering their source. At the Warlord Loop, an online discussion forum of national security affairs to which I belong, it has been suggested that Sanchez’s address would be akin to having Custer opine on Indian relations or having General Lloyd Fredendall, the commander of U.S. forces when they were mauled at Kasserine Pass in 1943, critique his successor—George S. Patton.

The fact that the Democrats have now turned General Sanchez into their spokesman on Iraq suggests the sheer bankruptcy of their thinking on this pressing issue.

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Command Performance

The recent spate of appointments of admirals to top “joint” jobs within the U.S. armed forces is, so to speak, making waves within the military. The Army feels especially miffed that, at a time when it is carrying the major burden of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its representation in the most senior jobs is as low as it’s ever been.

As an Associated Press article notes, “Of the U.S. military’s nine combat commands, only two are run by Army generals, and that number will be cut in half when Bryan Brown retires next month as the senior officer at U.S. Special Operations Command.”

General Brown, a veteran of Army Special Operations Forces, is being replaced by Admiral Eric Olson, a veteran SEAL. At the same time, Admiral Mike Mullen, the current Chief of Naval Operations (i.e., the Navy chief of staff), has been nominated to replace Marine General Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; his deputy will be Marine General James Cartwright.

In other personnel shifts, Admiral James Stavridis became head of Southern Command last fall, while more recently Admiral Timothy Keating has become head of Pacific Command. The latter is a traditional Navy billet. But what really rankles the Army is that Keating’s predecessor, Admiral William Fallon, has taken over Central Command (covering the Middle East, East Africa, and Central Asia), whose leadership traditionally has rotated between the Army and Marine Corps. Of the nine unified combatant commands, the Army will be left with just one—European Command, where General Bantz Craddock is the boss.

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The recent spate of appointments of admirals to top “joint” jobs within the U.S. armed forces is, so to speak, making waves within the military. The Army feels especially miffed that, at a time when it is carrying the major burden of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its representation in the most senior jobs is as low as it’s ever been.

As an Associated Press article notes, “Of the U.S. military’s nine combat commands, only two are run by Army generals, and that number will be cut in half when Bryan Brown retires next month as the senior officer at U.S. Special Operations Command.”

General Brown, a veteran of Army Special Operations Forces, is being replaced by Admiral Eric Olson, a veteran SEAL. At the same time, Admiral Mike Mullen, the current Chief of Naval Operations (i.e., the Navy chief of staff), has been nominated to replace Marine General Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; his deputy will be Marine General James Cartwright.

In other personnel shifts, Admiral James Stavridis became head of Southern Command last fall, while more recently Admiral Timothy Keating has become head of Pacific Command. The latter is a traditional Navy billet. But what really rankles the Army is that Keating’s predecessor, Admiral William Fallon, has taken over Central Command (covering the Middle East, East Africa, and Central Asia), whose leadership traditionally has rotated between the Army and Marine Corps. Of the nine unified combatant commands, the Army will be left with just one—European Command, where General Bantz Craddock is the boss.

Suspicious souls within the Army are starting to wonder if there is a conspiracy against the men and women in green, perhaps a holdover from the tenure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld was intensely suspicious of the Army for not being in synch with his high-tech (and highly misguided) plans to “transform” the armed forces. Or perhaps, some self-flagellating Army officers speculate, this is a sign that their service isn’t doing a good job of producing competent senior leaders.

Both explanations are plausible. But it’s also possible that there may be less here than meets the eye.

Consider that the Army at the moment holds the two most important combat commands in the entire U.S. armed forces. General David Petraeus is the senior commander in Iraq, while General Dan McNeill is the senior commander in Afghanistan. Neither position is as publicly prestigious as that of combatant commander. But those jobs are of much greater actual significance at the moment than running, say, Southern Command (with responsibility for Latin America). They are probably even more significant than running Central Command—which may be why Defense Secretary Robert Gates felt free to appoint an admiral to that position, knowing that our land wars would still be run by army four-stars.

These trends also tend to go in cycles. Not long ago the Army was grousing not about Navy admirals but about Marine Corps generals, said to be “overrepresented” in senior Army ranks. Marines, for their part, were upset that two Army generals—Tommy Franks and John Abizaid—had taken successive charge of Centcom. Many wondered why a leatherneck (such as the eminently qualified Lieutenant General Jim Mattis) wasn’t picked.

My sense—and it’s only a sense, since I have no inside information—is that the top jobs are filled nowadays based more on personal qualifications than on service politics. It’s who you know and what your reputation is that count, rather than which uniform you wear. And since the top jobs are so political, it’s often the most astute political infighter, rather than the most brilliant and inspired leader, who gets the appointment.

But the recent appointments do seem to reflect a decline in intra-service parochialism—precisely what the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act was supposed to accomplish. So the latest appointments should not occasion too much grinding of teeth, even in the Army. After all, before long the other services may well be complaining about too many green-suiters at the top.

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Not A Dead End

I’ve been traveling a lot so have only now gotten around to reading “Dead End: Counterinsurgency Warfare as Military Malpractice,” Edward Luttwak’s article in the February issue of Harper’s. As usual with Luttwak, the article is thought-provoking and stylishly written. It’s also almost entirely wrong.

The blog of the Small Wars Journal has already posted two trenchant critiques of the article, by two of the leading counterinsurgency experts in the world: Dave Kilcullen, a former lieutenant colonel in the Australian army now working as an adviser to General David Petraeus in Baghdad, and Frank Hoffman, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

I won’t repeat most of what they have to say, except to note that Kilcullen scores a devastating hit when he observes that Luttwak is critiquing an early draft of FM 3-24, the Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual. This draft was changed substantially before its publication in December 2006—a full three months before Luttwak’s article appeared. It is also odd to read in Luttwak’s article that the manual’s principal drafters, Army General David Petraeus and Marine Lieutenant General James Mattis, are “each now responsible for the training and doctrine policy of his own service.” In fact, Mattis left that job last year to take over the First Marine Expeditionary Force; Petraeus left earlier this year to take over the U.S. command in Iraq. The editors of Harper’s seem to have sat on Luttwak’s piece for months without bothering to update it.

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I’ve been traveling a lot so have only now gotten around to reading “Dead End: Counterinsurgency Warfare as Military Malpractice,” Edward Luttwak’s article in the February issue of Harper’s. As usual with Luttwak, the article is thought-provoking and stylishly written. It’s also almost entirely wrong.

The blog of the Small Wars Journal has already posted two trenchant critiques of the article, by two of the leading counterinsurgency experts in the world: Dave Kilcullen, a former lieutenant colonel in the Australian army now working as an adviser to General David Petraeus in Baghdad, and Frank Hoffman, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

I won’t repeat most of what they have to say, except to note that Kilcullen scores a devastating hit when he observes that Luttwak is critiquing an early draft of FM 3-24, the Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual. This draft was changed substantially before its publication in December 2006—a full three months before Luttwak’s article appeared. It is also odd to read in Luttwak’s article that the manual’s principal drafters, Army General David Petraeus and Marine Lieutenant General James Mattis, are “each now responsible for the training and doctrine policy of his own service.” In fact, Mattis left that job last year to take over the First Marine Expeditionary Force; Petraeus left earlier this year to take over the U.S. command in Iraq. The editors of Harper’s seem to have sat on Luttwak’s piece for months without bothering to update it.

But these slip-ups, while embarrassing, should not prevent consideration of the merits of Luttwak’s article. He makes some excellent points in noting the difficulties that conventional militaries (such as our own) have in grappling with unconventional foes (such as those we confront today in Iraq and Afghanistan). He is especially accurate in bemoaning the lack of training in foreign languages and cultures that afflicts our armed forces, and the severe limitations of our technological intelligence-gathering systems. He is correct, as well, to argue that counterinsurgencies cannot be based entirely on civil-affairs measures designed to woo the population, and that there must be a strong element of coercion to counter the terrorism usually practiced by guerrillas.

But Luttwak wildly overstates his case. He argues that the only way to defeat an insurgency is to “out-terrorize the insurgents.” He cites almost approvingly the practices of the Ottoman Empire, the Roman Empire, and the German armed forces in World War II, all of whom employed “mass executions” and “massacres” to cow occupied populations into compliance. Oddly enough, he never mentions the success of the Arab uprising against the Ottomans during World War I, nor the numerous barbarian uprisings against the Romans, nor the Yugoslavian uprising against the Germans—all of which show that even utter ruthlessness does not necessarily win the day against determined guerrillas.

Ruthlessness of the kind Luttwak advocates may, in fact, backfire by provoking more resistance than it suppresses. That was certainly the lesson learned by the Red Army in Afghanistan, where, notwithstanding any number of “massacres,” it was defeated by determined indigenous forces. (This is another war that Luttwak does not mention.)

Nor does Luttwak mention the many counterinsurgencies that have been waged successfully along the lines advocated by the new field manual. The list is a long one, including the British prosecution of the first Boer war and the U.S. success in the Philippine uprising, among others.

Luttwak would be on solider ground if he were to write that modern Western democracies have a hard time waging counterinsurgency warfare because of their aversion to casualties, and to the bad press generated by ruthless practices. He would be right to say that autocracies have an easier time of it: witness the brutal way Egypt and Algeria put down Islamist uprisings in the 1990’s. He would certainly be right to say that indigenous governments have more success in putting down rebellions than do foreign occupiers, though foreign governments can do a lot to help local allies prevail. But instead of making these distinctions, he prefers to conclude with melodramatic overstatement, claiming that the prescriptions in FM 3-24 “are in the end of little or no use and amount to a kind of malpractice.”

And yet he recognizes that simply “out-terrorizing” the insurgents is not a policy the U.S. could pursue, even if it were as effective as he says (which it isn’t). So what does he think the U.S. should do? Opt out of irregular warfare entirely? Would that we could! But in order for us to do so, subnational groups like al Qaeda and nation-states like Iran will have to stop their own use of unconventional tactics. And Luttwak nowhere proposes a plan for bringing about this desirable state of affairs.

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Troubles in Tarmiyah

Greg Jaffe, the Wall Street Journal’s ace defense correspondent, had another one of his riveting articles on the front page Thursday: “At Lonely Iraq Outpost, GI’s Stay as Hope Fades.” It tells the story of a small group of soldiers manning a lonely outpost in the town of Tarmiyah in Salahuddin province about 30 miles north of Baghdad.

This town of 30,000 had been relatively stable until last year. But in summer 2006, an Iraqi army battalion stationed there was pulled away to police Baghdad, and the Shiite campaign of ethnic cleansing in the capital pushed some 6,000 to 10,000 angry Sunnis northward. Tarmiyah became an al-Qaeda stronghold, where even the local police chief feared to walk the streets.

The 50 U.S. soldiers stationed there feel under siege, and for good reason. Writes Jaffe: “In mid-February a massive truck bomb sheared off the front of the soldiers’ base in Tarmiyah, sending concrete and glass flying through the air like daggers. The soldiers at the small outpost spent the next four hours fighting for their lives against a force of 70 to 80 insurgents.”

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Greg Jaffe, the Wall Street Journal’s ace defense correspondent, had another one of his riveting articles on the front page Thursday: “At Lonely Iraq Outpost, GI’s Stay as Hope Fades.” It tells the story of a small group of soldiers manning a lonely outpost in the town of Tarmiyah in Salahuddin province about 30 miles north of Baghdad.

This town of 30,000 had been relatively stable until last year. But in summer 2006, an Iraqi army battalion stationed there was pulled away to police Baghdad, and the Shiite campaign of ethnic cleansing in the capital pushed some 6,000 to 10,000 angry Sunnis northward. Tarmiyah became an al-Qaeda stronghold, where even the local police chief feared to walk the streets.

The 50 U.S. soldiers stationed there feel under siege, and for good reason. Writes Jaffe: “In mid-February a massive truck bomb sheared off the front of the soldiers’ base in Tarmiyah, sending concrete and glass flying through the air like daggers. The soldiers at the small outpost spent the next four hours fighting for their lives against a force of 70 to 80 insurgents.”

The story of the attack is as harrowing as its aftermath is inspiring. Most of the soldiers wounded in the attack—including a sergeant whose “back and neck were peppered with glass” and a lieutenant who has become “virtually deaf in one and ear and seems to have limited hearing in the other one”—volunteered to return to Tarmiyah. One sergeant explained his decision as follows: “I have a strong bond with this platoon. I don’t want to leave.” That’s typical of soldiers in this or any other war—they fight for their buddies more than for any lofty ideals.

Yet, while the story provides plenty of cause to celebrate the soldiers’ valor and dedication, it might, on the surface, also provide more fodder for those who question what good our troops are doing in Iraq. Many of the soldiers quoted in the article wonder, understandably, if they’re having any impact. It’s easy to imagine that many readers of Jaffe’s article would also wonder what the point of the Baghdad security plan is if it simply pushes insurgents a few miles away. The experience of Tarmiyah would seem to support Senator Joe Biden’s balloon metaphor: “Essentially, when we squeeze the water balloon in one place, it bulges somewhere else.”

Actually, the right metaphor here is not the bulging balloon but the spreading oil spot. That’s the classic counter-insurgency strategy, invented by French generals in the 19th century, which holds that it is best to expand one’s sphere of control slowly rather than trying to pacify an entire country at once. Concentrate your forces at first in a few areas, clear them out; once they are secure, move on to the surrounding areas. That’s not a strategy we’ve followed in Iraq until now. Instead of trying to achieve critical mass in a few places, we’ve spread an inadequate number of troops thinly across many provinces, making it hard to achieve much stability anywhere.

The new Baghdad security plan represents a change of strategy. Under it, we will put more troops into the capital in the hope of pacifying it. Some of the newly deployed troops are being diverted to the areas around the capital—the “Baghdad belt”—but not in the hope of pacifying them. They are on an “economy of force” mission to disrupt insurgent strongholds and make it more difficult to carry out spectacular terrorist attacks in Baghdad.

That’s what the troops in Tarmiyah are up to. It can be frustrating to the soldiers involved, but it’s the right strategy, given our limited resources. If General David Petraeus and Lieutenant General Ray Odierno send too many reinforcements to places like Tarmiyah, we will have no hope of achieving critical mass where it counts—Baghdad. If we ever succeed in calming the capital, then we can worry about the hinterlands.

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