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'The Insurgents': Petraeus And A New Kind Of War

Gen. David Petraeus is the subject of <em>The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War</em>, a new book by Fred Kaplan.
Shah Marai
AFP/Getty Images
Gen. David Petraeus is the subject of The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, a new book by Fred Kaplan.

In a new book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, journalist and author Fred Kaplan tackles the career of David H. Petraeus and follows the four-star general from Bosnia to his commands in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Central to the story are ideas of counterinsurgency. Kaplan says that while counterinsurgency is not a new kind of warfare, it's a kind of war that Americans do not like to fight.

"We tend to call it irregular warfare even though this kind of warfare is the most common," Kaplan tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. Kaplan, who writes the War Stories column for Slate, explains that Petraeus and a number of his West Point peers were interested in the writings of counterinsurgency theorists who believed that "insurgencies grow out of something. They don't grow out of a vacuum. ... They respond to people's needs in a country where the government is not satisfying those needs. And so, what you have to do is not merely capture and kill the insurgents, but change the social conditions. ... It was a different kind of warfare that required not just fighting, but what we now call 'nation building' [and] that required cultural sensitivity to the people around them, required living among the people, protecting the population, earning their trust so that they, in turn, will tell us who the bad guys are."

Petraeus implemented these theories with some success in Iraq, but less so in Afghanistan, where he lacked the familiarity with the country he had had in Iraq.

"The problem was, by his own admission, he knew nothing about Afghanistan," says Kaplan. "He'd been in Iraq three times. He knew that place well. He comes in and what's in his mind is Iraq. ... I was told that in a meeting with President Karzai once, Karzai laid out a problem and [Petraeus] said, 'Well, you know, in Baghdad we did it like this ...' to the president of Afghanistan. And the aide who was with Petraeus in the room — who had been both in Afghanistan and Iraq — when they were walking out he said, 'You know, it might be an interesting intellectual experiment for you to not even think about Iraq,' and Petraeus said, 'I'm working on it.' "

Interview Highlights

On bringing the mentality of heavy firepower into a conflict of insurgency

"You anger a lot of people. You kill the wrong guy, all of his brothers and cousins not just distrust you, but they join the insurgency. You flame the insurgency. You swell the size of the insurgency. So it's not just the wrong approach to the conflict; it is counterproductive. It causes more problems than it solves."

On how Petraeus put counterinsurgency warfare theories into effect in Mosul, Iraq

"He vetted candidates for an election; he held the election; he opened up the economy; he brought in fuel trucks from Turkey; he opened up the university; he opened up the border to Syria in northern Iraq all on his own initiative. ... There were no orders. So it worked for about a year and he was rotated out and a brigade half the size of his division came in with commanders who had spent the previous three months bashing down doors and killing and arresting people in Tikrit, and that's what they did in Mosul and the operation fell apart for another year or two."

Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column in <em>Slate.</em> A former reporter for the <em>Boston Globe,</em> he was a co-recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in 1983.
Robin Resch / Courtesy Simon & Schuster
Courtesy Simon & Schuster
Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column in Slate. A former reporter for the Boston Globe, he was a co-recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in 1983.

On Petraeus' mentality going into Afghanistan

"His whole MO and his entire life was that he had overcome the odds. That he had defied expectations. You know, everybody knows the story that at one time when he was an assistant division commander he had been shot in the chest by a fellow solider whose gun accidentally went off in a live-fire exercise. He recovered much more quickly than the doctors said. He jumped out of a plane once, the parachute ripped, he free-fell for 60 feet, broke his pelvis. He recovered. His surge worked in Iraq ... to a degree that nobody had anticipated, and so he went into Afghanistan leery, but thinking that, 'Well, maybe I can pull this off.' "

On why Petraeus went to the CIA from the Army

"He always wanted to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but anybody who knows the military bureaucracy knows that that can be an exceedingly powerful position. ... Petraeus was distrusted by many members of the Obama White House. They thought that he boxed President Obama in on troop options ... in the discussions about Afghanistan. The perception was, this guy was too clever; he was too powerful. You didn't want a powerful general to be given such a powerful position. And so, in December in 2010, Bob Gates comes to Afghanistan, tells Petraeus, 'You're not going to get the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, what would you like [instead]?' and [Petraeus] came up with the idea of CIA director."

On the exposure of Petraeus' extramarital affair

"I've never met an unassuming four-star general and I think if such a creature exists he's probably not a very good general. But Petraeus had gotten used to creating his own rules, going his own way and ... getting away with it and I think that sometimes, if you do that too many times, the boundaries of your ethos begin to shift and begin to distort and I think ... that's eventually what happened there."

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