Petraeus’ Real Failure

by Laleh Khalili | published June 12, 2014 - 12:38pm

On the sidelines of the catastrophic failure of the Iraqi army to hold back the militias of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (or ISIS, as it is usually known), and the fall of Mosul to that group, a debate is taking place in the United States about whether this turn of events is yet another black mark in the massive ledger of retired Gen. David Petraeus. As Anne Barnard of the New York Times tweeted, “Remember the ‘Mosul miracle’ under Petraeus?”

On the other side, Fred Kaplan of Slate published an article (plugging his book on the counterinsurgents) arguing -- accurately enough -- that what Petraeus did in Mosul was a case of nation building, however ephemeral it may have been, and however bloodily it may have ended. Kaplan’s headline places the blame for the fall of Mosul firmly on the shoulders of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, going so far as to declare that the collapse of Mosul is not the fault of the United States.

While anyone who predicted the cataclysm that would engulf Iraq and much of the Middle East in the wake of a US invasion should laugh bitterly at the diagnosis proffered by Kaplan (or his headline writer), Barnard’s quip is also chronologically muddled. Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (headed by Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi) emerged in full force in Iraq after May 2004, by which time Petraeus’ 101st Airborne Division had been gone from Mosul for a few months. In the end, the US general whose name is most closely associated with the progenitor of ISIS is Stanley McChrystal, whose Joint Special Operations Command soldiers -- operating under a series of task force names (TF6-26, TF-88, TF-145 and so on) – tracked down Zarqawi and assassinated him in June 2006.

What is worth noting about Petraeus’ tenure in Mosul is not rehashing the stale debate over whether counterinsurgency is dead (or even whether Petraeus is the one person to blame for the US imperial misadventures). Petraeus’ time in the northern Iraqi city coincided with the disbanding of the Iraqi army by the US proconsul in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer. In Mosul, in order to forestall inevitable public dissatisfaction, the 101st Airborne acted not only as a police force, but also as a border patrol. Petraeus personally distributed vast sums of cash to various local elites in order to secure their acquiescence in US occupation. The purchase of local loyalty and the cultivation of proxies established a pattern that would be repeated nationwide in 2007, when Petraeus was placed in charge of the “surge,” and that was arguably the most significant factor in mobilizing Iraqi paramilitaries (the sahwat or Sons of Iraq) to fight Sunni radical Islamist groups.

The “Mosul miracle,” then, was a blatant case of attempting indirect rule during a conquest, secured through the distribution of imperial largesse and favors. Its relevance to today is only indirect. For where Petraeus failed was in imagining that a conquering military that exploits existing social fissures (ethnic and sectarian) to bolster its own control could also create a national client army ex nihilo. Immediately after leaving Mosul, Petraeus became the commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, which was tasked with training and equipping the new Iraqi army. He saw himself as a veritable T. E. Lawrence, building an allied army from scratch like the British colonel thought he was doing in the Arabian Peninsula during World War I. In a lecture he gave at a center-right Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Petraeus made this notion explicit:

Our tasks were to help the Iraqis, and we underscored the word “help” because we very, very much believed in what Lawrence of Arabia wrote back in the famous 27 articles, in 1917, when he was out helping Arabs, where he discussed about helping them, rather than doing it for them. And we took that to heart right from the very beginning. That particular quote has been in just about every brief that we’ve given to anyone, and it is one again that we subscribe to.

Literally, helping the Iraqis organize their forces, designing the overall force structure.

Literally, making up what are called tables of organization and equipment, who gets what weapons, who gets how many vehicles, what radios, all of the elements that make up a unit and designing that, and that’s a huge amount of work. And there now is in fact a very well-defined force structure for the short term, the mid-term and the long term.

We’ve helped them rebuild hundreds of border forts, hundreds of military bases, small and large; some as large as to hold an entire army division, others as small company or battalion outposts. Police academies, military academies, military training centers, branch schools, all of the facilities, if you will, even the ministry buildings themselves, battalion, brigade, division ground forces headquarters and so on, and all the pieces and parts that link them together.

The sixth chapter of the 2006 FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency Field Manual is dedicated to “Developing Host Nation Security Forces.” The chapter is less sanguine about the difficulties of creating a client army than the relentlessly positive Petraeus allowed in his self-promotion. This manual of imperial policing in the twenty-first century points to where problems may arise:

The behavior of HN [host nation] security force personnel is often a primary cause of public dissatisfaction. Corrupting influences of power must be guarded against. Cultural and ethnic differences within a population may lead to significant discrimination within the security forces and by security forces against minority groups. In more ideological struggles, discrimination may be against members of other political parties, whether in a minority cultural group or not. Security forces that abuse civilians do not win the populace’s trust and confidence; they may even be a cause of the insurgency. A comprehensive security force development program identifies and addresses biases as well as improper or corrupt practices.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for US forces is accepting that the host nation can ensure security, using practices that differ from US practices. Commanders must recognize and continuously address that this “the American way is best” bias is unhelpful. While relationships among US police, customs and military organizations work for the United States, those relationships may not exist in other nations that have developed differently.

Though it draws on threadbare understandings of how culture works in warfare, the manual nevertheless acknowledges the fundamental paradox of using proxies to fight wars the imperial patron has started: that politics will trump technocratic solutions; that clients often have their own interests and will not necessarily act in the way their imperial patron may desire; that once ethnic and sectarian divisions are mobilized by the patron and cultivated (in ID cards, biometric data collection, detention profiling and counterinsurgency wall building) it is nearly impossible to relegate these fissures to oblivion while building a national army.

The latest version of FM 3.24, now renamed Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, released without fanfare a few weeks ago, retains the trite references to culture, but T. E. Lawrence -- quoted in the earlier version -- is nowhere to be found. Here, working with and through the “host nation” receives two chapters, not only one. The new field manual is much more hard-headed and frank about what works. Its introduction to “indirect methods” of countering insurgencies is a glorious exemplar of military-speak:

An indirect approach seeks to support existing governments, security forces and groups through increasing capacity to counter an insurgency and enabling existing capabilities. This approach indirectly counters an insurgency by working through host-nation institutions or with groups in the society. The United States can use nation assistance and security cooperation to aid a host nation in building its institutions.

Beyond nation assistance and security cooperation, there are several methods that are indirect methods for countering an insurgency. Among these are generational engagement, negotiation and diplomacy, and identify, separate, isolate, influence and reintegrate. Beyond these methods, there are several indirect enablers that are important in any counterinsurgency. This includes integrated monetary shaping operations.

In the end, perhaps Petraeus’s ideas remain most influential here -- though the failure is no less profound. Never mind the dubious fighting prowess of the Iraqi security forces trained by the US. One wonders about the extent to which these forces have the capacity to deploy “integrated monetary shaping operations” when ISIS is reported to have looted banks holding hundreds of millions of dollars.

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