Over the course of a few years in the first decade of the 21st century, General David Petraeus and a small group of fellow soldier-scholars revolutionized one of the world's largest, oldest, and most hidebound institutions—the U.S. Army.
They did it through cunning and manipulation worthy of Machiavelli.
It also helped that the Army was undergoing its deepest crisis in a generation, caught in the Iraq war's quagmire. Petraeus & Co. offered a recipe for success; Washington was desperate enough to take a chance.
Petraeus was possessed with a "big idea"—that, in the post-Cold War era, the Army needed to abandon its preparations for tank-on-tank warfare against a large foe like the Soviet Union (which no longer existed) and instead to gear up for small wars against insurgents and terrorists: wars that required not just fighting but "nation-building," wars that the top generals of the day didn't even regard as "wars."
As commander of the Army's intellectual center at Ft. Leavenworth, Petraeus and his inner circle wrote a new field manual on "counterinsurgency," then invited a hundred outsiders—other officers, officials, and opinion-leaders—to discuss and vet the document.
He didn't need these advisers; the book had already been written. But he needed their support—their "buy-in," as Petraeus put it; he needed to co-opt potential agents of resistance.
Early on in the occupation of Iraq, as commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Petraeus stabilized the northern city of Mosul with nation-building techniques—building up the economy, creating local elections. His superiors had not approved these techniques, and they wouldn't have, had Petraeus sought permission.
But Petraeus didn't seek permission; he just did what he thought he had to do.
A few years later, when he was the top commander in Iraq, his first big challenge was quelling Shiite insurgents in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. His predecessor hadn't done this because Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, told him he couldn't. Petraeus simply moved the troops into Sadr City without asking permission.
He just did it.
Similarly, when the "Anbar Awakening" began in western Iraq, a movement in which Sunni insurgents allied with U.S. soldiers to beat back their common enemy of al-Qaeda jihadists, Petraeus stepped up the operation by paying the converted insurgents with money from his commander's discretionary fund—a move of borderline legality—again, without telling anyone in Washington. Recruitment soared. The move on Sadr City and the recruitment of Sunni insurgents turned the tide in the war.
For any of these measures to have worked, though, President George W. Bush had to approve the new counterinsurgency strategy as official U.S. policy—and he had to send more troops to Iraq.
The top generals in the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed both measures. In the months before he took over as top commander, Petraeus coordinated the behind-the-scenes maneuvers to overwhelm their opposition.
He cultivated a back channel of influence to the White House through Bush's top adviser on Iraq, Meghan O'Sullivan, who was coming to agree with Petraeus' views. Petraeus and a few others made sure that an analytical study, favoring a surge, was circulated through the White House, the Pentagon, and headquarters in Iraq at just the right moment. Bush announced the new strategy, the surge, and Petraeus' nomination as new commander all at the end of 2006—around the same time the counterinsurgency field manual was published.
Yet as often happens with revolutions, the new doctrine later hardened into dogma.
Petraeus tried the same techniques—imposed the same "big ideas"—when he took over command in Afghanistan, but they didn't work. It was a different environment, with different politics, different culture. The conditions in Iraq had been ripe for counterinsurgency; the conditions in Afghanistan bore no fruit.
The lesson is that creative ideas and shrewd strategists don't guarantee success. The terrain limits the possibilities; the enemy has a voice.
Fred Kaplan is the author of "THE INSURGENTS: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War." Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column in Slate and has also written many articles on politics and culture in The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York magazine, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and many other publications. A former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Boston Globe, he is also the author of 1959: The Year Everything Changed, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, and The Wizards of Armageddon.