Reflections on Fred Kaplan’s “The End of the Age of Petraeus”

Reading Fred Kaplan’s thoughtful essay, “The End of the Age of Petraeus,” resuscitated long-standing doubts that I had nurtured about the effectiveness of the COIN doctrine.[1]  I am one of those professors Kaplan refers to in his essay, except that I was at the Joint Forces Staff College of the National Defense University, serving as Professor of National Security and Strategy, at a time when the COIN was referred to as “military operations other than war” (MOOTW).  In that capacity, I belonged to the category of “ether heads”–as our students (senior military officers) called us–who believed in questioning, not just the thinking of America’s military leadership, but also their tactics.  When the COIN was being implemented, I was at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS).  My professional responsibilities included participating in a globally-oriented course entitled, Comprehensive Security Responses to Terrorism (CSRT).  As the chief author of that course, I made sure that the topic of counterinsurgency was covered from the American strategic perspective.  As contentious as that perspective was, it was driving the American war in Iraq, and promised to do the same in Afghanistan.  However, unfortunately, I could get only one person from West Point–an active duty colonel who served in Iraq and was also one of the faculty members at that esteemed institution–to attend the course.  He was a strong critic of the COIN operations and, I am sure, was envisioned by the “COINdistas”–as Kaplan refers to them in his essay–as a member of the “red team.”  The distance between Hawaii and the mainland remained one of the chief impediments of having a panel of military types visit us to debate the pros and cons of that highly intricate issue.

However, at the personal level, I was a strong critic of the COIN doctrine, which, I am convinced, remains as an anathema to the American strategic culture, a point that Kaplan should have discussed in his essay.  In this culture, the technologically-driven way of warfighting has been in vogue, especially since the Gulf War of 1991 (Operation Desert Storm), when “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) became the hot topic of discussion and debate for the American strategic community.  Such an approach allows waging a war, as long as American casualties remain minimal.  That is one significant reason why President Barack Obama, despite the fact that he has been personally involved in waging the “drone war” in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere still remains the most admired man in the United States.[2]  It is not likely to “decimate” the senior al-Qaida leadership.  That may be true, but various regional branches of al-Qaida not only still exist, but they do not seem to be running out of new recruits for their zealotry to commit their self-styled “Jihad” against the lone superpower and its “lackeys” in the Persian Gulf region, North Africa, the trans-Sahel region, and the Horn of Africa.

Fred Kaplan is spot-on in stating that COIN is a technique and not a grand strategy.  Perhaps an examination of “the rise and fall of counterinsurgency” ought to start from this very point.  COIN was introduced in Iraq in 2007–as a tactic with heavy baggage from America’s defeat in South Vietnam, thus being viewed with a high degree of suspicion about its alleged success on future battlefields–at a time when the United States’ defeat in that country appeared imminent.  Even though President George W. Bush was not about to admit that his decision to implement the COIN doctrine in Iraq was a measure of last resort, the security situation in Iraq could not have been any worse.  The Iraq Study Group’s dire clarion call–the situation in Iraq was “grave and deteriorating,” and that the United States should consider options including withdrawal of most combatant forces by 2008–was too shrill and clear to be ignored.  The Iraq Study Group even went to the extent of recommending that the Bush administration should consider forming a “‘support group’ to achieve long-term security and political reconciliation.”  However, President Bush was not ready to do that, since it also meant negotiating with two “odious” regimes of Iran and Syria, which the United States has been regularly accusing, with substantial justification, of supporting the Iraqi insurgency.[3]

COIN played a crucial role in creating a temporary environment, thereby enabling the United States to seek an honorable withdrawal.  However, it was never meant to be the beginning of long-term stability in Iraq, which is steadily plunging into sectarian conflict as al-Qaida seems to be getting increasingly visible, if not stronger.

The real explanation for the success of COIN, even in temporarily stabilizing Iraq is the fortuitous coincidence (or even historical accident) of the decision of its Sunni leaders–the Anbar Group–to seek the assistance of the US occupation forces to fight al-Qaida and the deft, almost brilliant move of US military leaders to exploit that opportunity to attain the then ostensibly fleeting objective of “winning” the Iraq war.  So, while the effectiveness of the COIN tactic to temporarily stabilize an occupied country was proven once again, it never meant to stabilize an occupied country on a long-term basis.  To attain that mega-objective, one needs a strategy, which can only be created at the national level.  However, the United States never had such a strategy for Iraq.  Thus, we made the best out of a temporarily stabilized Iraq to declare victory and got out after a decent interval.

The United States’ occupation and long-standing presence in Japan and Germany is ultimate proof that we have been aware that such an occupation has a great potential of stabilizing an occupied country.  However, Iraq was nothing like Japan or Germany.  The building of democratic institutions, the nurturing of a civil society, and the evolution of a democratic political culture take entirely too long for an occupying force to stay in any country–especially Iraq, whose fissiparous features are legendary–in an era when countries no longer fight “good wars” (a la the two World Wars).

Candidate Barack Obama emerged at a time (2008) when the Iraq war had already reached the nadir of unpopularity in the US political arena.  However, since the Bush administration neglected to “finish the fight” in Afghanistan before opening a new military front in Iraq in 2003, a frequently-heard suggestion was that the United States ought to refocus in Afghanistan and finish that fight by eradicating the Taliban and al-Qaida, which, though significantly morphed, was very much active in the Pak-Afghanistan border areas.

Candidate Obama left little doubt in speeches on the campaign trail that he would carry out the task of refocusing on the war in Afghanistan and would even carry it to Pakistan, if necessary.  When he became president, he, like President Bush, not only shared an enthusiasm for continuing a war, albeit a different one, but, like Bush in the case of Iraq, Obama also knew next to nothing about the idiosyncrasies of Indo-Pak, Pakistan-Afghanistan, and India-Afghanistan strategic affairs.

Bush’s stated reliance on regime change was based on the highly exaggerated strategic perspectives of America’s neocons about their country’s imagined capacity to reshape the Muslim world while it rolls over and plays dead during the process.[4]  Obama continued the Bush legacy by heavily relying on an equally flawed perspective of America’s South Asia specialists.  That perspective was not based on a balanced understanding of the legitimate security concerns of all actors of South Asia: India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.  Since the United States had established strategic ties with India since the late 1990s, by the time Obama entered office, all American specialists of South Asia were toeing the strategic fashion du jour of looking at South Asia largely from the strategic perspectives and preferences of India.[5]  This Indo-centric syndrome–a number of Washington DC think-tank type specialists suffer from it–pooh-poohs Pakistan’s security concerns as paranoid and irrational.

As much as President Obama was publicized to have read Gordon Goldstein’s excellent book, Lessons in Disaster, in order to keep his administration from making similar mistakes in its then accelerating pace of war in Afghanistan, he neglected to read up on the history of American “Jihad” against the Soviet Union in the 1980s when Pakistan and the Mujahideen played the most crucial role.[6]  Obama’s immersion in that history would have enabled him to understand the security concerns of Pakistan involving India, and how Pakistan envisaged its own involvement in the American-sponsored war of that era, which was largely to ensure that Afghanistan remained a friendly place for Pakistan’s own continuing strategic competition with India.  Even coinage of the phrase “AfPak” strategy was misguided, since it created a powerful impression in the official community of Pakistan that their country alone was responsible for the continued descent of Afghanistan into chaos.  India, while insisting that it should not be viewed as having any role in negatively affecting the security-related issues of South Asia, remained almost eager to play a major role in stabilizing that region.  Needless to say, Pakistan deeply resented this India-centric syndrome.  Its actions during the Obama administration have proven that it was determined to minimize the chances of the success of the so-called AfPak strategy.  Kaplan’s analysis of the rise and downfall of America’s counterinsurgency remains incomplete without such a discussion.

Historically speaking, the United States knows that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires.”  In order not to become another historical occupier headed toward certain defeat, the Obama administration has remained acutely focused on getting out of Afghanistan in the near future.  However, such focus did not have to revolve around setting a date for troop redeployment alone.  What was needed was the quest for a strategy aimed at ensuring the long-term stability of Afghanistan.  In the making of that strategy, both Pakistan and India must play a crucial role.  However, such a strategy cannot be developed, much less implemented, without arriving at a grand bargain involving the United States, India, and Pakistan.  No South Asian advisor working for President Obama is reported to have proposed such an approach.

Instead, Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s War, informed us awhile back that the Obama administration remained highly divided, even about the futility of a troop surge, an essential aspect of his AfPak strategy, which, in turn, became the operative phrase of the Afghan war.  However, that strategy was treated as a four letter word by Pakistan.  It had no intention of becoming America’s pawn in a policy that did not take into consideration its legitimate security perspectives.  As the new administration was in the process of developing the AfPak strategy in 2004, Obama insiders did not trust those who were not part of the in-group.  Ambassador Richard Holbrook, Special Envoy to South Asia, was kept at a distance by the Obama cronies. Since the Obama administration never really developed a winning strategy for the Afghan war, the President, himself, remained a tactical player in choosing between the COIN tactic of General David Petraeus and the CT+ tactic promoted by Vice President Joe Biden.

Obama’s AfPak strategy heavily relied on troop surge, which was promoted by General Stanley McChrystal.  Since it “worked” in Iraq, Obama felt pressured.  He reluctantly agreed to the surge proposition, but his heart was not in it.  COIN as a warfighting tactic definitely lost its endorsement and support of the Bush era.  However, McChrystal remained a true believer in it, even as it was getting unpopular because of his insistence regarding the “incapacitating rules of engagement.”  But that was not the chief reason for McChrystal’s firing as the war commander.  It was his unstated General McArthur sense of self-grandeur and the gross lack of political sophistication of his entire team–which forgot the sacrosanct principle of the supremacy of civilian leaders in the American decision making hierarchy–that hastened McChrystal’s departure.[7]  Obama’s own lessons in disaster in the Afghan war were well in the making.

It is also possible that the Obama administration concluded that a nation-building strategy (a la Japan and Germany) might be a way to stabilize Afghanistan.  However, in view of the global economic meltdown and its related downturn of the American economy, no such strategy could have been developed for that country.  No one can be critical of the Obama administration for not pursuing that particular strategy.  Public opinion polls have long indicated very low support for it.[8]  However, if the United States fails in Afghanistan, it is largely because of the failure of President Barack Obama to rely on advisors who could provide him a comprehensive understanding of South Asia’s highly intricate and potentially explosive tapestry in which a Pakistan marred by the escalating influence of Jihadists is also fearful of the rising India, whose military modernization has remained on the scale of the PRC.  Pakistan’s never-ending predilection for building its nuclear arsenal should be viewed as the ultimate evidence of its desperate quest for increased security against India’s military modernization, which it is supported and encouraged by the United States.[9]  Consequently, the issue of the Afghan war, the downfall of counterinsurgency, and the continued inability of the Obama administration seem to be leading the lone superpower toward certain defeat.  This issue is likely to receive a thorough scrutiny in the future by someone like Fred Kaplan.


[1] Fred Kaplan, “The End of the Age of Petraeus: the Rise and Fall of Counterinsurgency,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2013,

[2] David E. Sanger, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret War and Surprising Use of American Power (Crown Publishers, 2012); also see “Poll: Obama Clinton Still Most Admired Persons,” USA Today, December 31, 2012.

[3] “Iraq Study Group: Change Iraq strategy now,”,

[4]In the cover letter of his 2002 National Security Strategy, President Bush stated, “…as a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against [such] emerging threats before they are fully formed.”  President George Bush, The National Security Strategy, September 2002,

[5] Goeffrey Pyatt, “US-India Strategic Partnership: A Way Forward,” US Department of State, April 27, 2012,

[6] Gordon M. Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster:  McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, (New York, NY: Henry Holt, 2008); also see Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion
to September 10, 2001
, (New York, NY: Penguin Book, 2004).

[7] Michael Hastings, “The Runaway General,” Rolling Stone, June 22, 2010,

[8] “Nation Building – at Home,” Pew Research Center, January 27, 2009,

[9] Paul Bracken, The Second Nuclear Age Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics (New York, NY: Times Book, 2012); also see George Perkovich, “The Non-Unitary Model and Deterrence Stability in South Asia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 13, 2012,

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Fred Kaplan’s “The End of the Age of Petraeus””

  1. Thanks for the essay. You might be interested in my book, from which the Foreign Affairs article was excerpted (or condensed), “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War” (Simon & Schuster). It deals with, among other things, some of the issues that you say you wished my article had covered.

    1. You are quite welcome!

      I try to read your interesting column, especially since you and I have very common professional interests!

      Warm regards,


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