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12:05 pm
Tue January 29, 2013

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

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."

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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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. For 10 years now, Americans have become accustomed to seeing American soldiers fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our guest Fred Kaplan says that while America fought those wars, an internal conflict raged within the military about how to fight them.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, top commanders knew how to wage a conventional land war with devastating effectiveness. But they discarded long-studied principles of counterinsurgency: How to deal with a conflict in which the enemy lives and fights among the population, when the battle is more for the allegiance of civilians than for territory.

In his new book, Kaplan describes the efforts of civilian strategists and younger officers to turn U.S. military thinking around and pursue a more nuanced approach to the fighting in Iraq. Kaplan says the officers succeeded in selling their strategy, and while it helped in Iraq, it failed in Afghanistan. Fred Kaplan is a veteran national security journalist. He writes the War Stories column for Slate and has written three previous books. His latest is "The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War."

Well, Fred Kaplan, welcome back to FRESH AIR. After the debacle of the Vietnam War, you might think that strategists in the American military would decide that they need to focus on how you engage in limited war, how you fight guerrillas, how to more effectively, you know, engage in one of these limited conflicts. But you write they did almost the opposite.

FRED KAPLAN: Right, the generals decided they would never fight another war like this ever again. By coincidence, at the same time the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union were increasing their conventional armies in Europe, and so they turned their attention to that theater, and it was the kind of theater that they were comfortable with fighting, wars that depended on firepower and amassing men, and machines, and metal and dropping bombs and that sort of thing.

So they were never comfortable with Vietnam. They saw it a politicians' war. And so they decided not just to turn their attention to other kinds of war but to throw out, literally to throw out the field manuals, the training manuals, all the lessons, good and bad, that were learned in the previous conflict.

DAVIES: And of course that meant that officers that wanted to rise in the ranks, you know, study tank strategy and pursued that kind of war. But there were these younger officers who had a different interest, who read books about counterinsurgency. What made them think of that kind of war when top commanders were still thinking about the big engagements of tank and infantry?

KAPLAN: Well, you know, we're talking about the mid-'80s through the early '90s. So if you're a young officer coming up the ranks, where are you being deployed? You're being deployed in El Salvador, Somalia, Haiti, places like that. And yet at that time the Army defined war strictly as the big war, you know, major combat operations against foes of comparable strength.

They referred to these other small wars, they actually had a name for it. This was in capital letters, military operations other than war. They weren't even war. It was MOOTW, or mootwah(ph), and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time was once overheard saying real men don't do MOOTW. And yet these officers coming up the ranks in the '80s and early '90s - including David Petraeus and several others - you know, these places sure did feel like war to them.

And not only that, but they looked around them, and they saw these are the kinds of conflicts that the world is going to become engulfed in more in the coming years and decades. And as the Civil War tapered off and finally disappeared, this became more and more obvious to them. And yet the generals never really backed away from their Civil War proclivities toward the nature of warfare.

DAVIES: Now we're talking about David Petraeus, an officer named John Nagl, who wrote a dissertation, which is still influential on this stuff. Now, counterinsurgency, a lot of these ideas weren't exactly new. They - people read a former French officer named David Galula who had written a book about this. Do you want to just kind of outline some of the basic principles of fighting a counterinsurgency?

KAPLAN: Right, it's not new at all. It's just the kind of war that we don't like to fight. We tend to call it irregular warfare, even though this kind of warfare is most common. It should be called regular warfare. One of the characters in my book said basically the - the insight of Galula and other counterinsurgency theorists is that insurgences grow out of something. They don't grow out of a vacuum. They grow out - 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. Galula, parroting Mao Zedong, wrote that these kinds of wars are 80 percent political, only 20 percent military, that in these kinds of wars a mimeograph machine can be as useful as a machine gun, sometimes, or cement can be as useful as mortar shells.

And it's not just that these wars were like the other kinds of wars but writ small, they were completely different kinds of things. It was a different kind of warfare that required not just fighting but what we now call nation-building, 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 and that then you can use that as the basis for rebuilding the society.

DAVIES: Right, winning hearts and minds. Now, what happens if you bring the mentality of heavy firepower into that kind of conflict?

KAPLAN: Well, we saw it in the first few years of the occupation in Iraq. You bring that kind of mentality, you bash down doors, you kill or capture everybody that you think might be a bad guy, 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 inflame 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.

DAVIES: Now if David Petraeus and John Nagl and a lot of these other bright, young officers got interested in these ideas in the '90s and were right about them and were talking about them, why then when the U.S. went to war in Iraq in 2003, when these ideas were swirling, were they so little valued at the time?

KAPLAN: Because they still weren't yet the three- and four-star generals. The three- and four-star generals were still the leftovers from the Civil War era. These were people who didn't want to get involved in those kinds of wars at all. And then you had a secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who had become very enamored of an alternative strategy of warfare very popular at the time called revolution in military affairs, which put all of its trust in smart bombs.

And, you know, you didn't need such big armies. You could have a very small army and just use smart bombs from the air to attack targets. And so he went into Iraq with a very, very small force, much smaller than the generals told him was necessary, and hey, he was right. He was right.

You didn't need very many forces to overthrow a government and to topple an army. But they did not anticipate that the whole country of Iraq would implode, that all the mechanisms of governance would fall apart, and then there would be, out of this vacuum, out of this anarchy, would grow a resistance, an insurgency, and they had no capability to deal with it.

They didn't even call it that.

DAVIES: Right, therefore they used heavy-handed tactics, which only inflamed the insurgency and made it worse. But David Petraeus had a command then. He was in Mosul, this was in the early period of the occupation, and got a lot of credit for doing remarkable things.

KAPLAN: Well, it's very interesting. He was commander of the 101st Airborne Division at the time, and he was stationed up in Mosul in Northern Iraq. The command structure of the U.S. Army in Iraq was completely fractured. There was no overall command for anything. So if you are a creative commander, you could do a lot on your own.

And so Petraeus, who had studied counterinsurgency for a couple of decades, who had set up what amounted - and this is almost completely unknown - what amounted to a counterinsurgency, very clandestine counterterrorist group in Bosnia a few years earlier. He just - he decided to put Galula into effect.

And so 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, without telling - I mean, he told people what he was doing, but there were no orders.

And so it worked for about a year, and then 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.

DAVIES: Right, so at this point, I mean, I guess it's 2005 he rotates out of there, is that right, 2004?

KAPLAN: 2004, yeah.

DAVIES: Right, and the insurgency is growing, and the country is falling apart. Casualties are mounting among the U.S. veterans, among civilians, and the Pentagon suddenly realizes it has a terrible problem, and they don't even know that there's somebody here who has the germ of a solution. He gets rotated back to an assignment at Fort Leavenworth, right.

And then he and these other officers, who are - who have studied and believe in counterinsurgency, begin to come together and say we have to change things. You say it was actually a plot.

KAPLAN: It was a plot. I mean, that's not my word. The people who did this, they called themselves the cabal or the West Point mafia because a lot of them came out of the social science department at West Point. But around this time that you're talking about, two things happened that are quite pivotal.

One, there's a guy named Eliot Cohen, who's a Professor at the school of Advanced International Studies in Washington and a member of the Defense Policy Advisory Board. He goes to Iraq. He's the only member of this board who goes to Iraq. He sees what's going on. He sees that it's a disaster.

He's also a pretty pre-eminent military historian. He knows that an insurgency is going on. He knows what you have to do with an insurgency. He's also one of the leading neoconservative thinkers. He'd actually campaigned very heavily for Bush and Clinton before him to invade Iraq. He also has a son who, just like him, had graduated from Harvard and had just joined the Army and was about to be sent to Iraq.

He feels this tremendous pang of guilt and anguish. This was an administration that he's advised, a war that he advocated, and now his son is going to get sent to it. The commanders are completely clueless. So he forms a seminar in Basin Harbor, Vermont, for five days. He invites anybody who has ever written anything remotely interested in about counterinsurgency, and he invites them to this seminar.

And the pivotal thing about this isn't so much what they talked about, it's that they got to know each other. These people, most of them didn't know of one another's existence before this conference. They thought they were out in the wilderness on their own writing about this stuff, and they say my God, we form a community.

And we seem to be the only ones in the Army - a lot of them were junior officers - who understand what's going on here. We need to really put something in motion that will change things.

At this same time, Petraeus, as you say, comes back to Fort Leavenworth. Now, a lot of the people in the Army, a lot of senior officers, didn't much like Petraeus, because they didn't like officers who were bookish and who stood out, and Petraeus was guilty of both (unintelligible).

So Petraeus gets out to Fort Leavenworth. They think that they've sent the fair-haired boy out to pasture, literally. He realizes that Fort Leavenworth in the right hands can be the center of the Army, the intellectual center. They write doctrine. They control the training centers. They control the command and general staff college. And once he realizes all the levers that he has at his control, he says to himself: Holy cow, they've put an insurgent in charge of the Army's engine of change.

He saw himself as an insurgent. Now, he knew a lot of these people who were at the Basin Harbor Conference. And so he drew upon them to be his inner circle in writing a new field manual for counterinsurgency, in completely overhauling the training centers to emphasize that kind of warfare so that by the time he came back to Iraq as top commander in early 2007, the pins were all in place to change the way not just that the Army worked in Iraq but the way the culture of the Army worked in general in formulating doctrine, in the criteria for promoting officers across the board.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Fred Kaplan. His new book is called "The Insurgents." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Fred Kaplan. He's a national security writer. He writes the War Stories column on Slate. And he has a new book, "The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War."

Well, while these officers and intellectuals were promoting counterinsurgency, I suppose it would not have worked had not people at the highest levels of the military and the Defense Department realized that they were in a terrible situation in Iraq. So they at some point realized that they had to embrace these ideas?

KAPLAN: Well, you're right, a lot of - the way that large organizations tend to change is if they're facing catastrophe. And in the mid-, the end of 2006, just about everybody realized that Iraq was a catastrophe and that something needed to be done. So three things happen at the end of 2006, or four things really.

Number one, the midterm elections happen, and Donald Rumsfeld is fired and replaced by Robert Gates. Number two, Petraeus goes back to Iraq as the top commander. Number three, Bush approves the surge, more forces for Iraq. And four, he also approves a new strategy, which is essentially a counterinsurgency strategy.

Now these things did not happen by coincidence. They too were part of this plot. While Petraeus was out in Leavenworth, he had a vast network of contacts throughout the defense bureaucracy: classmates, former students from West Point, underlings who were in his command as a division commander. But he also cultivated a backchannel into the White House, a woman named Megan O'Sullivan, who was President Bush's senior advisor on Iraq in the National Security Council.

And now picture this. This is really pretty outrageous mode of operation. Here's Petraeus, a three-star general, out in Leavenworth, and every day, practically, he's talking on the phone with the president's senior advisor on Iraq. She's telling him what General George Casey, the four-star commander in Iraq, is telling the White House why they don't need a change in strategy and what you think about that, General Petraeus, and can you provide me with some arguments against it.

So he's providing rebuttal arguments within his own chain of command. I mean, this is really pretty outrageous. I mean, he was right, he was right, but this tells you something about his style of operations.

At the same time, there was a private studies going on in Washington urging the need for a surge. Petraeus, through his network, got this study into the White House, into the Pentagon to the secretary of defense - the new Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. So all these things were coming together at the same time, but it wasn't, it wasn't just a random set of coincidences. The timing on this was exquisitely planned.

DAVIES: So Petraeus goes to Iraq, he's had experience at Mosul, but now he's got his hands on all the levers. How does he take this counterinsurgency approach and mold it into actual specific policies and orders?

KAPLAN: Well, there were three very crucial things he did. Before he came, most of the soldiers, they do operations in the day. Then they'd go back to their large bases, surrounded by barbed wire, at night. And, of course, the insurgents could come back at night in the towns. So he set up these outposts in the cities, in the neighborhoods.

And, you know, it was a gamble. Initially, American casualties went up because they were more exposed to the insurgents, and he knew that would happen. But then he also did two, again, pretty outrageous things. One, there was already the Anbar awakening happening out in Western Iraq, which was coordinated by another West Point guy who - named Colonel Sean MacFarland - who understood counterinsurgency strategy.

The Sunni militants who had been allied with the foreign jihadists, including al Qaida, were getting upset with the high-handed methods of al Qaida. They were moving away from them and joining us. Petraeus applied this to the entire country through a program he called the Sons of Iraq, where he paid militants to desert and to come join us.

Now, he paid for this with the money in his own commander's discretionary fund. You know, it's money for, you know, paying somebody to clean the sidewalk or to set up a local auxiliary or something like that. He was paying people who had been shooting at American soldiers two weeks earlier and, who knows, maybe two months hence would start shooting at us again. He was paying them without telling anybody in Washington what was going on.

At the same time, he had to show that he was even-handed. There were Shiite militias in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. And Prime Minister Maliki had told Petraeus' predecessor, General Casey, stay out of Sadr City because he had his own alliance with Sadr.

Petraeus simply ignored it. He just went in to Sadr City and busted up the Shiite militias. So he was able to play these sectarian units off of one another, and as a result, after about seven or eight months, casualties reduced enormously. Sectarian violence went down by staggering degrees. And so, in a tactical sense, it absolutely worked.

DAVIES: All right, in an overall sense, did it achieve strategic goals? Did it (unintelligible)...?

KAPLAN: Oh, see, that's where we get into a tricky thing, in Iraq and especially later on in Afghanistan. Petraeus had said all along, that the point of what he was doing was to create some breathing space, a zone of security, so that the sectarian factions in Iraq could get their act together.

Well, the fact is Prime Minister Maliki had no interest in getting their act together. He had no interest in working out an oil-revenue-sharing formula, no interest in recruiting very many of the Sons of Iraq militants into the national army, no interest in solving all kinds of problems like that.

And so we still have, in Iraq, although at a much, much lower level, we still have sectarian violence. We still do not have a stable state.

DAVIES: Fred Kaplan's new book is "The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who is off this week. We're speaking with national security writer Fred Kaplan whose book chronicles a battle within the U.S. military to change strategic thinking about how to succeed in limited conflicts in which the enemy lives and fights among the population. Civilian strategists and a core of officers led by David Petraeus advocated a counterinsurgency approach which was ultimately effective in reducing violence in Iraq. Kaplan's book is called "The Insurgents."

Well, after his experience in Iraq, there came the question of what to do about Afghanistan. A new president came in, President Obama, and he had said all along that Afghanistan was the war that America needed to fight. And you write about a fascinating episode here, where one of the leading strategists of counterinsurgency, David Kilcullen, actually a man who had been an officer in the Australian Army who had come to the Americans, he drafted a counterinsurgency guide at the end of the Bush administration and he kind of took a different tack on the approach. You want to just tell us what was unique about what he came up with?

KAPLAN: Well, Kilcullen is a fascinating guy, as you said, an Australian officer who had had experience in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, and who came over as an advisor in the United States. Initially, he saw his role - he was very colorful, he was against the invasion of Iraq. He thought it was it was just stupid. But once you're there and once you're facing an insurgency you have to know how to fight it. He thought that it wasn't the place of an officer to get involved in policy. That was for civilian leaders and if you don't like it you should throw out these people at the next election. But at the end of 2007, he realizes that no, as an expert he needs to get involved in questions of policy, that that really is the important thing.

So a group had assembled to write a manual about counterinsurgency for the civilian side of the government. And he took on this, but he decided not to make this a manual for bureaucrats in the same way that Petraeus' field manual on counterinsurgency was a manual for field officers. He decided to write something for policymakers and it was a pretty out-there document because one of the chapters - and he said this a couple times in the booklet, he said, it is folly - those were the words - it is folly to get involved in a foreign counterinsurgency expedition if you think that the government you're coming to help is not interested in reforming itself. Now you recall that a crucial part of counterinsurgency is making the government more appealing, more legitimate in the eyes of its people. If this seems completely unlikely, then it is folly, Kilcullen said, to get involved in the first place. He also said that policymakers must take a calculation of how likely this is before they go in at all.

Now, unfortunately, this manual, it was signed in mid-January of 2009, just days before a new administration was coming in. New administrations, you know, don't pay that much attention to things that the old administration did. Even the old administration wasn't paying very much attention to this manual. And so the lessons of that manual which were, you know, hard won by over a decade of experience in seeing what works and what doesn't, were thrown out, were ignored, where the existence of it was barely even known.

DAVIES: Right. And one of the other important points he made was that counterinsurgency takes a long time and a lot of troops. So and to...

KAPLAN: Right.

DAVIES: ...to win hearts and minds, to isolate the population from the enemy, to build institutional authorities that would have respect among civilians takes a long time, so don't get in unless there's a government who wants to do it and you're prepared to make a long term commitment.

KAPLAN: That's right.

DAVIES: Which leads us to Afghanistan, and Obama has to make a decision here. What was Petraeus' position?

KAPLAN: Well, you remember during the latter half of 2009 President Obama held 10 meetings with his national security team to figure out what to do in Afghanistan. And Petraeus was leading the way in urging for a surge and a shift to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan just as what had worked in Iraq. And there really was almost no opposition to this around the room. President Obama was reluctant but he agreed to do it in a limited way. It had been recommended that he should put in 40,000 new troops. He put in 33,000 and said NATO will make up the 7,000 and will do counterinsurgency in the south and inside the cities. But then he put a kind of a spin on it because he saw this as an experiment, something that he would try but not get too deeply involved in.

And he told the generals in the last meeting, which was a smaller meeting, he said OK, I'm going to do this, but then after 18 months I'm going to start to pull out those surge troops. And I want - can you tell me that within this 18 months you will make enough progress that the Afghan army can take over the lead in the fight in a majority of the districts? And everybody around the table said oh, yes sir, yes sir, no problem. And what I find kind of unforgivable is that Petraeus certainly knew that this was not possible. It was going to take longer than 18 months. And what his calculation was, it was that we'll make enough progress so that by the time we get there the president will have to continue. Even though Petraeus - even though Obama had told them look, you're not going to get any more, this is it, still, he took the gamble. He told friends afterwards well, you know, it wasn't that kind of a meeting. It was a take-it-or-leave-it meeting. He didn't want advice. But, you know, I still think it's the obligation of an officer put in that kind of situation to give his best military advice on what can work and what can't.

DAVIES: What's interesting to me about this is that, you know, we just said that David Kilcullen had made this point that if you don't have a government willing to reform it won't work. And anybody who has looked at the experience in Vietnam know that if you try and do this with a, you know, a regime of corrupt oligarchs and gangsters, it's not going to work no matter how much time or how many troops you have, and surely David Petraeus knew this. I mean...

KAPLAN: Well, he knew it but, you know, he had manipulated Maliki pretty skillfully. He had...

DAVIES: In Iraq. Yeah.

KAPLAN: ...played good-guy-bad-guy stuff with Maliki in Iraq. He was actually not as optimistic in Afghanistan as he had been in Iraq, but he thought that he could do it. Look, here's a guy, his whole MO in his entire life was that he had overcome the odds, that he had defied expectations. You know, everybody knows the story that one time when he was an assistant division commander, he had been shot in the chest by a fellow soldier whose gun accidentally went off in a live-fire exercise. He recovered much more quickly than the doctor 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.

And but, you know, the problem was by his own admission he knew nothing about Afghanistan. He'd been in Iraq three times, he knew that place well. He comes in and what's in his mind is Iraq. So his aides would say, you know, we have a problem here. And he would say - I got this from these aides - he would say well, you know what, we did this in Mosul, what worked in Anbar was this.

I was told that in a meeting with President Karzai once, Karzai laid out a problem and he said well, you know, in Baghdad we did it like this, you know, 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 to think about Iraq. And Petraeus said I'm working on it.

DAVIES: What were some ways that Afghanistan's reality was just so different from his Iraqi experience and that that presented problems?

KAPLAN: Well, you know, he knew this. This book that we mentioned earlier by David Galula called "Counterinsurgency Warfare," which he and others frequently took off the shelf and consulted, there is a chapter in that book called "Prerequisites For A Successful Insurgency." It listed the factors that were prevalent in a country where an insurgency would be likely to win, and it included things like a corrupt central government, a largely rural illiterate population, mountainous terrain along the borders, a neighboring state that can serve as a sanctuary for insurgents. I mean, you add it all up it was a description of Afghanistan. Yeah. It was a - and so this should have been seen from the beginning as very unlikely terrain. And I think - and what Obama finally did after that 18 month deadline was he called it off. He said OK, that's the end of the surge. We're withdrawing all the troops. We're reverting to a less ambitious strategy. We're going to turn - gradually turn things over to the Afghan population.

Now, he could portray this as a victory because in the meantime, you know, we had killed Osama bin Laden, we had decimated the Taliban army on the ground, so he could portray it as a victory, but in fact, he was retreating from the broader counterinsurgency strategy and adapting really the strategy that his vice president Joseph Biden had advocated all along, had been the only one in the room to advocate, which is namely, let's accelerate training of the Afghan army, let's go after the militants on the border, and - but we shouldn't get involved in this nation-building business.

DAVIES: And use the drones for specific attacks.

KAPLAN: Use drones, use commando raids, that sort of thing, which wouldn't have involved as big a surge as President Obama advocated. I think, you know, some people often wondered why he relied so much on Biden. You know, some people viewed Biden as kind of a blowhard. Afghanistan is a good case in point why President Obama values Biden greatly. He asks devil's advocate questions and the devil's advocate positions often turn out to be right.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Fred Kaplan. His new book is "The Insurgents." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with national security writer Fred Kaplan. He writes the War Stories column on Slate, and his new book about counterinsurgency in the U.S. military is called "The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War."

David Petraeus was a mythic figure in the Army when he went into Afghanistan. Why did he end up going to the CIA afterwards and not staying in the Army?

KAPLAN: Well, you know, 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. You've got control over some directorates of the Joint Staff who are some of the smartest colonels and one and two star generals in the Army. Petraeus was distrusted by many members of the Obama White House. They thought that he boxed President Obama in on troop options for - 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 of 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? And he came up with the idea of CIA director.

He - it's very little known. I go into some things in this book that have never been written about before, that he was in charge of a clandestine intelligency in Bosnia. In Iraq and both Afghanistan, he did a lot of interaction with all the intelligence communities. So it was sort of an ideal perch for him and he liked the job a lot. Some of his friends asked him a couple of months in, how are you liking the job, Dave? How's it going over there? And he said without any irony because he's not really a very ironic guy, he says, I'm living the dream.

DAVIES: Were you surprised by the extramarital affair and the scandal that took Petraeus down?

KAPLAN: Well, you know, I, like many people, the rumors of an affair had been going on for quite a long time with Paula Broadwell, she was, you know, given unusual access in Afghanistan. She was clearly a bit gaga for him. But yeah, most people thought that he wouldn't bite. But, you know, looking back, you know, this was a guy who broke the rules when he thought it was necessary. You know, what he had done in Iraq with creating the Sons of Iraq, with setting up a whole counterinsurgency operation in Mosul outside of anybody's purview, really going against the overall policy for the benefit in those cases of what he saw as military or political military victory...

...really going against the overall policy for the benefit in those cases of what he saw as military or political-military victory. But, you know, I think - as a backdrop I think, you know, 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.

DAVIES: You know, as you reflect on this experience, I mean, one of the questions that comes up again and again is can the military ever learn to confront difficult truths and tell them to civilian policymakers? I mean, you know, back in Vietnam Kennedy and Johnson wanted the application of traditional firepower to be effective so the military adapted it. And despite all kinds of knowledge and experience to the contrary, continued to tell civilian leaders, yes, it was working.

You know, in Iraq terribly misguided thinking all this damage but got promotions by telling their superiors what they wanted to hear. I mean, this is true in a lot of big organizations but I wonder if you think - is the military particularly resistant to new thinking and can you see a change in its institutional culture?

KAPLAN: Well, you know, there's always a tension in this. You know, we do have a tradition in this country of civilian control of the military. And that's a good thing. And every general who is in the military today knows the story about General MacArthur and how he tried to defy President Truman in Korea. And how Truman fired him, which was a very risky thing to do politically because MacArthur was an amazing hero.

But everybody knows the MacArthur risk so you don't want to go up - there's a fine line between giving military advice to the president and bucking his authority. And that line, they haven't really - there's still a lot of ambiguity on how you tread that line. I think what we see going on now, we see the beginnings of what might be called a new American way of war.

Which is sort of a retreat to the Rumsfeld formula, really, of small footprints, smart bombs fired by drones in this case, small units of commandos. And, you know, I think in general, that that's fine. It's better than sending 100,000 troops to Mali or Uganda or Libya or some of these places. But there isn't a kind of a bedrock, there isn't a doctrinal base for this, really. It can have its own dangers.

You can get in the habit of thinking, well, I'm not really in a war because I'm not sending troops, I'm not getting killed. We don't see anything going on on the ground. So is this going to turn into another military operation other than war where we think that, you know, because we're 10,000 feet up in the air or only sending a few dozen people, we're not militarily involved?

It can lead to risk. It can lead to uncontrolled escalation. It can also be - it's just a little too easy. It sets up a situation where you can avoid doing serious strategic thinking about what it is we really need to do and what our role in the world is.

DAVIES: Our guest is Fred Kaplan. His book is "The Insurgents." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest if Fred Kaplan. He writes on national security and his new book is "The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War." I wanted to ask you about some other issues that concern the defense establishment these days. One, is President Obama's choice of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.

This is drawing a lot of opposition. There are people running ads against this. What's your sense of Hagel as a pick for Secretary of Defense?

KAPLAN: I think he's a fine pick for Secretary of Defense. The arguments against him, I think, are pretty ludicrous. The main substantive arguments against him are, one, that he opposed the surge in Iraq. But, you know, almost everybody opposed the surge in Iraq. Even the people who supported it, even someone like David Petraeus gave it maybe a 50 percent chance of succeeding.

And one could make the case is that really high enough odds to get more people killed, at least in the short term? The entire Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed it. Hillary Clinton opposed it. You don't see these people going after any of those guys. Second, you know, he's had some words to say about the influence of what he once called the Jewish lobby. And, you know, you have people like Elliott Abrams saying, oh, that's anti-Semitic to call it the Jewish lobby.

Well, you know, much of the Israeli press - the Israeli press - refers to APEC as the Jewish lobby. And if anybody wants to argue that APEC doesn't have disproportionate influence in the Congress of the United States, I don't think you can make that argument. I mean, it may have been impolitic, but I don't think it was incorrect.

I know some people - you know, the last few years Hagel has been head of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He sits in on meetings where very highly classified information is discussed, including new information on Iran and its nuclear program. I've talked with people who have been in the meetings with him. They see no sign of any ideological tilt. They see a serious guy asking serious questions and discussing the issues in a very serious way.

So I think - now, I think the defense budget is going to be cut and it's going to be cut even if there isn't a sequestering. It's going to be cut pretty heavily. And I think what really the Republicans object is that Hagel is a Republican. And so they're afraid that Obama will start cutting the defense budget and say that he's doing so with a Republican Secretary of Defense and therefore painting this as a bipartisan gesture.

That's what they're really upset about, I think.

DAVIES: Were you surprised at the decision to lift the ban on women in combat roles? I wonder if you see any fallout for the military there?

KAPLAN: I think it was going to happen at some time or another. Here's the real thing that's going on there. You know, in the old days you had combat troops and support troops. The combat troops were on the front of the battle line. The support troops were back in the rear. And you could have women back there and you had men in the front.

The kinds of wars that we've been fighting in the last 20 years, including these insurgency wars, there is no front. There is no rear. Everybody is potentially a combat soldier. Everybody is getting fired upon. Everybody is being called upon to shoot. And so there are cases - I think the reason why the Joint Chiefs of Staff are fine with this is that they themselves saw instances in Iraq, in Afghanistan, where women were doing things that in the past only men had done. And were doing it fine.

So the issue isn't any longer gender. The issue is: can this person do the job. Can the person, you know, walk 10 miles while carrying 100 pounds on his or her back? You know, the same thing happened with the fire department in New York City and many other cities. If they could pass the physical tests it doesn't really matter whether you're a man or a woman.

And, you know, the Army has had a decade or two of experience with women coming up through the ranks who are every bit as committed to the Army's mission and physically fit enough to perform a lot of, quote/unquote "combat missions."

DAVIES: As American troops pull out of Afghanistan, you know, the new center for Islamic extremism is in Mali in Northern Africa. The French, of course, have intervened there and are seeking U.S. assistance. What should the U.S. posture be?

KAPLAN: I think it should be pretty much what it is right now. You know, when Obama went into Libya with the French and Italians and NATO, somebody in the White House made an ill-advised statement that he said the policy is leading from behind. And that was pounced upon by a lot of Republicans as a non-sequitur and a cowardly sort of policy.

But viewed rationally, I think that's pretty much right. I mean, you look at Libya, you look at Mali, you have a country like France which has a vital interest in these places. We have an interest but not a vital interest. We have similar interests. The interests are the same. We are running on parallel tracks. Let them take up the bulk of it. We will do things that they can't do.

So, for example, we're providing long-range airlift - cargo transport planes that can bring in some of the weapons that they can't. We're providing the drones for surveillance. We're providing some logistics. But, hey, you know, for decades Republicans used to moan about how little the NATO allies were doing in their defense.

You know, we're carrying all the burden. The Europeans aren't doing anything. Now they're willing to do things that are in their own interest. I say let them. And to the extent that it coincides with our interests, and it doesn't cost more, that the costs to us are not incommensurate with the benefits or the gains, we'll help to the extent we can. But I think a low profile approach to this is just fine.

DAVIES: Well, Fred Kaplan, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.

KAPLAN: Oh, thank you.

DAVIES: Fred Kaplan writes the War Stories column for Slate. His new book is "The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War." You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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