Books & Review | Sam Goodwin
Updated: Jan 28, 2013 04:52 AM EST

The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War

The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (Photo : npr.org)

In his new book "The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War", author Fred Kaplan talks about a group of "insurgents" who were "determined to mount a revolution from inside the Army."

"Conflicts against insurgents, terrorists, that sort of thing was officially called, in capital letters, Military Operations Other Than War," Kaplan says. "It wasn't even war, and yet, at the same time, people like David Petraeus ... they were going to El Salvador, to Somalia, to Bosnia, to Haiti, these places that sure felt like war to these people. But it wasn't recognized."

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These officers, Petraeus and his colleagues, realized that the Army had to change, Kaplan says, but it wasn't going to change by itself. "And so they had to change it from within, and therefore they were the insurgents within the United States Army."

. "Large organizations sometimes change when there's a catastrophe," Kaplan says, "and there was a catastrophe in Iraq. You know, we invaded with kind of a blitzkrieg dash up the desert, and then found ourselves being an occupying power and then facing an insurgency. The entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, they were against even calling it an insurgency, because that would mean you might have to develop counterinsurgency strategies, which would require a lot of troops staying on the ground for a long time, and they were not interested in that at all."

Kaplan says the plot to change the U.S. military from within really got going then, as the situation in Iraq began to provide some urgency. And he's adamant about describing it as a plot. "The people involved in it, they called themselves 'the cabal' or 'the West Point mafia,' " he says. And it all started with a conference held in Basin Harbor, Vt., by a scholar named Eliot Cohen, who had been to Iraq and seen the situation for himself. "He basically called up everybody who had written an interesting article about counterinsurgency in a military journal - there's about 30 people, and the pivotal thing about this meeting was that a lot of these people didn't know each other, they'd thought that they were out in the wilderness, writing this stuff by themselves, and they saw that, in fact, they formed a community."

At the same time that Cohen was holding his meeting, Petraeus was on his way back from Iraq to become the head of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

"He realized that the Combined Arms Center was potentially the intellectual center of the Army. They wrote doctrine. And Petraeus knew some of these people who were in the Basin Harbor group, and these people became the co-conspirators, if you will, in writing a new field manual on counterinsurgency," Kaplan says. "And by the time Petraeus went back to Iraq, in early 2007, all the pins were in place for him to apply the strategy that he'd been trying to work into the mainstream of the Army for 25 years."

Petraeus was heavily influenced, he adds, by a book on counterinsurgency, written in English by French colonial officer David Galula. "There is a chapter in the book - and Petraeus read this book and reread it many times - a chapter called 'Conditions Favorable to an Insurgency,' and it listed several things where an insurgency would be very effective: a corrupt central government, a largely rural, illiterate population, a neighboring country that can serve as a sanctuary for an insurgency. You add up all these conditions, it's a dead ringer for Afghanistan. This thing was just never going to be susceptible to classic counterinsurgency techniques."

"Petraeus convinced a lot of people that we should give it a try," Kaplan continues. "President Obama gave it a try, for about 18 months, it didn't work, and so he cut back on the strategy, which is what we're seeing now."

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