Ralph Peters’ Very, Very Bad Advice

September 25th, 2009 at 12:03 pm | 10 Comments |

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New York Post columnist Ralph Peters is one of the most admired military commentators of our time. His knowledge and his sources are outstanding, and he has two of the three most important virtues of the great journalist: He is original and he is brave. But he often seems to lack the requisite third quality: He is not right. Peters’ analysis of Afghanistan is especially wrongheaded, and if heeded, will misdirect the Afghan war effort.

In his most recent column, Peters calls the American commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley A. McChrystal a “morally oblivious” lackey of the “Obama Way of War.” And U.S. military leaders, Peter insists, are “moral cowards,” who have blood on their hands, as they are unconscionably responsible for needless American casualties.

“The next time you read about the death of a soldier or Marine in Afghanistan,” Peters writes, “don’t just blame the Taliban. Blame the generals and politicians who sent them to war, then took away their weapons.”

In Peters’ world, counterinsurgency warfare and counterinsurgency doctrine are a whole lot of highfalutin nonsense.

“As a real general put it a century ago, ‘The purpose of an Army is to fight,’” Peters declaims. “And the purpose of going to war is to win (that dirty word). It’s not to sacrifice our own troops to make sad-sack do-gooders back home feel good… We need to recognize,” he lectures, “that true morality lies in backing our troops, not in letting them die for whacko theories.”

The “whacko theory” that Peters derides is the counterinsurgency strategy that was so stunningly successful in Iraq, and which General McChrystal is trying to implement in Afghanistan.

Peters derides the new Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual as a “disastrous” doctrine written by “military intellectuals, who, instead of listening to infantry squad leaders, made a show of consulting ‘peace advocates’ and ‘humanitarian workers.’”

In fact, the Army and Marine Corps leaders who spearheaded development and publication of the new Counterinsurgency Field Manual are two of the finest combat leaders this nation has ever produced: Army General David Petraeus and Marine Corps General James N. Mattis, both of whom have led men in battle (Iraq and Afghanistan), and both of whom inspire, in the soldiers and Marines that they lead, a deep-seated loyalty and commitment.

It is true that Petraeus and Mattis are both “intellectuals.” That is, they both have a passionate interest in ideas and are lifelong voracious readers. They also consulted widely with “intellectuals,” both within and outside of the military, while developing the new Counterinsurgency Field Manual. But the idea that they cooked up some “whacko theory,” devoid of practical input from soldiers and Marines on the ground, is untrue and even ludicrous.

In any case, why is consulting with “intellectuals” — i.e., thoughtful and serious-minded people with ideas — a bad thing? Isn’t that what we want our military leaders to do when they are developing a new strategy and a new doctrine?

Can’t you hear some battleship commander sneering in the same tones at the “whacko theories” of Billy Mitchell? A veteran cavalryman scoffing at the eggheads who dared to suggest that the tank could end the military career of the horse?

The U.S. military is a thinking man’s fighting force, and thank goodness for that.

This is not to say that the new Counterinsurgency Field Manual should not be criticized; it should be. Military doctrine is never fixed in stone; it is constantly being refined and rewritten to accommodate new thinking, new insights, and new wartime realities.

This is as it should be. And in fact, the new Counterinsurgency Field Manual already has been, and continues to be, the subject of much robust debate and discussion within military circles.

But there is a clear and unmistakable difference between criticizing a doctrine to improve it and make it better, and impugning the character and motives of U.S. military leaders. Peters omits the former and dangerously indulges in the latter. He doesn’t want to improve Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency doctrine; he wishes, instead, to bury it.

But Generals Petraeus, Mattis, McChrystal and other leading lights in the U.S. military credit the new counterinsurgency strategy with remedying a once dire situation in Iraq. Before discounting counter-insurgency doctrine, Peters should explain how he thinks Iraq was salvaged.

Unfortunately, Peters does no such thing; in fact, he doesn’t even try. Instead, he blithely asserts (as opposed to explaining) that Iraq was salvaged because General Petraeus disregarded his own Counterinsurgency Field Manual and resorted to conventional combat, not counterinsurgency warfare. But again, that’s not what Generals Petraeus, Mattis, McChrystal and other military leaders on the ground think.

Here’s what General Petraeus actually said, last year (Oct. 2008), during his address to the Association of the United States Army (AUSA):

[A]long with the surge came a certain number of big ideas. These were, of course, institutionalized in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual that was published in late 2006 [emphasis added].

A number of us had had quite a bit of time back in the States (12 or 15 months or so) between tours, where we were able to reflect, to research, to think — and then to capture ideas, best practices, lessons learned and so forth on counterinsurgency, and to codify them in that field manual — and then, indeed, to put them into effect out in the field, where again, many of them are already being practiced by some units or others, but [are] now becoming the actual big ideas guiding the overall effort [emphasis added].

And this will talk about those big ideas, the biggest of which was the absolute imperative of securing the population [emphasis added].

Securing the population is, indeed, the central tenant of counterinsurgency doctrine and counterinsurgency warfare; and this is exactly what General McChrystal is trying to do in Afghanistan. Yet, Peters will have none of it. He is implacably opposed to a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

“We cannot turn Afghanistan into Disneyworld,” he lectures. “This is killing American troops for nothing.”

No one — and certainly not Generals Petraeus and McChrystal — is talking about making Afghanistan Disneyland. It should go without saying, but unfortunately must be said: Afghanistan doesn’t need a perfect and pristine government; nor does it need a government that is completely free of corruption. Governments in Chicago and southern Italy, after all, have long been corrupt and yet, they still have proven more or less legitimate and more or less effective.

Afghanistan needs only a functioning government that can do the bare minimum: quell insurgents and insurrections within its borders, deter and repel invaders, provide basic services, police the streets, and patrol the neighborhoods. That’s it. The model is Tajikistan, not Disneyland.

It is true that conventional combat operations sometimes are required in a counterinsurgency, but the Army and Marine Corps have never pretended otherwise. The new Counterinsurgency Field Manual, in fact, says explicitly that:

A counterinsurgency campaign is, as described in this manual, a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations conducted along multiple lines of operations. It requires Soldiers and Marines to employ a mix of familiar combat tasks and skills more often associated with nonmilitary agencies. The balance between them depends on the local situation. Achieving this balance is not easy. It requires leaders at all levels to adjust their approach constantly” [emphasis added].

Peters mercilessly criticizes General McChrystal’s Rules of Engagement, which circumscribe our soldiers’ use of force in Afghanistan. Peters think McChrystal’s rules are too restrictive and needlessly jeopardize soldiers’ lives.

This is a legitimate concern; but again, Peters tries to preclude any and all discussion because he rejects the entire notion of counterinsurgency doctrine and counterinsurgency warfare.

McChrystal is not trying to limit the use of military force in Afghanistan because he is some liberal do-gooder who attended one too many lectures at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Instead, McChrystal is trying to limit the use of force because one of the biggest mistakes you can make in a counterinsurgency is to antagonize the population, which is the center of gravity in this type of fight. As General Petraeus explains, “You can’t kill or capture your way out of a complex, industrial-strength insurgency.

“The challenge in Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq,” Petraeus notes, “is to figure out how to reduce substantially the numbers of those who have to be killed or captured. This includes creating the conditions in which one can have successful reconciliation with some of the elements fighting us. Progress in reconciliation is most likely when you are in a position of strength…”

The most natural thing for an infantry unit to do is to pursue and kill the enemy. However, that is not always the wisest and most efficacious thing to do in a counterinsurgency. Isolating the enemy from the population can be far more devastating and militarily effective.

For these reasons, U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan now heavily emphasize soldierly restraint. This to compensate for our soldiers’ natural inclination to pursue and kill the enemy. This translates into more restrictive rules of engagement, which can be difficult to understand: because, in the short run, these more restrictive rules of engagement do increase soldiers’ risk and likely will result in increased casualties.

However, in a properly resourced and competently administered counterinsurgency, these more restrictive rules of engagement promise to save American lives and reduce the duration of the conflict. Hence the “Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency Operations” as described in the new Counterinsurgency Field Manual:

  • Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.
  • Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.
  • The more successful the counterinsurgency is, the less force can be used and the more risk must be accepted.
  • Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.
  • Some of the best weapons for counterinsurgents do not shoot. Et al.

The reality is that General McChrystal is trying to implement the only strategy that will work in Afghanistan, and that is a counterinsurgency strategy. Anything else — including Peters’ counterterrorism strategy — will all but guarantee the collapse of the Afghan government, while ensuring the continued and indefinite presence of al-Qaeda in neighboring Pakistan.

In fact, the United States has been pursuing what is essentially a counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan for the past eight years, at least since the collapse of the Taliban government; and yet the situation there has only worsened and deteriorated.

A counterinsurgency strategy worked in Iraq; and our military leaders believe that it can work in Afghanistan — provided it is sufficiently resourced, and provided President Obama and Congress give this strategy sufficient time to work.

Indeed, as McChrystal reports in his August 30, 2009 assessment, although “the situation [in Afghanistan] is serious, success [there] is still achievable.”

But success in Afghanistan will not be realized if the President and Congress listen to the siren songs of defeatism, disguised as muscularity and propagated by Ralph Peters.

Recent Posts by John Guardiano

10 Comments so far ↓

  • balconesfault

    While the counterinsurgency strategy worked so rapidly in Iraq in part because of external factors (Iranians supporting the Iraqi government and pressuring Shiite factions to stand down … the balkanization of neighborhoods that took place over the previous 2 years that got Sunnis and Shiites out of one anothers neighborhoods – one of the major flashpoints … Sunni militia leaders getting tired of the bloodthirsty tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq that left them unable to protect their tribes – which is the primary job of a militia – and deciding to work with Americans and accept our guns and money to drive out Al Qaeda) there is no question Petraeus was right man/right time to make any positive change in the hellhole we’d presided over for 4 years up to then.

    One has to understand the goals of asymmetrical warfare for the following to make sense:

    >i>Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.
    Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.
    The more successful the counterinsurgency is, the less force can be used and the more risk must be accepted.
    Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.
    Some of the best weapons for counterinsurgents do not shoot. Et al.

    Because the terrorist attacks are intended to provoke certain reactions – which is why #4 on that list is so important.

    Although despite all this, there still is a legitimate question of whether even get to Tajikistan before the weight of the occupation whipsaws and crushes any economic recovery we have in America. And if we don’t get a recovery, our continued occupation of Afghanistan will end up being as unsustainable as it was for the Soviet Union when it brought down their economy.

  • DFL

    There are no American strategic intertests in Afghanistan. We should leave.

  • sinz54

    Our strategic interest in the entire region is to prevent it from being used as training bases and staging areas for terrorist attacks against the United States. Our failure to do anything about al-Qaeda training bases in Afghanistan prior to 9-11 cost us 3,000 American lives.

    The Pashtun tribe straddles the Afghan-Pak border. If the Taliban returns to take over that tribe on the Afghan side of that border, the Pak government will suffer just a big a blow as the Afghan government.

    As far as this counterinsurgency issue is concerned, I’m no military expert, so I’ll just leave it up to the generals.

  • KEBoedeker

    COL Peters has some impressive company, notably COL Andrew Bacevich. I see two important points: 1-what national interest(s) is(are) on the line in Afghanistan? 2- Can you name a successful counterinsurgency built on anything resembling our current strategy? The POTUS is late on publishing his National Security Strategy (so was W BTW). That docuemt should set the terms for further debate and action. I doubt that GEN Jones and SECDEF Gates and POTUS subscribe to GWB’s last try at a NSS.

  • rbottoms

    Glenn Greenwald, Salon -
    David Brooks, Weekly Standard, March 17, 2003:

    So now we stand at an epochal moment. The debate is over. The case has gone to the jury, and the jury is history. Events will soon reveal who was right, Bush or Chirac. . . . But there are two nations whose destinies hang in the balance. The first, of course, is Iraq. Will Iraqis enjoy freedom, more of the same tyranny, or a new kind of tyranny? The second is the United States. If the effort to oust Saddam fails, we will be back in the 1970s. We will live in a nation crippled by self-doubt. If we succeed, we will be a nation infused with confidence. We will have done a great thing for the world, and other great things will await.

    Look at that last paragraph. He proclaimed that “events will soon reveal who was right, Bush or Chirac.” On the eve of the war he cheered on, as he celebrated the fact that “the debate is over” and war was imminent and inevitable, he identically vowed: “Events will show who was right, George W. Bush or Jacques Chirac.” Soon we would know.

    >>> crickets <<<

  • midcon

    keboedeker , let’s not give Peters a promotion he did not earn – He achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) not Colonel (Col). Second, he never served in combat and in his 22 years of honorable service 10 of them was spent in Germany in military intelligence. When it comes to credibility regardling military strategy, I will put my trust in folks like McChrystal, Petraeus and Mattis. POTUS can define the objective, the generals develop the strategy to meet that objective. That’s why they are the generals.

  • JackOfVA

    What is not considered here is the will of the American people. Waging war on the principle that it’s better for 10 American soldiers to be killed than to harm one Afghanistan citizen may play well in Afghanistan but it won’t play nearly as well in Peoria.

    Assuming arguendo that Lt. Col. Peters is wrong, then the question becomes whether it is impossible politically to sustain the effort in Afghanistan when there seems to be little to no observable progress. The public opinion polls should quickly answer that question. At the moment, the only group with > 50% support for expanded effort in Afghanistan is amongst Republican voters, who President Obama continues to poke in the collective eye with a sharp stick on almost every other domestic and international issue.

    The history of Afghanistan is that it’s not really a country. It’s a geographic location where individual tribes can fight each other and can temporarily band together to fight against any outside force. Alexander the Great found this out as well as the British and the Russians. In this environment, I am not at all sure Lt. Col. Peters is wrong.


  • Carney

    JackofVA has hit on an important point. If we split up Afghanistan and Pakistan into their ethnic component areas, and let each unite with its co-ethnic neighbor brethren to form cohesive nation-states, it would be much easier for each state to be functional according to the basic minimum standards mentioned by Guardiano.

    See the maps here for more (I have no idea whether the website they are on is worthwhile or not):


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