Five years after the invasion of Iraq, there are plenty of media commemoratives on the war and its legacy. One of the better accounts can be found in the current issue of Newsweek, , which devotes a cover story to the “Petraeus Generation,” the young officers who have come of age during multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In their lengthy account, writers Evan Thomas and Babak Dehghanpisheh report what those in the military already now: Years of combat experience have transformed the U.S. officer corps, particularly in Army and Marine Corps units that have borne the brunt of fighting in the Middle East.
Noting the recent, dramatic drop in violence in Iraq, Newsweek gives much of the credit to the American commander on the ground, General David Petraeus, and his remarkable combat leaders who have implemented the surge strategy:
But this new way of war needs a new kind of warrior, and it needs tens of thousands of them. Five years into the longest conflict the U.S. military has fought since Vietnam, young officers like Tim Wright have been blooded by multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. They've learned, often on their own, operating with unprecedented independence, the intricacies of Muslim cultures. Faced with ineffective central governments, they have acted as mayors, mediators, cops, civil engineers, usually in appalling surroundings. Most recently, and hardest of all, they've had to reach out and ally themselves with men who have tried and often succeeded in killing their own soldiers. Brought up in rigid, flag-waving warrior cultures that taught right from wrong, black from white, they've had to learn to operate amid moral ambiguity, to acknowledge the legitimate aspirations of their enemies.
“You can’t kill your way out of an insurgency,” Petraeus told Newsweek in a recent interview. Reading from updated guidance being prepared for his troops, the general encouraged units to get out of their vehicles and interact with local residents. "Walk … Stop by, don't drive by," he emphasized. The objective, he repeats over and over, is no longer to take a hill or storm a citadel, but to win over the people.
Achieving those objectives falls on the shoulders of men like Tim Wright, an Army Captain and West Point graduate who previously served in Afghanistan. Many of the techniques outlined in the “new” counter-insurgency manual (authored by General Petraeus) were tried out in Afghanistan, where Wright and his battalion commander had success in co-opting local insurgents. "All the stuff in the Petraeus manual, we had kind of figured it out there [in Afghanistan]," Wright told Newsweek. "It was all the stuff we had seen work on the ground."
But there’s more to the troop surge than interacting with local residents, or buying off local warlords—and that’s where the magazine’s cover story fails miserably. Evans and Dehghanpisheh conveniently ignore the various “kinetic” options implemented by General Petraeus and his commanders on the ground . Without last year’s combat operations in Diyala, Baqubah, the Baghdad “belts,” and other locations it would be virtually impossible to win the hearts and minds of the people. And of course, those same operations were led by many of the young men and women who now double as local "mayors, mediators, cops and civil engineers."
The troop surge proved that America was willing to stay the course in Iraq, and expel the terrorists from their remaining strongholds. That, in turn, brought greater cooperation and assistance from the Iraqi people and their local leaders. Once they discovered that U.S. troops weren’t planning to clear an area and leave (as they had in the past), Iraqis began to turn on the insurgents, in ever-increasing numbers.
That doesn’t mitigate the accomplishments of men like Captain Wright. And, General Petraeus’s ideas about “winning over the people” are essential to any successful counter-insurgency operation. But that strategy also recognizes that some will never be won over. And ultimately, they must be eliminated, using the implements of war.
The surge is working not just because of local pacification programs, but because those efforts were supported (read: made possible) by brilliantly-executed combat operations over the past 15 months. Unfortunately, the very real connection between kinetic operations and the "hearts and minds" program is utterly lost on the staff at Newsweek.