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Book Review: 'The Insurgents' By Fred Kaplan

A Strategic Analysis That Misses The Point

Col. Tom Snodgrass (Ret.), Right Side News

The Insurgents by Fred KaplanThe Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War
Fred Kaplan
Simon & Schuster: 418 pp, $28 on Amazon

  Misunderstanding The War - First In Iraq, Then In Afghanistan

In spite of being a paean to General David Petraeus and his disciples of counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare, Fred Kaplan’s account of how Petraeus’ U.S. Army career developed before and during the “War on Terror” is eminently readable and informative. In constructing his narrative, Kaplan undertakes to describe the U.S. Army’s culture and intellectual approach to warfare strategy between 1974 and 2011, while tracing Petraeus’s rise through the ranks from West Point cadet to four-star general.

Petraeus graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at the very end of the Vietnam War and became an infantry officer as the Army was redefining itself and reevaluating the kind of war it expected to fight. In the aftermath of Vietnam, the Army brass had absolutely zero appetite to fight another war to counter an insurgency in an asymmetrical conflict. Rather, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Army spent its time, energy, and money preparing to meet and defeat the Red Army in a classic armor battle on the plains of northwestern Europe. And, although Petraeus faithfully followed the Army’s lead and sought out all the training and junior officer assignments that would qualify him to be an infantry leader in such a World War II type of conventional conflict, he was spending his intellectual energies reading and thinking about the tactics of unconventional guerrilla warfare of the past.

Kaplan chronicles what, according to conventional wisdom, is the well-known, dismal story of the failure of the Bush Administration to recognize, acknowledge, and begin to counter the insurgency until the Saddam-Fedayeen secular insurgents, the al-Sadr Shia insurgents, and the al-Qaeda in Iraq Sunni insurgents were all well established and carrying on effective asymmetrical warfare. But it is at this juncture of the story that Kaplan begins to miss the point. He follows the familiar storyline of criticizing President George W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq Administrator Paul “Jerry” Bremer for not instituting COIN much sooner. Kaplan’s analytical failing is accepting that the Bush Administration’s benighted nation-building strategy to “democratize” Iraq was correct, and therefore that COIN was necessary to protect the faltering nation-building. Obviously Kaplan was unfortunately continuing the same Bush-Rumsfeld-Bremer mistake with his reporting that COIN was necessary to defend the floundering nation-building/democratization strategy.

The national strategic failure of the Bush Administration to ever put together a coherent strategy to deal with Islamic jihad in the post-9/11 world, especially in Iraq, raises two points that merit further analytical discussion. They are the applicability of the COIN strategy in United States warfare, which is extensively discussed in “The Insurgents,” and the purposely-ignored role that Islam plays in the post-9/11 world war that has so comprehensively occupied the United States.

After spending the first four fifths of the book in praise of Petraeus’ innovation in pursuing COIN, while the rest of the Army was focused on large scale, mechanized, conventional warfare, Kaplan changes direction like ‘Wrong-Way Corrigan’ in the final eighty-one pages to objectively examine the factors that make COIN the height of folly as the strategy of choice for the United States’ military. Some of the salient reasons revealed by objective analysis why COIN is wrong as the American way of war are:

Historically, COIN campaigns have almost always been more costly, more protracted, and more difficult than first anticipated, while the patience of the American people has limits.

America has become involved in insurgencies incrementally – but history establishes that wars are not won by restrained gradualism and the hesitant, incremental application of force.

Insurgencies flourish when they are supported from sanctuaries in adjacent countries that are politically invulnerable to attack, as the successful resupply of the insurgency in Iraq from Iran and Syria and the successful replenishing of the insurgency in Afghanistan from Pakistan evidence. Political refusal to destroy the sanctuaries that are sources of resupply for insurgencies incontrovertibly dooms COIN to fail.

Unless a government under attack from an insurgency is willing to introduce the reforms necessary to enhance its legitimacy with its indigenous population, while simultaneously demonstrating willpower and capacity to defeat the insurgents, American involvement would be irrational.

Reduced to a syllogism, America shouldn’t engage in COIN unless the government it is helping is effective and legitimate; a government that needs American assistance to fight an insurgency generally isn’t effective or legitimate; therefore, American in most cases shouldn’t engage in COIN.

Unspoken, Politically Correct Reasons Why COIN Fails

In addition to the above list of COIN’s strategic deficiencies, there are also two unspoken, politically incorrect reasons why COIN should be discarded as a strategy.

First, the concept of ‘limited war’ was born of liberal intellectualism in the aftermath of World War II in the mistaken belief that the wide spread horror of war can be avoided by setting political, geographical, and kinetic limits on war. COIN is a ‘limited war’ variant that is basically only a defensive, tactical form of war. COIN is not conceived to defeat an enemy; rather, at best, it will block and impede the enemy from politically dominating the society under attack. In fact, according to “The Insurgents,” an Army report on the war in Afghanistan defined victory there as “a condition where the insurgency no longer threatens the viability of the state.” However, most important to understand about ‘limited war’ is that in order for it to function as conceived, both sides must agree to and observe the same limits, at least tacitly. But if one of the war’s participants refuses to observe the political, geographical, and kinetic limits because, for instance, that participant believes the conflict is an existential war against its god, religion, and culture, then the other participant observing the political, geographical, and kinetic limits will probably eventually lose, as the victory arising from the greater commitment of the North Vietnamese communists clearly demonstrated. Such a conclusion about the importance of commitment is just common sense logic. One need not be Field Marshal Rommel to understand how disparity in commitment and effort can determine the war’s outcome.

Second, COIN is a political ruse used by both American Democrat and Republican politicians to appear as if they are going to war to defend United States’ interests, while actually avoiding the real source of the troublesome international problem, that is, the foreign leaders perpetrating the aggression in the first place. By focusing on the insurgents, that are merely proxies, United States politicians are able to represent to the American people that they are meeting aggression with force, but without really meaningfully confronting the source of the aggression, which would invariably entail greater political risks for them. For example, Democrat presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson deceived the American public that the Viet Cong, a North Vietnamese communist political fiction/ false flag operation that disappeared after the 1975 fall of Saigon, was the primary enemy rather than the North Vietnamese initiators and suppliers of the insurgency. Another example is that, between 2003 and 2009, Republican president George W. Bush totally ignored how resupply from Iran and Syria kept the various insurgent forces in Iraq in the field and in the fight. It was the governments in Iran and Syria that perpetuated the insurgency in Iraq with replacement manpower and war materiel, but their logical resupply facilities were off limits to United States attack. Similarly, the Petraeus COIN strategy for Afghanistan is failing, and will continue to fail because the Pakistani government covertly supports the resupply of the Afghani Taliban from Pakistani territory, the CIA drone campaign in Pakistan notwithstanding. Shutting down the Afghani Taliban would require much more than the current CIA drone strikes.

The Most Important Factor That Is Purposely-Ignored In “The Insurgents” And In The Post-9/11 World War

The dominating role that Islam plays in the world war that has consumed United States since 9/11 is totally untouched by Kaplan in “The Insurgents.” The reason for Kaplan’s omission is simple – both the Bush and Obama administrations have misrepresented the driving motivation of the death and destruction occurring daily throughout the world – but without a doubt it is Islamic jihad. Just as it would have been impossible to effectively fight the German Nazis, Japanese Imperialists, and Soviet Communists without understanding their doctrine and belief motivations, which naturally dictated their strategies of aggression, it is likewise impossible to effectively fight the Islamic jihadists without understanding the doctrine and beliefs mandated in the Quran, Hadith, and Sharia. And while Bush downplayed the role of Islamic theology in world terrorism, Obama has forbidden any linkage at all of Islamic theology with the blood, sorrow, and death that it ordains.

By the time Barack H. Obama took office in January 2009, the Afghan war had definitely taken a turn for the worse, trapping Obama in his cynical election campaign commitment to what he termed "the good war." It appears that, being completely devoid of any will to fight or knowledge of war, Obama latched onto the conventional wisdom that COIN and the surge had won in Iraq and made them his own in desperation. In March 2009, Obama announced a "comprehensive, new strategy" and his version of a surge in Afghanistan, followed in May 2009 with the naming of General Stanley McChrystal as his new commander in Afghanistan. It was also a reconfirmation of COIN as his strategy.

The underlying premise of COIN rests on the unproven and very questionable assumption that the indigenous personnel can be "taught" or “motivated” to be democratic, honest, and efficient by United States COIN forces. This unproven and very questionable assumption is based on another faulty assumption: That insurgents are motivated by a desire for Western or "modern" democratic and capitalistic values. United States COIN thinkers and warriors have not grasped that these values are the antitheses of what motivates, for instance, the Taliban and their Islamic recruits.

In Afghanistan the problem is not nation-building of a failed Afghani government, it is instead Sharia-Islam and Islamic jihad. The 66-page Afghanistan strategy report to President Obama from General McChrystal mistakenly continued the politically correct position regarding Sharia-Islam that had been erroneously adopted by President Bush previously. This erroneous position is that Islamic jihadists are misinterpreting the Quran by promoting violence in the name of Islam. According to the McChrystal report, this Islamic theological error by the Taliban is their Achilles' heel that can be attacked by convincing the Afghani tribesmen that the Taliban's interpretation of the Quran is wrong. Consider the foolishness of that idea. American GIs, who do not speak the native language or know the Muslim religion, are going to convince illiterate tribal people that they know more about Islam than the Taliban clerics! Furthermore, these American GIs are expected in the McChrystal COIN strategy report to persuade Afghani mountain tribesmen with a dark ages mentality that a foreign sponsored “modern” government is superior to the Islam that has dominated Afghanistan since the 9th century.

On the contrary, the Taliban and villagers who are rallying to the Taliban are not fighting because Afghanistan has a failed government. Afghanistan has always had a failed government. The Taliban are fighting and winning because they are convincing Afghanis that Sharia instructs them to kill or subdue the infidels -- native Afghani non-believers (that is, non-Sharia practicing Muslims) and "kafir" foreigners. McChrystal's report accepts the horribly flawed sociological analytical framework that 9th century Afghani tribesmen are fighting because they don't have a Jeffersonian democracy and clean water. On the contrary, these 9th century tribesmen are fighting to preserve 1200 year-old traditions featuring the Islamic legal doctrine - Sharia - that demands nothing less than total personal and national submission. Any United States’ war strategy that fails to recognize that Islamic jihad, derived from classical and absolutely authoritative Sharia, is the enemy's doctrinal template is bound to fail. 

Kaplan only addresses the essence of the weakness of Petraeus’ COIN strategy obliquely when he includes a question posed by a COIN critic, retired Army intelligence officer and newspaper columnist, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, in a New York Post column, entitled “Getting Counterinsurgency Right.” Given that Islamic national leaders like Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq and Hamid Karzi of Afghanistan are much more beholden to tribal sects of their Islamic cultures than to establishing honest and efficient governments that are committed to Western or "modern" democratic and capitalistic values, Colonel Peters’ question is one that should be the first thing that the president of the United States and his high level civilian and military advisors should ask about the leaders of any country to which they are considering providing COIN assistance. Peters’ question is: “What if they don’t want what we want?” [Emphasis added]


It appears that Kaplan began his research and writing at a time when it seemed that General Petraeus and the COIN surges were responsible for successes in Iraq and Afghanistan; however, as time wore on during preparation of his book, the touted successes in Iraq and Afghanistan began to unravel. As a result, Kaplan reversed course and changed the thrust of the book from the exaltation of Petraeus and COIN to much deserved skepticism about both.

It is very disconcerting that the role of Islamic jihad is ignored in both the formulation of United States national security strategy and in a history book evaluating COIN. This deliberate omission speaks volumes why the United States is not prevailing in the world war against Islamic jihadists.

Col. Thomas Snodgrass Articles

Tom Snodgrass RSNCol. Thomas Snodgrass, USAF (retired) served over a year in Peshawar, Pakistan, working with Pakistani military intelligence. During his year in Vietnam he daily scheduled 130 U.S. Army and Air Force intelligence collection aircraft. In his final overseas tour he was the U.S. Air Attaché behind the Iron Curtain in Warsaw, Poland. In total, Col. Snodgrass was variously an Intelligence Officer or an International Politico-Military Affairs Officer serving duty tours in seven foreign countries, as well as teaching military history and strategy at the Air War College, US Air Force Academy, and USAF Special Operations School during a thirty-year military career. Following the Air Force, Col. Snodgrass was an adjunct professor of military history for ten years at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Arizona.

Fred Kaplan/

David Petraeus/

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