The Battle of Waterloo was a decisive defeat for the Emperor Napoleon: his losses forced his abdication, restored King Louis XVIII to France’s throne, and sent the former emperor away for the rest of his days in exile on the isle of Saint Helena. In other words, it destroyed him.
From then on, meeting one’s “Waterloo” has become a catch-all for ruinous defeat against an insurmountable opponent.
For Slate military writer and author Fred Kaplan to draw such an analogy from the once-vaunted counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, sanctified and pursued by once-Gen. David “King” Petraeus for the U.S Army and for the whole of the military (if not the entire U.S government’s efforts overseas) from 2007 through 2011, it’s well, a big deal. For years, COIN was shoved down our throats as the new American Way of War. Careers in the Pentagon thrived –and were thwarted — based on who “got it” and who failed to be a willing Team COIN player.
But just as fast as COIN madeth, COIN tooketh away. Kaplan wrote about this evolution in his new book The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. Hindsight is fun, but one gets the sickly feeling that it would have been nice if more mainstream writers had stuck their necks out to complain about the lack of the emperor’s clothing when it really counted (like six years ago). Kaplan was one of the few who had, writing pieces like this in late 2006, when plans for Petraeus’s Iraq “Surge” were all the rage among the establishment hive in Washington.
Regardless, Kaplan is getting some “I told you so” time, now, and had this to say recently in a Q&A interview on Small Wars Journal (quite notable for once being the go-to site for the COINdinista crowd at its height):
Afghanistan was COIN’s Waterloo. The internal debate over Obama’s policy in 2009-10 was so interwoven with a debate over COIN that when Afghanistan failed–at least by the standards that justified the president’s surge of 33,000 extra troops–then COIN was seen as having failed too, or at least as having proved itself too limited, too risky, too time-consuming to justify its extraordinary investment in lives and treasure. There are certain generals–Odierno, Dempsey, McMaster, others–who are trying to preserve “the lessons of 11 years of war” (aka the lessons and principles of COIN), but this will be hard to do, given that COIN is no longer a “core mission,” ie, given that the president, in his February 2012 strategy review, declared that the Army and Marines will no longer size forces for large-scale, prolonged stability operations. ….
… When Robert Gates said in 2006 that Iraq and Afghanistan are the models for future war, and when the 2007 promotion board gave stars to the most COIN-creative colonels, it looked like COIN would be the new thing. When Gates said in 2011, shortly before resigning, that only someone who’s out of his mind would recommend sending large-scale forces to the Middle East for another war, and when the Iraq formula failed in Afghanistan, it looked like the COIN revolution was done.
…(military adviser) David Kilcullen made a point in a 2008-09 COIN manual that he wrote for civilian policymakers: “it is folly,” he wrote, to undertake a COIN operation abroad if it’s petty clear the regime isn’t interested in reforming. He also wrote that, before going with a COIN operation, US policymakers “must” make a calculation of how interested the regime is in reform. This is a calculation the Obama administration didn’t know to make during its first year in office – and that the military commanders who advised the president purposefully avoided, or evaded.
The take home point for me here is that Petraeus was thriving politically for pushing the COIN template on Afghanistan instead of advising the President to do otherwise, which would have been more in keeping with the fundamentals of COIN these “COINdinistas” had been warbling about all along. Politics and the thrall of proving COIN in the latest mission had taken priority and the gamble became their Waterloo.
Kaplan’s book has been lauded for its detail in tracking the counterinsurgency strategy from the inside, but it’s taken some criticism, too, mostly for not being tough enough on Petraeus. This review on the Kings of War website (hardly a bastion of antiwar writers) calls it “too dependent on the tale told by ‘the insurgents’ and their acolytes to be a truly definitive account. Its conclusions rest too much on the easy, conventional wisdom reflected in contemporary media analyses—and suggested by media-savvy ‘friends of Petraeus.'”
As I have not read the book myself, I cannot say whether this is true and if I do read it — which I am more compelled to do now — I will report back. In the meantime, just having reviewed Nick Turse’s book on atrocities and war crimes in Vietnam, I was intrigued by Kaplan’s references in the interview (and book) to the West Point “Sosh Mafia” clique which had been formed after World War II and had continued to influence Army doctrine and policy under Petraeus (West Point ’74) today:
The Sosh Mafia (as its members called themselves) was very important. The Social Science Department of West Point was created right after WWII by Brig Gen George “Abe” Lincoln, a former Rhodes Scholar, who’d served as General Marshall’s aide during the War and who saw that, with the US facing global responsibilities, the Army would need to educate a new kind of officer, schooled in politics, economics, and military matters – hence the Sosh department. He also created a network, in which alumnae of the “Lincoln Brigade” (as they also called themselves) would give each other jobs, exchange ideas. When COIN gained currency, this group’s knowledge of politics, economics, society and war – and the connections among them – made the idea resonate. The networking they’d picked up on also made it second-nature to form a new kind of network. As I relate in my book, in great detail, every aspect of the revolution that Petraeus led involved – and, in most cases, had its roots in — the Sosh mafia.
In Kill Anything That Moves, Turse refers to West Point too, but he talks about the “West Point Protective Association (WPPA),” active under much more ominous circumstances:
“In 1968, twenty -two out of the twenty-four principle commanders and staff officers in the U.S Army were all graduates of that prestigious military academy. Protecting West Pointers was thus essentially tantamount to protecting the military itself as an institution. Not surprisingly, quite a few West Point graduates implicated in war crimes saw the allegations against them conveniently disappear.
So out of the ashes of Vietnam came Petraeus and the young Turks of the Sosh Mafia. Into the ashes of Afghanistan goes COIN, the hive now officially (and finally) declares.
It’s one thing to acknowledge failure, but it’s another to learn from it. Are we smart enough to anticipate our next Waterloo? Or are we still too dependent on the Sosh Mafias, and the Petraeuses of the military to avoid it?