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Octavian Manea Interviews General David Petraeus

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a. “zen“]

Octavian Manea has had an excellent series of COIN  interviews at SWJ and this is one of the more important ones:

Reflections on the “Counterinsurgency Decade”: Small Wars Journal Interview with General David H. Petraeus

SWJ: In his recent op-ed published in the New York Times, “The Pipe Dream of Easy War”, General H.R. McMaster warned against the fantasy of “a new era of war”, and especially about the dangers in the blind faith in the transformative effects that technology promises to have on war. He argued that over the past counterinsurgency (COIN) decade we relearned a few lessons that we really should keep in mind as we head into the future: “American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments”. His warning reminds me of an article you wrote in 1986 with General John Galvin about “uncomfortable wars”. You warned to take into consideration “the societal dimension of warfare”. To what extent do you see that prophecy still holding true post Iraq and post Afghanistan?

General Petraeus: I think the essence of the article back in 1986 with General Galvin was frankly the importance of the human terrain in each particular situation, and the importance of understanding the terrain, having a very nuanced, detailed feel for the context of each situation, not just nationally, but sub-nationally and literally all the way down to each valley and each village. That kind of knowledge was achieved in Iraq and helped us enormously during the Surge. We had a greater understanding there, earlier than we did in Afghanistan, just because we had so many more forces on the ground, 165,000 American military alone at the height of the surge. In Afghanistan at the height of our deployment, we had 100,000 US troopers and about 50,000 coalitional forces, and we maintained that level for a relatively brief period of time. As I noted on a number of occasions, we never really got the inputs close to right in Afghanistan until late 2010.

So, noting the importance of human terrain, I believe, is a fundamental aspect of crafting a counterinsurgency campaign. In fact, it was the biggest of the big ideas when we launched the Surge in Iraq, and we knew that since the human terrain was the decisive terrain, we would had to secure it as our principal focus – and to do so by living with the people, locating forward operating bases/joint security stations in the neighborhoods and villages, and specifically right on the sectarian fault-lines across which the heaviest fighting was ongoing in the capital. We ultimately established 77 additional locations just in the Baghdad area of operations alone, and many dozens more elsewhere throughout the country. There were other big ideas to be sure:  e.g., that you can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial strength insurgency, such as we faced, therefore you need to reconcile with as many of the insurgents as was possible, seeking to maximize the number of the reconcilables; correspondingly, we also needed to intensify our campaign of targeted operations against the irreconcilables. But I think, fundamentally, it comes back to this issue, that it is all about people, counterinsurgency operations are wars in, among, and, in essence, for the people. And the first task of any counterinsurgency campaign has to be to secure those people.

Read the rest here.

4 Responses to “Octavian Manea Interviews General David Petraeus”

  1. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    The Path to Victory

    Throughout the 1990s, it has continued to develop force structures and doctrine based on the traditional “American Way of War”, emphasizing tangibles like technology and firepower instead of examining intangibles that exploit human power. From 2001 through 2013, the U.S. Army fought COIN with this same organization, but focusing instead on the brigade combat team as the main unit of maneuver (even though it was a platoon leader’s war with strategic consequences). But, it retained all the overhead and headquarters from the Cold War even increasing these by 22% over 12 years!

  2. zen Says:

    Yes, when the Army switched from divisions to “modular” brigades, fewer combat personnel suddenly required supervision by more HQ staff. Amazing how that worked. Must be the demand for powerpoint slideware

  3. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:


    For what it’s worth, I don’t think the issue is the shift from divisions to brigades.  The divisions are still standing organizations, as are the brigades (regiments in the Marines).  My bigger issue is the creation of tacitcal operations centers (TOCs)/combat operations centers (COCs) at the company level.  Previously, a company HQ consisted of a company commander, his first sergeant, company executive officer (usually a 1stLt), a runner/radiotelephone operator, and, at least in the Marines, a company gunnery sergeant.
    Nowadays, that’s ballooned up to include operations chiefs, logistics personnel, and intelligence personnel.  They bring almost as much “ass” as what used to pass for a battalion or even a regimental TOC/COC in WWII.  Regimental COCs have ballooned up to more than 50 Marines–greater than a platoon!  Division COCs have what amounts to companies of field grade officers running about doing whatever it is that field grade officers do.  It’s somewhat amazing to consider that during the ’67 war in the Sinai Peninsula, the Israeli armored corps command group consisted of a mere seven soldiers (including the corps commander)–to coordinate, integrate, and command the units of a corps!  Yet today we can’t even control a company with the same number of people.
    Something’s amiss.  Perhaps it’s an abiding trust in technology and data systems, while an abiding mistrust of our people and leaders to do the right thing without supervision.  That, and we’ve gotten too used to the living the FOBbit lifestyle with Green Beans Coffee and 2-3 computers (NIPR, SIPR, CENTRIX) per officer building ever expanding situation reports, storyboards, powerpoints, and doing MarineNET information assurance courses–to say nothing of surfing the web.

  4. Grurray Says:

    I guess when you’re plan is to take a mini United Nations into each village, the front office will tend to get crowded.
    “As our doctrine specifies, all of our operations will be some mix of offense, defense and stability operations. The fact was that we were not as prepared for that as we should have been when we went into Iraq and Afghanistan.”
     His stability structures may have been inadequate because they were always going to be inadequate.
    I keep thinking of Heisenberg & the observer effect – the more local you try to get, the less control that you’re going to have, and the more disorder you’re going to create.

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