by Patrick Bahzad
"We are the men from the assault troops, soldiers of the old Legion.
Tomorrow we will be holding up our flags, as victors we will ravel.
Not only do we carry our weapons, but the devil is walking at our side."
Song of the French Foreign Legion
At first sight, April 1961 and April 2015 don’t have much in common. Fifty-four years separate both dates and a lot has happened in between. Were it not for the recent ruling of a federal court in Charlotte, N.C., one could probably be guessing until pigs can fly as to what the connection is between these dates. Yet there is a link, one that points to fundamentally opposed attitudes among military leaders and raises tough questions about the ethics as well as the standing of the military establishment in today's world.
The "David Petraeus" case is shut. Done and dusted. Two years' probation and a hefty fine, that's what the leaking of classified information cost the four-star General, ex-CIA director and former poster-boy of the Bush administration. A sad and pitiful end to a sad and pitiful affair, in every sense of the word. Time to reflect briefly on the demise of the "face" that allegedly won the US a war and George W. a successful second term.
We were spared no hyperbole when Petraeus was announced as the guy who would change the course of the war in Iraq. The administration seemed to look up to him, as if he were Jesus-Christ himself, having come back to save his (Neo-Con) flock from the wicked and wretched souls of the Iraqi insurgents. But let us be clear about this. The strategy of the "Surge" was born just as much out of military necessity as of political interest.
Things had to change, that was known to both the civilian and the military leadership. And the operational blue-print for that change also was no mystery. What was missing, was a "face" to embody this change. A hero had to rise ... A warrior figure, inspiring but sophisticated. That's where Petraeus came in. Described as a kind of modern day Alexander, he was a military man with brains and a PhD. A PR-engineered saviour who would implement the new policy and get America (and George W.) out of the Iraqi quagmire.
His counter-insurgency field manual, the famous FM 3/24, was hyped-up as a revolutionary masterpiece of military thinking. After the revolution in military affairs, came the new American Clausewitz of the early 21st century. For whoever has read the FM 3/24 though, the description sounds slightly out of touch with reality, but it fitted both the political and the media circus back home.
In fact, the new COIN doctrine was just a combination of Petraeus' personal experience in the Mosul area in 2003-2004 (and during a second tour in 2005) and classic counter-insurgency techniques and tactics, based largely on the writings of French and British strategists, from the time of the colonial wars in the 1950s and 1960s.
Petraeus' all too famous 14 "Observations from Soldiering in Iraq" would become to the US forces what the 10 commandments were to the Old Testament and it's no coincidence Petraeus became known as "King David" during and even after his time in Iraq. How much of a personal contribution he made to the temporary success of the US military campaign will be up for experts in military history to decide. Chances are, there won't ever be a consensus about it, because what is mostly known, publicized and quantifiable is only the "bright" side of the Petraeus strategy. But read between the lines of his recommendations and another picture will emerge, one much darker and less glamorous.
The Dark Side of Petraeus and his "Surge"
Before being appointed Commanding General of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq, Petraeus had a stint as the head of MNSTC-I, the "Multi-National Security Transition Command – Iraq". What he oversaw and maybe overlooked there – or on the contrary encouraged – is a much different type of counter-insurgency than the one that was sold to the American public two years later. It was not so much about nation building, engaging with the locals and building-up alliances.