Thursday, January 24, 2013

COINcidentally, a band of brothers

In the final days before classes begin again, I've had time to read several new books. One of the most exciting has been Fred Kaplan's The Insurgents
It's a riveting story of how an idea -- counterinsurgency -- was grasped by a few far-sighted Army officers and then turned into military doctrine and operational practice in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kaplan's heroes -- Gen. David Petraeus at the center, but many mentors and acolytes as well -- are labeled "insurgents" because they challenged the Army's post-Vietnam conventional wisdom that irregular, asymmetric, "low intensity" conflicts would not and should not be fought. They won acceptance of their ideas after several years of unsuccessful combat in Afghanistan and Iraq because the old doctrine of just killing the enemy had failed. Regrettably, though the new approach was tried in both places, it was not matched by needed changes by the host governments.

Kaplan provides fascinating details of how the insurgents met each other, collaborated openly or secretly in developing ideas and policy recommendations, and ultimately won top level support to put their ideas into practice. For Washington insiders, it's a story of creative networking, how captains and majors made the contacts and got the jobs that led to influence and power years later. For them, whom they knew mattered at least as much as what they knew.

Unlike the typical journalist's book set in Washington and centered on the White House, this covers both Washington and Baghdad and Kabul, and tells the stories of the men and women who fought the wars and tried to learn useful lessons from the experience. It's not about national politics but about institutional change in one of our oldest institutions, the U.S. Army.

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