CARLISLE, Pa. – Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who led a surge of U.S. troops and shifted Iraqi militia alliances to help turn the tide of the Iraq War, now says a similar, counterinsurgency-based approach could work for the Israel-Hamas conflict.
The former CIA director, who was later tasked with stabilizing the Afghanistan War, spoke on Nov. 30 at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center near the home of the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, following the October release of the book “Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine,” which he co-authored with military historian Andrew Roberts.
The book centers on political-military strategy following the end of World War II and how those changes resonate in current and future conflicts.
Part military history, part memoir, the general draws on his experiences in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan for some of the more recent parallels. Petraeus also dissects the failures of the Vietnam War, a conflict he analyzed for his doctoral dissertation as a young Army officer in the 1980s.
The retired general largely champions the counterinsurgency, or COIN, approach in conflicts such as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, but also notes how difficult it can be, how precarious its gains are and how quickly those successes can disintegrate without sustained support.
His thesis, both in the book and at his recent discussion, centers around the vital nature of strategic leadership and getting “big ideas” right from the outset, something he said the U.S. failed to do both in Vietnam and for the first nine years of the Afghanistan War.
Shifting his attention to the current Israel-Hamas War, Petraeus said the “big idea” Israel has landed on is destroying Hamas. But how that happens and what comes next remain unresolved.
Petraeus, who said he has ongoing discussions with interlocutors in the Middle East, claimed that Israel has determined Hamas is the equivalent of the Islamic State, meaning it is an irreconcilable, extremist organization.
“You have to, therefore, destroy them,” Petraeus said. Israel cannot allow Hamas to reconstitute as a militant group and it also must dismantle the group’s political wing, he argued, adding that military force alone won’t accomplish that goal.
“But there are some big ideas missing,” Petraeus said. “You can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial strength insurgency.” The Hamas challenge echoes what U.S. forces faced in Iraq and Israel should take a similar approach, he said.
“The campaign should be a counterinsurgency campaign,” Petraeus said. “Don’t clear and go on. Clear, hold and build.”
The U.S. pitch at the time of the Iraq surge was that the United States wanted the Sunni groups’ help or at least for those groups not to impede their work as they went after other insurgent groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq. With that approach, he said, many of the formerly opposing Sunni groups began helping the Americans.
But even if early surge efforts in Iraq — and later in Afghanistan — saw success, short-term and long-term failures led the respective insurgencies to claw back U.S. gains.
The surge drove the fledgling Islamic State, which had been established in 2006, out of Baghdad and into Diyala, Salahideen and Mosul, Iraq. By 2008 an estimated 2,400 members remained out of a previous high of 15,000, according to analysis by The Wilson Center.
Following the 2011 end of the Iraq War, ISIS began a series of bombings, attacks and prison breaks in Syria, launching successful attacks that captured territory in Syria and then both Fallujah and parts of Ramadi by 2013. The following year, ISIS took over Mosul and Tikrit. It wasn’t until late 2017 that U.S. and Iraqi forces could dismantle the majority of ISIS’ infrastructure and reclaim territory once controlled by the extremist group.
Dr. Jason Dempsey, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Military Times, “the only lesson on COIN that we as Americans have to offer or should be offering, is that one, we didn’t do it very well.”
Dempsey saw this first hand on two Afghanistan tours, one in 2009 when he served with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and later led Task Force Spartan coordinating COIN operations in Wardak and Logar provinces. He returned to Afghanistan from 2012-13 with the 101st Airborne Division as a combat advisor to the Afghan Border Police.
During his recent book talk, Petraeus himself acknowledged the challenges of sustaining counterinsurgency gains in Iraq.
“We learned the hard way with the Islamic State that if folks take their eye off them, don’t be surprised if a few years later there’s a caliphate,” Petraeus said.
Shortly after shifting to counterinsurgency and surging troops into Iraq, Petraeus was tasked with stabilizing the declining security situation in Afghanistan. Arriving in 2010, nearly a decade into the war, the four-star applied a similar approach as in Iraq — an increase of forces that pushed into Taliban-controlled areas, working with local populations to gain support in countering the Taliban.
“In every case, Afghanistan was much, much harder,” Petraeus said.
One such place that served as a key test for the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan was the city of Marjah in 2010. The U.S.-led coalition pushed thousands of troops into the area to clear out the Taliban insurgency. But by 2015, the Taliban had regained their hold on the region. It was not until 2019 that the coalition controlled Marjah again. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, the entire nation was under Taliban control.
Though the U.S. military spent two decades in Afghanistan, the nation’s longest war, Petraeus pointed to the final leg of the conflict in which an estimated 3,500 U.S. troops, aided by persistent drone cover, were able to hold the Taliban at bay and not suffer a single U.S. fatality in more than 18 months. He saw that level of troops and support operations as sustainable and should have continued.
But taking out militants in Gaza won’t produce lasting results without a political solution, he said. “There needs to be a vision for who’s going to oversee Gaza.”
While Israel may not want that job, it might need to do it, at least temporarily, he said. That would require Israelis winning over Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank to support that effort as a transitional Palestinian government takes shape.
That approach, Dempsey said, ignores major differences in Gaza as compared to U.S. efforts in recent wars.
“It’s not an internal fight,” he said. “These are two states that happen to be fighting.”
What can be learned from past U.S. COIN efforts, is how to avoid the allure of black-and-white narratives, Dempsey said. For years, U.S. leaders defined any Taliban association with Al Qaeda as meaning the Taliban, and anyone who worked with them was as much of an existential threat as Al Qaeda. That view prevented U.S. leaders from seeing ways to work with various groups to gain support.
“It’s COIN 101, treat civilians like an enemy and they’ll become an enemy, even if they’re not,” Dempsey said.
And the dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians is even more complicated.
“The narratives are so hardened, there’s just almost no way that Israel could walk in there and Israeli forces in any way shape or form be seen as anything other than occupiers,” Dempsey said.
Petraeus called the current combat campaign the “most fiendishly difficult and challenging urban operation since 1945.” But that operation could conclude in weeks or months. The longer, even more precarious effort, to gain Palestinian support through a counterinsurgency campaign, would take longer.
“And if you go in with that mindset, the way we did in Ramadi, Fallujah and the other Sunni areas, very sequentially and progressively, I think that the results will be better over time,” he said.
That kind of thinking ignores generations of conflict between Israel and Gaza, Dempsey said.
“In what universe does building a school compensate, ameliorate these generational struggles?” he said.
Any chance of success, Dempsey argued, would require an international coalition effort with a nation other than Israel or the United States in the lead.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
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