Eight years ago, as Washington was making the transition from the nightmare years of George W. Bush to the endless possibilities of Barack Obama, national security elites were transfixed by a military doctrine called counterinsurgency.
The modern counterinsurgency faith stirred to life in the glory days of JFK’s “hearts and minds” campaign in Vietnam. Its champions promised to win over conquered lands by eschewing raw firepower for enlightened social projects. They pledged to use cash, economic aid, and military training to convince locals that America offered their last, best hope for a better life. When they retrofitted the doctrine to help salvage the disastrous 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, they called themselves “COINdinistas.”
Leading the twenty-first-century revival of counterinsurgency was an up-and-coming army general, David H. Petraeus, who had participated in nearly every major U.S. intervention overseas since Vietnam, including those in El Salvador, Haiti, Bosnia, and Iraq. After preaching the COIN gospel for decades on the margins of the national security establishment, Petraeus was appointed in 2007 to command U.S. forces in Iraq. There, he finally got his chance to practice what his followers liked to call the “new American way of war.”