Finally: Mainstream Compares COIN to Waterloo

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, March 06, 2013

The Battle of Waterloo was a decisive defeat for the Emperor Napoleon: his losses forced his abdication, restored King Louis XVIII to France’s throne, and sent the former emperor away for the rest of his days in exile on the isle of Saint Helena. In other words, it destroyed him.

The Battle of Waterloo (Mary Evans Picture Library 10023793)

The Battle of Waterloo (Mary Evans Picture Library 10023793)

From then on, meeting one’s “Waterloo” has become a catch-all for ruinous defeat against an insurmountable opponent.

For Slate military writer and author Fred Kaplan to draw such an analogy from the once-vaunted counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, sanctified and pursued by once-Gen. David “King” Petraeus for the U.S Army and for the whole of the military (if not the entire U.S government’s efforts overseas) from 2007  through 2011, it’s well, a big deal. For years, COIN was shoved down our throats as the new American Way of War. Careers in the Pentagon thrived –and were thwarted — based on who “got it” and who failed to be a willing Team COIN player.

But just as fast as COIN madeth, COIN tooketh away. Kaplan wrote about this evolution in his new book The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. Hindsight is fun, but one gets the sickly feeling that it would have been nice if more mainstream writers had stuck their necks out to complain about the lack of the emperor’s clothing when it really counted (like six years ago). Kaplan was one of the few who had, writing pieces like this in late 2006, when plans for Petraeus’s Iraq “Surge” were all the rage among the establishment hive in Washington.

Regardless, Kaplan is getting some “I told you so” time, now, and had this to say recently in a Q&A interview on Small Wars Journal (quite notable for once being the go-to site for the COINdinista crowd at its height):

Afghanistan was COIN’s Waterloo. The internal debate over Obama’s policy in 2009-10 was so interwoven with a debate over COIN that when Afghanistan failed–at least by the standards that justified the president’s surge of 33,000 extra troops–then COIN was seen as having failed too, or at least as having proved itself too limited, too risky, too time-consuming to justify its extraordinary investment in lives and treasure. There are certain generals–Odierno, Dempsey, McMaster, others–who are trying to preserve “the lessons of 11 years of war” (aka the lessons and principles of COIN), but this will be hard to do, given that COIN is no longer a “core mission,” ie, given that the president, in his February 2012 strategy review, declared that the Army and Marines will no longer size forces for large-scale, prolonged stability operations. ….

… When Robert Gates said in 2006 that Iraq and Afghanistan are the models for future war, and when the 2007 promotion board gave stars to the most COIN-creative colonels, it looked like COIN would be the new thing. When Gates said in 2011, shortly before resigning, that only someone who’s out of his mind would recommend sending large-scale forces to the Middle East for another war, and when the Iraq formula failed in Afghanistan, it looked like the COIN revolution was done.

…(military adviser) David Kilcullen made a point in a 2008-09 COIN manual that he wrote for civilian policymakers: “it is folly,” he wrote, to undertake a COIN operation abroad if it’s petty clear the regime isn’t interested in reforming. He also wrote that, before going with a COIN operation, US policymakers “must” make a calculation of how interested the regime is in reform. This is a calculation the Obama administration didn’t know to make during its first year in office – and that the military commanders who advised the president purposefully avoided, or evaded.

The take home point for me here is that Petraeus was thriving politically for pushing the COIN template on Afghanistan instead of advising the President to do otherwise, which would have been more in keeping with the fundamentals of COIN these “COINdinistas” had been warbling about all along. Politics and the thrall of proving COIN in the latest mission had taken priority and the gamble became their Waterloo.

Kaplan’s book has been lauded for its detail in tracking the counterinsurgency strategy from the inside, but it’s taken some criticism, too, mostly for not being tough enough on Petraeus. This review on the Kings of War website (hardly a bastion of antiwar writers) calls it “too dependent on the tale told by ‘the insurgents’ and their acolytes to be a truly definitive account. Its conclusions rest too much on the easy, conventional wisdom reflected in contemporary media analyses—and suggested by media-savvy ‘friends of Petraeus.’”

As I have not read the book myself, I cannot say whether this is true and if I do read it — which I am more compelled to do now — I will report back. In the meantime, just having reviewed Nick Turse’s book on atrocities and war crimes in Vietnam, I was intrigued by Kaplan’s references in the interview (and book) to the West Point “Sosh Mafia” clique which had been formed after World War II and had continued to influence Army doctrine and policy under Petraeus (West Point ’74) today:

The Sosh Mafia (as its members called themselves) was very important. The Social Science Department of West Point was created right after WWII by Brig Gen George “Abe” Lincoln, a former Rhodes Scholar, who’d served as General Marshall’s aide during the War and who saw that, with the US facing global responsibilities, the Army would need to educate a new kind of officer, schooled in politics, economics, and military matters – hence the Sosh department. He also created a network, in which alumnae of the “Lincoln Brigade” (as they also called themselves) would give each other jobs, exchange ideas. When COIN gained currency, this group’s knowledge of politics, economics, society and war – and the connections among them – made the idea resonate. The networking they’d picked up on also made it second-nature to form a new kind of network. As I relate in my book, in great detail, every aspect of the revolution that Petraeus led involved – and, in most cases, had its roots in — the Sosh mafia.

In Kill Anything That Moves, Turse refers to West Point too, but he talks about the “West Point Protective Association (WPPA),” active under much more ominous circumstances:

“In 1968, twenty -two out of the twenty-four principle commanders and staff officers in the U.S Army were all graduates of that prestigious military academy. Protecting West Pointers was thus essentially tantamount to protecting the military itself as an institution. Not surprisingly, quite a few West Point graduates implicated in war crimes saw the allegations against them conveniently disappear.

So out of the ashes of Vietnam came Petraeus and the young Turks of the Sosh Mafia. Into the ashes of Afghanistan goes COIN, the hive now officially (and finally) declares.

It’s one thing to acknowledge failure, but it’s another to learn from it. Are we smart enough to anticipate our next Waterloo? Or are we still too dependent on the Sosh Mafias, and the Petraeuses of the military to avoid it?




7 Responses to “Finally: Mainstream Compares COIN to Waterloo”

  1. Anybody remember Ted Westhusing, who committed suicide in Iraq? His CO was Petraeus. This gets curiouser and curiouser….

  2. aplan’s book has been lauded for its detail in tracking the counterinsurgency strategy from the inside, but it’s taken some criticism, too, mostly for not being tough enough on Petraeus.

  3. Thanks Sister for bringing Ted Westhusing to my attention. His saga is impottant to the understanding of what went wron in Iraq, in 911 and in Afghanistan also…. Check this:

    The following is the SUICIDE note left by Col. Westhusing to his commanding officer General Petraeus. The note was featured in an article by Robert Pryce, published in the Texas Observer on March 8, 2007

    "Thanks for telling me it was a good day until I briefed you. [Redacted name]—You are only interested in your career and provide no support to your staff—no msn [mission] support and you don’t care. I cannot support a msn that leads to corruption, human right abuses and liars. I am sullied—no more. I didn’t volunteer to support corrupt, money grubbing contractors, nor work for commanders only interested in themselves. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored. I trust no Iraqi. I cannot live this way. All my love to my family, my wife and my precious children. I love you and trust you only. Death before being dishonored any more. Trust is essential—I don’t know who trust anymore. [sic] Why serve when you cannot accomplish the mission, when you no longer believe in the cause, when your every effort and breath to succeed meets with lies, lack of support, and selfishness? No more. Reevaluate yourselves, cdrs [commanders]. You are not what you think you are and I know it.

    COL Ted Westhusing

    Life needs trust. Trust is no more for me here in Iraq."

  4. Excerpt from A Death Reconsidered: Part 1.

    "Before going further, let’s be clear that the available evidence generally supports the military’s finding that Westhusing’s death was a suicide. As I wrote in my earlier story on Westhusing, (“I Am Sullied-No More,” March 9, 2007) he was increasingly withdrawn and exhibited signs of depression in the weeks before his death. His e-mails back to his family in the U.S. reflected his increasing worries and frustration with his situation. In one May 14, 2005, e-mail that was recently provided to me by his mother, Westhusing wrote, “Dear moms – My boss is an idiot.” It isn’t clear if Westhusing is referring to Petraeus or another commander he worked under, Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil. The e-mail continues, saying that he will “keep working it … impossible as it may be.” Two days later, he wrote again, saying, “Very small dingy dear moms in a rough, endless sea.” On May 29, another e-mail to his mother: “I am getting into fights with everyone. No support, trying to take my contractor away, investigations, etc. I will stick to my guns … Love you. May call tonight if able. No worries. Don’t stick around because no guarantees.”

    "While most of the evidence points to the simplest conclusion-suicide-there are several oddities about his death that deserve further consideration.

    Foremost, why would Westhusing shoot himself behind the ear? Most suicides by gunshot occur when the victims place the muzzle of a firearm in their mouth, under their chin, at their forehead, or to their temple. Westhusing’s death, according to military reports, was caused by a gunshot behind his left ear. Dr. Lawson Bernstein, an expert in forensic and clinical psychiatry who is based in Pittsburgh and has worked on numerous suicide investigations, told me that he had never seen a case of suicide by gunshot with the wound behind the ear. “If I was part of any coroner’s team, I’d be looking at this as something else,” he said. “It sounds like an execution.” He went on to say that it’s “an unusual mechanism” for suicide and that in his mind there are two possibilities: It’s not a suicide, or “it’s someone trying to make it not look like a suicide.”

    "Perhaps the most confounding element of the Westhusing story is the letter that Westhusing wrote to Maj. Gen. Fil on May 28, 2005, officially absolving a key contractor of alleged wrongdoing. One of Westhusing’s primary duties was overseeing contractors from Virginia-based U.S. Investigations Services, a private security company with contracts worth $79 million to help train Iraqi police units that were conducting special operations. (The owners of USIS include the Carlyle Group, the private equity firm whose investors formerly included former President George H.W. Bush and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.) A few days before he penned the May 28 letter, Westhusing had received an anonymous letter claiming USIS was cheating the military, that several hundred weapons assigned to the counterterrorism training program had disappeared, and that a number of radios, each costing $4,000, had vanished. The anonymous letter concluded that USIS was “not providing what you are paying for” and that the entire training operation was “a total failure.”

  5. Excerpt from A Death Reconsidered: Part 2.

    Westhusing repeatedly told his family he was distraught over his problems with military contractors. The same day he wrote the letter absolving USIS, he wrote an e-mail to his brother, Thad, which said, “We are painting a picture with evil ripping the canvas with every stroke, with five and seven and 10 levels of bureaucracy gone through before applying the brush, with every stroke of the brush liable to be ripped from your grasp by a VBIED [vehicle-borne improvised explosive device]. … Every day brings insurmountable problems.”

    The note found next to his body, which his mother refuses to accept as a suicide note, includes this line: “I didn’t volunteer to support corrupt, money grubbing contractors …”

    Yet on May 28, one week before his death, Westhusing wrote a letter that officially exonerated USIS. “My review of the allegations and response is that USIS is complying with its contractual obligations,” he wrote. “The evidence suggests that the other allegations are not true as well.” Westhusing’s letter came the day after USIS wrote its own response to the Joint Contracting Command-Iraq in Baghdad. The company denied all the allegations in the anonymous letter, calling them “baseless and patently false.” The company’s May 27 letter concluded that “USIS has been faithfully supporting the U.S. and Iraqi governments on the front lines in the global war on terrorism since reconstruction and stabilization efforts began in Iraq … all allegations addressed herein are nothing more than unsubstantiated rumors.”

    Perhaps that was true. But Westhusing’s mother said the problems he was having with the contractors “really gnawed” at him. “He knew there was something wrong … If he killed himself, the letter is part of the reason.” She adds, “He was convinced in his heart that things were corrupt.”

    Over the past few months, it has become clear that the lost weapons associated with the counterterrorism program are just a fraction of the overall losses. Last August, the Government Accountability Office reported that the Pentagon cannot account for 110,000 AK-47 assault rifles, 80,000 pistols, 135,000 items of body armor, and 115,000 helmets intended for Iraqi security forces.

  6. [...] B. Vlahos interviewed historian Nick Turseon his new book about US atrocities in Vietnam, and notedthe mainstream criticism of COIN [...]

  7. [...] B. Vlahos interviewed historian Nick Turseon his new book about US atrocities in Vietnam, and notedthe mainstream criticism of COIN [...]