American officers call them the Kit Carson Scouts: Sunni military units prowling the desert to hunt down Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other extremist jihadi groups. The original Kit Carson fought ruthlessly to repress the Navajo on their reservations by employing rival tribes like the Ute in one of the American military’s first counterinsurgency campaigns. Even today, America’s favorite weapons–the Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas, Black Hawks and Tomahawks– testify to the military’s most formative memories.
Now counterinsurgency is back in favor, the cure for Iraq as implemented by Gen. David Petraeus and an assortment of Ivy League advisers. By enlisting Sunni Iraqi insurgents to turn their guns against jihadis, Petraeus is claiming tactical progress in the “surge.” The Bush Administration is using that claim in its campaign to continue the surge for another six months, and the war itself for a few years longer. There may also be a high-stakes internal coup against Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, which could be coupled with US appeals to allow more time for political progress. August was spent on feverish promotion of the Petraeus plan, with several dozen members of Congress wined, dined and personally briefed in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Pundits Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, who promoted the 2003 invasion, wrote a widely circulated New York Times op-ed piece titled “A War We Just Might Win” after a recent trip to Baghdad. Fox News then featured O’Hanlon in an up-beat hourlong special about Petraeus and counterinsurgency. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave O’Hanlon an appreciative audience as well. (The PR campaign is having some effect: In late August 29 percent of Americans believed the surge was “making the situation better in Iraq,” up ten points from July. And $15 million is now being spent on Republican television spots to shore up support for the war.)
While Fox is doing the flacking, the Petraeus plan draws intellectual legitimacy from Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, whose director, Sarah Sewall, proudly embraces an “unprecedented collaboration [as] a human rights center partnered with the armed forces.” Sewall, a former Pentagon official, co-sponsored a “doctrine revision workshop” at Fort Leavenworth that prepared the Army and Marines’ new counterinsurgency warfighting Field Manual. The manual is the most widely read of several new and reissued works on counterinsurgency, or COIN, with 2 million downloads in its first two months on the Internet. The other influential works are John Nagl’s Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife (2002) and David Galula’s book on Algeria, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (1964). Not only are both books endorsed by Sewall in her introduction to the Field Manual but the Field Manual and the 2006 reprinting of Galula’s book both contain introductions by Nagl, a Rhodes scholar from West Point and a former commander in Iraq who predicts counterinsurgency warfare for the next fifty years in an “arc of instability” in the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South Asia.