Petraeus, Pentagon Repeating the Mistakes of Vietnam

Gen. David Petraeus leads the way on revisionism of Vietnam War.

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As was widely covered by his adoring press, Gen. David Petraeus this week stepped down as commander of allied forces in Afghanistan to begin his new job as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Petraeus is the latest in a long line of celebrity soldiers that dates back to Gen. George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln’s mercurial field marshal whose star collapsed under the burden of his presidential ambitions.

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Petraeus is similarly ambitious, though he is wise enough to downplay it. No doubt he too is eyeing the White House and, given the ever-expanding size of our national security state, running the country’s largest intelligence service is a good away as any to get there. In the meantime, expect the convergence between America’s military and its intelligence apparatus, promoted by Petraeus while he was proconsul to the Middle East, to intensify along with the country’s involvement in “small” wars and other conflicts in obscure parts of the world.

Petraeus is at the vanguard of military leaders who believe America over-learned the lessons of Vietnam and are thus far less reluctant about committing the nation militarily against perceived threats. The war in Vietnam, according to their revisionist take, was lost not because it was intrinsically unwinnable but because of a failure of execution and a lack of civilian resolve. As a postgraduate student at Princeton in 1987, Petraeus warned against “a chastening effect on military thinking about the use of force” generally and “a new skepticism about the efficacy of American forces in the Third World” in particular. (This, mind you, was only four years after the U.S. debacle in Lebanon.) Years later, Petraeus’ conceit would resonate in FM 3-24, the military’s counterinsurgency field manual that he helped update. [Check out our roundup of Afghanistan political cartoons.]

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Petraeus’ calls for meeting stubborn insurgencies with more troops. The success of his “surge” in Iraq, which hinged on the assistance of Sunni tribesmen counter-attacking Al Qaeda ringers, has proved far more difficult to repeat in Afghanistan, where violence is on the rise and the likely outcome of the conflict there is as as uncertain as ever.

Will the lessons of Afghanistan “chasten” the new CIA director? One would hope so, but the siren call of Vietnam revisionism may be too strong to resist. Consider FM 3-07, the military’s handbook on “stability operations,” the latest Pentagon euphemism for nation building. Particularly interesting is its account of Civil Operations and Revolutionary Support, or CORDS, which was a Vietnam-era counterinsurgency effort that combined the U.S. military, the United State Agency for International Development, and the CIA. According to the authors of FM 3-07, unveiled in 2008, CORDS was a model of interagency integration, or a “whole of government approach,” for winning small wars and a source for “valuable lessons that helped shape contemporary approaches to stability operations.” In an article that appeared in the July-August 2008 edition of Military Review, the authors of FM 3-07 credit Ambassador Robert W. Komer, as deputy for pacification efforts in Saigon, for “effectively unifying the civil-military effort in South Vietnam.” [Vote now: Is Obama's Afghanistan withdrawal strategy correct.]

This would have been news to Komer, who in 1972 wrote a blistering critique of CORDS-led pacification efforts in Vietnam for the RAND Corporation. The programs failed, Komer wrote, not because Washington lacked the stomach to prosecute them effectively but because “the preponderant weight of the U.S. military ... tended to dictate a military response.” The United States, Komer went on, “grossly misjudged what it could actually accomplish with the huge effort it eventually made, and thus became more and more wound up in a war it couldn’t ‘win’ the way it fought it.”

Rather than study Komer’s testimony as an instructive cautionary tale, Petraeus expanded Pentagon-CIA collaboration in Afghanistan, particularly as it relates to drone aircraft attacks that have killed numerous civilians along with suspected extremists. Popular anger against drone missions deprives U.S. forces of the good will they need to woo neutrals to their side, which diminishes the returns of successful kills. It is the kind of vicious spiral that undermined U.S. efforts in Vietnam, as Komer reminds us in his RAND study.

Such is the gravitational pull of revisionism, however, that both the Pentagon and the CIA embrace drone warfare as an article of faith. Having dismissed or re-imagined the legacy of Vietnam, Petraeus and his co-generationists are fated to deepen interagency efforts that, like CORDS, are capable of yielding tactical victories at best.

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