February 10, 2008

The Professional

Sometimes we here at Abu Muqawama are guilty of black-and-white characterizations that don't really provide the nuance our readers have come to expect on the issues, and for that we apologize. On the debate over the role of air power in counterinsurgency, for example, you don't have to scour the achieves to figure out what our opinion might be on, say, the arguments of Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap.

And so Abu Muqawama himself is wary of this black-and-white narrative that has developed concerning our last two secretaries of defense whereby Donald Rumsfeld was the personification of evil and Robert Gates, his successor, has been a gift from the Lord God Almighty Himself. For one thing, there is an argument to be made that the legacy of Sec. Rumsfeld includes, in addition to the "Charlie Foxtrot" that is Iraq, the vital re-establishment of civilian control over the joint chiefs and the military establishment. The generals, the logic goes, weren't about the reform themselves if left to their own devices. It was always going to take a strong personality like Rumsfeld.

But while Rumsfeld's legacy may be a mixed bag, it has indeed been tough to find many people who have anything bad to say about Sec. Gates. From everything that Abu Muqawama has heard, he is every bit the quiet professional he is portrayed as in Fred Kaplan's profile in today's New York Times Magazine. If you get the chance, read the article and get a glimpse of why his tenure as secretary of defense will be mourned and missed by folks on both sides of the aisle -- and the military itself -- when it ends in a little less than a year.

Of course, it helps Sec. Gates's case with the writers of this blog that he has been a quick and eager student of counterinsurgency...

It was during the panel’s trip to Iraq in August 2006 that Gates was sold on the idea of a surge — though as a prelude to troop reductions. He and the others were briefed by the multinational corps commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Pete Chiarelli. According to one participant in the briefing, who is still on active duty and not authorized to speak on the record, Chiarelli put forth what would be the principal rationale for the surge that eventually began last February. The main problem in Iraq, Chiarelli told them, was the sectarian nature of the Shiite-led government and its refusal to reach out to Sunnis. Before the factions could reach a political settlement, they needed Baghdad to be secure. Security was also needed for the steady supply of essential services, which in turn might build allegiance to the government and dry up support for the insurgents. Boosting security, though, meant more troops. Without more troops, Chiarelli told them, he could “clear” Baghdad of insurgents, but he couldn’t “hold” the city — he couldn’t keep it secure — much less “build” its infrastructure.

Gates and Chiarelli hit if off so well that after Gates came to the Pentagon, he hired the general to be his senior military assistant. Chiarelli gave Gates an advance copy of an article he wrote for the journal Military Review called “Learning From Our Modern Wars,” which called for a shift in Army doctrine away from large-scale combat against enemies of comparable strength toward “asymmetric warfare,” especially counterinsurgency operations. Last October, in a speech before the Association of the U.S. Army, Gates made a pitch for these ideas. To the Army hierarchy, which is dominated by tank and infantry officers who cut their teeth — and still stack their budgets — on old-style combat, it amounted to a rebel cry. Gates also approved a move to appoint Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq and chief author of the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency, as the head of the brigadier-general promotion board this past fall. The move was clearly intended, and widely interpreted, to help ensure the promotion of creative commanders who were previously passed over for promotion from colonel to one-star general — in short, to start the process of institutionalizing the new style of warfare.