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Respect for Petraeus, With Some Reservations

By David Warren

Lt.-Gen. David Howell Petraeus was unanimously confirmed Friday as new chief of staff of the U.S. Army, to oversee the allied effort in Iraq. He is an intelligent and very interesting man, and I begin and end with best wishes.

In the invasion of Iraq, Gen Petraeus -- or "Peaches" as he is known through the mispronunciation of his surname -- had command of the 101st Airborne. It played unaccustomed continuo to the remarkable solo of the 3rd Infantry Division. As pro-consul in Mosul, he kept the town in order, but the moment the 101st left, this collapsed. For 15 months he was in charge of training the troops for Iraq's new army and police. The task has proved more difficult than anyone expected; his results were, at best, mixed. I wouldn't say he rises to high command with a reputation for invincibility.

Gen. Petraeus has my respect (the little that's worth) for having studied successful British models of counter-insurgency in Malaya and East Africa, and for recognizing that the U.S. comes to most third-world battlefields with much less experience than the British had acquired through long Imperial trial and error. He is clear that the Iraqi insurgents are unlike the Viet Cong; clear, too, that there are certain tactical constants in all revolutionary insurgencies.

Yet I still think he may have an aptitude for grasping the wrong end of the stick. There is, for instance, a failure to fully grasp that the British had, in the generations under discussion, media prepared to be reasonably discreet about what their troops were up to; and their own track record for seeing things through to the end.

The reading assignment for today was "COIN FM 3-24" (which you may Google), the new American counter-insurgency field manual, that appeared last June. Gen. Petraeus was its guiding spirit, and it reflects the scholarly anthropological interests that he has been developing since his doctoral days at Princeton. I almost wrote a column about this document last year: it struck me as the bromide for a "kinder and gentler" form of occupation army.

But no quantity of cultural sensitivity will make up for the fact that we are not Muslim, not Arab, and not in a position to dispense favours indefinitely. We are aliens to the Iraqis, as to the Afghans, and their cultures are rather more xenophobic than ours. Arabs and Pashtoons alike admire resolution, and despise irresolution: as most humans do. Having a short and comprehensible set of desiderata, and refusing to budge until they are fulfilled, makes, I think, a much better impression than playing the compassionate clown.

The British were adept at leaving room for "the natives" to follow their own customs, and live their own lives, while recruiting local soldiers to fight the British way. In the heyday of the East India Company, they benefited from officers who really could smoke a hookah, and prattle away in Hindi. But the Mutiny of 1857 was also brought on by excessive familiarity (see contemporary Parliamentary reports, passim).

To put this positively, there is no median position between two cultures utterly alien to each other. Communication is not achieved by compromise, as the postmodernists assume, but by a kind of dance and sign language, in which each is helped to guess what to expect from the other. "If you do this, we will do that," is, harsh as it may sound, the beginning of real mutual understanding.

This is a large historical subject, which I fear is so replete with intercultural paradoxes, that it does not make a suitable study for military men. At the commando level, our soldiers must know enough to survive a long way from base. But I often think the fetish for making rank-and-file soldiers more culturally astute is, like the fetish for better intelligence reports, a "straw herring". That is to say, it doesn't make any difference to the outcome of the battle -- for what must be learned will always be learned in the field, and will never be quite what the cleverest people expected.

We seem to have learned in the field in both Iraq and Afghanistan that we need more soldiers. I was pleased to see the Nato ministers in Brussels yesterday respond to American prompting to send more through Kabul. As ever my heart is with them; and with Gen. Petraeus -- for whatever my reservations about him as a commander, I want to see him make some history, and sail home a hero.

© Ottawa Citizen

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