The Petraeus’ Doctrine: A Better Way to Win

Noted for being effective in the search for solutions to the deep and complex issues which plague Iraq and Afghanistan, the Petraeus Doctrine has offered a new approach to fighting terrorism and dangerous insurgent armies. Perplexed by two grueling battles that have lasted longer than expected, what U.S. General David Petraeus hoped to discover in his thorough revision of the army/marine operational combat counterinsurgency manual was a better way to deal with the difficulties of “irregular warfare” and rogue terrorism (Robinson, 78) (Ricks, 24).

As successes in the War on Terror have become increasingly associated with Gen. Petraeus, people may have forgotten the previous military stance on combat. To provide a contrast between the two, Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich notes the difference between the Powell and Petraeus strategies: 

In the 1990’s the Powell Doctrine, with its emphasis on overwhelming force, assumed that future American wars would be brief, decisive, and infrequent. According to the emerging Petraeus Doctrine, the Army (like it or not) is entering an era in which armed conflict will be protracted, ambiguous, and continuous—with the application of force becoming a lesser part of the soldier’s repertoire (Bacevich, 2008).

Before Petraeus stepped in, the U.S. approach to dealing with the situation in Iraq was ineffective, to the extent that U.S. and Coalition forces were, in some ways, doing more harm than good. Kagan and Kagan describe:

U.S. military operations tended to be reactive rather than proactive, episodic rather than sustained. The insufficiently trained and equipped ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] had been pushed prematurely into the fight and, rather than conducting counterinsurgency operations, relied on ineffective checkpoints. As a result, security ebbed and flowed through neighborhoods and towns but was rarely lasting, and the presence of Coalition forces provided little sense of security for Iraqi civilians (Kagan and Kagan, 2008)

Under the previous administration, or during the Powell era, U.S. operational forces were known for being aggressive and overly confident. What the basis of the Powell Doctrine expressed was “that the country should not go to war unless vital national interests are threatened, and then the use of force must be overwhelming and accompanied by manifest public support and a clear exit strategy. If such conditions were rigorously applied, military force might never again be employed” (Robinson, 57).

With the prolonged effort in Iraq, the U.S. military needed to find a new direction and formulate a different plan which was facilitated by General Petraeus. Petraeus’ broad and multi-faceted plan was meant to fill in where Powell, and others, left off. Rather than just relying on brute force, part of Petraeus’ plan was to befriend the locals, to open up lines of communication and to initiate cultural exchange (Robinson, 71). This would help army intelligence to secure valuable information about the enemy, while helping to change the stigma that U.S. and Coalition forces were overbearing and culturally insensitive (Ricks, 25). In effect, it became Petraeus’ mission to not only change the way the army operated, but to change the way it thought about war (Ricks, 27).

To briefly summarize Petraeus’ operational plan, he hoped to first establish a sense of security in Iraq, then to help rebuild, not to restructure, and in the long-run, to foster an environment of political stability and economic self-sufficiency. This is essentially a diplomatic approach, which is focused on attacking the root of deep social issues, in this view, the only true way to build stability and make forward progress. Petraeus also wanted to help win over the locals in Iraq and then in Afghanistan and facilitate the establishment of local governance (Ricks, 369). These goals were suffering as a result of the Sunni mistrust and rejection of U.S. and Coalition efforts to implant a new, democratically elected government (Robinson, 80).

In addition to strong diplomatic involvement, Petraeus leaned heavily on his knowledge of military history and the wisdom of great military leaders of the past. The son of a Dutch war captain and a librarian, Petraeus was drawn to the military and a good education by both his parents (Robinson, 50). Petraeus studied first at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York, completed officer training and army Ranger School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and later earned his master’s and Ph.D. from Princeton University in New Jersey (Robinson, 54, 57). Petraeus is an over-achiever who consistently excelled in his studies and as an officer trainee. He works out daily with 5-10 mile runs (Robinson, 67) and is devoted to learning. In numerous respects, Petraeus is a model leader.

The primary professional contribution of Petraeus during his career as a U.S. military general is a new model for counterinsurgency (COIN), which is less focused on the aggressive use of force. By going beyond convention to advance freedom and democracy, Petraeus has fought through the difficult situations which have presented themselves in both Iraq and Afghanistan despite the slow progress and enormity of the task of combating worldwide terrorist threats. The contributions that Petraeus has made toward a new COIN approach have been helpful in a way that seems to have made U.S. soldiers more sensible and adept at dealing with the complexity of irregular warfare.

In sum, the Petraeus approach appears to be a logical progression ahead—that is, it is proving to be a better way to win in a world where dangerous insurgencies and rogue terrorism, rather than large-scale symmetric warfare, are fast becoming the norm. The Petraeus Doctrine has also been helpful to rebuild societies and spread positive change within the communities in which the US is involved. In the end, Petraeus’ effective alternative to counterinsurgency combat will contribute to gains in foreign policy, while helping to improve the reputation of the U.S. military at home and abroad.


Bacevich, Andrew J. “The Petraeus Doctrine.” The Atlantic Online,, Oct. 2008. Web. 31 Jan. 2010.

Kagan, Frederick and Kimberly Kagan. “The Patton of Counterinsurgency,” The Weekly Standard,, 10 Mar. 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

Ricks, Thomas E. The Gamble. The Penguin Press: New York, 2009.

Robinson, Linda. Tell Me How This Ends. Public Affairs: New York, 2008.



About Orlando Saiz

International Affairs, International Politics, International Commerce

12 Responses to “The Petraeus’ Doctrine: A Better Way to Win”

  1. Afterword By Orlando Saiz

    At present, Petraeus, now retired from his post and service to the U.S. military, hopes that his multifaceted counterinsurgency plan will continue to stay the course. Due to budget cuts and the current administration’s idea to shift away from the costly and elaborate (diplomatic, rebuilding, facilitating strong governance) counterinsurgency plan, to a more covert (less troop-intensive) intelligence based plan, a new war strategy is already in the works (Bumiller 2011). Realizing that his best plan might be abandoned, Petraeus worries that exchanging a quick results oriented plan, for a more secure and tested plan like his, might not be the best option for producing long-term stability within the region.

    While this new war strategy appears clever and a less cumbersome way out, by abandoning Petraeus’ comprehensive and elaborate COIN strategy, and pulling troops out of Afghanistan too soon, this might leave the world less secure and therefore more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. At the same time, the U.S. is concerned that, as was the case in Vietnam, these long and drawn out conflicts—in Iraq and Afghanistan—will continue to damage its international reputation. Nevertheless, it is in my opinion that the job must be done right and completed in a way that leaves both Iraq and Afghanistan as stable as possible.

    Finally, there are many who believe that since Osama Bin Laden has been assassinated, and because progress is being made in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the war against terror has been won. One expert from Stanford’s Hoover Institution explains how “It is this specter of the lone fanatic or small group armed with the world’s most devastating weapons that keeps experts up at night” (Zegart 2011). Zegart makes some key points, many of which I would have to agree with, in her article, “Al Qaeda is Down, Not Out,” which basically states that claiming a defeat against al Qaeda is much too premature and that rogue terrorism will continue to be a major issue at home and abroad (Zegart 2011).


    Bumiller, Elisabeth. “Petraeus Retires, With a Warning,” The New York Times,, 31 Aug. 2011. Web. 02 Sept. 2011.

    Zegart, Amy. “Al Qaeda is Down, Not Out,” The Los Angeles Times,,0,1792588.story, 07 Sept. 2011. Web. 07 Sept. 2011.

  2. Great article!

  3. Sophie, on behalf of all of us at The Saturday Syndicate, thanks for reading!

  4. Well written article, but a few thoughts.

    Minor point, but Ranger school isn’t at Ft Leavenworth.

    After that, there is nothing new about the Petraeus doctrine. It is in fact called neo-classical COIN theory which is classical COIN (Greece through Rhodesia) with the addition of weaponized cultural awareness based mostly on lessons learned by the Brits during the time of “The Troubles”.

    Read Galula and McCuen and you’ll almost find FM 3-24 a quick (yet comprehensive) review.

    The next version of COIN doctrine is being driven by the Globalist school headlined by Kilcullen who sees FM 3-24 as myopic because Al Qaeda is actually a global insurgency which should be disconnected at the major nodes. Compare this with Galula who says counterrevolutionary warfare is internal and local.

    • Excellent comment Randi. That’s exactly the type of value I hope my readers can add to the site. With regard to the relative “newness” of the Petraeus Doctrine, unless I’m mistaken, Orlando was primarily conveying the idea that this was new in a modern political context and also as a change away from the Powell Doctrine’s overwhelming force mindset, rather than as a completely new concept in the military sphere or particularly within the historical subset of COIN strategies. You’re absolutely right that Ranger School is not in Fort Leavenworth, though it does house a number of advanced warfare tactics courses, so perhaps the author referenced was discussing a portion of the training he received. Ranger School proper is located in Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. Feel free to add your thoughts to other articles on the site and thanks for reading!

  5. Thanks for the input Randi,

    I think I might have mistakenly lumped together General Petraeus’ officer training program with his training as an army ranger at Fort Leavenworth. My references for this information came from Linda Robinson and Thomas Ricks excellent accounts of Petraeus’ career as an army general. See references above for more information. Thanks for reading and contributing to the Saturday Sydnicate.


  6. GEN Powell, as a Vietnam veteran understands counterinsurgency quite well. So well, in fact, that he tried to stay out of them. Every study from Galula on has explicitly confirmed that coin fights last at least a decade–in fact the average length of time for a successful coin fight (by the end of the colonial period) is 14.5 years. Powell seemed to (correctly in my mind) understand that not only would this be extremely expensive in men and material (Galula is perfectly clear on this), but the wear and tear on American soft power would be intense. I think history is probably going to be very nice on him.

    I’m not one of those “Iraq just wasn’t worth it” because that question can’t be answered in the present. It will only appear to be answered when we have to go in somewhere else. If the American public won’t stand for it under any circumstances, then we can say it wasn’t worth it. If the American public does, then we will be able to say at the very least that it didn’t hurt.

    I’m a HUGE fan of Ricks, with both The Gamble and Fiasco on my shelves. But when it comes to calling Petraeus “new”, I have to point out that his FM 3-24 almost “lifts” from Galula and McCuen word for word.

    What I find most important from this exchange, however, is that you have put together an excellent site with thought-provoking dialogue–this article especially. At this rate you should have advertisers in no time.

  7. Thanks Randi,

    What is fascinating about Petraeus is that he knows history well, and is a student of War and in understanding which tactics/strategies of the past will work best when applied within the context of today’s situations (in Iraq and Afghanistan). His Ph.D. from Princeton and successes in the battlefield have proven that Petraeus is burning his own trail. Also, in going about the revision of the Army counterinsurgency manual, Petraeus was in close contact and collaborated with some of the best experts in the area of counterinsurgency, that were available to him. In the end, what was presented and the strategies that were enacted in Iraq and Afghanistan were, although expensive, required heavy military resources/manpower, and were potentially damaging to the U.S. international reputation, effective in the battle against insurgency fronts within these war-tattered regions. This is without mentioning the overall diplomatic efforts which Petraeus felt would be beneficial to forgo toward the best interests of Iraq and Afghanistan, while carefully seeking to protect the international reputation of the U.S.


  8. Seems funny to call Afghanistan a counterinsurgency prior to 2001. Is that accurate? WE, the U.S., invaded Afghanistan (rightfully so). The problem is that the Afghan population was not conducting an active revolution or counterinsurgency prior to our arrival. The intent of arrival there was to drive out Al Qaeda (accomplished) and destroy a terrorist training ground (accomplished). Much of that was accomplished early on with direct military force and assistance from the Northern Alliance. True, they were a friendly minority, in keeping with COIN principles, but they were far from the minority we needed to win the majority.

    As a military member, it’s crazy to me how guilty we feel as a country by doing just what we need to do, especially when using the military as our tool. Today’s commanders tout the genius of Petraeus and COIN, but who’s COIN are we fighting? It’s certainly not the Afghan peoples fight. We’ve spent 10 years trying to “win” the support of the population and the results are foggy at best.

    This weeks’ protests over the burning of the Quran and the killing of two officers in the Ministry of the Interior highlight the cultural gap that hasn’t improved. Given the amount of effort that we’ve put into rebuilding the country and fighting the resurgence of the Taliban, a bit of reprieve for the Quran (which may have actually been a move to stop extremist messages, not a deliberate vengeful act) wouldn’t be too much to ask. But the reaction is predictable because the population will never depart religion to buy our civil society project. We aren’t fighting a COIN for the people….we’re fighting it for us. We created it by deciding to do more for Afghanistan than we needed too and now we’re fighting it.

    General Powell may well be “old school” in his belief of overwhelming military force, but he still believes in using the military for military purposes. COIN principles require the military to do far more than they are traditionally trained for. Many aspects require skills that aren’t imparted on young 18-24 year old soldiers in training, yet they are the front line of this type of war. Everyone is buying the COIN arguments these days, but does anyone ask why we need to fight a COIN that didn’t exist until we created it? I agree with the COIN principles, but I don’t think we needed to fight a COIN in Afghanistan….the ethnic majority (which we need to win a COIN) weren’t involved in a revolution or inner struggle in any way. We need to get back to using the military for limited military objectives and training them appropriately if they are going to be involved in complicated prolonged state building projects. I’ve been a part of this COIN wave and we’ve fundamentally transformed the role of the military. I agree with Randi in the above, Petraeus may be the genius of the last decade of war, but the real genius will be the person that doesn’t want to create phantom COIN’s or get involved in those that are ongoing (unless necessary for direct national security purposes).

  9. Thanks for your helpful insight, Tim, and the firsthand knowledge of the situation. The main point that I was trying to stress in the article was that after Iraq, and the situation of 9/11, the world has entered into a new era of irregular warfare. Today, the U.S. and its allies are involved in policing terrorism and in the aftermath, trying to prevent these volatile and dismantled regions from being consumed by the chaos of internal corruption and civil violence. In the case of rebuilding and spreading democracy within these regions, this is a tricky game and must be handled with ultimate care. To some extent, the U.S. may be overstepping its boundaries, yet, if it abandons these regions too soon, it leaves the locals in danger of fending for themselves against factions who have demonstrated to be unruly and antagonistic.

    In the end, Petraeus’ Doctrine was meant to use force when needed, but then to help rebuild in a way that the locals are left strong enough to stand on their own and have a functioning government. I’m sure by the response that you have given, and by the nature of the frustrating and difficult situation in Afghanistan, that counterinsurgency methods, as drawn out by Petraeus, will never be the easiest or most preferred choice. In this respect, it appears that gone are the days when the U.S. was well in control of the battlefield. Our world today has become too complex, while the notion of war and the enemies who we must face remain but a mere blur. In a way, what is being demonstrated in this instance is but one example of the numerous perplexities, or contradictions, which result from a globalized society.

    Nonetheless, in our attempts to manage such great issues of the day, we (the U.S.) as an influential leader of the free world, must continue to accept challenges great and small, and go about them in a calculated, yet compassionate way. I can’t think of anything more unsettling than the long and drawn out battles that we as a country have been involved in within the past decade or so. In many ways, our country will never recover from the ramifications of these wars. Moreover, I dare not speak on the behalf of anybody who has been through, or is presently experiencing the grim realities of war. Only to say that my thoughts are with you, and that hopefully better solutions are being thought of and planned as we speak.


  10. Orlando, Fantastic response! I hope I didn’t come off too hostile as I think I’m simply frustrated by the source of the COIN. I agree with everything you said about the complexities of the environments we face in this day and age. I’m of the opinion that leaving now will incite further corruption and violence in our wake. I do however, have problems with trust. In the aftermath of recent events at the Ministry of the Interior I think it’s only going to be more difficult to move forward with total success. I think it’s a tough pill to swallow, but we may need to accept that there are places we can only hope to contain vice convert.

    On a side note, I stumbled upon this blog looking for information on Norwich. If I have it right, you and the other founders are all graduates. I just began the diplomacy program last week and I’m looking forward to the work. I have to be honest about that last statement….I’m drowning in reading at the moment, as I’m sure you know the feeling all too well. Thanks for the feedback!

  11. Your conversation is much appreciated, Tim, and as far as the complications which continue to escalate as the U.S. goes deeper into this situation with Afghanistan, and previously Iraq, I think that the point you are making is valid. The counterinsurgency plan as Petraeus first planned for was meant to be a sustained effort. With U.S. leadership pulling forces back, however, and limiting resources toward these efforts, the effects seem to have lost their potency. Yet, while international perceptions on these matters remain dim, it is good that U.S. leadership continues to evolve and is basing its’ decisions on the best available choices of the day. On this level, I fully accept Obama’s decision to take a more covert stance on the War on Terror, moving away from the Petraeus strategy, in light of the nations’ interest of coming to a resolution on these matters abroad.

    Moreover, it is true that each contributor to the website is a master’s graduate of Norwich, who met at the campus in Vermont during summer residency 2011. Mr. Barry Saturday, however, is the site’s founder, who later asked his fellow classmates if they would like to contribute together on the issues that interested them, which I think is great. On that, I bid you good luck on your studies and on completing the program at Norwich. Also, Tim, you are right, the reading and workload are heavy, but fully rewarding in the end.

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