Before he was embroiled in the lurid and increasingly complicated scandal that ended his brief tenure as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, General David Petraeus was an already-iconic military leader, the commander who rescued the U.S. war effort in Iraq, and who was brought in to help reverse course in a deteriorating Afghanistan. But before he even assumed command of U.S. forces in Iraq, Petraeus assisted in producing a document crucial to understanding the general's broader impact on American policy -- and on thinking about how and why America wages war.
Future students of Petraeus's intellectual legacy will likely start with the 2006 version of FM 3-24, the army's counterinsurgency manual, the result of an effort spearheaded by Petraeus and General James Mattis, and necessitated by the waning prospects of victory in Iraq. In the midst of a directionless and seemingly doomed campaign, the generals brought in a wide range of civilian scholars and military officers to help formulate the first update to the military's counterinsurgency field guide in over two decades. According to John Nagl, a defense policy scholar and retired lieutenant colonel, and one of the authors of the manual, Petraeus involved over 100 civilian journalists, scholars, and intellectuals for a two-day vetting and open discussion of a draft version of the document. "It was a great example of Petraeus's ability to reach out to a broader intellectual community to gather ideas, but also to gain support for the project. And it mattered."
As Stephen Biddle, a scholar and George Washington University professor who served on Petraeus's Strategic Assessment Team in Iraq in 2007, explains, the resulting manual conceived of warfare in jarringly unconventional terms. "Its primary logic is that you succeed in the war not by destroying the enemy but by protecting the civilian population and giving them a stake in the government you're trying to support," says Biddle. "The manual conceived of counter-insurgency as essentially an armed contest in good governance, in which the government we're trying to support and an insurgency are both competing for what are thought of as being a largely uncommitted middle of the population. The side that convinces the uncommitted middle to side with them, wins the war....The new doctrine is about how to provide governance, economic development and security to a threatened and largely uncommitted civilian population."