July 10, 2024 | The Bulwark

David Petraeus Is Wrong: Counterinsurgency Won’t Work in Gaza

When you only have a hammer. . .
July 10, 2024 | The Bulwark

David Petraeus Is Wrong: Counterinsurgency Won’t Work in Gaza

When you only have a hammer. . .

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS WAS ALL THE RAGE in the mid-2000s. No American general captured the public imagination in the way that he did, in part because he was one of the most prominent advocates of the strategy adopted to turn around the war in Iraq: population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN). For the better part of a decade, the COIN mantra “clear, hold, and build” echoed through the halls of the Pentagon and dominated the debate among the civilian leadership—and of Petraeus it could be said literally that he wrote the book on the subject.

From 2007 to 2010, Petraeus’s COIN strategy helped stabilize Iraq following the nadir of 2006. COIN academies preached the gospel of David Galula, Lawrence of Arabia, and Edward Lansdale. The Anbar Awakening and the subsequent Sons of Iraq movement were the gold standard throughout the DoD. For a brief moment, Iraq seemed destined to succeed. However, President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces in 2011 destroyed all that progress. Of note, General Petraeus did not publicly criticize President Obama’s decision. Less than three years later, the Islamic State captured Mosul and declared its caliphate. Ultimately, President Obama reversed course, sending American forces back to Iraq, where they remain today.

Petraeus’s vaunted COIN strategy only had limited success in Iraq. However, in Afghanistan, it failed utterly. Both General Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal tried to implement a Sons of Iraq–type program in Afghanistan called the Afghan Local Police. While the ALP had some success, it was ultimately disbanded, leaving thousands of former allies of the United States in the Taliban’s crosshairs. Similarly, joint Provincial Reconstruction Teams served in Afghanistan’s thirty-two provinces for nearly a decade, building hundreds of schools, roads, and bridges. However, all of these programs ultimately failed to prevent the Taliban from humiliating the United States and NATO.

Why this trip down memory lane? Because Petraeus is still preaching the COIN gospel. Only now he’s arguing that COIN—which saw limited success in Iraq and failed miserably in Afghanistan—should now be implemented in Gaza.

Despite Petraeus’s good intentions, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) should politely decline his recommendations. Instead, they should finish their Rafah operation and continue grinding away at Hamas until they are no longer the governing power.

AFTER NINE MONTHS of grueling urban warfare, General Petraeus has some unsolicited advice for the IDF: learn from our mistakes. Writing last month in Foreign Affairs, he warned about the kind of “fateful strategic errors” that resulted in “bloody, costly, and humbling” experiences for the United States:

Today, Israel is making many of those same errors, including some of the most glaring mistakes that the United States made in the early years of the Iraq war. As the United States did in Iraq in 2003, Israel began its war without a plan to create a governing structure, in its case to replace Hamas, and no clear blueprint has emerged after months of fighting.

According to Petraeus, the IDF should pivot to population-centric counterinsurgency. He and his coauthors, Meghan L. O’Sullivan and Richard Fontaine, argue that the IDF needs to clear Hamas, hold the territory so Hamas no longer returns, and rebuild Gaza with Palestinian partners from the region.

There are numerous problems with this argument, chief among them that the IDF is not fighting an insurgency. Instead, they’re fighting a terror state. Hamas is the state. They are not insurgents. While Hamas may employ guerrilla warfare tactics, so did the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The IDF would be fighting an insurgency if Hamas were trying to topple a government in Gaza. But that’s not what’s going on here. Yes, Hamas is a terrorist organization. However, they do not solely operate clandestinely because they are the de facto state in Gaza. They field a terror army consisting of over twenty light infantry battalions. Similarly, in 2014, the United States and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) fought an Islamic State terror army in Mosul. Neither the ISF nor the United States conducted COIN in that gruesome fight. Why? Because the Islamic State was the government in Mosul, so a COIN approach would be inappropriate.

Like Hamas, the Taliban is a terrorist organization. However, since the Taliban control the state in Afghanistan, they are now fielding a massive terror army. In essence, once terrorist organizations control the state, they start acting like a state, so they must be fought like a state.

STILL, LET’S PLAY ALONG with Petraeus and pretend that the IDF was fighting an insurgency in Gaza. Would population-centric counterinsurgency really be the IDF’s ticket out? COIN is messy. It requires time to build rapport with host nation security forces. That work is done at the lowest levels of the military. It’s built on the backs of privates and corporals partnering with indigenous forces. It takes time. A long time.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, that trust was built through thousands of cups of chai, gruesome dismounted combat patrols, and the shared trauma of killing each other’s enemies. Which group inside of Gaza could partner with the IDF like this and still survive?

While the IDF and Palestinian Authority have a working relationship, the PA is a weak, feeble group run by Mahmoud Abbas, a Holocaust denier who is in the eighteenth year of his four-year term as the PA’s leader. The PA is still incapable of securing the West Bank. How would they secure Gaza working shoulder-by-shoulder with the IDF?

Moreover, while there were always pockets of anti-Americanism and hostility to the West throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, many Iraqis and Afghans worked side-by-side with American forces. The United States Marine Corps had Sheik Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi in Iraq. In southern Afghanistan, American troops partnered with General Abdul Raziq. In contrast, Gazans are reared in antisemitism and, by and large, support Hamas and the October 7th attacks.

Again, let’s play along, pretending that somehow the IDF could find a partner force. How long would it take to clear, hold, and build? A year? Maybe two? Wouldn’t the international community claim that Israel is occupying Gaza? Even Petraeus admits that this would require an Israeli occupation of Gaza.

As a result, a short-term period of Israeli authority over Gaza’s security and governance may be unavoidable—and Israelis and Americans should acknowledge this reality, however distasteful. No one wants an Israeli occupation. But for the time being, the only possible alternatives are even worse.

Would the Biden administration support such a strategy two months before a pivotal election? Would Israelis support such a risky gambit after the last nine months? How would the IDF support such a long-term strategy while parrying blows with Hezbollah?

Furthermore, Iraq and Afghanistan, where population-centric COIN ultimately proved unsuccessful, have large porous borders. Gaza doesn’t have similar borders. Thousands of foreign fighters can’t cross into Gaza to support Hamas. American forces struggled to keep foreign fighters from streaming into Iraq and Afghanistan. However, with the “Philadelphia Corridor” finally secured, the IDF can restrict Hamas’s resupply of weapons, materiel, and manpower.

Petraeus is right to point out that Hamas is reconstituting throughout the battlefield. The IDF contributed to this problem by not taking the Philadelphia Corridor sooner, but so did the United States by halting the IDF’s advance into Rafah for months. Regardless, the IDF never set out to kill every last Hamas fighter. They’re trying to destroy its army, remove them from power, and prevent Gaza from being used as a launching point for further attacks. While the IDF has yet to achieve its war aims and the overall success of its operation in Gaza remains in doubt, following in America’s footsteps in both Iraq and Afghanistan would be a cataclysmic mistake. We lost both wars. Israel cannot afford to lose this one.

Will Selber, a contributor to The Bulwark, is a retired Middle East Foreign Area Officer in the United States Air Force with twenty years inside the intelligence community and over four years deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bill Roggio is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the editor of FDD’s Long War Journal. He has embedded with coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Afghanistan Israel Israel at War Military and Political Power Palestinian Politics