From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
Officers With PhDs Advising War Effort
By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 5, 2007; A01
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, is assembling
a small band of warrior-intellectuals — including a quirky Australian
anthropologist, a Princeton economist who is the son of a former U.S.
attorney general and a military expert on the Vietnam War sharply
critical of its top commanders — in an eleventh-hour effort to
reverse the downward trend in the Iraq war.
Army officers tend to refer to the group as “Petraeus guys.” They are
smart colonels who have been noticed by Petraeus, and who make up one
of the most selective clubs in the world: military officers with
doctorates from top-flight universities and combat experience in Iraq.
Essentially, the Army is turning the war over to its dissidents, who
have criticized the way the service has operated there the past three
years, and is letting them try to wage the war their way.
“Their role is crucial if we are to reverse the effects of four years
of conventional mind-set fighting an unconventional war,” said a
Special Forces colonel who knows some of the officers.
But there is widespread skepticism that even this unusual group, with
its specialized knowledge of counterinsurgency methods, will be able
to win the battle of Baghdad.
“Petraeus’s ‘brain trust’ is an impressive bunch, but I think it’s too
late to salvage success in Iraq,” said a professor at a military war
college, who said he thinks that the general will still not have
sufficient troops to implement a genuine counterinsurgency strategy
and that the United States really has no solution for the sectarian
violence tearing apart Iraq.
“It’s too late to make a difference in Iraq,” agreed Bruce Hoffman, a
Georgetown University expert on terrorism who has advised the U.S.
government on the war effort.
Expanded Role for Academics
Having academic specialists advise top commanders is not new. Gen.
George W. Casey Jr., Petraeus’s predecessor, established a small panel
of counterinsurgency experts, but it was limited to an advisory role.
Also, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq,
created a “Red Team” to examine his operations from the enemy’s
perspective and to report directly to him.
Still, the team being assembled by Petraeus promises to be both larger
and more influential than anything seen in the U.S. war effort so far,
both making plans and helping to implement them. The group’s members
are very much in the high-energy mold of Petraeus, whose 2003-04 tour
commanding the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, the biggest city in
northern Iraq, gave the U.S. military one of its few notable success
stories of the war. He also holds a PhD in international affairs from
“I cannot think of another case of so many highly educated officers
advising a general,” said Carter Malkasian, who has advised Marine
Corps commanders in Iraq on counterinsurgency and himself holds an
Oxford doctorate in the history of war.
As the U.S.-designed campaign to bring security to Baghdad unfolds,
Petraeus’s chief economic adviser, Col. Michael J. Meese, will
coordinate security and reconstruction efforts, trying to ensure that
“build” follows the “clear” and “hold” phases of action. Meese also
holds a PhD from Princeton, where he studied how the Army historically
handled budget cuts. He is the son of former attorney general Edwin
Meese III, who was a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, whose
December critique helped push the Bush administration to shift its
approach in Baghdad.
Petraeus, who along with the group’s members declined to be
interviewed for this article, has chosen as his chief adviser on
counterinsurgency operations an outspoken officer in the Australian
Army. Lt. Col. David Kilcullen holds a PhD in anthropology, for which
he studied Islamic extremism in Indonesia.
Kilcullen has served in Cyprus, Papua New Guinea and East Timor and
most recently was chief strategist for the State Department’s
counterterrorism office, lent by the Australian government. His 2006
essay “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level
Counterinsurgency” was read by Petraeus, who sent it rocketing around
the Army via e-mail. Among Kilcullen’s dictums: “Rank is nothing:
talent is everything” — a subversive thought in an organization as
hierarchical as the U.S. military.
The two most influential members of the brain trust are likely to be
Col. Peter R. Mansoor and Col. H.R. McMaster, whose influence already
outstrips their rank. Both men served on a secret panel convened last
fall by Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to
review Iraq strategy. The panel’s core conclusion, never released to
the public but briefed to President Bush on Dec. 13, according to an
officer on the Joint Staff, was that the U.S. government should “go
long” in Iraq by shifting from a combat stance to a long-term training-
But to make that shift, the review also concluded, the U.S. military
might first have to “spike” its presence by about 20,000 to 30,000
troops to curb sectarian violence and improve security in Baghdad.
That is almost exactly what the U.S. government hopes to do over the
next eight months.
Mansoor, who commanded a brigade of the 1st Armored Division in
Baghdad in 2003-04, received a PhD at Ohio State for a dissertation on
how U.S. Army infantry divisions were developed during World War II.
He will be Petraeus’s executive officer in Baghdad, a key figure in
implementing the general’s decisions.
McMaster’s command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in northwestern
Iraq in 2005-06 provided one of the few bright spots for the U.S.
military in Iraq over that year. In a patiently executed campaign, he
took back the city of Tall Afar from a terrorist group, and he was so
successful that Bush dedicated much of a speech to the operation.
McMaster, author of the well-received book “Dereliction of Duty,”
about the failures of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam
War, is expected to operate for Petraeus as a long-distance adviser on
strategy. He is based this year at the International Institute for
Strategic Studies, a London think tank, but is likely to visit Iraq
every month or two, according to a top U.S. military officer.
Beyond those senior officers is a larger ring of advisers whose views
already are shaping planning for the coming operation in Baghdad.
Lt. Col. Douglas A. Ollivant caught Petraeus’s eye last year by
winning first prize in an Army “counterinsurgency writing”
competition, sponsored by the general, with an essay that scorned the
U.S. military’s reliance in Iraq on big “forward operating bases.”
“Having a fortress mentality simply isolates the counterinsurgent from
the fight,” he wrote.
Ollivant, a veteran of battles in Najaf and Fallujah who earned a
political science PhD studying Thomas Jefferson, argued that U.S.
forces should instead operate from patrol bases shared with Iraqi
military and police units. That is exactly what Petraeus plans to do
in the coming months in Baghdad, setting up about three dozen such
outposts across the city — which isn’t surprising, considering
Ollivant has become a top planner for the U.S. military in Baghdad.
Another adviser will be Ahmed S. Hashim, a professor of strategy at
the Naval War College who served as a military intelligence officer in
Iraq and then wrote a book sharply critical of how the U.S. military
has operated there. Hashim, who holds a PhD from MIT, concluded his
critique by arguing that the best course would be to partition the
country along ethnic and sectarian lines.
A Different Arena
Many military insiders are skeptical that the extra brainpower
ultimately will make much difference, or that lessons learned by
McMaster in Tall Afar or Petraeus in Mosul will be easily applied in
the far larger arena of Baghdad.
The joke among some staff officers was that Petraeus operated in such
a freewheeling manner in Iraq’s north that he had his own foreign
policy with Syria and Turkey. In Baghdad, by contrast, he will have to
operate constantly with Iraqi officials, with the U.S. government
bureaucracy, and in the global media spotlight. Also, experts agree
that the basic problem in Iraq is political, not military, and that
although a military campaign can create a breathing space for
politicians, it cannot by itself reverse the dynamic driving Iraqis to
fight a civil war.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if Congress pulled the rug out or the Iraqis
blocked major revisions in strategy,” said Erin M. Simpson, a Harvard
University counterinsurgency expert. “I think they’re going to be a
very frustrated group.”
Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency adviser, wrote recently on the Web
site Small Wars Journal, “All that the new strategy can do is give us
a fighting chance of success, and it certainly does give us that.”
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
2006 COUNTERINSURGENCY MANUAL
Military planners in Iraq may soon be seeing ‘red’
A team of skeptics has joined fellow officers to ask tough questions
in a war that has seen its share of missteps.
By Julian E. Barnes, Times Staff Writer
January 19, 2007
FT. LEAVENWORTH, KAN. – While the Bush administration is reworking its
overall strategy in Iraq, military leaders in Baghdad are searching
for new ways to improve the decisions and choices they make closer to
The U.S. military has sent to Iraq a five-person team of dedicated
skeptics, known in military jargon as a “red team.” In a war known for
its missteps and unanticipated results, the team will be assigned to
review, and question, military operations. It will attempt to predict
how enemies will react to various missions and what the unintended
consequences might be.
Such teams have been used on an ad-hoc basis to critique specific
battle plans. But this team is the first to work full time as devil’s
advocates, and is the first headed by officers trained as designated
skeptics by Ft. Leavenworth’s University of Foreign Military and
Red teams try to predict how the enemy, known as “red” in military-
speak, will react to an American operation.
“A red team is trying to get into the enemy’s head,” said Gregory
Fontenot, director of the Ft. Leavenworth program. “What is the other
side liable to do and how are they thinking about the problem?”
In Senate testimony last week, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a red team had been assigned to examine
President Bush’s new Iraq security plan “from the enemy’s viewpoint.”
Bush plans to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq, although the
increase and new strategy are not expected to be fully in place for
several months as the Pentagon routes units into battle.
But red teams go beyond predicting how the insurgency might react.
Team members are trained to think differently from other officers in
military planning sessions, said Steven Rotkoff, one of the
instructors at Ft. Leavenworth who helped create the course
curriculum. Since red team officers are outside the normal staff
planning process, they theoretically can look more objectively at it.
“It is very hard to tell someone your baby is ugly and they don’t
dress them properly,” Rotkoff said. “The red team members are valued
by their commanders because they do not participate in group-think.”
The military’s strict hierarchy allows for quick decision making. But
it also can prevent insights farther down the pecking order from
receiving a fair hearing. With a red team in place, someone is always
taking a skeptical look at the commander’s ideas, Rotkoff said.
“We struggle with getting out of the comfort zone. To do what we are
asking people to do is an unnatural act for the American military,”
In Iraq, the new red team has begun working for Lt. Gen. Raymond T.
Odierno, who recently became commander of day-to-day military
operations there. The team may also get a higher profile with the
arrival of Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, named the top U.S. commander in
Petraeus, a supporter of such devil’s-advocate approaches, pushed for
more creative thinking while heading up key Army training programs at
Ft. Leavenworth. Lt. Col. Jeff Ragland, Odierno’s red team leader,
said that although top officers and junior staff members are intrigued
by the new group’s mission, some mid-level colonels in Baghdad “seem
to be less excited about our existence.”
If a team’s job is to argue against a particular plan, it becomes easy
for other officers to dismiss its suggestions.
As a result, the red team course at Ft. Leavenworth includes
instruction on how to criticize without being ignored. And in the
field, Ragland’s team is trying to figure out how to sugarcoat
“At virtually every instance, we have had to present our ideas in an
acceptable way, not with the ‘sharp stick in the eye’ approach,”
The course examines conflicts such as the Philippine insurrection in
1899 and the post-World War II occupation of Japan.
The course covers Western and non-Western military theory and teaches
anthropology so future red team members can better study other
In Iraq, for instance, it is the red team’s job to think like Iraqis
and figure out what might offend them.
“We are not going to make [red team members] anthropologists; we are
going to make them understand how ethnocentric they are,” Fontenot
said. “As soon as you assume the other guy thinks like we do, you are
making a mistake.”
Military organizations, Fontenot said, are not always good at
predicting the after-effects of an operation. Traditionally, no staff
officers are specifically assigned to think about long-term
Among military staffers, there is a tendency to become wedded to a
plan and reflexively defend it, rather than critique it from a
distance, said Lt. Col. Mark B. Elfendahl, a student in the red team
Though the focus of many red teams is to predict an enemy force’s
reactions, in Iraq it will be just as important to predict how allies
might react to a given operation.
Ragland, the red team leader in Iraq, said other staff officers have
the ability to critically assess a plan, but they often do not have
the time to do so.
“Red teams are a direct, and necessary, response to the current
operations tempo,” Ragland said, adding that because team members are
not invested in military plans, “we have the latitude regarding time
and the charter to take this critical look.”
At Ft. Leavenworth, Fontenot wants to spread critical thinking
throughout the Army.
In the long term, the University of Foreign Military and Cultural
Studies aims to influence how all officers think and plan.
For now, Fontenot says he is watching how the red team works in Iraq,
and is adjusting the course based on feedback from the field.
“We will have to see how it goes in Iraq,” he said. “I know we are
doing the right thing. I don’t know if we are doing it the right way.”
julian [dot] barnes [at] latimes [dot] com