Gen. David Petraeus, the current commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, was a principle author of the manual. Following its rules for counterinsurgency – abbreviated as COIN -- he has “surged” more troops into Iraq and stationed them not inside FOBs but on the hot, dusty streets of Iraqi cities and villages. To conventional military thinkers, this is insanity: It gives the enemy more troops to kill – and it places them in more vulnerable positions.
But Petreaus’ soldiers and Marines have quickly made it clear that their mission is to provide security for their hosts. Local populations have responded by treating the U.S. forces as valued guests rather than foreign occupiers. And they have been providing the one thing a COIN operation must have to succeed: intelligence on where the enemy is lurking.
That isn’t all: Iraqis have been enlisting to fight alongside Americans – 30,000 volunteers in the past six months. As a result of these changes, Brig. Gen. John Campbell, assistant commander for the U.S. division in Baghdad, now says: "We've done a very good job on al-Qaeda. I think we've got them on the run." Iraqi civilian fatalities are down significantly. And last month, American fatalities sunk to the lowest levels in more than a year.
Serious challenges remain. Al-Qaeda has not given up, in Iraq or elsewhere, and they, too, learn and adapt. Iran continues to train and direct terrorist militias in Iraq – and to supply them with sophisticated weaponry. Iran also both bribes and threatens Iraqi politicians.
Sarah Sewall, who served in the Defense Department during the Clinton administration and now teaches at Harvard, calls COIN “the most complex and maddening type of war.” But it is a type of war that must be mastered if America is to defeat its 21st Century enemies -- the Islamist forces sworn to our destruction.
General Petraeus and his troops are demonstrating that the American military is up to the challenge. Whether America’s political class and public also have the stomach for such a long and difficult struggle remains an open question.