That is the thesis of this serious, insightful book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.
In telling detail, Kaplan explains how Petraeus and like-minded thinkers worked to shift U.S. policy in Iraq from one primarily relying on force to one combining a more nuanced use of force with an emphasis on protecting the civilian population and winning hearts and minds.
Instead of defining success by the number of enemy killed, the new policy, under the flexible description of counterinsurgency, aimed to help the government in Baghdad and the provincial capitals win the support of their people with jobs programs and infrastructure projects.
The policy change did not occur quickly or without opposition. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to even admit that an insurgency had gripped Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. After Vietnam, the phrase "nation building" had become repulsive to many high-ranking officers.
As Kaplan sees it, the counterinsurgency strategy saved the United States from defeat in Iraq but probably will not work in Afghanistan. He praises Petraeus for championing the change of strategy in Iraq, but faults him for not warning President Obama that he was not providing enough time or troops for a similar effort to be successful in Afghanistan.
Counterinsurgency, Kaplan notes, is "the slowest, messiest kind of war."
Beginning with his West Point days, Petraeus was interested in counterinsurgency theory as developed by British and French military writers - which points to the irony of Kaplan's title: Petraeus and others were "staging an insurgency against the 'big Army' " and its reliance on massive firepower.
"He was aware of his reputation in certain circles as a schemer, a self-promoter, and, worst of all, an intellectual," Kaplan writes. "The Army . . . tended to scorn officers who stood out or were too bookish, and Petraeus fit both descriptions."
Although he failed to get a combat assignment during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Petraeus excelled at networking and waged interoffice warfare by Power Point presentations.
Kaplan's book was written before Petraeus resigned as CIA director and admitted an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. News coverage makes clear that Broadwell was a member of the military-intellectual class that Petraeus liked to have around him.
The "who said what to whom in what meeting" approach to journalism can be stultifying. But Kaplan keeps his story moving with mini-profiles of the many laptop warriors who came to shape U.S. policy and how their paths interconnected.
One such warrior was Conrad Crane, a classmate of Petraeus' at West Point and later a fellow faculty member. His paper "Reconstructing Iraq," published in 2003 just as the United States prepared to invade, predicted that the "postcombat phase" would be the most difficult.
During Petraeus' first tour in Iraq in 2003-04, as commander of the 101st Airborne Division, he used a counterinsurgency strategy in the northern city of Mosul, a strategy that was abandoned by his successor.
Kaplan skips over Petreaus' second tour in Iraq in 2004-05 (exemplifying an off-putting glibness found in some parts of The Insurgents), when he was responsible for training the Iraqi army. "It was a thankless task . . . " Kaplan writes. "Petraeus had to start pretty much from scratch, and the Army was sending him second-rate soldiers to do the training."
Later, as commander of the Army's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Petraeus was in charge of rewriting an Army Field Manual that could codify his ideas from Mosul and his decades of study.
In 2007, with a manual emphasizing counterinsurgency, Petraeus left for a third tour in Iraq, this time as commander of all U.S. troops. As the U.S. fortunes in Iraq improved, Petraeus, in the words of Time magazine, became the "rock star four-star."
The Insurgents seems destined to be one of the more significant looks at how the United States pursued the war in Iraq, and at the complex mind of the general in charge when the tide turned.
Tony Perry is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, where this review originally appeared.