McCarthy Does Petraeus a Disservice

General Petraeus recently gave an interview to Fox News. Petraeus speaks approvingly of the decision to close Guantanamo, limiting interrogation to the techniques in the Army Field Manual, and how adherence to the Geneva Conventions takes propaganda fodder out of the hands of our enemies.

Andy McCarthy attacks Petraeus over at National Review Online’s The Corner:

With due respect to Gen. Petraeus, this is just vapid. To begin with, he doesn’t identify any provision of the Geneva Conventions that we have actually violated - he just repeats the standard talking-point of his current commander-in-chief that we took “steps that have violated the Geneva Conventions” during those bad old Bush days. What steps is he talking about? How about naming one?

McCarthy then uses the brief reference to the Geneva Conventions to attack strawman arguments as if Petraeus wanted to give full Prisoner of War status to Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters and had just proposed ending military detention of combatants picked up on the battlefield.

I’m pretty sure that Petraeus is not squeamish about keeping detainees in custody. As CENTCOM Commander, he’s got over 600 of them in Bagram.

When you watch the video it’s pretty clear that Petraeus was referring to the treatment of detainees and the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” as violating the Geneva Conventions, a position consistent with his previous statements. Petraeus doesn’t supply a specific provision to satisfy McCarthy, but he is likely thinking about Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.  This provision bans, even in a conflict of a non-international nature (read: counterinsurgency and counterterrorism), cruelty, torture, and humiliating and degrading treatment.

McCarthy is also broadly dismissive of the propaganda effect that Guantanamo has had in encouraging people to take up arms against US forces. This sentiment is counter to the doctrine that I learned in the Special Forces Detachment Commander’s Qualification Course. Low-level insurgencies and terrorism are driven by propaganda.

To build an insurgency, you don’t need to win battles. You need to take a few shots at your enemy and tell stories about how successful you were, even when you weren’t. Over time you get sympathetic parties to join your struggle and gain critical mass to move into outright guerrilla warfare.

To sustain a worldwide terrorist organization, you don’t need to actually pose an existential threat. You need to prod a superpower into deploying large troop formations into the Muslim world, where they can be entangled in local disputes over local grievances. Usama bin Laden is not the commander-in-chief of any significant armed force, but he can be the inciter-in-chief who makes broad claims about opposition to America. He tries to link local insurgencies to his global caliphate narrative even where they are not supportive of his broader goals. Check out David Kilcullen’s book, The Accidental Guerrilla, for a detailed discussion. Incidentally, Kilcullen worked for Petraeus as a senior counterinsurgency advisor in Iraq.

This is the propaganda war we are fighting, and most everyone agrees that we have not been doing it very well. Every time we drop a bomb in Afghanistan, the Taliban beat us to the punch with exaggerated (and mostly false) claims of civilian casualties. US forces are now reviving body count reports to counter Taliban propaganda. While I don’t think that body counts are a good metric for success in the long run, trying to be an honest broker of good and bad information blunts enemy propaganda.

McCarthy is wrong to mischaracterize Petraeus’ words and dismiss the propaganda war where we have largely been a punching bag. Cheerleading our military leaders who produce gains on the ground but dismissing the fundamental insights that produced their success is willful blindness.