Right approach, wrong time?

It looks like George Packer may finally get the war he's been asking for. In his 2003 New Yorker essay "War After the War," which was the basis for the book The Assassin's Gate and which is one of the single finest pieces of journalism I've ever read, Packer made the case that Iraq would be won or lost not in battlefield victories or large-scale campaigns but in tiny human interactions, ground-level points of contact between Iraqis and Americans. His intimate, scene-based reporting became an example of the thing he was advocating, the attentiveness to nuance and context that the military couldn't get right.

As the American effort went into a tailspin, Packer wrote a couple of pieces on military freethinkers who were urging subtlety and finesse instead of bombast: Col. H. R. McMaster, who had one of the war's few impressive successes in the city of Tal Afar in late 2005, and David Kilcullen, an Australian army captain who wrote his PhD dissertation on counterinsurgency and who is "on loan" to the U.S. government. These pieces (here and here) inspired a mixture of hope and despair: there are smart people in the military who are thinking pragmatically about this stuff (check out Kilcullen's widely circulated "Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency"), and no one with any clout is listening to them.

Things change. Gen. David Petraeus, who appeared in Packer's Tal Afar article leading what seemed like a particularly worthy and irrelevant effort -- inviting academics, journalists, and human-rights activists to a workshop to discuss a draft counterinsurgency manual -- is now U.S. commander in Iraq. According to the Washington Post, Petraeus "is assembling a small band of warrior-intellectuals," including McMaster and Kilcullen, to form a brain trust. Thomas Ricks writes, "Essentially, the Army is turning the war over to its dissidents, who have criticized the way the service has operated there for the past three years, and is letting them try to wage the war their way." Unfortunately, it's pretty clear that the change comes too late.