Gen. David Petraeus’ affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, has muddied the carefully crafted narrative of America’s most eminent “soldier-scholar statesman,” allowing unprecedented scrutiny of the policies of a man who was so venerated in Washington that one could be labeled unpatriotic simply for challenging his strategies.
The still-unfolding Petraeus scandal offers space for the most critical look to date of the popular general’s resume, including his blueprint for counterinsurgency, the “surge” tactic he applied to Iraq and then Afghanistan, and the recruiting of Iraqi tribesmen in the battle against al Qaida.
Critics raised serious doubts about those and other projects years ago, but, in public at least, their concerns were steamrolled by a propaganda machine that was designed to protect Petraeus’ military legacy – perhaps even for a future presidential bid.
“The country put him on a big, high pedestal, and he took himself off that pedestal with his own actions,” said retired Col. Steve Boylan, Petraeus’ former aide and acting spokesman since the scandal broke. “As he told me, ‘I screwed up.’”
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While Boylan and other diehard supporters insist that the general’s military accomplishments endure, more critical voices say that it’s about time his entire record got a closer look. The infallibility of Petraeus, detractors say, was a myth created by his inner circle, nurtured by a sycophantic press corps, swallowed by a fawning government and, ultimately, punctured by his own weakness when it came to an attractive and ambitious devotee.
“I think there’s always a cult of celebrity, a cult of power,” said a Western official who was present at Petraeus’ headquarters in Afghanistan and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
That personality cult made it difficult to criticize Petraeus on the national stage. Petraeus skillfully worked the media early in the Iraq war to shape his public image as a thoughtful, modern military thinker. As a major general in 2003, Petraeus invited Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rick Atkinson to accompany him throughout the invasion of Iraq. The journalist’s subsequent book about his two months with Petraeus and the 101st Airborne Division left a defining image of the general as someone clearly “entranced by the problem-solving nature of high command.”
Mark Jacobson, a former deputy NATO representative to the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan, said it’s too early to determine the extent of Petraeus’ legacy or how this scandal will affect it. A better barometer, he said, will come when the generation of officers that was shaped by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, he added, successfully navigated the challenges there – moves into greater positions of authority.
“That’s when you’re going to see the evolution that began after Sept. 11, 2001, completed,” Jacobson said. “That’s a military that’s more agile, more experienced and more adept.”
From Baghdad, Petraeus pushed the 101st north to the restive city of Mosul, where the general was credited with bringing stability through counterinsurgency methods – a type of warfare the conventional army typically shunned. Petraeus became the face of the counterinsurgency renaissance, his ideas heralded as groundbreaking. In fact, they were old strategies that had been rejected by the military in the post-Vietnam period, according to military historians.
Petraeus returned to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the Army’s intellectual hub, and began drafting its counterinsurgency manual, which he envisioned as a vital tool to fill a gap in military thinking. It was published during the worst days of the Iraq war and became a national bestseller, overshadowing the fact that Petraeus had arrived in Kansas after overseeing the training of the new Iraq army in Baghdad – a disastrous venture in which millions of dollars vanished and U.S.-trained forces morphed into sectarian death squads that fueled the ensuing civil war.
To a nation that was desperate for anything resembling success in the abyss of Iraq, however, Petraeus was regarded as a trailblazer for challenging the military to move away from its timeworn tactic of major combat operation. Never mind that the manual was an amalgam of old military thinking and similar to a blueprint written in 1964 and based in part on the French incursion into Algeria.
Petraeus’ application of those ideas to Iraq in February 2007, along with a surge of 25,000 additional American troops, “qualifies neither as particularly new nor even as a strategy,” wrote Army Col. Gian Gentile, a Petraeus critic who teaches American and military history at West Point and who commanded a combat battalion in Baghdad in 2006.
“Better to call it, instead, an enhanced reliance on tactics and operational concepts previously in use,” Gentile wrote in the World Affair Journal in summer 2008. “Or, put less charitably, an over-hyped shift in emphasis that, on the one hand, will not necessarily yield an American victory in Iraq, but on the other might well leave the United States Army crippled in future wars.”
Such harsh criticism barely surfaced in the public arena, however, where a pliant media helped to turn Petraeus into a national figure for embracing the risky “surge” proposal at a time when the Bush White House had lost all credibility in the war, and the military was losing as many as 120 service members a week. Though he did not craft the Iraq surge plan, Petraeus took ownership of the strategy, which called for the deployment of the additional troops who’d move away from major bases to outposts from which they would attempt to reclaim security almost block by block in Iraq’s most troubled provinces.
Petraeus’ willingness to take ownership of the war from a weary White House created a general not seen in modern warfare. Petraeus no longer answered to his chain of command but talked to the president directly. He also continued to cultivate the press, showing a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of what his troops were doing in the Iraqi landscape.
But throughout this period, even as violence fell in Iraq, there were quiet skeptics. In a military where one person rarely takes credit for the work of the unit, some did not like having a celebrity soldier within their ranks. Others felt that disrupting the chain of command destabilized the military.
Again, those voices were drowned out by the administration’s touting of the surge as a success – a claim that, at the very least, lacked nuance.
Violence fell, but not because of the extra American forces, but because Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias had won the civil war and cleansed entire Baghdad neighborhoods of rival Sunnis.
The campaign benefited as well when Sunni tribesmen, including some former insurgents who’d attacked American forces, turned on the foreign al Qaida elements in their midst and joined U.S.-backed militias known collectively as the Sons of Iraq.
Even in that project, Petraeus enjoyed some exaggerated credit. Many of the militiamen said at the time that they’d tried for months to reach out to the Americans for such an alliance but had been rejected. An earlier partnership, they said, could’ve saved hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. and Iraqi lives.
When the liberal group MoveOn.org in 2007 ran a full-page ad challenging the general’s claims of the surge’s success – especially riling his acolytes with a “General Betray Us” play on his name – the full wrath of the Petraeus machine was unleashed. Republicans, and many Democrats, too, furiously condemned the ad in petitions and hyperbolic calls for apologies and an end to “this McCarthyite attack.”
In 2010, as commander of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, Petraeus replicated the strategy with what critics said was little attention to the vastly different fight in Afghanistan. He developed a plan to surge 33,000 American forces into the Taliban’s southern heartland of Kandahar and Helmand provinces. While the forces hurt the insurgency, they failed to break its back, and serious violence persists. Indeed, there were 12,000 insurgent attacks in Afghanistan between May and August this year; in the same period in 2009, before the surge, there were 8,000.
One of the main criticisms is that Petraeus quickly pivoted from a counterinsurgency strategy to a counterterrorism strategy, alarming longtime Afghanistan observers who watched U.S. forces repeat old mistakes of turning a blind eye to corrupt allies in hopes of gaining ground against the extremists.
Instead of the holistic approach espoused in his own doctrine, according to people who worked with him at the time, Petraeus was fixated on violence levels, which he understood were more visible to the White House and the American public.
“I felt that he did his Petraeus thing of defining the narrative and he did it pretty deliberately from the get-go,” said the Western official who had served at Petraeus’ headquarters in Afghanistan. “The thinking seemed to be, ‘We’re going to be judged by the level of violence, so let’s focus on what we can do to get the numbers down.’”
Once again, the former official said, few people challenged Petraeus on an approach that appeared to repudiate his own doctrine. Nor did they speak up, the official said, when Broadwell appeared on the scene, hovering suspiciously close to the general and often dressed in attire that was out of place in ultraconservative Afghanistan.
“You saw from 50 miles away what kind of person this was,” the official said. “But she’s gotten into the chink in his armor, his insatiable need for people to praise him.”