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True Believer: Petraeus and the Mythology of Afghanistan

Petraeus apparently came to believe the myth he had artfully created.

Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in the Middle East, speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill June 29, 2010, in Washington, DC.

When David Petraeus replaced Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan in July 2010, the circumstances were very different from those surrounding his replacement of Gen. George W. Casey in Iraq in 2007. Petraeus had pushed for McChrystal to become the commander in Afghanistan in spring 2009; he had set the broad strokes of the strategy for the war and had been a key player in the negotiations with President Barack Obama in 2009 over the request for more troops for Afghanistan.

And perhaps even more important, Petraeus’ status had increased to monumental proportions. No longer just an object of hope for political and media elite, he had become the super-star of the national security galaxy, and even an object of reverence.

Just before Petraeus left Iraq in August 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert. M. Gates had organized a tribute to him, complete with a film called Surge of Hope and referred to Petraeus and his accomplishments in transcendent terms. “The darkness has receded,” Gates had intoned. “General Petraeus leaves this country transformed.”

In 2009, Newsweek had named Petraeus one of the 16 most powerful men in the world, outranked only by heads of government, the managers of major global economies and the Clintons.

But like the Iraq War in 2006, the Afghan War in 2010 had stumbled badly, despite the additional 35,000-troop “surge” that had begun early that year. The Pentagon’s May 2010 progress report claimed only “some success in clearing insurgents from their strongholds” – faint praise indeed from a source that normally inflated war progress almost automatically. The last classified assessment of the war by McChrystal before he was fired in June showed that no clear progress had been made in the first six months of the surge, and warned that none was to be expected during the last six months of 2010.

When he accepted the Afghanistan War command, Petraeus already knew that he couldn’t meet the 18-month deadline for turning responsibility for the war over to the Afghan forces and beginning a US withdrawal, as Petraeus had promised at Obama’s insistence on November 29, 2009. He had already begun thinking about wriggling out of the commitment. It was not a mere coincidence that, in early June, before McChrystal was sacked, former Petraeus aide John Nagl, who ran the pro-war Center for New American Security, told Truthout that Obama would be forced by Republican pressures to give McChrystal more time.

Back to Managing Perceptions

Only a few weeks after arriving in July 2010 at the massive International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul, Petraeus launched the first strategic offensive of his command. But it was not an assault by combat troops. It was a “media blitz” – a round of interviews with Sunday talk shows, followed by interviews with The New York Times and The Washington Post – all aimed at establishing a media narrative for the months to follow.

Petraeus was apparently acting on his own advice to manage the “war of perceptions” – a key addition to the Army’s Manual on Counterinsurgency that the rising general was charged with revising.

His first message in those interviews was that he needed more time to demonstrate that his strategy would work than the administration decided. “For the first time,” he told The New York Times, “we will have what we have been working to put in place for the last year-and-a-half.”

Petraeus used the ABC interview to backtrack from his November 2009 commitment to Obama, suggesting there would be no “hand off” of areas in July 2011. Instead, he said, it would mean, “You do a little bit less and the Afghans do a little bit more…. “

Petraeus also needed to be able to cite evidence that the number of attacks was receding. His first effort to do so was a claim in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that IED (improvised explosive device) attacks by the Taliban had “flattened” over the previous year because of US military pressures, especially from targeted raids by Special Operations Forces (SOF).

But the data from the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) showed IED incidents had risen from 250 per month in June 2009 to 900 in May 2010, and had continued to soar to a new high of 1,258 in August. The data also showed US-NATO casualties in the first eight months of 2010 were nearly double the total for the same period in 2009.

A spokesman for Petraeus then provided an explanation for his statement in an e-mail to Truthout: Casualties for the previous three-month period – including casualties to civilians and Afghan security personnel – were 6 percent less than they had been in the same period in 2009. But US-NATO casualties for the 90 days had increased by 30 percent over the same period in 2009, according to JIEDDO. So even if that surprising statistic was accurate, it would have proved only that the Taliban had become significantly more accurate in targeting their IED attacks against US-NATO personnel.

Petraeus Falls for a Taliban Impostor

Even though Obama bowed to Petraeus that fall and shifted the date for turnover of responsibility to the Afghan government from July 2013 to the end of 2014, Petraeus was under pressure to demonstrate progress in some dramatic fashion. The strategy called for occupation of Taliban-controlled districts and Helmand and Kandahar province, but if the Taliban were still able to maintain their political-military strength and keep the initiative, his strategy might well be seen as a failure.

But Petraeus had a card up his sleeve. Sometime that summer a man identifying himself as Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, a military commander and high-ranking member of the inner leadership circle of the Taliban, had contacted Afghan and NATO officials and indicated his desire for peace talks with them. Mansour had reportedly been promoted after Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar’s arrest in Pakistan to the second-ranking position, along with another senior commander.

Over the summer and autumn of 2010, Petraeus approved facilitating the man’s travel on NATO aircraft to meetings with the Karzai administration, giving him a substantial sum of money as an incentive to continue the talks. The man claiming to be Mansour offered surprisingly easy terms for reconciliation: He voiced no demand for withdrawal of US troops or change in the Afghan constitution, and asked only for jobs and the release of prisoners, as the Taliban had demanded publicly and in talks with intermediaries between them and the Karzai regime.

That should have been a warning signal to Petraeus that the man was an impostor. But Petraeus was using his initiative to make a case within the administration that the program of targeted killings of Taliban commanders by Special Operations Forces, which had been stepped up by McChrystal that summer, could split the insurgency and encourage some high officials to make a deal. The argument was accepted by at least some administration officials. A “senior White House official” told The New York Times in late July 2010 that the administration hoped the targeted raids on Taliban insurgents, along with pressure from the Pakistani military, would bring Taliban leaders to the negotiating table.

Petraeus even alluded indirectly to the presumed Taliban approach in public statements that summer. Asked by Katie Couric of CBS news in August whether he believed the Taliban would be receptive to reconciliation, Petraeus answered, “[T]here are certainly leaders out there who we believe are willing to do that.” And in late September, Petraeus told reporters, “There are very high-level Taliban leaders who have sought to reach out to the highest levels of the Afghan government, and they have done that.”

But after a third meeting in October with the man claiming to be Mullah Mansour, Petraeus’ story line fell apart after one or possibly more Afghans who had known Mansour in the past said the photograph was not of the man they knew. It soon leaked to the press that Petraeus had fallen for a fake Taliban leader.

The episode revealed that Petraeus had believed what he desperately needed to believe: that he was on his way to replicating in Afghanistan what he had claimed to have accomplished in Iraq.

Selling Night Raids as Progress

While he was trying to sell the administration on the idea that targeted raids could effectively pressure the Taliban to negotiate, Petraeus also was presenting to the media the “kill or capture” raids he and McChrystal had developed as devastatingly accurate blows to the Taliban insurgency.

He had worked with McChrystal on using such targeted raids against both al-Qaeda and Mahdi Army suspects in Iraq in 2006. Then McChrystal scaled up the system when he moved to Afghanistan in 2009, increasing the rate of night raids from 20 per month in May 2009, to 90 per month six months later. But beginning May 2010, McChrystal increased the number by an order of magnitude to 1,000 per month – a 50-fold increase from just two years earlier. Petraeus continued the raids at that level when he took over in July, and the number was reportedly 600 a month in February 2011.

The vast increase in night raids was a recklessly dangerous strategy in the context of Afghan society and culture. As McChrystal himself acknowledged in a directive on night raids issued in early 2010, night raids had a “steep cost in terms of the perceptions of the Afghan people,” who felt “violated” by the violent intrusion on their homes. Pashtun culture, McChrystal observed, demanded that men come to the defense of relatives or neighbors when intruders threaten their homes. But the SOF raiders were authorized to shoot any armed man on sight, so the raids were resulting in many Afghan civilians being killed during the raids, all of whom were automatically categorized by SOF as insurgents.

As the raids were increased by orders of magnitude, the number of civilian casualties also exploded. From May 2010 to February 2011, SOF teams fired shots in 1,256 raids out of a total of 6,282 raids, killing 2,844 “insurgents,” according to data released by ISAF. But with rare exceptions, night raids target a single individual in their homes only, so those figures indicate that as many as 1,500 people killed in the raids were civilians who had not been targeted.

The targeting was based on intelligence that was so deeply flawed that the SOF killed a former Taliban who had become a human rights investigator working with the European Union in the firm conviction that he was in fact the Taliban’s shadow government for Takhar Province – merely because the man’s cell number showed up on the list of those with whom the real shadow governor had been in contact. The intelligence officials deciding who should be targeted had not bothered to make the most obvious inquiries to check their cockeyed theory that the two were one and same man.

A high proportion of the targets of raids were simply people whose cell phone numbers showed up in the US surveillance system because of contact with someone else suspected of being an insurgent. As he had done in Mosul in 2003, Petraeus authorized a huge increase in the relatively less violent “cordon and knock” raids on only the thinnest evidence of connection with the insurgency, as well as raids targeting individuals identified as Taliban officers which involved killing the men in their beds next to their wives.

Petraeus released figures to the media to demonstrate that his command was hurting the Taliban. In an interview with The Washington Post in August 2010, Petraeus boasted of having taken nearly 3,000 insurgents off the battlefield in just 90 days. His spokesman provided the specifics: 365 “leaders” killed or captured, 1,031 rank-and-file killed, and 1,355 captured.

When Truthout asked the command’s public information specialist on SOF operations about the total for “captured insurgents,” however, she acknowledged that it was for “initial detentions.” In other words, the vast majority had been detained for interrogation in absence of real evidence that they were insurgents. A confidential but unclassified document that Truthout obtained from the joint task force on detainee affairs in 2011 confirmed that 80 percent of that total had indeed been released within two weeks, and that more had been released from the permanent US detention facility at Parwan within a few months.

After Petraeus gave an interview to the Associated Press and two other news organizations in early September, the AP story reported, “The mystique of elite, highly-trained commandos swooping down on an unsuspecting Taliban leader in the dead of night played well back home at a time when much of the news from Afghanistan focuses on rising American deaths and frustration with the Afghan government.”

Playing up that image, along with the release of impressive-looking statistics on night raids to the media, was Petraeus’s best bet, as AP noted, for “demonstrating progress” in a war of “hundreds of small, scattered engagements.”

The Petraeus Legacy: Conscious and Unconscious Falsehoods

David Petraeus always demonstrated political agility in his management of the “war of perceptions” in Iraq and Iran, gravitating to story lines that would create an image of success even though the larger picture still looked uncertain, if not unfavorable.

But in Afghanistan, the Petraeus strategy did have the same effect as it had in Iraq. He was never able to show that the Taliban insurgency had been brought under control. As Lt. Col. Danny Davis, who returned from his second tour in Afghanistan in late 2011 after having traveled more than 9,000 miles around the country, reported in an 84-page assessment, the level of Taliban attacks in 2011 was still at or above the 2009 levels that had prompted US officials to fear that the war was being lost.

Davis charged that Petraeus’ March 2011 report to Congress was “misleading, significantly skewed or completely inaccurate.” Davis presented a classified version of his report to a bipartisan group of Senators and House members that cited dozens of classified documents in support of his charge. And in a telling reflection of Petraeus’ failure of to make a credible case, The New York Times covered Davis’ critique in a front page story in January 2012. The only question about his attack on Petraeus’ claims was whether Petraeus was knowingly lying or saying what he chose to believe.

The record of Petraeus’ command in Afghanistan – especially the case of the Taliban impostor – suggests that his public posture on the progress of his command combined claims he knew were untrue with some that he actually believed were true. His need to maintain the image he had so artfully created had led him to believe increasingly his own myth.