The discovery of his affair with Paula Broadwell has ended David Petraeus’ career, but the mythology of Petraeus as the greatest US military leader since Eisenhower for having engineered turnarounds in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars lives on.
A closer examination of his role in those wars reveals a very different picture, however.
As this four-part series will show, Petraeus represents a new type of military commander, whose primary strength lay neither in strategy nor in command of combat, but in the strategic manipulation of information to maintain domestic political support for counterinsurgency wars of choice, while at the time enhancing his own reputation.
The series will show how Petraeus was engaged from the beginning of the Iraq war in creating a myth about himself as a commander with unique ability to defeat insurgents, that he knew he had failed in his first two commands in Iraq and that he did not believe that war was winnable.
But the account will also show that Petraeus eventually began to believe his own myth of himself as successful counterinsurgency strategist. The shift from deception of others to self-deception is the dominant theme of his command of the war in Afghanistan.
Although David Petraeus has demonstrated intellectual interests unusual in the military elite, the dominant personal trait he had displayed during this Army career, as one civilian friend told a journalist, is that he is “insanely ambitious.” His drive to get ahead was evident from the beginning of his career. He married the daughter of the superintendent of West Point, Gen. William Knowlton within weeks of his graduation. He depended on the patronage of a series of powerful senior officers, first the NATO Supreme Commander, then the Army chief staff, and finally the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Henry H. Shelton, for whom he worked from 1997 to 1999 to get plum assignments.
Petraeus wrote a PhD dissertation at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School in 1987 which reflected his interest in military officers as political actors. He examined the ways in which the military leadership had influenced decisions on the use of force since the Vietnam War, showing how they had used various tactics to oppose US combat in Central America and Lebanon, which they were against.
In a final section of the dissertation, however, Petraeus lamented the fact that the military had not been more open to preparing for participation in “small wars” or “low intensity conflicts” – which he declared to be inevitable in the future. He was already staking a claim to be a leading specialist on such wars.
The Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq was not the “small war” Petraeus had in mind. But it was his first opportunity to gain combat experience, which had eluded him up to that point in his career, as commander of the 101st Division in the assault on Baghdad. Petraeus quickly revealed his concern with building his image through favorable media coverage. He gave Washington Post correspondent and senior editor Rick Atkinson virtually constant access for nearly two months. Atkinson’s account of that experience makes it clear that Petraeus expected that extraordinary access to result in a series of glowing dispatches about his performance as commander and was quick to let Atkinson know when his stories did not meet expectations.
Petraeus hinted to Atkinson that he was dubious about the whole Iraq adventure. There were too few troops, he said. How many would be needed? “Eight divisions and eight years,” Petraeus answered. And Petraeus famously told Atkinson he wondered “how this ends” on several occasions during those weeks.
The “Pacified Mosul” Story
It was in Mosul, where he was commander from April 2003 to February 2004, that Petraeus’s reputation as the military’s number-one effective counterinsurgency strategist was firmly established in the news media. By the summer of 2003, Mosul was already known as the place for the news media and Congressional delegations to visit, because it was the one place where they were hearing the news was good. Congressional delegations would all get a PowerPoint briefing describing the positive things happening in Mosul – a police force being built, roads being fixed, insurgents being tracked down, and millions of dollars distributed for local development projects. The slogan “Money is ammunition” was always included in the briefing slides.
Petraeus understood that the Kurdish presence in Mosul could only help the Sunni insurgents in that majority Sunni city and sent the Peshmerga militiamen back to Kurdistan. He could see that the orders from Coalition Provisional Authority administrator Paul Bremer for disbanding the Iraqi army and radical de-Baathification were disastrous, and he was able to partly work around them. He chose a former Baathist general as his police chief.
But the main message that Petraeus and his staff pushed on politicians and journalists in the latter half of 2003 and early 2004 was that they had the insurgency under control. Washington Post Pentagon correspondent Vernon Loeb embedded with the 101st in Mosul in Fall 2003 and was given “unfettered access” to Petraeus and his command headquarters. Loeb has recalled how Petraeus had “largely pacified” Mosul in 2003.
Revealing the degree to which the Post and other major media outlets were willing dupes of Petraeus, Loeb turned up again as the ghostwriter for Broadwell’s fawning biography of Petraeus, which glorifies Petraeus’ accomplishment in Mosul. In that account, Petraeus is said to have returned to the United States “[a]fter pacifying Mosul.”
Loeb was not the only Petraeus fan at the Post. Military correspondent Tom Ricks, who wrote a glowing blurb for Broadwell’s book, had excoriated other generals in his own book Fiasco for their failed tactics against the insurgency in 2003-04, but praised Petraeus’ performance in Mosul. Ricks cited a January 2004 summary from Petraeus’ staff in Mosul showing that there were only five “hostile contacts” per day in the division’s area of operations that month, compared with 25 meetings per day between the division and local Iraqi figures.
Ricks concluded that Mosul was in “remarkably good shape.” But he and other journalists who bought Petraeus’ “pacified Mosul” line failed to ask what the trend line of insurgent attacks had been over the previous seven months. That information was compiled in a December 2006 student thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). That study reveals that the monthly total for attacks in and around Mosul had been only 45 in June but had increased to 72 in August, 81 in October, 112 in November, 121 in December.
The five attacks per day in January cited by Ricks was the equivalent of 150 a month – more than three times the number in June – and represented one-fifth of the insurgent attacks countrywide recorded by the US command that month. And as Ricks acknowledges elsewhere in his book, 25 US troops had been killed in November alone in a clear signal of the growing power of the insurgency.
Did Petraeus Abandon “Cordon and Search”?
Petraeus has been credited by Ricks and other journalists with having abandoned violent “cordon and search” operations used everywhere else in Iraq that alienated the entire Sunni population, and having replaced them with “cordon and knock” operations. In the softer version of targeted raids, the targets’ homes were surrounded and the targets were invited to give themselves up peacefully. But again, the NPS thesis, based on the actual documents and the testimony of officers in Petraeus’s command, tells a rather different story.
It turns out that Petraeus did not end kill-or-capture raids in Mosul: he continued to use them to kill or capture those believed to be hardcore insurgents, according to the NPS study. The less violent sweeps were used to capture “less dangerous but potentially active members of insurgent groups without alienating entire neighborhoods,” the authors wrote. And when insurgent attacks went over 100 for the month of November 2003, Petraeus ordered a major increase in the level of cordon-and-search raids in December, hitting 23 targets simultaneously in one night. The number of suspects detained in Mosul soared that month to 295 – nearly three times the average over the previous five months.
Those targeted raids on suspected insurgents depended on intelligence gathered by Petraeus’ own command, Special Forces operating in the area and the CIA. But how reliable was that intelligence? It is widely acknowledged that, especially that early in the war, US intelligence on the insurgency was woefully weak. The International Red Cross disclosed in a February 2004 report on detainee abuse in Iraq that US military intelligence officers had estimated that 70 to 90 percent of Iraqis they had detained were innocent. Petraeus’ operation, as elsewhere in Iraq, had to rely on Iraqis volunteering information as to who was an insurgent, and, as Ricks relates, Petraeus told him “there were so many phony tips passed by Iraqis feuding with each other that this softer approach helped sort those tips without unnecessarily insulting Iraqi dignity.”
One of Petraeus’ brigade commanders, Brig. Gen. Joe Anderson, told the authors of the NPS thesis that the “surge” in targeted raids in December 2003 had “effectively removed many former Ba’ath Party members from the streets of Mosul.” Considering that there were tens of thousands of former Baath Party members in the city, Anderson’s vague remark hardly convinces that the raids struck a serious blow to the insurgent organization.
Collapse and Failure in Mosul
The insurgents in Mosul were building up patiently and methodically for an uprising in the city. During the weeks after Petraeus and the 101st were replaced in Mosul by Task Force Olympia in February 2004, the insurgents kept their heads down. The CIA warned in May that the Sunni insurgents were being deliberately quiet, and that it wouldn’t last. The following month, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, head of Special Operations Task Force in Iraq, told Coalition Forces Commanding Gen. George Casey that Mosul had become a safe haven for al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi.
In November 2004, about 200 insurgents attacked in Mosul, and the police force about which Petraeus had boasted to Congressional delegations disappeared, as Reuters reported November 20, 2004. Three thousand two hundred of the city’s 4,000 policemen deserted simultaneously from seven police stations. The insurgents made off with hundreds of weapons and radios, thousands of police uniforms and as many as 50 police cars.
The former officer from Saddam’s special forces whom Petraeus had picked as his police chief, Gen. Muhammad Khayri al-Barhawi, escaped with a bag of cash.
After the debacle in Mosul, Petraeus’ successor, Gen. Carter Ham, told Reuters the police had been thoroughly infiltrated by the insurgents. The senior analyst for Iraq at the Joint Staff Directorate for Intelligence, Col. Derek Harvey, concluded that Barhawi had been secretly working with the insurgents for some time. Petraeus defended his choice of Barhawi, arguing that he had been genuinely committed to the American counterinsurgency effort at the beginning but had eventually come under heavy pressure from the insurgents.
The fact that the Iraqi forces he had organized in Mosul had collapsed like a house of cards and that his hand-picked police chief had defected was hardly ever brought up in the media coverage of Petraeus, however. Years later, former diplomat who served in Iraq during the period called Petraeus “the Teflon General.”
The Mosul experience may have bruised his ego, but it also showed Petraeus that he could manage public perceptions of his performance in command so that both he and war would both come out looking good – even though his early statements and later demeanor suggest he knew Iraq was a losing cause.