HE resignation that put an end to the controversial but stellar career of US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director David Petraeus shocked Washington and unsettled the US spy community. Newly re-elected President Barack Obama, who accepted his resignation, responded by saying that Petraeus, a retired four-star general, had, “through a lifetime of service made our country safer and stronger.”
His 14-month appointment as director was one of the briefest in the history of the agency. He took up the job after a year in command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. He had previously served as head of the US Central Command (2008-2010), based in this region, and commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq (2007-2008).
His fall from the top spot in the US intelligence community was sudden and surprising. A man who projected an image of propriety and rectitude, Petraeus stepped down after he was found to be having an extra-marital affair with his biographer who compromised his personal e-mail, risking a breach of national security.
Petraeus took his first degree from the US military academy and went on to Princeton where he earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in international relations. He was seen – and portrayed himeself as – a soldier with brain power who understood both war and politics. He was a high flyer who was touted as a possible presidential or vice-presidential candidate or secretary of defence. Ironically, just five days before he resigned in shame, Paula Broadwell, his partner in the affair, published a 12-point list of Petraeus’ rules for life in the military. One of those rules was to admit mistakes and avoid repeating them.
Man with a mission
He became a hero for the US citizens because he appeared to “win” the civil conflict that gripped Iraq after the US occupation and attempted to “win” in Afghanistan by repeating his Iraq strategy.
However, he was a false hero with feet of clay because the counter-insurgency strategy he designed has failed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2003, Major General Petraeus took part in combat for the first time in command of troops entering Iraq from Kuwait and driving to Baghdad. He and his division were eventually deployed to Mosul where he not only presided over security operations but also followed a people-friendly, nation-building strategy by staging elections for the local council and initiating development projects.
While his division was there, Mosul was quiet but this did not last. His admirers argue that when the division was replaced by a smaller unit commanded by officers less interested in “nation building,” tensions between Sunnis and Kurds undermined Petraeus’ achievements. However, it is more likely that once the two sides recovered from the trauma of the “Shock and Awe” campaign, Arabs and Kurds began to dispute ownership of Mosul which became both ethnically conflicted and a base for the anti-US resistance.
In 2004, Petreaus was elevated to the rank of lieutenant general and put in charge of the training, equipping and guidance of Iraq’s new army, police and security agencies. This effort was characterised by massive corruption for which he cannot be blamed. But Petraeus’ trainees have still not managed to impose law and order.
Iraq remains a violent country nine-and-a-half years after the US invasion and occupation. In 2007 Petraeus was put in charge of the entire Iraq operation, tasked with putting an end to both the insurgency and Shia-Sunni warfare sparked by the bombing of a Shitte shrine in early 2006. Petraeus presided over the “surge,” involving the deployment of additional US troops and the recruitment of Sunni militias (the Awakening or Sahwa) to fight Al Qaeda and its allies.
The short-lived success of the “surge” allowed President George W. Bush to reach a status of forces agreement with Baghdad which provided for full US withdrawal by the end of 2011. However, since Al Qaeda had been contained temporarily, the Shitte fundamentalist regime created by the Bush administration refused to honour US promises to Sahwa commanders and fighters who turned against both Washington and Baghdad.
During the final years of the US occupation and since the pullout of the US forces, violence has been on the rise in Iraq, notably against Shias but targeting other sects as well.
Best for battleground
Tens of thousands of Iraqis from all communities have been killed and wounded and hundreds of thousands have fled the country. In the longer term Petreaus’ “surge” did nothing for Iraqis.
Indeed, it is significant that Petraeus’ resignation from the CIA coincided with reports of the emergence of a Free Iraqi Army, a revival modelled on the rebel Free Syrian Army of the once anti-US resistance aimed, this time round, at toppling the Shitte coalition headed by Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. The Free Iraqi Army, which co-ordinates with its counterpart in Syria, is said to recruit from Al Qaeda as well as the Sahwa.
As commander of the US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan (2010-11), Petraeus tried to employ his nation-building counter-insurgency strategy but this did not work and he eventually had to adopt a classic strategy of using special operations forces and airstrikes to confront the Taliban.
Nevertheless, the Taliban became resurgent and expanded into Pakistan. The US has responded by using unmanned aircraft, drones, to attack Taliban commanders and units. These strikes have caused civilian casualties which have angered and alienated both Afghans and Pakistanis.
If Obama honours his pledge to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan in 2014, the country could very well revert to Taliban rule or descend into all-out civil war. After all, Afghanistan has defeated its conquerors. Why should the US succeed where the rest failed, including Alexander the Great?
After taking over the CIA Petreaus promoted the expansion of the CIA’s drone campaign in Yemen, where these remotely-controlled unmanned aircraft have been used to eliminate Al Qaeda figures, including two US citizens, and caused a certain amount of anti-US sentiment.
Petraeus was the heavily decorated military hero the US wanted and needed at a time the country was suffering from the dual traumas of the un-winnable Afghan war and the unmentionable Iraq war. He was said to be a thinking man’s general who took cognisance of the people on the ground where his troops were conducting operations.
Unfortunately, he did not think hard enough about the impact his private actions could have on his public life even when he joined the CIA and was obliged to become invisible.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict