There are plenty of critics who say it wasn’t Petraeus but just the natural progress of events that turned the war around, bringing a radical drop-off in sectarian killings and insurgent activity. But the fact remains that the Army for eighteen months did practically everything differently under Petraeus, from moving into small outposts spread throughout Baghdad, to paying the enemy to switch sides and join the Iraqi army and national police. As the sectarian war cooled down it was accompanied by a steep drop in enemy attacks and in American casualties. No one would now be likely to say that the original Army strategy in Iraq had been a good one, or that Petraeus pursued a bad one.
Luck gave him a chance to try the same again when President Obama put him in charge of the war in Afghanistan in 2010. That tour lasted less than a year and the results were more ambiguous, but Petraeus’s two wars proved something significant all the same—big-unit maneuver and heavy firepower made as many enemies as they killed; and the Army could summon the finesse to compete with insurgents for the loyalty of the people. But that is not the end of the story. What generals can do and what presidents want are sometimes two different things.
In the end it was not General Petraeus but President Obama who decided how to bring the American war in Afghanistan to an end. The two men had appeared to be on the same page during Obama’s first months in the White House, when the president agreed to send an additional 21,000 US troops to Afghanistan. But later that summer Obama balked when Petraeus came back asking for more—at least another 40,000 troops to support a “fully resourced, comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign.” Obama now found himself in the painful squeeze once felt by Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam—pushed by a general who promised success if he was given what he needed. Obama dug in his heels. To outsiders it might have seemed that the Army and the White House were fighting over nickels and dimes, but in fact something fundamental was at stake—the mission.
What Petraeus wanted was men enough and time enough to turn the war around in Afghanistan as he had done in Iraq. That meant winning over the allegiance of the Afghan people, the classic goal of counterinsurgency. But Obama did not like the numbers and, along with many who knew Afghanistan well, he did not share the goal. His hopes were more modest—not “success” but a smooth departure. He agreed to support a “surge” of 30,000 more troops for a limited time with a narrower mission focused on al-Qaeda itself. But at the end of eighteen months, the president insisted, a drawdown of troops would begin—how many and at what pace were left to wait on events.
There was no open break between Obama and Petraeus, then or later. When the American commander in Afghanistan resigned in June 2010, Obama named Petraeus to replace him. In April 2011 he announced his nomination of Petraeus as director of the CIA, a move that occurred just as the White House and the Army were negotiating the details of the drawdown that had been demanded by Obama. What the Army wanted and what the White House wanted differed by a few thousand troops and a few months of fighting time; the Army wanted more of each, the White House less. But behind the numbers was a deeper difference over goals. As the moment of truth approached Obama kept his own counsel while Petraeus worked the media to argue for a slow, stretched-out drawdown to give his strategy time to work.
This behind-the-scenes struggle over troop levels and mission definition is related in Paula Broadwell’s now notorious and often gushing but still useful biography of Petraeus, All In, written with the help of Vernon Loeb, a long-time specialist in security policy at The Washington Post. Broadwell is a West Point graduate who left the Army to write about counterinsurgency and later spent many months in frequent contact with Petraeus in Kabul while researching her book. At some point the general and his biographer began an affair; last fall it spilled into the open in a messy way that compelled Petraeus to resign as director of the CIA. What happened to Petraeus says much about Washington, the effect of frequent deployments on military marriages, and the insecurity of e-mail, but nothing about the harsh demands of successful counterinsurgency.
Broadwell’s account is the best so far of the tense negotiations over the drawdown, which can properly be seen as the beginning of the last act of the American war in Afghanistan. President Obama listened patiently on June 15, 2011, when Petraeus spelled out the Army’s preferred schedule for drawdown: three thousand to five thousand out by the end of the year, with the rest of the surge troops to follow at the close of the 2012 fighting season. In effect, Petraeus was asking to keep all the surge troops in the field through the end of the 2011 fighting season, which typically concludes with the onset of cold weather in November; and to keep as many as 30,000 surge troops through the end of the 2012 fighting season. Counterinsurgency needs time and troops and Petraeus was trying to hold on to both for as long as possible.
A week of concealed struggle followed. Broadwell’s account includes an e-mail exchange between Petraeus and one of his mentors, retired General Jack Keane, who told the general he thought the president wasn’t going to give him what he wanted. “Should you consider resigning?” Keane asked.
“I told POTUS I’d support his ultimate decision,” Petraeus replied. “Besides, the troops can’t quit….”
Keane was right. At their White House meeting on June 22, Obama said no. He wanted ten thousand troops out by the end of 2011, and another 23,000 out by July 2012. Petraeus “was reportedly respectful, but he was not budging,” writes Broadwell. Midsummer was the middle of the fighting season; that was too soon to pull them out. Obama said he was willing “to consider splitting the difference and leaving the [23,000 surge troops] till the end of summer.” Petraeus pressed for a slower drawdown. He
expressed concern that removing the troops before the end of the fighting season [in November] would increase risk considerably and could immobilize the campaign plan…. Obama asked whether the three extra months would make that much difference; Petraeus said he thought they would.
Everyone paying attention to the war understood what was at stake in this final meeting. The top military command was represented by Gates and Chairman of the JCS Michael Mullen. “They said,” according to Broadwell, they would support “an ‘end of summer’ timetable”—a date that preserved some fraction of wiggle room for the Army. Petraeus and his allies in the Army wanted to build on the success already achieved and stay longer.
Obama and Biden wanted to draw down not just the troops but the war itself, and to back away from grand goals. Obama’s decision, reached without sentiment after a cool weighing of American interests, marked the end of the surge in Afghanistan—the moment when the United States said enough. By year’s end it was over in Iraq as well, at an estimated cost of at least 100,000 civilian deaths and millions of internal and external refugees. It is too soon to say what the US has achieved for its effort, but nobody argues that Iraq and Afghanistan are on the road to democracy. Counterinsurgency takes patience above all, and patience with costly fighting is the one thing presidents run out of quickest.
Petraeus has been silent since his resignation. He has not yet written about the war he tried to fight or its final act, but the odds are good he is itching for his turn. The central work of his life has been learning how to fight the sort of war we lost in Vietnam. The Army swore that would be the last of its kind but it turned out to be the very kind presidents are drawn into—small wars against determined, popular movements where getting the politics right is 80 percent of the challenge. Great powers don’t much like small wars; a time comes when Americans, like the French in Indochina and Algeria and the Russians in Afghanistan, just want to get out. When Petraeus’s book arrives, as it surely will, the last chapter will be the interesting one—the one where he says what he is willing to say about Obama’s decision to wind it down. The open question is whether Petraeus ever truly believed it could end in any other way.
Did Petraeus Make a Difference? April 25, 2013