It seems hard to fathom now, but only 15 months ago, Gen. David H. Petraeus stood at attention on a sunny Fort Myer parade ground, listening to his peers compare him to the most accomplished generals in American history. Cannons boomed, sending clouds of white smoke billowing into the air. A band played patriotic marches.
The moment was heady, the words intended for the ages.
“You now stand among the giants, not just in our time, but of all time, joining the likes of Grant and Pershing and Marshall and Eisenhower as one of the great battle captains,” Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Petraeus before the hundreds assembled to salute the departing general on the final day of his 37-year military career.
The affair that forced Petraeus to resign from the CIA in early November has done more than send him to an unexpected, early retirement. It has prompted a head-snapping reassessment of the general’s entire record in Iraq and Afghanistan. Once-smitten reporters have penned lengthy mea culpas of how they fell prey to Petraeus’s myth-making, claiming that his considerable charms blinded them to his battlefield shortcomings. Some historians, rushing to rejudgment, are asking whether he produced victory in Iraq or merely a palatable stalemate. A headline on a New York Times opinion piece went so far as to brand him “A Phony Hero for a Phony War.”
Here is a more balanced and, I hope, more accurate view: Petraeus was neither a conquering hero nor an empty suit. To view his military record through the lens of his personal failure merely serves to replace one myth with another.
I saw Petraeus up close in Iraq and Afghanistan. He helped roll back a civil war in Iraq that was killing thousands of civilians a month, building up the confidence of mid-level officers who were questioning the Army’s direction. He deserved many of the accolades that came his way. He wasn’t nearly the same general in Afghanistan, where he never came to know the country the way he did Iraq.
Petraeus caused his own fall from his post as director of the CIA. But his shortcomings in Afghanistan were a product of exhaustion, ego and a Pentagon and White House that pressed him to take a job for which he was not prepared. When the conditions were most bleak on the battlefield, the powers that be in Washington turned repeatedly to Petraeus.
“It is ludicrous,” said Eliot Cohen, a historian and senior State Department official in the George W. Bush administration. “The military’s bench was appallingly thin.”
When Petraeus took over in 2007 as the top general in Iraq, he had already spent one year as a commander in northern Iraq and 15 months as the head of the effort to build the country’s army and police force. His knowledge of the country was astonishing.
On a typical morning, he might pepper his staff with detailed questions about the status of a neighborhood bank branch that the Shiite-dominated Finance Ministry had shuttered to punish Sunnis. Iraqis depended on the banks for pension payments. Minutes later, he would ask about a downed electrical transmission tower south of Baghdad or the status of a mid-level Iraqi commander he wanted to replace.
“Petraeus understood Iraq from the most granular level to the most grand strategic,” said retired Lt. Col. Doug Ollivant, a senior counterinsurgency adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan. “He was monumentally well-prepared for that job.”
He wasn’t well-prepared for Afghanistan. Although he was quick to say that the two countries were different, he often tried to draw on the lessons of Iraq to make a point about the best way forward in Afghanistan.
Interviews with reporters almost always began with a leftover PowerPoint slide from his Iraq days, depicting his “Anaconda strategy” of using military, economic and political pressure to crush an insurgency. He talked about his Iraq experience with such frequency and enthusiasm that he drew eye-rolls from longtime Afghan hands.
Initially, Petraeus seemed to use the Anaconda slide to stall for time until he had a better understanding of the country, in which he had never served. He was thrust into command in Afghanistan after the sacking of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and had only hours to prepare for the job. But the busy graphic — consisting of concentric circles and a dozen arrows — remained a mainstay throughout his Afghan tour and was symptomatic of a larger problem: Petraeus’s Iraq experience often led him to misjudge the Afghan conflict.
When Petraeus took over in Iraq, a bloody sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites gripped the country. Mutilated bodies were a common sight on the streets. Iraqis blocked the entrances to their neighborhoods with piles of debris and burned-out cars in an effort to keep out suicide bombers and roving death squads.