Petraeus: Much Less Than Acclaimed

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 13:  Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus participates in a House Select Intelligen
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 13: Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus participates in a House Select Intelligence Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee joint hearing, on September 13, 2011 in Washington, DC. The joint committee is meeting to hear testimony on the state of intelligence reform 10 years after the 9/11 attacks. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

I do not want to dump on a general who has just been pushed off his pedestal by a jealous mistress. However, the nation deserves consolation -- the loss to America is much smaller than the media has made it out to be. General Petraeus has been depicted as a great military thinker -- a Ph.D. from Princeton! -- who came up with the strategy that won the war in Iraq. He famously replaced CT (counterterrorism) with COIN (counterinsurgency) which sought to win the hearts and minds of the local population -- in other words to help us, and turn against those who are fighting us.

Well, it did nothing of the sort. The turning point in Iraq actually came only after the surge, which increased our boots on the ground, and the Sunni Awakening, in which we bribed the tribal chiefs of several Sunni communities to work with us. It helped that they finally realized that they would be unable to bring back the Saddam regime during which they lorded over the Shia, and that they will have to learn to live in a country governed by a Shia majority. All the other stuff, the many scores of billions the U.S. spent on building schools and clinics (but not providing salaries for teachers and nurses), paving roads, digging wells and so on mainly enriched American contractors, but swayed few Iraqi minds. Indeed, Iraq is leaning ever more toward Iran and Iraqi fighters are helping sustain the Assad regime in Syria. We could not even persuade the Iraqi government to allow some of our troops to stay. Petraeus' COIN hardly flipped their hearts and minds.

When Petraeus moved to Afghanistan he brought COIN with him, where it fared even worse. The strategy suffered, among other things, from the fact that its goals were never clear. Some days it was viewed mainly as a way to gain intelligence. American troops were told to woo the locals by bringing soccer balls and candy to the kids, paving a road, or providing some other such goodie to the villagers in order to get them to spill the beans on al Qaeda and the Taliban. Sometimes COIN was interpreted as a mandate to become closely involved with the local population, learn their culture, respect their traditions, and follow their lead. And sometimes the goal was to turn Afghanistan into a Little America, with Western-style democratic elections, respect for human (and especially women's) rights and free markets.

It took ten years, half-a-trillion dollars, and thousands of lives (American and Afghan) to learn that none of these goals can be achieved. Reporting on the widespread anger she encountered while reporting in Afghanistan, Ann Jones concluded that Afghans, "know the difference between genuine apologies and bribes, true commitment and false promises, generosity and self-interest. And since the whole point of COIN is to gain the hearts and minds of 'the population,' those angry Afghans are a bad omen for the U.S. military and President Obama." Her general impression has been confirmed by opinion surveys showing that Afghans tended to blame the United States rather than insurgents for the rise in civilian casualties in the wake of the surge. These considerations, among others, all support the conclusion put forward by Gilles Dorronsoro, in a report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wherein he concluded that, "the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy failed."

Most villagers will not betray their family members, countrymen, co-worshipers and fellow Pashtuns who are parts of the Taliban in exchange for some goodies (although they typically will be happy to take them off our hands). Following their traditions involves tolerating a very high level of corruption, abusive police and domination by war lords. And turning Afghanistan into a Little America turns out to be a pipe dream. We, hence, are leaving an Afghanistan that is very likely to become a narco-terrorist state, and/or be Taliban dominated, and/or devolve into a civil war, which -- if we are lucky -- will not escalate into a war between Pakistan and India. Not a shining legacy for General Petraeus.

Last but not least, General Petraeus was one of the generals who helped box in President Obama, making it very difficult -- in the end, politically impossible -- for him to refuse to increase our troop levels in Afghanistan. Indeed, Petraeus is reported to have leaked information and made multiple calls to newspaper columnists in a systematic campaign to pressure the president to authorize the surge.
Petraeus' extramarital affair, at least in my judgment, is not a sufficient cause to send him packing. He should be let go because he allowed his mistress access to sensitive information, if not to CIA email, information she may have posted on her Facebook account. This shows a serious lapse of judgment, for which firing is far from the most severe punishment. This was Petraeus' last grand mistake but far from the only one.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World, published by Transaction. For more on Hot Spots, see: