Not to get all first-sentence-of-The-Stranger on you, but David Petraeus retired today.
That doesn't mean Petraeus is going away or anything. He's going to be the new CIA director, of course. But it does occasion a meditation on Petraeus' Army career. And over at Danger Room, I write that, "Even while his greatest successes revealed his flaws, Petraeus really was that good." Meaning what? Like for instance:
In 2003, when he commanded the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, he essentially ignored the Bush administration’s decree to fire the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s government, which ran the bureaucracy. The result was that Mosul remained relatively secure while disenfranchised Sunnis around Iraq formed an insurgency. Another, more problematic result was that Petraeus, a two-star general, “had his own foreign policy,” in the words of war chronicler Tom Ricks. Petraeus isn’t just a general, he’s a cautionary tale of civilian-military relations.
The Gamble, Ricks’ account of the surge, judges that Petraeus essentially redefined the aims of the Iraq war without publicly acknowledging it. Bush wanted to defeat the insurgency and negotiate an enduring U.S. presence in Iraq. Petraeus, Ricks argues, sought to diminish the insurgency to the point where the U.S. could get most of its troops out while saving face. It’s one thing for a general to see things differently from his commander. But it’s quite another for him to subtly reinterpret the aims of a war. If the media hasn’t fully accepted Petraeus’ denials that he’s running for president, maybe it’s because he sometimes acted like he already was the commander in chief.
And if I can remix my own stuff some more, I kind of want to call attention to this cautionary warning on counterinsurgency:
Time will determine whether that influence was ultimately positive. Counterinsurgency doesn’t lack for critics. The manual’s famous invocation that counterinsurgency is the “graduate level of war” strikes many in the Army as arrogant. Internal skeptics like Col. Gian Gentile contend that it’s a tactical and operational approach masquerading as a strategy. Others fear its contention that insurgencies don’t have military solutions leaves the Army de-emphasizing soldiering and stressing social and economic development, which are properly civilian tasks. Another criticism is that policymakers’ fascination with the possibilities of counterinsurgency risks enmeshing the U.S. in more grueling, bloody ground wars. With the wars of the future looking likely to occur in sea, air, space and cyberspace, a generation of Army officers forged in counterinsurgency — critics call it a cult — will be challenged to adjust.
All intellectual movements sow the seeds of their own dogmatism, and dissident movements that find themselves in the ascension perhaps moreso. COIN reached its peak ascendency at a moment when ground war looks less relevant to U.S. security interests than, say, Pacific defense. How will the Petraeus Generation adapt?
P4 Postscript: When I was at TPM in 2007, Petraeus' stats about the Surge Working smelled really funny to me. In particular, I didn't get how he was defining sectarian violence, a critical metric for the war. So I ended up filing a FOIA for his definition... and to my surprise, two weeks later, his command actually provided it to me. In FOIA-time, two weeks is a split second. And it turned out that Petraeus' definition, while not beyond criticism, had merit to it. More importantly, it had consistency in its application, allowing the stat to be tracked over time.
That's less a sexy story than my bizarre interview-slash-workout with the guy, but one that still resonates with me.