By James Gundun – Washington, D.C.
Last Friday David Petraeus, a former commander at CENTCOM and senior general in Afghanistan, bowed to the quintessential American scandal and exited his post at the CIA’s Directorship.
That Petraeus’s star will momentarily dip appears inevitable, given the circumstances, and his resulting legal cesspool is eliminating any political involvement from 2016’s presidential election. However his career arc has by no means collapsed. Shielded by thick political insulation, Petraeus is already riding off into Washington’s sunset as an unquestioned American hero and genius of war. As a result, neutral examination of his policies while overseeing CENTCOM, NATO’s alliance in Afghanistan and the CIA is being buried under greater amounts of dirt. Surely Petraeus did some personal good during his stints, but his geopolitical record contains major gaps that his bosses have an interest in concealing.
President Barack Obama’s statement did not include the reason for termination: “By any measure, he was one of the outstanding General officers of his generation, helping our military adapt to new challenges, and leading our men and women in uniform through a remarkable period of service in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he helped our nation put those wars on a path to a responsible end.”
Iraq’s Long War
Petraeus’s COIN manual broke no new ground in the study or application of counterinsurgency, so much as provide the willingness lacking in Washington’s political and military circles. Himself a political-military hybrid, Petraeus employed his so-called “anaconda strategy” during George Bush’s surge to choke all military and non-military sources of an insurgency’s energy. This strategy would manifest in temporary agreements between Baghdad and Iraq’s sectarian actors, namely Sunni tribes in the northwest and Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia. At face value the surge did dramatically reduce Iraq’s level of violence and salvage a floundering U.S. war plan – except it did not end the war responsibly. Many factors of strife were left uncorrected by Petraeus, the Bush administration and eventually the Obama administration.
As of now U.S. policy remains trapped in Nouri al-Maliki’s corner, usurped of its dominance by Tehran’s influence and bleeding credibility with Iraq’s opposition parties. This unpopular alliance has dashed any hopes of repairing national relations with Sunni and Kurdish leadership, while al-Sadr is cooperating with these very power blocs to contain al-Maliki’s autocratic tendencies. al-Qaeda in Iraq revived itself amid this turmoil, killing thousands of Iraqis after U.S. troops exited in December 2011, and is now feeding off the back-end of Syria’s revolution.
“His inspirational leadership and his genius were directly responsible – after years of failure – for the success of the surge in Iraq,” Senator John McCain, one of the surge’s most vocal boosters, said Friday.
Implementing the surge itself differs from the war’s ongoing endgame.
Afghanistan’s Open, Bleeding end
Petraeus’s failure to create permanent “momentum” in Afghanistan is easier to understand. Having told Obama in the final moments of his own surge’s approval that he could complete the mission within its limits (as commander of CENTCOM), Petraeus soon discovered that he lacked the time and resources to do so. The 18-month limit placed on Obama’s surge, as approved by Petraeus, remains GOP fodder for anti-Obama rhetoric; a lower amount of troops than requested – 33,000, down from 40,000 to 60,000 – further crippled Obama’s surge at its launch. Due to a lack of forces, Petraeus was forced to concentrate in the southern provinces and never implemented a second phase of Obama’s surge in Afghanistan’s eastern mountains. This dilemma allowed the Taliban to remain operational in both areas, and the insurgency’s ranks continue to be estimated in the 20,000s.
Shortages of ground forces also contributed to an extraordinary amount of airstrikes and Special Operations raids, which became Washington’s primary kinetic tools against the Taliban. Blowback from a relatively minor number of incidents (the alleged 2% that kill innocents) would severely impair Petraeus’s public outreach to the Afghan people.
Meanwhile Afghanistan’s political factors remain more stagnant than the battlefield’s. U.S. relations with Islamabad were never seriously repaired during Petraeus’s run in Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Hamid Karzai has yet to reach a genuine relationship with Washington, and both capitals’ negotiations with the Taliban are treading deep waters. The result: thousands upon thousands of dead Taliban and civilians, and no sight of the war’s “responsible” end.
As for Paula Broadwell, Petraeus’s biographer and mistress, she found herself involved in the controversial razing of Tarok Kolache village. Fortunately this cover-up is gaining new life.
In January 2010, six months before leaving CENTCOM to command ISAF, Petraeus intensified Washington’s unseemly affair with Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. The resulting deal to target al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) by air has killed many innocent Yemenis in the process, and contributed to Washington’s general subversion of Yemen’s national affairs. Director Petraeus later returned to negotiate a “secret” CIA base with Saleh, a project that the Obama administration accelerated once Yemen’s revolution began in January 2011. Few individuals are more responsible for America’s militarization in Yemen, a policy that runs contrary to COIN’s non-military emphasis and population-centric approach.
U.S. officials and loyal analysts argue that Saleh offered a necessary partnership against AQAP, but the notoriously wily dictator obstructed both governments’ responses in order to continue receiving U.S. and Saudi support. Petraeus and the White House chose to play along with this scam, as it benefitted the self-interests of both parties, and Petraeus was duly rewarded for his personal efforts. Following his rise atop the CIA, the Obama administration managed to swap Saleh for his more obedient vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and proceeded with their original plans. Three weeks after Petraeus entered the CIA, U.S.-Yemeni citizen Anwar al-Alwaki was located by several drones and terminated in a flurry of Hellfire missiles.
His 16-year old son, Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi, was bombed two weeks later at a barbecue.
Americans generally cheered the first assassination and drowned out those protesting a constitutional breach. The White House and U.S. mainstream media, which so eagerly broadcasted al-Alwaki’s death, then buried his son’s assassination. Undaunted, the Obama administration’s policy marches onward and remains as unpopular as ever in Yemen – food for AQAP’s growth.
Naturally U.S. and Gulf operations must continue scaling up in response.
Washington’s way of doing business has a more difficult time explaining a seedy affair than the murder of innocent civilians. Due to his skills, mindset and connections, Petraeus will almost certainly bounce back and potentially reach greater heights in the future. Individuals and groups operating in Washington always have need for his type of services.
– James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst. His blog, The Trench, covers the underreported areas of U.S. foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @RealistChannel. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.