As moral failures go, David Petraeus biggest and most costly was not engaging in an extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell, but rather assuring the American people and politicians that the United States was winning the war in Afghanistan.
Petraeus, the celebrated general and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director who resigned after it was revealed he cheated on his wife, was lauded for using counterinsurgency to reverse the tide of the Iraq war. This strategy emphasized improving the legitimacy of the host nation and working to turn over security responsibilities to the local forces. The strategy was allegedly so successful that the one-time U.S. military leader in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, adopted counterinsurgency as well.
After McChrystal was relieved of his command, Petraeus took over in Afghanistan, insisting counterinsurgency would give the U.S. a victory over the Taliban and its al Qaeda supporters.
But in time it became clear that even Petraeus didn’t believe his own rhetoric. Instead of dedicating the necessary resources for winning over the hearts and minds of Afghans, the general ramped up air assaults, drone strikes and Special Operations missions to eradicate the enemy.
This more violent strategy did little if anything to win over the local population, not when missile attacks often resulted in more and more civilian casualties.
In March 2010 Petraeus testified to the Senate that the Taliban’s momentum had been stopped in much of Afghanistan, a statement that bore no relation to reality. He also told The Wall Street Journal that Taliban attacks involving roadside bombs had “flattened,” when Pentagon statistics showed that they had actually doubled in the previous year.
Michael Crowley noted in his story for Time magazine that “Petraeus was bending the rules of his own doctrine in Afghanistan” before he got out and took over the CIA. There, he was able to cover his tracks, with the CIA charged with assessing the Afghanistan war—putting Petraeus in position to whitewash the war’s failings.
Eventually, even Republicans realized that staying in Afghanistan was a mistake, which was why Mitt Romney could publicly agree with President Barack Obama on withdrawing American soldiers from the war. These partisan men could see Afghanistan was a losing cause—something Petraeus never publicly acknowledged.
To Learn More:
Exit Petraeus — and His Famous Military Doctrine (by Michael Crowley, Time)
Afghan Ultraviolence: Petraeus Triples Air War (by Noah Shachtman, Wired)
Real Petraeus Issue was Evaluation of Afghanistan (Informed Comment)
Petraeus and Obama Accused of Lying to Public about Afghanistan War Situation (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
Gen. Petraeus and the Phantom Capture of Thousands of Taliban Fighters (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)
Petraeus vs. The Numbers: Who to Believe about IED Attacks? (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
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