Writing about the sad incidents involving the resignation of David Petraeus as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency is not easy. Many people's lives are involved and one can only hope that all find the private peace that they need. There is, however, a broader set of questions that Americans might ask about judgment in policy, not private lives. It is vital, as we think hard about the national security issues that face our nation, to recognize that there is not as much consensus as portrayed in the national media about the effectiveness of policies associated with General Petraeus -- especially regarding Afghanistan.
Honoring service is essential to those who would sacrifice for our nation and to question policy outcomes in no way diminishes the scope of an outstanding military career. David Petraeus has been an innovator in military concepts. His analysis of the legacy of the war in Vietnam helped shape modern military thinking. His effort to update counterinsurgency concepts in Iraq addressed the tragic reality that America sent its troops to war with counterinsurgency manuals that had not been updated in a decade. General Petraeus inspired a new generation of innovative thinking in the Pentagon and brought a new set of perspectives into the intelligence community. That said, there is not consensus among experts on the outcomes of the most important policy issues that catapulted General Petraeus into the national spotlight. But, most likely, the legacy of General Petraeus will be Afghanistan, not scandal -- and on the policy outcomes, it is not a good record.
First, a narrative of both leadership and policy associated with General Petraeus focuses on the 2006 decisions to"surge" additional troops into Iraq and to engage in a new concept of counterinsurgency that focused on securing local populations. This policy was an important shift in tactical doctrine -- but many advocates confused tactics and strategy. Even experienced military hands like John McCain referred in 2008 to the surge as a "strategy." But the Iraq surge was not a strategy -- it was a means to a broader objective of providing local stability and a context for internal governance and regional diplomacy. There remains serious debate among national security experts about the impact of the surge in Iraq. But to hear the narrative around General Petraeus, it was him and his concepts which saved Iraq. In fact, the surge concept was one important element of a general set of guidance that was produced by former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former Secretary of State James Baker. And, as many experts assert, the key shifts on the ground in Iraq happened before a single surge force entered the country. The facts on the ground that ended the insurgency in Iraq mainly had to do with local choices and money being spread among the Iraqi population.
Second, as often is the case in military planning, General Petraeus and a cohort of true-believers in counterinsurgency doctrine apparently believed that what worked for Iraq would work for Afghanistan in 2009 and thus the Afghan war became a proving ground for a theory of war. This theory was either wrong or was promulgated in a way that violated its basic assumptions. General Petraeus argued for a surge into Afghanistan even in face of evidence that the core conditions necessary for success did not exist.
Counterinsurgency requires a complex set of relationships to succeed and none were present in Afghanistan in 2009: 1) a reliable governing partner in the country did not exist in the Karzai regime; 2) counterinsurgency requires a force-to-population ratio that was never going to be achieved in Afghanistan -- a 30,000 troop surge would not suffice -- and even 100,000 new forces would have been insufficient according to doctrine; 3) the American capacity to train and equip and sustain the Afghan army and police was insufficient; 4) there was no sustainable or organized capacity for a commensurate civilian surge force; 5) our NATO allies were not equally committed to the war effort; 6) the real center of gravity of instability lay in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, and by clearing out the Taliban from southern Afghanistan, the likely result would be to send them over the border into Pakistan, undermining stability there; and 7) average counterinsurgency campaigns take 5 to 10 years -- yet with America then approaching a decade of war and declining public support, this was not a realistic. Yet even with these glaring facts, General Petraeus and a team of like-minded counterinsurgency advocates argued still for a surge in direct contradiction to the theory they believed in.
The national media obsession with private lives is serving no national interest, nor is it helping us to understand the dynamics that led to the failure of our 2009 military planning in Afghanistan. Moreover, to focus on scandal tells us nothing about what decision-making lessons to learn, failures to avoid in the future or how to best move forward in our longest war. General Petraeus was at the spearhead of innovative and creative military concepts which have, however, since been proven tragically wrong in Afghanistan. The counterinsurgency concepts won the day in 2009 -- but the real success there has been counter-terrorism, which culminated in the killing of Osama bin Laden -- in Pakistan -- and this did not require 30,000 new troops or an escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Today, thankfully, the Obama administration has it right in that we are leaving Afghanistan and on a schedule that puts responsibility for building the Afghan people's future in their own hands, not that of our troops.
There are, finally, larger questions about America's longest war that much of the media is not yet significantly asking. What has this war done to those who have fought it and what is society doing to honor and care for them and their families? What are the implications of a decade of war in which average Americans have not been asked to sacrifice? Were the hard questions about war asked when they needed to be and were alternative concepts for planning adequately presented in the decision-making process to escalate the war in 2009? Finally, what does this war do to all of us as a nation? While our icons of war have proven all too human, what are we as a society doing to ensure that those who serve are also supported with policy outcomes that honor that sacrifice? In the end, there is a bigger story here than the sad sensationalism we hear about daily now -- and it is more about us, our priorities as a nation and a challenge to policymakers and the public as to what lessons will be learned from a war we could have begun ending in 2009, but did not.
Sean Kay is Chair of International Studies at Ohio Wesleyan University and a fellow in foreign policy at the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Global Security in the Twentyfirst Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace (2nd edition).
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