General David Petraeus reconsidered

Brian M Downing

Only in a country whose public is largely removed from military service, hesitant to criticize its generals, and susceptible to media lionization, could Gen David Petraeus receive the accolades he’s been given.

Gen Petraeus has been lauded as an extraordinary soldier-scholar who developed counterinsurgency doctrines and saw them through to good effect. His accomplishments, however, are far less than his biographers and retinue claim. Most importantly, his efforts have not contributed to American national security. The fault, however, lies less in the general than in an uncritical media and public.

Gen Petraeus may indeed be properly credited for forcing a reluctant military institution to adopt counterinsurgency thought. However, the main ideas were well established by the British in Malaya, the French in Algeria, and Americans in Southeast Asia – well before the future general donned his second lieutenant bars in 1974. His scholarly and professional writings are closely based on the ideas of Robert Thompson, David Galula, and Robert Komer.  His writings may have been found instructive to young officers freshly deployed into Iraq or Afghanistan, but they were not groundbreaking.


The sudden and welcome reversal of fortunes in Iraq known as the Sunni Awakening did not stem from Gen Petraeus’s counterinsurgency programs.  Successful counterinsurgency takes place slowly, often agonizingly so over the course of years. Further, counterinsurgency expands from areas of concentration in the “oil spot” manner.

However, the Sunni Awakening took place quite rapidly across much of the Sunni areas of Iraq. It can be better seen as the result of a pragmatic reassessment by the desperate Sunni resistance, which was being hammered by coalition forces, Shia militias, and al Qaedal. The US offered protection in exchange for cooperation – a process begun locally by junior officers, not by the army high command.

General Petraeus seized the opportunities the junior officers presented him. The same Sunni groups are now waging an insurgency against the Baghdad government, making the achievement short-lived and of little strategic significance. We might ask, then, who used whom in the Sunni Awakening and who got the better of the deal, the US or the Sunni insurgents.


General Petraeus was asked to take over the failing war in Afghanistan – a demotion of sorts as he was then a theater commander. The general nonetheless took up the task without demurral, but without notable success either. The Taliban tide was stemmed, but it must be remembered that the insurgency had little chance of expanding into non-Pashtun regions and had reached its limits in the Pashtun south and east. A few enclaves were carved out in the south but no oil-spot expansion took place and no competent Afghan officials or soldiers were put in place to win hearts and minds.

Little has changed. Stalemate has persisted and counterinsurgency has been abandoned. The ongoing failures in Afghanistan cannot be placed at the general’s feet by any means and should be seen as following from political foolhardiness over many years.


Neither war has added to US national security, which, we must evidently be reminded, is the only sound reason to send young men and women into combat.

Gen Petraeus performed his duty professionally but with far less success than the media and public believe.  Comprehension of our wars’ prosecution and relation to national security are exceedingly limited these days, as most appallingly is the impact of the thousands of casualties.

Copyright 2012 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.