The young man peered into a basement office at the White House, where a pair of military officers sat talking. “Does anyone know where General Petraeus is?” he asked. “I’m right here,” the general answered, raising his hand. “They want you in the Oval, sir,” the aide said.
This was June 2010, and Gen. David Petraeus was in charge of Central Command, one of the supreme jobs in the U.S. armed forces. But that was about to change. Minutes before, the president had fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan. As Petraeus climbed the narrow staircase and headed down the short corridor to the Oval Office, the president’s national-security team was filing out: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and others. Petraeus knew them all, but they avoided eye contact, like physicians about to deliver a grim diagnosis.
Inside, Barack Obama was alone. He motioned Petraeus to a chair by the fireplace and made small talk as they sat down. Then he said: “As your president and commander in chief, I am asking you to take over command in Afghanistan." To a request like that Petraeus saw only one response. “Yes, sir,” Petraeus replied. He would be accepting what was formally a demotion to go back to the field. Nine days later, the dutiful soldier was unpacking his bags in Kabul.
Now, after 13 months, the 58-year-old Petraeus is coming home to head the Central Intelligence Agency. Since that day in the Oval Office, hopeful signs have begun appearing that he may have performed the seemingly impossible task of stabilizing the Afghan battlefield. He achieved a similar feat four years ago in Iraq, turning its savage killing fields into a more manageable landscape of political infighting and chronic but relatively small-scale violence. In both countries, merely staving off complete disaster looked enough like victory to allow the Obama administration to start pulling out troops. “I’ve always said this would be very hard, but it can be done,” Petraeus told NEWSWEEK during a series of interviews this month in Afghanistan. “That’s still my view.”
In Kabul, the hard-as-a-rock, 5-foot-9, 150-pound, -distance- running, push-up-pumping Petraeus has conducted the war from a rundown Edwardian villa, surrounded by a labyrinth of shipping containers piled into two-story blocks of offices and sleeping quarters, and all of it behind high walls, concertina wire, and a lot of firepower. An aide loaded down with three laptops follows him everywhere he goes: one laptop for unclassified emails, one for U.S. secret traffic, one for classified NATO/International Security Assistance Force material. In the colorless corridors of Langley, Va., he’ll be largely on his own. But Petraeus has been preparing a long time for this post. “History will regard him as one of the nation’s great battle captains,” then–defense secretary Robert Gates said in 2008. “He is the preeminent soldier-scholar-statesman of his generation.” Even then, Gates might well have added “intelligence director.”
Since at least the end of 2008, Petraeus has been a key figure in efforts to develop new approaches to covert warfare and take full advantage of real-time information on enemy movements captured by drone technology. The military’s Special Operations Forces and the CIA’s Special Activities Division carry out attacks with ever-higher levels of coordination and integration in Pakistan, in Yemen, in Somalia—and, indeed, in Afghanistan. The way Obama shuffled his cabinet recently (Gates, a former CIA director, has been replaced as defense secretary by outgoing CIA chief Leon Panetta) is testimony to the president’s faith in this approach, at least when it comes to fighting Al Qaeda and its spinoffs.
Petraeus, the hardened veteran of four decades in the Army, will confront a hardened bureaucracy at CIA headquarters. His friend and political ally Sen. John McCain may call Petraeus “the most impressive combination of character, leadership, and intelligence I have ever encountered,” but many in the CIA, looking coldly at Petraeus’s record, may not share that effusive view. When he’s been in charge on the counterinsurgency battlefield—Mosul in Iraq in 2003, all of Iraq in 2007-2008, Afghanistan since last year—he’s managed to find the resources to get the short-term job done. His long-term requirement for stifling insurgencies—“strategic patience” over years and even decades from an American public pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the operation—is much harder to achieve. “Vietnam was an extremely painful reminder,” Petraeus wrote in his doctoral dissertation back in 1987, “that when it comes to intervention, time and patience are not American virtues in abundant supply.”
In his last days in Afghanistan, amid all the distractions of formal and informal farewells, Petraeus was working hard to make sure such gains as have been made can be sustained. His successor, Lt. Gen. John Allen, will have 33,000 fewer troops to work with by late next summer. To meet the president’s drawdown targets, Petraeus envisions a complex reshuffle that will involve taking “individuals from various units and staffs” and sending home some entire units as well. Then some 70,000 new Afghan troops—their skills as yet unproved—must be filtered in to replace U.S. troops.
And all the while there are bloody reminders that beyond the walls of the commander’s compound, nothing is certain. In late June the Taliban launched a suicide attack on the heavily guarded Intercontinental Hotel in the heart of the capital, killing 12 people, including four police. Practically on the eve of Petraeus’s departure, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was blown away by his own bodyguard. As chairman of the provincial council in the key province of Kandahar, long a stronghold for the Taliban and the opium trade, Ahmed had a most unsavory reputation. But he’d made himself indispensable to American counterinsurgency efforts. The CIA reportedly had him on its payroll. Now it’s not clear who can step in for him.
Petraeus has spent his career urging the military to pay more attention. “We do not take the time to understand the nature of the society in which we are fighting, the government we are supporting, or the enemy we are fighting,” he said in his dissertation. When he took over CENTCOM in 2008, he was so perturbed by the poverty of good intelligence on Afghanistan and Pakistan that he persuaded the director of national intelligence to upgrade the entire collection effort, and he set up a special CENTCOM unit to provide independent analysis of the take.
But the wars he’s most likely to be waging now will be covert ones quite different from the hearts-and-minds strategy he’s advocated since he wrote that thesis. The focus is much more directly on hunting and killing the bad guys with newly refined techniques: “something that doesn’t get you decisively engaged on the ground,” as he puts it.
Yemen, now on the verge of civil war, is hardly the ideal model for future operations, but it has been a critical proving ground. When Petraeus was head of Central Command, he oversaw the covert battle plan there, where “white” U.S. Special Operations Forces—Green Berets from Fort Campbell, KY—are training Yemen’s own special forces. Meanwhile, teams of “black” Special Forces—Delta Force, SEAL Team Six, and their helicopter-flying colleagues—are operating in tandem with Yemenis in the field. The CIA’s paramilitary Special Activities Division is on the ground, too, with the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command operating an armada of drones overhead, some armed with missiles, others so small as to escape notice as they spy.
Not surprisingly, when Petraeus talks about his new job, he focuses on the National Clandestine Service, the part of the agency that recruits spies and carries out covert actions in the field. After he’s sworn in on Sept. 6, says Petraeus, he’s going to “do an all-hands call”: “I’m going to say to them that I’m there to recruit them, and I know they’re there to recruit me—and the director of the National Clandestine Service is my case officer.”
Petraeus knows perfectly well that field operatives are a touchy breed. He’s come across a lot of them. “There’s a care-and-feeding aspect to this,” he says. The best agent-runners are entrepreneurial, independent. “That’s what you want. That’s what you have to foster. These are racehorses, and racehorses require a lot of tender loving care.”
But it’s not just the operational side of the agency; it’s the analytical side that needs enormous attention. Despite tactical successes, the record of strategic failure over the last quarter century is simply stunning. In the last 10 years, if the CIA had produced actionable intelligence on the threat from Al Qaeda, the 9/11 attacks might have been prevented, and America might never have gone to war in Afghanistan in the first place. Had the CIA admitted there was no convincing evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration probably could not have invaded Iraq. And, just recently, the CIA failed to predict the Arab Spring, which brought down or weakened dictators it had relied on for crucial intelligence liaison and counterterrorism all over the Middle East.
Maybe Petraeus really is the man to solve such deeply ingrained problems. But success is not a slam-dunk, as someone once said. And for Petraeus, despite his well-cultivated aura of invincibility, it never really has been.
Petraeus describes his father as “at heart a crusty old Dutch sea captain,” who taught him never to accept anything less than a win. Any deviation from that standard brought an icy-blue stare and a growl: “Results, boy, results!” Those words have driven Petraeus ever since. Too young for the Vietnam War, he graduated from West Point in 1974, married the superintendent’s daughter, and proceeded to rise quickly through the ranks. It was Gen. John Galvin, then commander of a division of the 24th Infantry, who talent-spotted Captain Petraeus to be his aide-de-camp and later gave him a life-changing piece of advice: go to graduate school. “Raise your intellectual sights beyond the maximum effective range of an M-60 machine gun,” Galvin urged.
So Petraeus enrolled at Princeton. “It was the place where I learned that there are really smart people in the world who don’t think the way we do,” he says. But the most important lesson came from an international-relations course he took with Prof. Richard Ullman. Petraeus, still fascinated by the war he had missed, wrote a paper examining the impact of Vietnam on the U.S. military. Ullman handed it back with a B-plus and a withering comment: “Though the paper is reasonably well written and has some merit, it is relatively simplistic and I am left feeling that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.”
Unable to forget his father’s admonition, Petraeus asked Ullman if he could try again. The second effort earned him an A-plus, and it laid the groundwork for his 1987 Ph.D. dissertation, a pioneering study of the domestic impact of Vietnam that also contained his first thoughts on how the military needed to prepare for such conflicts in the future. He jokes about his academic credentials now. “I have a Ph.D., though I kept it quiet to avoid damaging my military career,” he said in a farewell speech in Afghanistan. It wasn’t just a wisecrack: Big Army has always valued “muddy-boots generals” over those with fancy diplomas.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq finally provided a laboratory to test his theories as commander of the 101st Air Assault Division in Mosul. The machinery of government had ceased to function; the economy had shut down; the entire country was awash in weapons and munitions; and Saddam Hussein’s fighters had melted into the civilian population, undefeated. Petraeus deployed his troops throughout the community to deter violence; did his best to restore basic services like electricity, water, sewage, and hospitals; organized and monitored elections to replace the local government; kick-started the economy; and reopened the schools. Mosul became an island of relative peace and prosperity. It didn’t last, though: when the 23,000 soldiers of the 101st finished their yearlong deployment, a force barely half that size was sent to replace them—not nearly enough to maintain the security that underpinned everything Petraeus had done. The city sank into the violence that was devastating the rest of Iraq.
No matter. That year in Mosul sealed Petraeus’s reputation as one of the military’s most innovative commanders. He was promptly given the job of ramping up a program to train and equip a new Iraqi army. On his return stateside, the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, sent him to run the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kans., with a simple instruction: “Shake up the Army, Dave.” And so Petraeus did. The Combined Arms Center is the nerve center for training and development. Realizing it could be “the engine of change for the entire Army,” Petraeus set to work changing almost every aspect of the Army’s preparations for combat. Out of that assignment came Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, which is now the Pentagon’s bible on the subject. Having literally written the book on how to win these messy wars, Petraeus was sent back to Baghdad to put his theory into practice.
Today it’s obvious that Petraeus, the not-so-old soldier, looks back on the surge in Iraq with nostalgia. His three assignments there—fighting, training, and surging—were searingly intense experiences, and he bonded with a wide circle of comrades in arms, Iraqis as well as Americans. Not so in Afghanistan, a war where he’d always known it would be tougher to make progress. Petraeus had planned to stay through this summer’s fighting season; but President Obama wants him at CIA. Any regrets at leaving the Afghan fight are overshadowed by excitement at that new job. As he ends his 41 years in the Army, he even relaxed enough to show videos to visitors on a couple of recent evenings. They’re not of Afghanistan; they’re of his beloved 101st and his experiences in Iraq.
Not everyone in Afghanistan fully appreciates what Petraeus has achieved in his year there, says Saad Mohseni, director of the country’s largest media company, the Moby Group: “Much of General Petraeus’s good work has been overshadowed by accusations and counteraccusations, the Afghans accusing the Americans of killing civilians, the Americans accusing the Afghans of ineptitude and corruption.” Even so, he adds, Petraeus's departure worries a lot of people. “Given his reputation, many Afghans would feel compelled to believe that the Americans are downgrading their engagement in Afghanistan”—especially since the general’s return home coincides with Obama’s drawdown announcement.
And now that Petraeus is headed home, what life might he be looking forward to post-CIA? It’s not an unfair question to ask. Petraeus always thinks ahead, and not a few people in Washington remember the way he campaigned for the Iraqi surge in 2007. Behind the scenes he worked closely with three senators—Republicans McCain and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman—to promote the idea. “The best salesman was Dave himself,” recalls Graham, himself an Air Force reservist who served in Iraq. “I remember parking him in a room somewhere off the [Senate] floor, and I grabbed individual senators, saying, ‘I just need five minutes.’ And Dave would make the pitch, one by one. He could articulate a complicated system like counterinsurgency in two minutes. And after you met him, it was pretty hard not to want to give him a chance to succeed.”
That level of political finesse raised suspicions among Obama’s people when they took office. Top aides like Rahm Emanuel saw Petraeus as “a potential man on horseback,” says a senior White House official, and they didn’t want him leading a Republican march on the White House in the 2012 election. Petraeus worked to calm their fears, directly confronting Emanuel to assure him that his concern was unfounded.
As Petraeus packed up in Afghanistan this month, he told NEWSWEEK he thought retired generals shouldn’t even endorse candidates, let alone run for office themselves. When, a few years ago, a friend emailed him a list of the 12 generals who have become president and teasingly asked if he saw a pattern, Petraeus responded with a 13th name: William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War general who famously scuttled efforts to recruit him by saying, “If nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve.” As Petraeus contemplates life after the CIA, he now has a new response: “Yes, I want to be president—president of Princeton.” And that happens to be true.
With Christopher Dickey and John Solomon