General David Petraeus: A huge loss for US


John Simpson interviews General Petraeus in 2010

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The US has lost one of its most admired public servants - the man who came up with the plan which successfully got his country out of one unpopular war, and will get it out of another by 2014.

General David Petraeus took a remarkable amount of experience with him when he went to be the new head of the CIA just over a year ago.

He had commanded the international forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and was probably the cleverest and the most highly praised soldier of his time.

Petraeus in 2011 Gen David Petraeus created a new blueprint for fighting insurgencies

Gen Petraeus certainly had more experience of combating terrorism in its different guises than any other military or civilian figure in the Western world.

He rebuilt the entire counterinsurgency strategy of the United States, which had been almost a forgotten subject since the Vietnam war, and created a highly effective blueprint for fighting insurgencies.

For this amount of brain-power and strategic and tactical thinking to be lost to the United States because of an affair with his biographer will no doubt seem to many in Europe and the rest of the world to be completely disproportionate.

But this is not simply another example of the kind of Puritanism which bemuses non-Americans.

'I feel closer to SAS'

As the boss of the CIA, David Petraeus was expected to set an example to the people under his command; and extramarital affairs have often led to blackmail and other difficulties for intelligence workers in the past.

Once the FBI had uncovered the evidence for his affair and told him, it probably never occurred for a moment to Gen Petraeus that he might be able to hold on to his job.

As I found over the years, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen Petraeus is a very pleasant and witty man, as well as a highly intelligent one.

An anglophile and a member of the American special forces, he visited the headquarters of the SAS in Hereford and often praised its way of doing things.

"I sometimes feel closer to the SAS than anyone else," he once told me in private. It may not just have been politeness on his part.

His toughness, perhaps even cynicism, served him well in Baghdad and Kabul as well as Washington.

When the American forces were becoming badly bogged down in Iraq, with faulty tactics, nothing much in the way of strategy, and visibly declining morale, Petraeus stepped in and changed everything.

"Of course it's possible to win this war," he told me crisply in 2007, "and I intend to do it."

Iraq war victor?

Whether the United States and its partners did win the war in Iraq is debatable; but it is certain that General Petraeus gave American public opinion the feeling that they had.

Paula Broadwell General Petraeus conducted an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell

In politics, and to some extent in military matters, what counts is the way things are perceived, rather than how they actually are.

General Petraeus introduced the concept of the "surge" - a big rise in the number of US troops in Iraq.

This, combined with the increasing war-weariness among Iraqis, a growing dislike of Islamic extremism and a natural downturn in the insurgency, made Iraq a quieter place for a time.

He knew very well that once American forces were withdrawn from Iraq, the US news media would no longer be interested in what was going on there.

There was of course no end to the bombings and targeted killings after the Western troops pulled out, but scarcely anyone in the United States seemed to notice.

As far as they were concerned, Iraq had been solved.

When I put this scenario to General Petraeus he grinned broadly. "That's your interpretation and your language," he said, "but I might not quarrel too much with it."

Charm, wit, intelligence

Soon, under a new president, he was reversioning the plan to fit Afghanistan instead of Iraq.

He had been sent in to replace another highly intelligent and charming American general, Stan McChrystal, who was sacked after disparaging remarks about the Obama administration were reported by a magazine journalist.

David Petraeus: Career highlights

  • Graduated from West Point in 1974
  • Commander of Multinational Force Iraq, Feb 2007 to Sept 2008
  • Commander of International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan, July 2010 to July 2011
  • Became CIA director in Sept 2011 after being confirmed by the senate 94-0

When American, British and other Western troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan next year, it will be according to the basic plan drawn up by General Petraeus.

And once more the world's news media will no doubt forget about the country that has been left behind.

David Petraeus's charm, wit and incisive intelligence will not be unemployed for long in Washington.

General McChrystal, who once told me he would like to open a bookshop somewhere, is now a leading defence consultant.

As a former head of the CIA, Mr Petraeus will be in even greater demand.

For a time, people pestered him with questions about plans to go into politics.

He is too self-aware to do that, and anyway the circumstances of his resignation would probably make it impossible.

He has most of the qualities of a first-rate politician, but not the instincts. He was the best American general for a generation; now he is the worst loss to his country for longer than that.


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  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    If it was France no one would have batted an eyelid. The best man for the job is the best man for the job. How many of us would resign for having affairs? How much responsibility do we have in the public forum and is that actually relevant? Should teachers resign if they have affairs? If so there would not be many left! Reinstate him I say!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    This british author is a fake just like the subject petraeus. when the brits left india, the literacy was 30%, but when they came, it was 90%. The war objectives were unclear and have not been achieved, nor stated. Alan Sabrosky from the US war college has let the falseflag genie out. petraeus went into sex coz he was burntout from war. adultery shows one thing clearly, an inner hollowness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    FBI knew about the affair long BEFORE Election Day.

    Its obligaton was to reaveal it ASAP.

    It didn't.

    Now rumors are, that since Beghazigate was not going away but it's actually growing, some in the White House felt responsibility for the failure could be deflected from Obama by blaming CIA.

    NYT points out that Petraeus was to testify on the subject before US Congress next week. Ehm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Hypocritical our not, adultery is an absolute no in US high level administrators, especially in the CIA because it is a blackmail risk and shows bad judgement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Maybe a "huge loss" for the US, but the thousands and thousands of ordinary people whose relatives have been murdered (assassinated without trial or due process i.e. drone strike) under this man's orders might have their own opinion.

    Western society doesn't just perpetrate murder en masse, we actively celebrate those who choose it as policy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Put a strong man together for long hours with an attractive young woman and they will be tempted by each other. They are both married, and they both succumbed to a human weakness. Understandable.
    It is commendable and honourable that Gen. Petraeus both apologised and resigned. The military understands honour. The last politician who understood was Lord Carrington.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    It's easy to say that "Americans are such hypocrites" for jumping so quickly on an affair. Has it not occurred to anyone else that there was probably much more going on? For example, maybe she infiltrated his email or actually DID blackmail him? We DON'T KNOW. Don't just accept everything you're told as the full truth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Seems to me that he did not use his knowledge of US's attitude to adultery to good effect. Career suicide.

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    It is too early yet......there is more to this than we know........and it is unlikely that we will know the entire don't be in a rush to judge.

    From what I have read, this man-of-our-times has an impeccable character - far better than Bill Clinton.....and....Bill Clinton did not resign for his little adventures in the White House and he was the commander-in-chief.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Americans are such hypocrites when it comes to family values. Each election you see them playing happy families when you know damm well what they get up in their private lives. Could it be that he is going because he is a republican and he was waiting to see who won the election ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    They say when God created man, He gave him enough blood to fully utilise his brain, and his lower digit, but not enough blood to utilise them both at the same time. Moral of the maxim: keep it in your trousers unless you want to be caught pants down. What a waste of clearly a remarkable man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Those of a cynical bent might think the timing of this affair being brought to light is convenient. Petraeus is noted for making comments that Iran isn't the threat much of the US Govt likes to make it out to be. And since it's obvious that the neocons are desperate to have that war....

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    What a shame - and such hypocrisy - that something so human in his personal life would be a reason to finish off a good career. Obviously blackmail in his position is a major security risk, but if he's admitted it he can no longer be blackmailed. Unless there's more to the story. Perhaps a result of the precedent set by the President's bodyguards having to resign for not disclosing their affairs?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    You have to at least give the man credit for falling on his sword as quickly as he did when this news got out. Having said that he showed dismal judgement in conducting this affair at all only resigning when the affair went public. To have done so for such an intelligent man is more than succumbing to human weakness but as director of the CIA of all people!


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