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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  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    For Simpson to suggest his loss over a secret affair seems disproportionate to anybody is very naive if not foolish.
    The head of an intelligence agency put himself in a position to be blackmailed - I would say that is more than just poor judgement - totally irresponsible in fact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    How on earth can someone who is such an idiotic drone be said to be "a huge loss".

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    So a man who makes judgement ion the rest of the world as to who will have extreme violence inflicted on them can't keep it in his trousers, hilarious.

    America has no moral authority whatsoever nor any intellectual authority by the looks of things.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    40.Daniel Bunbury
    If they had a policy of only appointing homosexual men to that position, this would never have happened.

    Question: How many members of Cambridge Five were heterosexuals?

    Or of Oxford Circle?

    [inquiring minds want to know since they can hardly identify any]

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Get real America, just because someone bangs a babe does not mean they should lose their job. Franklin D Roosevelt had two mistresses, John Kennedy was a notorious womanizer, Ulysees Grant was drunk as a skunk by noon, what is this sudden claim that everyone has to be a saint?

    Petraeus is the best General America has had since Dwight Eisenhowerand he is to be booted out for chasing some tail?

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    "If he was a good general, fine. But isn't the time to judge his methods in 20/30 years, when we know whether we went back to Iraq yet again?"

    Barack Hussein Obama has been awarded Nobel Peace Prize before he's ever done anything to earn it. (Arafat ditto)

    [unlike Nobel Prize Laureats in science and medicine, who are typically recognized by the Nobel Committee 20/30 years post factum]

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    It's not a loss - everyone is expendable. It's just one of those things.

    In light of the announcement at Lockheed Martin; you have to wonder what it is with these guys?

    I don't think Patraeus was set up - but I think Kubasik may have been.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    This man is a textbook soldier, reminds me of the Commando Elite from the film 'Small Soldiers'. Casualties whether own or enemy are secondary to the objective. The fact that he had an affair almost makes him human!

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Re #38 Pyrogen :"It's also a shame because Petraeus was a smooth, moderate operator of the CIA - an achievement in itself - and because his replacement might not be so."

    Since Hillary Clinton has decided to leave, (just as DOD's Leon Panetta and Treasury's Timothy Geithner) we've heard that her replacement at State may be sen. John Kerry, who had even worse grades at Yale than GW Bush.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    How come us minions get to comment on something happening thousands of miles away but we don't get to voice our opinions on the scandals at the beeb? unbiased my ----!

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    There are two sayings in Britain.
    1) "If it has breasts or wheels it'll cost you"
    2 "Your dick will get you into more trouble than your brain can get you out of".

    Shame that the Director of the CIA was dumb enough not to work that out for himself, never mind apparently not knowing about the rivalry between his CIA and their old adversaries FBI.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Does anyone really believe that the head of MI5 or MI6 would be able to stay in post when the fact that he or she was concealing an extra-marital affair was revealed? That's just not how intelligence services roll, in any country.

    But hey, don't let that stand in the way of having a go at a "Puritanical" country that just re-elected its progressive President.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    This is the best the West can offer then -

    When engaging in conventional conflict use overwhelming force (not exactly a new idea)

    When this doesnt work then get out & out of sight at home is out of mind (known as a short memory, also not a new observation)

    & this is seen as remarkable

    What is remarkable is the increased US use of drones & the questions it raises that nobody wants to talk about

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    There are many other reasons for being blackmailed; the question is if a person would let himself be blackmailed as easily as slipping into an amorous relationship. From what I have seen he would not have. It would interesting to know how many people who have affairs don't betray their Country. Is this another example of imaginary risks?

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    re# 29.Phffft

    Someone has mentioned "French standard" re marital infidelity.

    But then US media kept mum for decades about Eisenhower's romance with his personal driver, Kennedy's numerous affairs, Al. Gore's ones..

    As I've pointed out earlier, "outing" Petraeus just days before his imminent testimony in US Congress re Benghazigate has little to do with upholding high moral standards

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    by the by, mr p . is guilty of poor "trade craft". any spook worth his pay should know how to keep a secret.

    if he needs an extra woman or two he should embrace Islam and marry them properly.

    i am sure that there would be no religious discrimination in the cia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    If they had a policy of only appointing homosexual men to that position, this would never have happened.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    If Petraeus "might not quarrel" with the claim that his plan did Iraq no good in the long term, but only provided better media coverage in the USA for a time, then the job he did there is less a soldier's job and more a politician's.

    If he was a good general, fine. But isn't the time to judge his methods in 20/30 years, when we know whether we went back to Iraq yet again?

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Quite a shame - personally I'm not surprised, as others have noted, that they ended up having an affair. No doubt he'll find decent work elsewhere though.

    It's also a shame because Petraeus was a smooth, moderate operator of the CIA - an achievement in itself - and because his replacement might not be so.

  • Comment number 37.

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


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