General David Petraeus: A huge loss for US


John Simpson interviews General Petraeus in 2010

Related Stories

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.


More on This Story

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Probably General Petraeus did not read the relevant sermon of St.Bernard (Sermones in Cantica, lxv), where he could find appropriate warning :

    "To be always with a woman and not to have intercourse with her is more difficult than to raise the dead. You cannot do the less difficult; do you think that I will believe that you can do what is more difficult?"

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    FBI investigations are confidential and secret, and basically everyone in DC is investigated. So why did Petraeus resign over something that would never have become public? The day after Obama was elected.

    Reminds me of the fall of DSK. Same story. Man entrapped in adultery, pretext to bring in women.

    This is a political hit by the feminist crowd. Guaranteed his replacement will be a feminist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    He is one of the finest men in US military/intelligence. His departure is very bad news.

  • Comment number 73.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    the upside of Petraeus' resignation?
    it might signal a change in CIA 'foreign policy'_ resulting in far fewer innocent 'deaths by drone' in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan_ in which officials_ like the ex-CIA director_ have made "numerous, highly misleading public statements" about the accuracy of that campaign

    quote _
    New Stanford/NYU study
    'Civilian Terror of Drones' The Guardian 25/09/12


Comments 5 of 76


More US & Canada stories


Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • TravelAround the world

    BBC Travel takes a look at the most striking images from the past seven days


  • BatteriesClick Watch

    More power to your phone - the lithium-ion batteries that could last twice as long

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.