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The Mythology Surrounding Petraeus' Surge in Iraq Will Keep Us Trapped in Afghanistan

The real story of Petraeus' job in Iraq is that he failed to accomplish one of the most crucial tasks of the occupation.

The United States is stalled in a hopeless conflict in Afghanistan in large part because its foreign policy establishment, aided by an often-vacuous media, has come to believe its own spin about General David Petraeus’ "success" turning around the occupation in Iraq. The fact that Iraq remains a shattered country with an active insurgency seven years after the United States invaded -- and that any improvement in security was due to developments on the ground that were unique to the country -- hasn’t shaken their faith.

That the Iraq surge was a success is almost a universally held belief, despite ample evidence to the contrary. That belief lends unearned weight to Petraeus’ counter-insurgency doctrine, known as COIN. The idea is not only to kill as many of the enemy as possible, but to create a functional, legitimate state that can police its own territory and win over the hearts and minds of the population. The efficacy of COIN has become an article of faith across the ideological spectrum, a belief held tightly by neocons and liberal interventionists alike. But it has no track record of success whatsoever, either in Iraq or elsewhere in the world. At best, it remains an unproven theory of warfare. 

David Petraeus, President Obama’s new commander in Afghanistan, is COIN’s most vocal champion. Widely seen as a golden-boy genius, Petraeus is the personification of America’s über-professional post-Vietnam military -- a military that supposedly embraces a more holistic view of modern warfare than its kill-'em-all predecessor. 

In 2007, when American opinion of the Iraq conflict was at an all-time low, George W. Bush named Petraeus the commander of Iraqi forces. Earlier that year, the late congressman John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania, accused the administration of calling Petraeus back to Washington on the eve of a major vote pertaining to the Iraq project to serve as a “prop.” “I’m saying he came back here at the White House’s request to purely make political statements,” Murtha said while dismissing Petraeus’ claims about the course of conflict as “absolutely untrue.” At the time, the  Washington Post  reported that “the Petraeus card is about the only one left to play for a White House confronting low poll numbers, an unpopular war and an opposition Congress.” 

Now, with Americans growing weary of the longest conflict in the nation’s history -- an occupation that has taken a heavy toll in blood and treasure in an effort to support an Afghan government  whose president says he has “lost faith in the Americans and NATO to prevail” -- Barack Obama has ripped a page from the Bush playbook and brought in Petraeus, whom the Associated Press  calls the “architect of the Iraq war turnaround,” to  “once again to take hands-on leadership of a troubled war effort.” 

The appointment has been a great success, at least politically.  Time magazine’s Mark Halperin  noted that it was met with “rare bipartisan praise” on Capitol Hill, an event he praised as “a mature and sensible reaction.”

But one could just as easily describe it as a psychotic reaction in the sense of trying the same thing again and again and expecting a different outcome. The reality is that the United States entered Afghanistan while it was embroiled in a longstanding, chaotic civil war. The country’s instability is deep, and the U.S. lacks a coherent strategy for reconciling the various factions of its fractured polity, traumatized as they are by decades of bloodshed. The occupation of Afghanistan is a systemic disaster, and it won’t be resolved by firing a wayward general or bringing in a specialist. 

The Petraeus Factor