News & Politics

King David (Petraeus)

Spencer Ackerman profiles the "king" of counter-insurgency theory.
Originally appeared on the Washington Independent.

While commanding the 101st Airborne Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, David H. Petraeus famously mused to journalist Rick Atkinson, "Tell me how this ends." Asked today by The Washington Independent how he would answer that if one of his own division commanders posed it, Petraeus replied by phone from Baghdad's Camp Victory, "I would just reiterate what our objectives are, and that is what we're trying to help the Iraqis achieve. And that is: an Iraq that is at peace with itself and with its neighbors; and can defend itself; that is a democracy in Iraqi fashion -- I would also say a government that is represent of and responsive to all its citizens."

(Matt Mahurin) But would that answer have satisfied Maj. Gen. Petraeus in 2003? "What I was asking was 'How?' in a couple respects," he said. "What that was about was, I think, very early on a recognition of how complex and challenging this was going be." He mentioned Amb. Ryan Crocker's comment to the Senate, that Iraq was "just plain hard," adding, "I think that's a very clear-eyed and, in a sense, coldly realistic appraisal of where we are, and how difficult it is."

Petraeus is no stranger to either difficulty or realism. His obstacles have come from many places, and long before he took command in Iraq, his most daunting challenge yet. In the Army, Petraeus studied counterinsurgency (COIN) early in his career in the 1970s and 1980s, at a time when the Vietnam-wounded service wanted nothing to do with methods of warfare used to draw a civilian population's political and personal allegiance away from a guerrilla force. "Students of counterinsurgency know that counterinsurgencies are not quick endeavors," he said during an hour-long conversation. "To state the obvious, they take time, enormous perseverance, [and] they are exceedingly complex."

Indeed, Petraeus's 1987 Princeton dissertation focused on how the military systematically stripped away its institutional knowledge of counterinsurgency in the wake of the Vietnam trauma. He did not realize that he would ultimately become the military's most important advocate of counterinsurgency -- a discipline that, despite the traumatic experience of the Iraq war, is on the rise, thanks to a new generation of defense theorist-practitioners. Many of them refer to Petraeus as "King David."

Every army of liberation has a half-life after which it turns into an army of occupation...You can extend that half-life by being considerate of the population ... But over time, again, you are not one of them.
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