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David Petraeus: The ‘in the arena' soldier and leader

David Petraeus has, his biographer says, always wanted to be in the thick of the action and make a difference in the world

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Paula Broadwell first met David Petraeus when he visited Harvard University, where she was a graduate student. Her rapport with the generalgrew after he assumed the ISAF command in Afghanistan
Weekend Review

All In: The Education of General David Petraeus is an amazing book about an amazing general in the US Army. The book is not just a biography; it is a reference to a unique career of a man who made a big difference to the thousands of lives he touched.

Paula Broadwell, formerly in the US Army, was persuaded by General David Petraeus's outstanding performance as a military commander to turn her research into a full-fledged book. Vernon Loeb, an editor at the Washington Post, became her co-author. The result of this coming together of minds is a volume that combines an account of General Petraeus's life story with an insider's look at his year in command in Afghanistan.

General Petraeus, who is known for his brilliance in military and international relations, granted Broadwell access to his Afghanistan headquarters. The important goings-on in Afghanistan served as an insight to biographical facts and events that carry the reader through General Petraeus's methods and vision regarding similar challenges in the past.

In an exclusive interview with Weekend Review, Broadwell tells us how and why the book was written. Excerpts:


Thomas Ricks had this to say about your book: "There have been several books written about parts of the career of David Petraeus, but this is the first one that could be called a biography of the most prominent American general since World War II." What made you write this book?

Luck and timing had everything to do with it. I first met General Petraeus in the spring of 2006 when I was a graduate student at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. After two tours in Iraq, including commanding the 101st Airborne Division during the 2003 invasion, he was visiting Harvard to speak about his experiences and the new counterinsurgency manual he was developing at that time.

I was among the students invited by the school to meet with the general at a dinner afterwards because I had a military background. Like General Petraeus, I began my military career at West Point and I was interested in the field of international security and diplomacy.

I introduced myself to then lieutenant-general Petraeus and told him about my research interests. Later, he responded to an e-mail I wrote to him, inviting me to bounce ideas off him, which I took full advantage of.

In late 2008, after he had gone on to command the "surge" in Iraq and subsequently helm US Central Command, I began to pursue a PhD in public policy and conduct a case study of Petraeus's transformational leadership. I intended, for my dissertation, to trace key themes — education, experience and the role of key mentors in Petraeus's intellectual development — and to examine them over his career. However, when President Obama put him in charge of the war in Afghanistan in the summer of 2010, I decided to meld my research with an on-the-ground account of his command in Kabul.

After he assumed command of ISAF [International Security Assistance Force], I spent several weeks at a time in Afghanistan — during the months of September-October 2010 and January, February and April through July of 2011 — and had the unique opportunity to observe his command in Kabul as an embedded journalist. I attended various meetings, including, for example, ISAF morning stand-up briefings and Afghan Senior Security Shuras, and occasionally travelled throughout the country with him.

My rapport with Petraeus grew during the course of his ISAF command. Ultimately, I was given some access to the general's personal files when the Petraeus family was transitioning from military quarters to their present home last summer. His assignment in Afghanistan seemed to me a unique opportunity to capture the war through his eyes — drawing on the story of his background and development to inform readers about how he managed the war in Afghanistan.

When I asked Thomas Ricks what he thought about General Petraeus's surge in Iraq, he said, "I think the surge failed. Yes, it improved security. But remember that the larger purpose of the surge was to create a breathing space in which a political breakthrough could occur." What do you say to that?

I believe the surge worked as it did create the time and space for Iraqis to provide for their own security and to re-establish basic rule of law and governance. It also created a new hope for the "Shabil Iraq" by reducing levels of violence by well over 90 per cent. It also provided breathing space for Iraq to conduct what the UN assessed as free and fair elections. The surge gave Iraqi leaders a new opportunity; clearly, the country is now in their hands and they have to make the most of the opportunity. We must hope the Iraqis will take the effort forward now, recognising the considerable challenges they still face and the recent emergence of violence there.


In 2007, General Petraeus was asked why there weren't better military plans for Iraq after the downfall of the Baathist regime. Do you think the war in Afghanistan was better planned?

In fact, General Petraeus stated publicly on numerous occasions that the US and coalition forces, together with their Afghan partners, didn't get the "inputs" right in Afghanistan until late 2010, after nine years of war. The war in Afghanistan was woefully under-resourced from the start, in part because of the irony that Petraeus was pulling as many military assets and enablers as he possibly could to fight the war in Iraq. With inadequate resourcing, it was difficult to fight a comprehensive civil-military campaign in Afghanistan.

When General Stanley McChrystal became the commander in Afghanistan in 2009, and the Obama administration approved the surge of 30,000 troops in 2010, there was renewed emphasis and focus on the war in Afghanistan. New organisations were created, civilian contributions were augmented and resources for the Afghan security forces and other initiatives were greatly boosted. I believe that was the first time that the coalition had a cogent campaign plan.

As we saw last year, ISAF and Afghan forces successfully arrested the momentum of the Taliban, claimed large swaths of former Taliban physical and spiritual strongholds in the south and southwest of the country. Overall insurgent attacks, relative to 2010, have been down in 33 of the past 41 weeks [as of the first week of February]. In the past three months, they have been down 19 per cent. In some areas, insurgent-initiated attacks are down as much as 30 per cent. While attacks are up in the areas in Afghanistan that still have an economy-of-force effort [Regional Command East], the overall trends in the security aspects of the campaign are positive. Coalition troop casualties and ISAF-caused civilian casualties are down as well. Still, these gains are fragile and reversible, but overall, I think the comprehensive civil-military campaign enabled by the surge is achieving positive results.


As a West Point graduate who was recalled to active duty three times to work on counterterrorism issues in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, what do you say to an assumption that Iraq was worse than Vietnam because Vietnam was on the periphery of American interests, while Iraq is in the middle of a region vital to the world's economy?

Iraq is important in geopolitics, playing a central role in the region and across the globe, not just because of its importance in the world's economy, but also because of the significant ethnic and sectarian divides that run through the country.


As a true soldier, General Petraeus would never oppose a direct order from the commander-in-chief of the US Army, the president himself. You wrote that he felt a spark of energy to return to the arena once again. Did the general feel he could pull a rabbit out of a hat in the difficult situation in Afghanistan?

The president asked Petraeus to the command in Afghanistan, he did not order Petraeus to take the position. Petraeus immediately responded that he would take on the new responsibility — that it would be a privilege.

I think many of his mentors and friends worried, as I wrote in the book, that having taken the COMISAF [Commander, ISAF] job he would then be deemed responsible if the mission failed. These associates of his told me that they perceived the president was passing the buck. I think Petraeus felt, as I also wrote in the book, that when a president asks one to serve his country, one doesn't hesitate. I also think Petraeus sees himself — as Teddy Roosevelt called it — as an "in the arena" soldier/leader; he always wants to be where he can influence the fight.

As his personal bodyguard told me after the Rose Garden speech where the president announced that he would be the new COMISAF, Petraeus had that look in his eyes — the "give me the ball, coach" look that captures his personality precisely! He wants to be the lead player, mostly because he wants to be consequential and make a difference in the world. He stands ready to serve, no matter what the challenge is.


As indicated in your book, General Petraeus was aware of the Seal Team Six's mission in Abbottabad for the Osama Bin Laden raid on May 1 last year. Did he tell you about his feelings when he actually received the message that it was over and was told "Geronimo EKIA [enemy killed in action]" as written in your book?

As we wrote in the book, there were no high-fives after the announcement was made that Bin Laden had been confirmed dead. Petraeus was reported to have quietly clenched his fists and then asked the officer with him [in the special operations command post at ISAF headquarters] how the more than dozen other high-risk special operations were going in Afghanistan that night.

I believe Petraeus had an inner feeling of relief that the raid had been pulled off successfully; he was on alert to divert US assets if a contingency operation went into effect, but he didn't have to do so. He also felt gratitude that this iconic figure had been eliminated after nearly ten years of pursuit and he wondered what it would mean to the larger effort to find, fix and finish Al Qaida elements across the globe. I believe he also reflected on the sacrifices so many people had made and the dedication of officials across many government organisations, across the globe, to reach this milestone. That said, he knew that Al Qaida and other terrorists continued to be a threat, so it was truly back to business as usual the following morning. Troopers in Afghanistan were happy, if not moved, to hear the news, but everyone knew it did not serve as the beginning of the end of the global war against terrorism.


Don't you think that General Petraeus's mission in Iraq was somewhat easier than his mission in Afghanistan due to the kind of backing he received from Bush at the time?

Though presidential support and dom-estic resolve were important factors in both wars, I think it is wiser to examine the difficulty of the mission through a different lens; you have to look at the mission in terms of the threat. The levels of violence in Iraq were vastly greater — four times higher at the height of the violence in Iraq than those during the fighting season in Afghanistan. Stating that it was easier would be a considerable misstatement. Even though violence was much more extreme in Iraq, nonetheless, I think he felt Afghanistan was a somewhat more difficult problem, in part because the country was larger and more rural, but the troops on the ground [150,000] were fewer than the peak of 160,000 troops in Iraq. Additionally, Iraq had had a history of a functioning government, military and civil society, along with natural resources and foreign direct investment opportunities. Iraq's GDP was $100 billion [Dh367 billion]. Afghanistan, in contrast, has never had a centralised government or a trained and equipped military, and has a GDP of $1.8 billion. There were many other differences between the countries and the insurgencies within the borders. I think these differences made the war in Afghanistan more difficult and mattered more than Petraeus's closeness to either President. In fact, he had support from both presidents; he was closer to Bush, but — as we trace in the book — his relationship with Obama came full circle from the time the two clashed in Iraq when Obama was only a presidential candidate. In fact, it is now clear that Petraeus has become "an Obama guy".


After working with the US ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, who was highly cooperative, how did the general cope with Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, who was persona non grata in Afghanistan ?

As we write in the book, Ambassador Eikenberry's relationship with President Hamid Karzai had been strained for nearly a year before Petraeus arrived. A leaked State Department cable sent by Eikenberry revealed his perception of Karzai's incorrigible and mercurial behaviour. After that revelation, Eikenberry's interaction with Karzai became increasingly strained to the point that Petraeus stopped inviting him to meetings at the palace.

As an aside, Eikenberry and Petraeus were amiable and cooperative with each other outside the palace. They had been at West Point, the US Military Academy, during the same period and had crossed paths at various junctures while both were in uniform. It was my perception, however, that what they believed to be the probability of achieving progress and the ends, ways and means to do that in Afghanistan were not fully aligned. I perceived that Petraeus believed in the mission more than Eikenberry. Incidentally, one of the first phone calls Petraeus reportedly made after the president announced that he would assume command of COMISAF was to Ryan Crocker to ask him to consider the Kabul ambassadorial position once again.


The last thing to be expected was General Petraeus taking off his uniform. It was a given that no office would make him do it. Tell us about that and about his appointment as CIA chief.

I don't believe that is necessarily true. Petraeus sought the CIA position and by all accounts, he loves the job and thinks highly of the workforce, the organisation and its missions. Petraeus's interest is in serving the nation. Many pundits question why he was not selected for the highest ranking military job; after all, he had answered the call of duty from two presidents, turned the tide in one war, and achieved the president's objectives of establishing the conditions so that transition could commence in the other war in Afghanistan.

Incidentally, as we write in the book, Petraeus had told some close friends that he had mixed feelings about the position of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [CJCS] even before he learned he was not going to be considered for it; he subsequently had reservations about the other military positions he was offered, too. While important and prestigious, they no longer held the allure they once did for him. When secretary of defense Robert Gates visited him in Kabul in the fall of 2010 and told him that he was not going to be considered for the CJCS position, it was a bit of a sting. But Petraeus didn't miss a step. He had considered and was intrigued by the position of the director of the CIA and actually suggested it to Gates in that meeting. Petraeus wanted to continue to serve our country and to stay engaged in the fight against Al Qaida and the extremists who were a threat to the United States and its allies.

I think it is the best possible position wherein he can use his skills to continue to serve our nation, and it is clear that he has embraced the position wholeheartedly. Friends report that he says he is "living the dream". And, needless to say, he revels in strategic leadership, as All In — a portrait of strategic leadership in action — shows!


By the end of summer 2012, a substantial drawdown has to take place in Afghanistan as agreed between President Obama and General Petraeus. Do you believe the Afghans will be ready by that time?

Clearing operations, conducted by ISAF and ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] in close partnership, in the south and southwest of Afghanistan have largely met with success — in arresting, and even reversing, the momentum of the Taliban in the south and clearing and holding key former Taliban physical and symbolic strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Other trends illustrate progress achieved by the surge of US forces and the growth of their Afghan counterparts: Attacks initiated by the enemy, including successful detonation of improvised explosive devices [IEDs], declined by 9 per cent in 2011, relative to 2010. But the enemy adapts, just as ISAF has. The enemy has shifted tactics in 2011 to focus on assassinating America's Afghan allies and infiltrating Afghan military and police units to carry out suicide bombings. And in Afghanistan's eastern mountains, the sector with the fewest coalition and Afghan combat troops, enemy attacks increased by 19 per cent in 2011 in comparison with 2010.

The war is clearly far from won and any notion that these hard-won gains can be sustained if there is an accelerated withdrawal is imprudent. Obviously, only time will tell if Afghans can provide for their own security; however, two tranches of transition have taken place and the results, while mixed in some areas, have generally been reassuring. There is no doubt, though, that much hard work lies ahead.


See review of All In: The Education of General David Petraeus on Page 18.