Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How Petraeus changed the U.S. military

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
November 11, 2012 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says that before heading the CIA, Gen. David Petraeus led a key change in U.S. miliary doctrine.
Peter Bergen says that before heading the CIA, Gen. David Petraeus led a key change in U.S. miliary doctrine.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bergen: Petraeus will be remembered as best U.S. general since Eisenhower
  • He says Petraeus grasped that fighting an insurgency isn't like other wars
  • Petraeus changed military doctrine to focus on securing the population as top priority
  • Bergen says the general helped bring security to Iraq, but jury is out on his Afghan work

Editor's note: Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst, is director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation and the author of "The Longest War: America's Enduring Conflict with Al-Qaeda," from which this essay about Gen. David Petraeus is, in part, adapted. Petraeus stepped down as director of the CIA on Friday after admitting to an extramarital affair.

(CNN) -- Historians will likely judge David Petraeus to be the most effective American military commander since Eisenhower.

He was, after all, the person who, more than any other, brought Iraq back from the brink of total disaster after he assumed command of U.S. forces there in 2007.

To understand how daunting a task that was, recall that when Petraeus took over in Iraq, the country was embroiled in a civil war so vicious that civilians were dying at the rate of 90 a day.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Iraq's government itself was fueling the violence because the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior was home to a number of Shia death squads.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda's brutal Iraqi affiliate was recruiting hundreds of suicide attackers from around the Middle East who went on to kill thousands in Iraq.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



As a result of this mayhem, some 5 million Iraqis -- around a fifth of the population fled the country or went into internal exile.

After a 2003 tour in Iraq where Petraeus effectively pacified the area in and around Mosul in the north and a second tour where he had a less successful stint trying to reform the disbanded Iraqi army, he was assigned to run the U.S. Army's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 2006.

Washington shocked by Petraeus departure
FBI investigates Petraeus and biographer
Petraeus resigns from CIA post
2010: Petraeus thanks soldiers, wife

This was seen as something of a backwater for the rising star general who Newsweek had anointed with a cover story two years earlier headlined "Can This Man Save Iraq?"

CIA chief Petraeus resigns over affair

But Petraeus saw his tour in Kansas as an opportunity to revamp the Army's counterinsurgency doctrine, something the military hadn't put any real thought into since the Vietnam War. And now it was a complex stew of Sunni and Shia insurgent groups that the U.S. military was fighting in Iraq.

So Petraeus turned his time in Kansas into a year-long exercise to rewrite the strategy and tactics of the Iraq War.

To help him, Petraeus recruited Iraq War veteran John Nagl, a Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate from Oxford who in 2002 published the book "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam."

In November 2005, Petraeus gave a lunchtime speech at a counterinsurgency conference in Washington. Nagl recalls that Petraeus, his former history professor at West Point, "announced that he was going to write a counterinsurgency manual, and he announced that I was going to be the lead pen, which was the first time I'd heard of it."

Nagl assumed the role of managing editor of the manual and Petraeus recruited Conrad Crane, a military historian and a former West Point classmate, to be the lead writer. But there was no doubt who was in charge. Nagl recalls that Petraeus "was the driver, he was the vision, he was the copy editor, he read the whole thing twice, he turned around chapters in 24 hours with extensive edits and comments."

Read Petraeus' letter

The writings of the French soldier-intellectual David Galula were quite influential on the group working on the manual. Galula had fought in Indochina and Algeria in the 1950s as an officer in the French army as it was attempting to stamp out nationalist insurgencies in its colonial possessions.

Around a decade later Galula published "Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice," which distilled the lessons of fighting and observing insurgencies in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Galula laid down a general principle that is recognized as the core of a successful counterinsurgency strategy: "The population becomes the objective for the counterinsurgent as it was for his enemy."

This meant that seizing territory became far less important than it was in a conventional war; ensuring that people felt secure enough so they were not forced to have to side with the insurgents and, eventually, even felt secure enough to provide intelligence about them, became the prize.

Once a first draft of the counterinsurgency manual was completed, Petraeus and the lead writer, Crane, decided to convene a group of outside experts to critique it. Crane recalls, "We had a vetting conference to go over the doctrine, and I agreed with the general that we would do it, and I said, 'Yeah, let's bring in 30 smart people to talk about it'; he brought in 150. It was quite a three-ring circus out at Fort Leavenworth."

Over the course of two days officials from the CIA, State Department and leading academics and journalists such as Eliot Cohen, James Fallows and George Packer were instructed to give their critiques, which generated hundreds of pages of new ideas.

King: Petraeus story 'just doesn't add up'

The army and Marines published the final version of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual in December 2006.

The doctrines in this new manual deeply informed how the U.S. military would fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The manual pointed to such unsuccessful counterinsurgency practices as overemphasizing killing and capturing the enemy rather than making conditions secure for the populace, conducting large-scale operations as the norm and concentrating military forces in large bases for protection.

This was, in fact, a good description of what the U.S. military had been doing in Iraq for the past three years of the conflict and an explanation of why it was now losing the war.

Successful practices, the new manual emphasized, focused on meeting the needs and ensuring the security of the population.

In a section titled "Paradoxes" the manual made a number of recommendations that were hardly typical of prevailing U.S. military doctrine: "Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction" and "the host nation doing something tolerably is normally better than U.S. doing it well."

Emma Sky, an Oxford graduate and Arabic speaker who became Petraeus' political adviser in Iraq, recalled that, "The biggest mindset change was for the U.S. to look at Iraqis as not the enemy, but to look at the Iraqis as people who needed protecting."

In February 2007 Petraeus was appointed by President George W. Bush as the new U.S. commander in Iraq just as 30,000 troops of "the surge" that Bush had recently ordered began arriving in Iraq.

Who is Petraeus biographer

Shortly after Petraeus' arrival he took a tour of Baghdad neighborhoods he knew from his past deployments. Petraeus later told me, "I just couldn't believe it...here's literally tumbleweed rolling down the street of what I remembered as a very prosperous, upper-middle-class, former military officers' neighborhood in northwest Baghdad. It was just. . .Wow!"

There were now well over 200 car bombings and suicide attacks every month in Iraq. Six months earlier there were around a quarter of that number. Iraq was simultaneously exploding and imploding.

Petraeus' new counterinsurgency approach got American soldiers out of their massive bases in Iraq and into Iraqi neighborhoods.

Petraeus explained this "population-centric" strategy in a letter he sent to all of the soldiers he commanded. "You can't commute to this fight...Living among the people is essential to securing them and defeating the insurgents...patrol on foot and engage the population. Situational awareness can only be guaranteed by interacting with people face-to-face, not separated by ballistic glass."

Emma Sky says that Petraeus played another key role, which was buying time in Washington for the new strategy to work by being the public face and advocate of the new approach in Iraq. "Without his strategic communications, without people's belief in Petraeus, we would never have got the time."

The greatest test of whether the political will existed to continue with the ramped-up Iraq effort were the congressional hearings held on the sixth anniversary of 9/11.

On September 11, 2007, Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the veteran diplomat who was U.S. ambassador to Iraq, were grilled by both the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, on which happened to sit five senators all seriously vying for the presidency-- Joe Biden, Christopher Dodd, Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton--- one of whom would become president of the United States in just over a year.

Petraeus recalls that the hearing "Was just charged beyond belief. I mean, you could just feel the spotlight of the world on you. It was carried live in Baghdad."

Petraeus and Crocker gamely tried to present a picture of progress in Iraq, but the Democrats were having none of it. Clinton interjected at one point: "You have been made the de facto spokesman for what many of us believe to be a failed policy. Despite what I view as your rather extraordinary efforts in your testimony...I think that the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief."

This is Washington-speak for you are either wrong or lying.

The day before, the duo had also testified before a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees. Petraeus knew it was going to be a rough day when he received a heads up that the New York Times was running a full-page ad about him, paid for by the left- wing advocacy group MoveOn.org.

Under a banner headline GENERAL PETRAEUS OR GENERAL BETRAY US?" the general was accused of "Cooking the books for the White House." The ad copy went on to assert, "Every independent report on the ground situation in Iraq shows that the surge strategy has failed...Most importantly, General Petraeus will not admit what everyone knows: Iraq is mired in an unwinnable religious civil war."

Despite these criticisms, Petraeus' cautiously worded congressional testimony about the turnaround that he was beginning to see in Iraq proved to be accurate.

The violence in Iraq, which was peaking in almost every category in the first months of 2007, steadily dropped after that. That decline was true across the board, including attacks by insurgents, civilian deaths, U.S. soldiers killed, Iraq security forces killed, car-bomb attacks and IED explosions.

Colleague calls resignation 'the honorable thing to do'

In December 2006 the U.S. military map of "ethno-sectarian" violence in Baghdad was colored mostly yellow, orange and red, indicating medium to intense violence. The same map two years later was mostly colored green, indicating that the sectarian violence in Baghdad had largely subsided.

Of course, not all of this was due to the generalship of Petraeus. Other important factors such as the tribal revolt against al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate worked in Petraeus' favor.

The Sunni Awakening movement had begun in 2006 before Petraeus arrived in Iraq, but he and his top commanders deftly managed it.

The tribal fighters of the Awakening movement ended up on the American payroll in the "Sons of Iraq" program, which by the spring of 2009 had grown to around 100,000 men. Many of those men had once been shooting at Americans; now they were shooting at al Qaeda.

Iraq today remains a dangerous place, but it is not in the grip of a civil war, and political differences are more likely to be decided by parliamentary maneuvers than by violence.

Certainly, Petraeus can claim a large share in the achievement of that outcome.

Petraeus was later tapped to try to turn around another war that wasn't going well, this time it was the war in Afghanistan and the call came from President Obama in 2010.

The jury is still out on what level of success Petraeus achieved during his tenure as the commander of U.S. and other NATO troops in Afghanistan.

As a result of the operations resulting from the "surge" of 30,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan authorized by Obama and led in its latter stages by Petraeus, longtime Taliban havens in the southern Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar have now been eliminated.

Special operations forces also have decimated the ranks of mid-level Taliban commanders to such a degree that last year the average age of Taliban commanders dropped from 35 to 25, according to U.S. military sources.

That said, the increased military pressure on the Taliban did not bring them to the negotiating table in any meaningful way as had once been hoped. And the Taliban continue to control many rural areas of the country.

Arriving at any judgment of Petraeus' record at the CIA is complicated by the fact that he was there for only around a year and, of course, most of the activities of the CIA are secret.

Some light will be shed on the agency's recent activity when the acting director of the CIA, Michael Morell, testifies next week before the Senate Intelligence Committee about the attack on the Benghazi consulate in September that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya and two men who were recently revealed to be CIA employees.

It was Petraeus who was supposed to be delivering that testimony.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT