The Legacy of David Petraeus and the Future of American War

As the former CIA chief and military leader's official career ends, the grappling with his formidable legacy -- and what it might mean for future U.S. policy -- can begin.

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai awards a medal to outgoing International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander General David Petraeus at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, on July 18, 2011. (Reuters)

Before he was embroiled in the lurid and increasingly complicated scandal that ended his brief tenure as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, General David Petraeus was an already-iconic military leader, the commander who rescued the U.S. war effort in Iraq, and who was brought in to help reverse course in a deteriorating Afghanistan. But before he even assumed command of U.S. forces in Iraq, Petraeus assisted in producing a document crucial to understanding the general's broader impact on American policy -- and on thinking about how and why America wages war.

Future students of Petraeus's intellectual legacy will likely start with the 2006 version of FM 3-24, the army's counterinsurgency manual, the result of an effort spearheaded by Petraeus and General James Mattis, and necessitated by the waning prospects of victory in Iraq. In the midst of a directionless and seemingly doomed campaign, the generals brought in a wide range of civilian scholars and military officers to help formulate the first update to the military's counterinsurgency field guide in over two decades. According to John Nagl, a defense policy scholar and retired lieutenant colonel, and one of the authors of the manual, Petraeus involved over 100 civilian journalists, scholars, and intellectuals for a two-day vetting and open discussion of a draft version of the document. "It was a great example of Petraeus's ability to reach out to a broader intellectual community to gather ideas, but also to gain support for the project. And it mattered."

As Stephen Biddle, a scholar and George Washington University professor who served on Petraeus's Strategic Assessment Team in Iraq in 2007, explains, the resulting manual conceived of warfare in jarringly unconventional terms. "Its primary logic is that you succeed in the war not by destroying the enemy but by protecting the civilian population and giving them a stake in the government you're trying to support," says Biddle. "The manual conceived of counter-insurgency as essentially an armed contest in good governance, in which the government we're trying to support and an insurgency are both competing for what are thought of as being a largely uncommitted middle of the population. The side that convinces the uncommitted middle to side with them, wins the war....The new doctrine is about how to provide governance, economic development and security to a threatened and largely uncommitted civilian population."

The occupying army can't sit in remote and heavily-guarded bases. It has to have continuous contact with the civilian population -- the people whose trust and cooperation you need. Biddle says that counter-insurgency is very intelligence-heavy. The insurgents don't advertise themselves, or wear uniforms. Routinized interaction with the locals is essential if the civilian population is ever going to become comfortable with identifying the bad guys, and identifying keys to their eventual defeat.

In Iraq, Petraeus's decision to support the Sunni population's turn against al Qaeda in Iraq -- the so-called "Anbar Awakening" -- led to a dramatic decrease in violence and the routing of the country's brutal terrorist franchise. According to Nagl, this decision to support and arm the Anbar Awakening, which was largely the effort of Sunni militants with plenty of American and Iraqi blood on their hands, was a direct outgrowth of the ideas contained in the counterinsurgency manual. "That was another manifestation of not viewing the Sunni insurgents necessary as the enemy, but in some way as part of the population we were trying to protect," says Nagl. "Petraeus declared a unilateral ceasefire with people who had been previously killing Americans in order to ally against al Qaeda.... it was a high-risk decision, and he took it all on his own authority."

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Petraeus's views on warfare manifested themselves in a number of less-dramatic battlefield experiments. Petraeus oversaw the writing of a manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations, a guide to the effective and humane interrogation of potential intelligence assets captured in war. And in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Petraeus introduced Human Terrain Teams (HTTs), groups of social scientists who gather detailed, even academic-style information about local populations.

Ryan Evans, a social scientist who served on an HTT in Helmand province in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 and a current research fellow at the Center for National Policy, explained his team's contribution to the war effort. His HTT was attached to a British army brigade, and was "integrated into the brigade planning cycle." In practice, this meant that two to eight HTT members -- experts in anthropology, sociology or economics, along with a team leader with some kind of military background -- would interview Afghans in the battalion's area of operation, and review classified and unclassified documentary sources. Evans says his team would accompany regular patrols. "We would conduct research and then write it up in an operationally relevant report with recommendations," he said, adding that they would even discuss social-theoretical concepts in reports if the team believed it could help their brigade's commanders understand the environment in which they were fighting.

The HTTs could prove emblematic of Petraeus's larger impact. They sprang from a belief that war was no longer the sole purview of the warrior -- that killing or disrupting the enemy was a subset of a broader effort to create political and social space for vulnerable and often distrustful populations. But the HTTs were an area where theory and practice clashed: two social scientists have been killed in the field, and the program's rapid expansion and recruiting practices have both been questioned (participation in HTTs is highly controversial within the anthropological profession as well).

Evans says that over 30 HTTs were sent to Afghanistan, and that recruitment is the responsibility of a private contractor. From one perspective, HTTs reflect a shift in how the U.S. military thinks about its role and purpose, as well as its relationship with civilian experts whose background and skillsets seem to be radically at odds with the culture and objectives of a conventional military. But from another perspective, the HTT program is bloated and poorly implemented, and its recruitment practices and personnel demands result in teams of wildly varying ability and usefulness. And even if all of the HTTs operated at peak ability, there is a question of just how much they contributed to the broader war effort -- of the relationship between theory and tangible success. "I'd say that there's a disconnect between operational success and strategic success in Afghanistan," Evans said when asked to speak generally about the war's progress. "The sad fact is that none of our operational success impacts the real strategic hurdles in Afghanistan."

Petraeus will go down as somebody who stood at the forefront of a major shift in thinking about war and the military, a shift that arguably made American leaders and policymakers more capable of navigating a world of insurgents, terrorists, and weak, crumbling states. But debate over the implications of this shift, and the feasibility and even desirability of implementing it, is certain to outlast him. For instance: was counter-insurgency -- the attempt to create conditions in which a beleaguered population could forge political, social and economic stability -- even possible in a place with as little infrastructure and existing human capital as Afghanistan? If not, how useful is the doctrine to begin with? Under the doctrine, rank-and-file types provide training and other forms of assistance to the host government, while much of the actual killing is done by airstrikes and Special Forces. Might this make the war effort overly dependent on the local political process, while leading to an over-reliance on controversial platforms -- armed drones, for instance? And there's a larger debate over how much Petraeus actually stuck to his own rules. Al Qaeda in Iraq was defeated because of a well-timed influx of American soldiers (the "surge"), while the doctrine itself emphasizes local capacity. Biddle says Petraeus was "remarkably pragmatic and not at all dogmatic" during his command, a fact likely to feed the debate over his legacy.

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There are similarly weighty questions that will likely surround his brief period as CIA director as well, prominent among them the ongoing discussion over the degree to which intelligence-gathering should be understood as a tool for eliminating enemies and winning wars. Petraeus was actually asked about the "paramilitary" purpose of the CIA in a questionnaire leading up to his confirmation hearings in June of 2011 (see page 100). "As a commander in various theaters," he wrote, "I have worked with the CIA and understand the need for cooperation and deconfliction of military and intelligence activities ... both U.S. Special Forces and CIA must remain available resources for the President in executing any Paramilitary-style covert action."

Biddle notes that the CIA has always been involved in some degree of "paramilitary-style covert action." And according to Michael O'Halon, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a member of the CIA's advisory board, it is "just flat wrong" to credit Petraeus for the agency's shift in a more paramilitary direction, which largely occurred under the general's post-9/11 predecessors, most notably Leon Panetta. If anything, Petraeus's authority as a four-star general gave him the credibility needed to advocate for a more cautious use of targeted strikes. Although his position on the CIA advisory board prevented him from going into detail, O'Hanlon says that there were times when Petraeus cautioned restraint when other officials were in favor of a targeted action. "There were some specific instances where others in government might have been willing to do something that Petraeus thought ill-advised," says O'Hanlon. "There were cases, at least a couple, where his position prevailed."

Still, the fact of a respected general being appointed to head the nation's top intelligence agency might be a sign of shifting priorities, of larger trends in national security policy that Petraeus was certainly part of, even if he wasn't their sole or primary architect. Nagl believes that the CIA's paramilitary turn is a natural and even positive development, given the nebulous and global nature of America's enemies -- and prevailing diplomatic and legal realities. "We needed the agency to become more military in order to wage undeclared wars inside the borders of countries with which we are not technically at war, with their at least implicit permission," he says. "The agency's military capabilities give us a very important policy tool that has allowed us to do great damage to some of al Qaeda's global affiliates."

But it's gotten American policy into a new set of quandaries. Under the 2001 Authorization of Military Force, passed just days after the September 11 attacks, the president is authorized to:

...use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

But what does this mean exactly? Would it justify American military action against, say, Ansar al-Sharia, the Qaeda-related organization responsible for the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya? Currently, the Economic Community of West African States governments are planning a military invention in northern Mali, to dislodge Ansar Dine, an Islamist terrorist organization that is also believed to have links to al Qaeda. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already said that the U.S. won't assist in an intervention in Mali until the country, which experienced a military coup in March of this year, holds democratic elections. But the 2001 authorization arguably gives the president the ability to use U.S. military force in northern Mali anyway, so long as there is some national security interest at stake and no strong congressional push-back.

Northern Mali would be another theater in which the U.S. would be waging an "undeclared war," with the "implicit permission" of a cooperative government (or in this case, coalition of governments -- including, one would assume, the one in Bamako). There is already circumstantial evidence that the Obama administration is taking this possibility seriously: according to The Washington Post, the U.S. has rapidly built its intelligence and military capacity in North Africa -- especially in and around Burkina Faso, which neighbors Mali. Petraeus was not the only national security figure who made these kinds of interventions more common, or more justified by prevailing trends in the U.S.'s strategic thinking. But he was the most influential and visible of a generation of leaders and thinkers who led significant changes in American military and security policy. Petraeus's official career might be over -- but the debate over what these changes mean for the U.S., and the world at large, is unlikely to end any time soon.