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die Zeit, Germany

Petraeus’ Celebrity Hid the
Collapse of Superpower America


By Ulrich Ladurner

Translated By Ron Argentati

14 November 2012

 Edited by Lau­rence Bouvard


Germany - die Zeit - Original Article (German)

General David Petraeus has been praised more effusively during his career than almost any other U.S. Army officer. Both politicians and journalists were at his feet. He's been called the greatest soldier of his generation. But now that he's been brought down by an extramarital affair, the question arises how he attained hero status in the first place. What did he have in order to get that title?

Ambition, intelligence and a sense of power—Petraeus undoubtedly possesses all of these qualities or he wouldn't have gotten as far as he has. But he needed something else in order to stand out: a disaster. That came after Iraq was invaded and Petraeus assumed duties as military commander there in 2007. He was chosen to command because of the outstanding job he did as commander of the 101st Airborne Division in pacifying the Iraqi city of Mosul with its more than one million inhabitants.

In Mosul, Petraeus developed his strategy of counterinsurgency, writing the book that rapidly became the most-read book on the subject in military circles. It became the bible for a whole generation of military officers. Not long after President George W. Bush designated Petraeus top military commander for Iraq, the term “counterinsurgency” was on everyone's lips. Petraeus arose out of the bloody background of a terrible war to become a shining example for others. Iraq is where he was popularly dubbed “King David.”

Winning Hearts and Minds

He expressed his strategy in three words: clear, hold and build. That was his recipe for winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. He repeatedly maintained that in order to do so, the Army had to be respectful of Iraqi culture. That is to say, the soldiers had to maintain an awareness of their surroundings and respect the local customs and traditions.

This was basically just common sense, but no one could get that across as well as Petraeus, at least not at that critical moment when the shock-and-awe strategy that depended on sheer firepower superiority was starting to fail.

Anything Petraeus wanted from Washington, he got: from millions upon millions of dollars to tens of thousands of soldiers. Petraeus was the architect of the surge where he demanded and got 30,000 additional troops sent to Afghanistan by President Obama in 2009.

Things calmed down in Iraq after 2007. Until then, the civil war there had taken on horrible proportions and Petraeus was credited as the man who turned the corner on Iraq. It's not clear, however, where that turn led. The U.S. has withdrawn from Iraq and not even the war's most ardent proponents would say America won. America actually lost Iraq because it no longer has any influence there.

The same fate threatens the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan; the Petraeus-led surge there also failed to end in victory and another terrible civil war is likely after the Americans withdraw in 2014.

Death Squads and Weak Partners

Petraeus' strategy didn't work. One can argue that he wasn't to blame and that he at least prevented the situation from worsening. But clear, hold and build was a concept dependent on several preconditions.

“Clear” meant the American forces had to kill as many of the enemy as necessary to clear the battlefield. Then they had to be capable of ensuring that the enemy could not return to action. That's where Petraeus was considered king of clandestine operations. His death squads swarmed out at night, spreading fear and horror. How could he expect to win people's hearts and minds during the day and then send in his death squads out by night?

Petraeus was unable to solve that problem. Later as CIA chief he held fast to his strategy, sending unmanned drones into Pakistan, Yemen and other countries to kill the enemy with targeted strikes. Petraeus was a shadow warrior par excellence right to the end.

“Hold” meant that he needed reliable and trustworthy partners locally. The Americans couldn't remain in country indefinitely, but local forces could. For that, Petraeus depended solely on money. He repeatedly said, “Money is ammunition.” He gave enormous sums to arm resistance groups in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He did so under the illusion that loyalty was for sale.

Money for Weapons That Were Turned on the American Troops

But the multi-millions Petraeus disbursed weren't tightly enough controlled, and the result was corruption. That money undermined every attempt to establish government authority. And Petraeus' policies had another much more serious ramification: In many cases, the weapons purchased by bogus opposition fighters ended up being turned on American soldiers when the “opposition forces” joined the insurgents.

“Build” rested on the assumption that there were forces in the country capable of building a new nation for all citizens. That happened neither in Iraq nor in Afghanistan. The governments of both countries— insofar as they actually exist—are occupied by ethnic groups such as Tajik in Afghanistan or by religious sects like the Shiites in Iraq. Government is only used to support the members of one faction. Government authority also remained weak because it had been hollowed out by the ubiquitous corruption.

Taking all this into consideration, one must ask what does Petraeus' success consist of? What makes him the best soldier of the generation? The answer: Petraeus was the over-inflated media figure that helped hide the collapse of superpower America on the battlefield.



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