The Iraqis call him King David. General David Petraeus earned the somewhat affectionate nickname in 2003 after taking Baghdad and then Mosul—a city whose governor he became, almost coincidentally. When all Iraqi institutions crumbled, a development that the Americans had not foreseen, one guard who had not fled explained to Petraeus that since he had conquered Iraq, it was also up to him to govern Iraq. Petraeus improvised, pursuing a military offensive and reconstruction at the same time. “We discovered that we were strangers in a strange country,” Petraeus tells me.
He admits that the Army knew nothing about Arab civilization. But he drew the necessary conclusions. Later, back in the United States as head of the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Petraeus radically modified American military culture. “My generation was trained to destroy Soviet tanks with helicopters,” he recalls, but such training was useless in the modern struggle with terrorism. For that matter, Petraeus refuses to use the term “War on Terror.” Terrorism, he explains, is just one aspect of a global war by extremists against our values and our ways of life. On the basis of this definition of extremism and of his experience in Iraq, Petraeus rewrote the counterinsurgency manual, the Army’s new Bible. In 2007, George W. Bush sent him back to Iraq to apply his ideas. And as Barack Obama said during his presidential campaign, under Petraeus, the surge “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”
Did Petraeus win the war, or at least prevent the United States from losing it? “We must no longer think in terms of victory or defeat,” he says. “The time is past for raising a flag on a hill.” The war against extremism must be measured in terms of “dynamics” and “progress.” In Iraq, Petraeus says, there has been remarkable progress, in collaboration with the new Iraqi army—“progress that is measurable, fragile, and reversible.” But public opinion in the United States, the general observes, has already forgotten how things were one year ago. From 40 attacks a day in Baghdad in 2007, the country has moved to a crime rate comparable with that of certain Latin American countries.
The achievement of this fragile success owes much to an increase in forces, Petraeus says, but above all to the application of new ideas. A graduate of Princeton University as well as West Point, Petraeus is as much an intellectual as a soldier, the hero of a new generation leading the Army. Since his success in Iraq, Petraeus has benefited from an aura similar to that of great officers of the past, such as Eisenhower and MacArthur. Despite constant rumors, he has no political ambitions—yet, anyway—but it remains the case that no American strategic decision gets made these days without hearing Petraeus’s advice.
“My ideas are drawn from our historical memory,” Petraeus says. “At one time, the American army combined the art of war and that of administration”—during the “Indian wars” of the nineteenth century, for example. (The Army retains a positive view of the civilizing purposes of those wars, very different from how Hollywood portrays them.) And when the Army repressed the rebellion in the Philippines in 1900, Petraeus points out, it “fought extremists and, at the same time, built schools, hospitals, and roads.” Another of Petraeus’s inspirations is the French army in Algeria. It is important, he says, not to repeat its errors: torture and attacks on the local population. But it is also important to emulate what Petraeus considers its successes: “bringing security to the people, benefiting them in concrete ways, and living among them.” Petraeus has written the preface to the American edition of Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (by David Galula, a French officer in Algeria in 1958) and made the book required reading for all officers. He never tires of watching Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, a cult film he shows to all his visitors.
Now it is up to Petraeus, after entering Iraq, to get out, under the command of Robert Gates, once Bush’s Secretary of Defense and now Obama’s. Petraeus says that the Army is glad for this continuity. But he questions the expression “get out”; he speaks instead of a “transition” from the American to the Iraqi army, a transition already under way. Yet he admits that it is rare for an army to exit successfully after a war against extremists. He cites two precedents: the British withdrawals from Malaysia and from Oman, two cases where conquered guerrillas gave way to stable states.
As soon as it leaves Iraq, the Army will have to concentrate on Afghanistan. Since September 2007, Petraeus has headed Centcom, the American command that covers the Middle East, central Asia, and Pakistan. Centcom’s headquarters are in Tampa, Florida, but Petraeus is always on the move. Surrounded by an escort of military intellectuals and fully equipped for mobile communication, he runs his meetings from wherever he happens to be, whether on the ground or in the air. “Afghanistan will be a little easier to manage as far as public opinion,” Petraeus says. “But on the ground it will be harder.” Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has few resources, no tradition of stable government, and few educated elites.
Petraeus is determined to apply his method to Afghanistan: living among the people, bringing them security, establishing a legitimate government, and creating a viable economy. He calls this the Anaconda strategy. Projected on a screen, the scheme resembles a fat snake nourishing itself from all possible elements, from special forces to propaganda operations to school construction. This will require, he says, “not unity of command with NATO, which isn’t possible, but unity of coordination,” which does not exist yet. “If we have the right ideas,” Petraeus says, “they will let us beat the extremists, who have taken advantage of the fact that we are still prisoners of archaic military methods.”
Up until this point, some countries haven’t fully cooperated with NATO because they thought they were sheltered from danger—but their attitude “will change as the extremists expand their area of attack,” Petraeus believes. He is confident that awareness of the extremist danger is becoming clearer. Thus, Saudi Arabia has avoided the destabilization that everyone foresaw two or three years ago by understanding the danger and adopting Petraeus’s multifaceted strategy (“by coincidence,” he says). The same new awareness is now at work in Pakistan and in India. But all progress is reversible; Bosnia, where Petraeus served in 1995, threatens again to explode, for example. The war against extremism will go on for generations.