Gen. Petraeus soared to public acclaim in 2007-08 with his surprising success in reversing an escalation of insurgent violence in Iraq.
At a September 2008 ceremony in Baghdad marking the end of Gen. Petraeus‘ 19 months in command, then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates credited him with dealing a “tremendous, if not mortal, blow” to an insurgency that two years earlier seemed beyond U.S. or Iraqi government control.
“I believe history will regard you as one of our nation’s great battle captains,” Mr. Gates told Gen. Petraeus.
Gen. Petraeus is credited with similarly solidifying gains against the Taliban in Afghanistan, though he himself said progress is “fragile and reversible.”
Gen. Petraeus also is seen as one of the Army’s most accomplished accumulators of personal publicity. The Iraq war made him a household name. A July 2004 Newsweek magazine cover featuring Gen. Petraeus posing in front of a Black Hawk helicopter asked, “Can this man save Iraq?”
Gen. Petraeus sometimes is mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate, although he has said repeatedly he has no interest in politics.
His high public profile, following what most regarded as a successful first tour in Iraq in 2003, triggered some resentment in the Pentagon during Donald H. Rumsfeld’s tenure as defense secretary. For that reason, some saw his next assignment, to the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., as a put-down.
“Various folks had said I’ve been sent to exile at Leavenworth,” a bemused Gen. Petraeus told the Pentagon Channel.
But it was during that assignment in 2005-06 that Gen. Petraeus co-authored with Marine Gen. James Mattis an updated manual on how to fight a counterinsurgency campaign. It was a major success, and not just inside the military. Within a week of publication, the manual was downloaded 1.5 million times.
Gen. Petraeus put those ideas into practice when he was sent back to Baghdad as the top U.S. commander, arriving in February 2007 at a peak of sectarian violence and a low point of U.S. public confidence in the war.
He’s fond of saying that the turnaround he and his troops achieved over the next year and a half was as much about a “surge of ideas” as the surge of extra troops that President George W. Bush ordered to Iraq in January 2007.
One of those ideas was to get American troops off their big, fortified bases and into small outposts throughout Baghdad, where they worked night and day with Iraqi forces to demonstrate U.S. resolve, build hope and confidence among ordinary Iraqis, and gradually reverse the tide of violence. By most accounts, it worked, and Iraq grew stable enough for the Bush administration to negotiate in late 2008 an agreement to withdraw all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
On the heels of that success, Mr. Bush made Gen. Petraeus commander of U.S. Central Command, overseeing all U.S. military operations in the greater Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. And when the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, was abruptly relieved of duty in June 2010 for comments in a magazine story, Mr. Obama asked Gen. Petraeus to take over in Kabul, and the general quickly agreed.
An errant bullet almost cut short his Army career in 1991. One of his soldiers accidentally shot him in the chest during an exercise at Fort Campbell, Ky. He recovered and went on to rise through the ranks in a series of assignments that included executive assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Hugh Shelton, plus stints in Haiti and Bosnia. In 2003, as a two-star general, he took the storied 101st Airborne Division to Iraq.
He recalls the marching order he got from the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, before heading to his Fort Leavenworth assignment in 2005.