The fall of David H. Petraeus as the nation’s spy chief was the result of a serious failure of judgment, but it will never erase his long record as a military commander who turned the tide of the war in Iraq and set up new tactics for killing Islamic terrorists, his friends and military observers say.
Mr. Petraeus is telling friends that his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, began after he had left the Army and three months after he took over the CIA in September 2011. He has asserted to associates that it was his only extramarital affair in more than 30 years of marriage.
Retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, his wartime executive officer, said that one indiscretion should not override years of military achievements.
“In the long run, Gen. Petraeus will be remembered primarily for his performance in Iraq, particularly through the surge of 2007 and 2008, when he helped to turn around a war that was all but lost,” Mr. Mansoor told The Washington Times. “In the long run, his personal failings with this affair will be a blip on his otherwise stellar record of public service.”
Former Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who served as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and himself a former Army officer, wrote a book about how the U.S. won in Iraq and about Mr. Petraeus‘ unique talents.
“My image of Petraeus is he exhibited all the abilities and talents of a classic military officer who comes out of the infantry and ends up playing a large role, not only in military leadership, but in diplomatic dimension,” said Mr. Hunter, whose son won his House seat and now serves on the House Armed Services Committee.
He also exercised political skills that rankled leaders in the Pentagon: Mr. Petraeus was not afraid to ignore the chain of command and go directly to the White House or congressional leaders with a request.
“Just about everyone regards him as political,” said Stephen Biddle, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University. “He’s obviously very politically sophisticated, as general officers go.”
Iraq, the surge and beyond
Mr. Petraeus, who spent 37 years in the Army, was a West Point graduate who married the superintendent’s daughter, Holly, then proceeded to ace every academic and command challenge, culminating in his most famous assignments.
Amid the long resume sits a four-year stint revolving around the Iraq War that changed American history and propelled Mr. Petraeus to the pedestal of the nation’s most famous field general, a modern-day Douglas MacArthur or Dwight D. Eisenhower. Those generals fought on conventional battlefields against an enemy in uniform and in formation.
In Iraq, the enemy, a mix of al Qaeda-linked militants and Saddam Hussein loyalists, hid in plain sight. They used suicide bombs and buried explosives to kill hundreds of civilians and American troops. And they seemed unstoppable.
Mr. Petraeus‘ education on Iraq began with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Commanding the 101st Airborne Division, he led a charge through southern Iraq to Baghdad, then moved his soldiers north to oversee the oil-producing city of Mosul. He commented then to reporters that he did not know how an American occupation of a Muslim country would turn out.
Within a year, he and the George W. Bush administration found out. A robust, deadly insurgency rose up as Mr. Petraeus shifted to the job of training and rebuilding an Iraqi military.
By 2006, he turned scholar, commanding the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
He took on a task that ultimately would result in victory and fame, and he oversaw the rewriting of Army doctrine on how to fight an insurgency.
Meanwhile, one of his mentors, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, was lobbying the Bush administration to surge more forces into Iraq or risk losing the war. Mr. Bush agreed and tapped Mr. Petraeus for a fourth star and command of Iraq.
A central component of the plan was to win over the population by taking U.S. troops out of forward operating bases and putting them in neighborhood security stations side by side with Iraqis. By the fall of 2007, the surge showed signs of success. The number of enemy attacks began to drop.
Entry into espionage
The left-wing group Moveon.org greeted him with an ad in The New York Times accusing him of betraying his country.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, pronounced the war “lost” just as the surge was starting to work. Hillary Rodham Clinton, then a U.S. senator from New York, called Mr. Petraeus‘ testimony a “willing suspension of disbelief.”
“He did not react emotionally to that,” Mr. Mansoor said. “He realized this is a process that needed to go forward. He dealt with a divided Congress in a very professional manner. Future military officers would have a lot to learn by studying his performance in that regard.”
Mr. Biddle said Mr. Petraeus set another standard, this one in the way a commander attacks an insurgency.
By 2007, Joint Special Operations Command, coupled with various spy assets and personnel, had become expert at finding and killing terrorist cell leaders. Mr. Petraeus observed that killing militant leaders led to fewer insurgent attacks.
“I suspect his reason for being willing to take the CIA job is that he was becoming increasingly impressed with what you could accomplish by taking out specific individual enemy leaders, as opposed to either destroying large enemy formations or protecting large bodies of civilians,” Mr. Biddle said. “These things aren’t mutually exclusive. By disrupting enemy leadership, you both reduce the effectiveness of their rank and file, and therefore, you help defend the population.”
“At every point of his career, he attempted to broaden his horizon with academic training, by focusing on education … by reaching outside his comfort zone to folks outside the military who might have interesting things to offer,” he said. “It is through this broadening he was able to develop not just professional skill, but the creativity to confront the very difficult situations he was faced with.”