- - Wednesday, February 29, 2012


By Paula Broadwell with Vernon Loeb
Penguin Press, $29.95, 352 pages

I came away from my first meeting with Gen. David H. Petraeus thinking the guy was a showboat, but I also thought that if he was half as good as he thought he was, he could turn around the war in Iraq. That was in the spring of 2004. I was working as a pro bono special adviser for Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and had traveled to Fort Campbell, Ky., to get a brief on how Gen. Petraeus was going to handle his new job as the chief trainer of the Iraqi security forces.

Until then, the official U.S. policy in Iraq was that the nasty, ongoing urban guerrilla campaign against the American-led invasion consisted of a few criminal “dead enders.” Gen. Petraeus did not believe this to be the case, and many of us advising senior Pentagon leaders agreed with his opinion that we would have to train the new Iraqi security forces to meet a serious insurgent threat. Gen. Petraeus was determined to create an Iraqi security structure to meet that threat, and he did.

Later, as overall commander in Iraq, he led the surge that broke the back of the insurgency. He would thereafter take on the even more daunting challenge of leading the coalition war effort in Afghanistan. His predecessor and subordinate, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, was relieved of command for making some intemperate remarks about leading administration officials at a supposedly “off the record” social event. The comments were captured and published in Rolling Stone. Gen. Petraeus took a demotion to accept the job in Afghanistan, where he turned a bad situation into a decidedly less bad one.

“All In” is a Petraeus biography authored by Paula Broadwell with an assist from veteran Washington Post reporter Vernon Loeb. Ms. Broadwell uses her extensive education in counterinsurgency as a soldier and a scholar to craft a compelling read. She also had excellent access to Gen. Petraeus when doing the research. In laying out her subject’s life, she employs an interesting biographic technique. She uses Gen. PetraeusAfghanistan experience as the core narrative but flashes back to parts of his life that shaped his preparation for the challenges of Afghanistan and contributed to the general’s education as a counterinsurgency expert.

In describing the general’s experience in Afghanistan, she segues to the involvement of two tactical commanders who implemented the strategy in Afghanistan that Gen. Petraeus crafted. These vignettes show how difficult and dangerous it can be to translate theory into practice against a skilled and determined adversary. They represent the most riveting parts of the book.

David Petraeus had a fairy-tale Army career. As a West Point cadet, he courted and wed the superintendant’s daughter. He then went on to blue-chip Army assignments in command and staff positions and cultivated powerful mentors along the way. Extremely competitive and academically talented, he created an image of a soldier-scholar who got results in the field.

He was an odd duck in only one respect: He had a passion for low-intensity conflict and counterinsurgency when such subjects weren’t cool in a big Army that had triumphed in Operation Desert Storm’s tank battles. At the time, he was coming of age as a senior leader.

Early in the second Iraq War, some brother officers questioned whether Gen. Petraeus was a real soldier, the implication being that real soldiers engaged in tank battles, not in the lesser cause of counterinsurgency. He responded quickly by training Iraqi soldiers to fight in a counterinsurgency environment, authoring a seminal manual on the subject and later leading the surge in the Iraq war that turned the war around.

Afghanistan proved to be the general’s greatest challenge, and the verdict is still out as to his success. He has since retired as a soldier and has taken over the CIA. Some of his greatest adversaries in the Obama administration, particularly Vice President Joseph R. Biden, still seek to undermine his counterinsurgency approach to the war, and they may yet succeed.

American counterinsurgency strategy has worked in places such as El Salvador and the Philippines, where we could persuade the government to reform. Even in Iraq, the aL-Maliki government improved its ability to provide goods and services to the people. Reforming the Afghan government has proved elusive and has made implementing counterinsurgency that much harder.

This will not be the definitive biography of David H. Petraeus. He doubtless has a long career ahead in public service, but it is a good start.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel with civilian advisory experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Relations.

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