Regular readers know that I have been critical of Gen. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine because I found it unrealistic, and I wish the US had just withdrawn militarily from Afghanistan in 2002. Lt. Col. John L. Cook, Ret., argues in his new book that the counterinsurgency doctrine made for bad military tactics and strategy on the battlefield. It is a different point of view than my own, but it comes from someone who knows war in a way that I do not, and IC has a tradition of presenting points of view at variance to my own. Here is Cook’s guest column for Informed Comment:
For a solid week now, the national news media have been obsessing over the Petraeus-Broadwell affair. The common theme tying these stories together is the tragedy of a great general, combat leader, diplomat and statesman brought down by an all too familiar story of infidelity. The story has sucked the oxygen out of any other story competing for air time. As if that’s not enough, it has inspired conspiracy theories over what he knew and when he knew it concerning the Benghazi debacle. Did the Obama administration know of the affair and kept quiet before the election? Was Petraeus, director of the CIA, forced to resign in disgrace last week – blackmailed into towing the administration’s line that Benghazi was nothing more than a riot inspired by an anti-Muslim video? What did he know and when did he know it? And so on and so on until all the stories merged into a hazy blur of truths, half-truths, rumors and opinions.
What’s missing in this media feeding frenzy is analysis and perspective. Once the news broke that Petraeus admitted to an affair with Paula Broadwell, it was game on. Some of the same journalists and reporters who had praised him in the combat zone joined the pack of attackers looking for the next juicy detail in this affair. To a certain degree, that’s understandable because sex sells. No one bothered to check the facts behind the carefully constructed image of General David Petraeus.
Why, exactly, was he considered a great military leader in the first place? Sadly, that question was never asked and, as a result, it was never answered. It was simply understood that he had accomplished great things in Iraq and that he had put Afghanistan on the road to a successful conclusion.
Is that the case? Did he actually do all that? The short answer is no and it is his failure on the battlefield, with American lives hanging in the balance, that David Petraeus should be judged and it is here, where it mattered most, that he failed. It was in Afghanistan where he embarked on his own risky, unproven counterinsurgency strategy, which cost countless American lives, that we should judge him, not the bedroom.
There is no higher honor or greater responsibility than leading young Americans in combat. Not everyone can do it and even fewer can do it well. We were all taught this as young, green Second Lieutenants. We were also taught that we must do everything in our power to keep casualties to a minimum because combat itself is dangerous enough and the men entrusted to our care have complete trust in us to do this and not violate this most sacred of all trusts. Because the soldiers entrusted to us in combat believe it to be true, they are the best in the world and that’s why they follow orders without question. It is the bedrock of the American military tradition and explains the bond that unites us all, regardless of age or rank or era and it is proudly passed down from one generation to the next. It is the one thing that separates us from the rest of society we keep safe and it explains why we willing risk our lives to save each other. In short, it defines us.
David Petraeus violated this most sacred trust in Afghanistan, by putting a political project of “counterinsurgency” — i.e. winning hearts and minds throughout the country — ahead of defeating the enemy. In pursuit of a local popularity unlikely to be achieved, he imposed unrealistic Rules of Engagement on our forces. The last thing a good combat commander wants his soldiers to do is hesitate in the fog of war. Yet this is what Petraeus’ strategy required.
This is Petraeus’s legacy and is the real reason why he should have resigned. After all, he wasn’t hired to be a saint – all great military leaders had flaws and we can forgive them because they’re human. However, they didn’t violate the most sacred trust. Petraeus did.
Lt. Col. John L. Cook, Ret. is author of the just-published Afghanistan: The Perfect Failure: A War Doomed By The Coalition’S Strategies, Policies And Political Correctness