The Petraeus Story

Lessons from the career of the nation’s best-known soldier.

Last summer, as he relinquished command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus flew to Berlin, Paris, London and Ankara, Turkey, to thank key contributors to the NATO mission that was fighting the war against the Taliban.

Petraeus was leaving not only as commander of 100,000 American troops in the country, but also as a leader of the 49-nation coalition whose 50,000 troops constituted a third of the NATO commitment to the war effort. He was, of course, returning home to wrap up his 37-year military career and move to the CIA as its director.

In London, he was the guest of honor at a dinner hosted by Ambassador Mark Sedwill, the British diplomat who had served as NATO’s senior civilian representative in Kabul. “Sedwill and Petraeus had teamed up to corral the coalition into a cohesive team the prior year,” writes Paula Broadwell in her new book, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus (Penguin Press, 2012). “Moving the endgame to 2014 was perhaps the most significant accomplishment of the past year, and Sedwill had played a key role in that effort.”

That Petraeus should consider extension of the NATO troop commitment to the end of 2014 as such a key achievement seems of special significance. The timetable is very much in question now that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan could end by mid-2013, more than a year earlier than expected.

Petraeus must be disappointed. He had fought hard to persuade his superiors and NATO partners to focus attention away from President Obama’s promise to begin drawing down the U.S. “surge” contingent in July 2011 and toward the decision to extend authority for combat operations to the end of 2014. Indeed, Broadwell writes, “coalition management would dominate” his activities for months after the November 2010 Lisbon summit that ratified that goal. Petraeus viewed keeping the coalition together as vital to bolstering the legitimacy of the mission—a goal that was undermined in late January when French President Nicolas Sarkozy, reacting to a spike in French casualties, announced that his troops would be coming home on an accelerated schedule.

Buying time was crucial, in Petraeus’ view, to recruiting and training Afghan security forces that would be large and capable enough to take over the “clear and hold” activities that U.S. forces had undertaken in his counterinsurgency drive. It was always going to be hard, he would acknowledge. And now it will be even harder. 

Broadwell recounts, in some detail, battles fought by commanders who figure prominently in her book. She was on the front lines as she did her research—given the kind of access journalists dream about but rarely achieve. Broadwell earned that privilege through her own achievements in the Army—she was awarded academic, fitness and leadership honors at West Point, worked in many countries during 15 years of military service, and earned two advanced degrees before her current pursuit of a doctoral degree at the University of London. She is a soldier-scholar like Petraeus, who earned a doctorate himself. Broadwell remains devoted to fitness and interviewed Petraeus during many of his daily runs. During a hilarious television appearance in January, she easily bested Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart in a high-stakes ($1,000 per) push-up contest.

All In offers an interesting tour through corridors walked by the Army elite, showing what it takes to rise to the top. The right mentors, the right assignments and post-graduate study as well as great performance are all important. For Petraeus and other leaders, the journey involves doctrinal, operational, combat and, last but not least, political prowess to be effective in the crucible of decision-making about wars and peace. 

Petraeus is shown to be detail-oriented,  especially in his management of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Broadwell recounts his irritation at a blog post by Joe Klein of Time citing the controversial night raids that Petraeus ordered as “a pivot from counterinsurgency to a more violent strain of counter- terrorism.” This, Petraeus insisted, was only a small part of a much larger “Anaconda” strategy with seven categories of activity—kinetic operations, politics, intelligence, detainee operations, information operations, international engagement and nonkinetic activities—to promote jobs, education and the rule of law in those countries. 

Getting the message out to reporters like Klein and The Washington Post’s David Ignatius was crucial in Petraeus’ continuing effort to define the narrative of the war. 

Broadwell notes the general enjoyed dealing with reporters and cultivated email relationships with dozens of them. “Petraeus was in an information war,” she writes, and “it was critical to get the narrative correct, because that would be the key to buying time.” Not only with the media, but also with his subordinates, with Congress and the White House, Petraeus worked on effective communication in the service of the policies he espoused. This was the most compelling leadership lesson the book contains—and one that should be prominent in the playbook of federal executives working to preserve and promote the programs they serve.

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