Patrick Cockburn: Petraeus is a master tactician, but his greatest strength is on the political battlefield

It is like pre-Vietnam days, when Americans accepted that what the military said was true

Share
Related Topics

General David Petraeus has a deservedly high reputation but his real abilities are not the ones usually attributed to him. He is, above all, a general with an acute sense of US politics combined with a realisation of the importance of understanding the politics of Iraq and Afghanistan.

His great achievement in Iraq was to persuade Americans that they had won the war when, in fact, they were withdrawing with little achieved. He was able to sell the "surge" as a triumph of military tactics when in reality its most important feature was that Sunni insurgents allied themselves with American forces because they were being slaughtered by the Shia.

Some US diplomats are astonished at the willingness of Congress and the US media to accept the Pentagon's version of what happened and the belief that the same success could be replicated in Afghanistan. One American diplomat said: "I am appalled... It is like going back to pre-Vietnam days, when Americans accepted that what the military said was true."

An important aspect of the Iraq and Afghan wars is the degree to which US foreign policy has been militarised, with the State Department and civilian agencies playing only a limited role. This helps explain the lack of caution shown by General Stanley McChrystal in openly bad-mouthing civilians from President Barack Obama to the US ambassador in Kabul.

I first met General Petraeus in January 2004, when he was commander of the 20,000-strong 101st Airborne Division based in Mosul in northern Iraq. He was one of the few Americans in Iraq who showed any inkling about the ethnic and communal minefield in which the US had landed.

In Baghdad, the US envoy, Paul Bremer, had banned Baath party members from state employment, which meant that thousands of former Iraqi officers were ready recruits for the growing insurgency. General Petraeus was quietly sabotaging official policy. He was getting former officers to turn up in batches and renounce the Baath party and all its works. He made other astute moves. He prevented returning exiles from getting positions of power.

I asked him what would be his most important advice to his successor and he replied that it was "not to align too closely with one ethnic group, political party, tribe, religious group or social element".

This is what will be so difficult to do in Afghanistan. Already, suggestions that the Afghan government should talk to the Taliban is frightening members of the administration in Kabul who are not Pashtun. Last year, General Petraeus gave the impression that the Iraq troop "surge" could be restaged in Afghanistan. But conditions are very different in the Pashtun south and east of Afghanistan, where the arrival of foreign troops generates a powerful local counter reaction.

A problem for General Petraeus is that the Taliban appear to think they are winning and that their own "counter-surge" has been successful. General McChrystal's heavily publicised takeover of Marjah did not evict them permanently. When the US ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, and US envoy, Richard Holbrooke – both maligned by General McChrystal in the Rolling Stone article – visited Marjah a few days ago their helicopter was shot at and suicide bombers blew themselves up.

In Iraq, General Petraeus was able to take advantage of local political conditions to claim success for a military strategy that was mostly an illusion. In Afghanistan, the problem is not that the Taliban is so strong but that the government is so weak.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Cover Supervisors Urgently Required In Knowsley **

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

Java developer - (Intershop Enfinity)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Java Developer...

School Office/ Finance Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Ilford: School Office/ Finance Assistant Long t...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp  

Oscar Pistorius sentence: Judge Masipa might have shown mercy, but she has delivered perfect justice

Chris Maume
Oscar Pistorius at the High Court in Pretoria  

Oscar Pistorius has been sentenced to five years in prison - but what then?

Rosie Millard
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album