06.23.10

Petraeus, a Master of Spin

When President Obama dumped Gen. Stanley McChrystal, replacing him with Gen. David Petraeus, he picked a media savvy commander. Ellen Knickmeyer recalls meeting Petraeus in Iraq, and offers her assessment.

Switching out Gen. Stanley McChrystal for Gen. David Petraeus as his commander in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama dumped a disciple of the U.S. military’s modern-day bible on counter-insurgency for the begetter of it—the man who literally wrote the book on the military principle that is now gospel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Petraeus, Obama also gets an Afghan commander as adroit at handling the press as McChrystal was suicidal.

I first met Petreaus at his headquarters in one of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces in Baghdad, in 2005. Taking in my distinctly Olive Oyl-arms, he spared me the push-up contests that he often challenged much-younger officers and reporters to. Even at 57, Petraeus cultivated an air of daunting physical discipline and intense drive—as exhibited earlier this month, when he briefly fainted during a Senate hearing, (an incident he wanly blamed on skipping breakfast.)

“People think Petraeus went up on the mountaintop and came down with two tables engraved with COIN,” says one colonel, who is weary of all the COIN accolades for Petraeus.

For reporters like me who know him, it is impossible to imagine the ever-cordial and proper Petraeus allowing himself and his team to booze it up and spout off about his civilian bosses with an unknown-to-him reporter present, as McChrystal did with volcanic career-ending consequences.

He may not be gregarious but Petraeus wields a bony and ascetic charm which he combines with practical intelligence. And, unlike McChrystal, Petraeus has an unfailing grasp on his own spin—gifting reporters and analysts with bits of information that further his military points of view, and dashing off flatteringly fast responses to their emails.

Read our full coverage of McChrystal's Rolling Stone interview fallout. Proffering often behind-the-scenes access, he has built an army of loyal followers among officers, politicians, analysts and journalists, disciples who have become known as COINdinistas for their ardent support of COIN, the de rigueur doctrine in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of Petraeus himself.

But the general’s skill at cultivating his position as the go-to guy in Iraq and Afghanistan—the King of COIN—has also, inevitably, prompted some grumbling from inside the military and among academics. “People think Petraeus went up on the mountaintop and came down with two tables engraved with COIN,” says one colonel, who is weary of all the COIN accolades for Petraeus. The strategy, he says, wasn’t authored by a single man but evolved in the painful lessons he and other officers experienced on the ground in Iraq.

According to official histories, however, it was on a long break from Iraq, at the Army’s Fort Leavenworth in Kansas in late 2005, that Petraeus wrote COIN or Field Manual 3-24, the revised manual on counterinsurgency, drawing on lessons learned in Vietnam and other military engagement—in large part, past and ongoing U.S. military failures.

What is now accepted wisdom was nothing of the sort back then. At a time when the understaffed U.S. military, unable to stem the exploding violence in Iraq, had upped its bombing rates five-fold, Petraeus emphasized politics over force.

Under his COIN doctrine, “winning requires first ensuring the security and well-being of the civilian population—the center of gravity in these wars,” says military and human-rights expert Sarah Sewall. “Counterinsurgent forces must integrate into the population, assuming more physical risk to soldiers.”

McChrystal, of course, inherited COIN and insisted on better aiming airstrikes in Afghanistan so as to minimize civilian casualties—a position that drew heat to McChrystal from conservatives and even some ground troops in Afghanistan.

Michael Hastings, the journalist who wrote the Rolling Stone article that gave McChrystal a platform for his political self-destruction, once described the soon-to-be-ousted U.S. commander in Afghanistan as wistful for the kind of professional rapport that Petraeus had with George W. Bush.

And his air of having the inside line has clearly won over admirers upstream as well as down.

In moving Petraeus back to the battlefield, Obama passed over two other battle-hardened generals, James Mattis and Martin Dempsey, men who many thought were leading candidates to replace McChrystal.

Doing so, the president showed himself to be among the COINdinistas.

Ellen Knickmeyer is a former Washington Post bureau chief in Baghdad and Cairo. Before coming to the Post, she was the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press. This year, she graduated from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.