Legacy of Shame

The Real Scandal of David Petraeus Is Afghanistan

Forget his affair with Paula Broadwell. What the general really mishandled is the war in Afghanistan. Jamie Reno reports.

Edward Garibay / AP Photo

An emerging theme in the ever-widening media coverage of Gen. David Petraeus’s illicit affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, is that while the highly decorated Army commander and now former CIA director made a huge mistake in his personal life, he remains an American hero for his leadership in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At a Wednesday press conference, President Obama said he hoped the Petraeus scandal “ends up being a single side note” on what has otherwise been “an extraordinary career.”

But that is a bogus narrative, says retired Lt. Col. John L. Cook, a former Army intelligence officer and senior adviser to the Ministry of Interior in Afghanistan, who oversaw the development of the force structure of the Afghan National Police. In his book Afghanistan: The Perfect Failure, released in September, Cook—who earned the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart during his two-decade career as an intelligence officer—divulges secrets of America’s longest war and suggests that all the major objectives in Afghanistan have not worked, in large part because of Petraeus.

“Petraeus shouldn’t have resigned over the extramarital affair, he should have resigned over the way in which he handled Afghanistan,” says Cook, who served in Afghanistan from March 2008 to August of this year. “Petraeus made a mess of things in this war. That’s the real scandal.”

It’s not that Cook approves of Petraeus’s personal behavior. In fact, Cook says Petraeus is “probably not being truthful” about when his affair with Broadwell started. Cook says that Petraeus would often come over to the NATO training mission offices with his entourage when they were both in Kabul.

“I remember one time when he came over for a meeting, he had a young woman with him,” Cook says. “I asked who the woman was, and one of his staffers told me that she was writing a biography about him. When I asked them what she had done before, they told me that she wasn’t even a writer, she was a student. Petraeus will say he never started this relationship until he left Afghanistan, but I think the affair was going on in Afghanistan. His staffers were already concerned about their relationship.”

But, Cook says, “that isn’t the story that Americans should be paying as much attention to right now. What matters more was what Petraeus did as a commander, not what he did in the bedroom.”

Cook, whose office at the NATO training mission was directly across the street from Petraeus’s office at International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), says the general’s failures in Afghanistan actually started long before he was named commander there in 2010.“My major heartburn with Petraeus is his counterinsurgency strategy, which he wrote back in 2006 when he was assigned to U.S. Army Center for Combat Studies at Fort Leavenworth (Kansas),” says Cook. That so-called Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which was released in December 2006, was a wrongheaded strategy for this war, insists Cook. “But they are still using it in Afghanistan today,” he says. “It places a higher value on the lives of Afghan civilians than the lives of our own soldiers, many of whom have died unnecessarily because of this counterinsurgency debacle.” Cook, who ran the Phoenix Program, the highly controversial and some say greatly misunderstood counterinsurgency plan employed by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War, says that in a situation where the central government had the respect of its people, Petraeus’s counterinsurgency plan would have been worth a try. “But it was doomed to fail in Afghanistan,” says Cook, “where (President Hamid) Karzai is feared more by the civilians than the Taliban is. The country is corrupt on every level; the citizens despise and distrust the government. The country is just not a good candidate for counterinsurgency.” Cook says that when President Obama appointed Petraeus to command U.S. Forces in Afghanistan as a replacement for General Stanley McChrystal, who was fired for making critical comments about the White House in a Rolling Stone article,Petraeus should have adopted more traditional counterterror operations.

“That means kill the bad guys, knowing you will sometimes sadly take civilian casualties, or get the hell out,” says Cook. “I know we have to do whatever we can to avoid killing civilians, but not at the expense of our own troops. What did Petraeus do when he became the commander in Afghanistan? He doubled down on these failed tactics and instituted even more severe rules of engagement.”

Cook suggests Petraeus is smart enough to know that his counterinsurgency was a failure in Afghanistan, but “he has too big an ego to admit it; he had pride of ownership. Now, when they go into a combat zone, our forces can’t return fire unless they know that no civilians in the area could get wounded. And requests for air support are often denied if there is even a possibility of civilian casualties. The Taliban knows this, that’s why they attack our forces in populated areas.”

Until the news of his extramarital affair broke, Petraeus was probably best known for leading the U.S. military surge in Iraq. A widely heralded military man, Petraeus still has staunch supporters despite the current sex scandal and how it may or may not relate to the terror attack in Benghazi, Libya.

In addition to having Obama’s support, he also still has defenders in the media, from The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen who says there is “no better man to fill Petraeus’s vacant CIA seat than Petraeus himself,” to CNN’s national security analyst Peter Bergen, who said this week that “historians will likely judge David Petraeus to be the most effective American military commander since Eisenhower.”

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Cook says some journalists are “obviously still drinking the Kool-Aid. The press has given Petraeus a free pass for the most part, and some of them still are.”

But not all of them. In a heated exchange this week on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight, former Newsweek journalist Michael Hastings, who now writes for Rolling Stone and Buzzfeed, said Petraeus “manipulated the White House into escalating Afghanistan,” and ran a campaign in Iraq that was “brutally savage” and that armed Shiite death squads and Sunni militiamen.

Says Cook, “Michael is absolutely right about that. Petraeus has been a failure on every level. I just personally know more about Afghanistan because I was there for four and a half years. I went there in part to see how it compared with my experiences in Vietnam. I had positive feelings about our success in the Phoenix Program, which was effective but came under fire and got a bad reputation. The U.S. Army ignored our findings and started over. What I found out while in Afghanistan is that the new strategy, which Petraeus is responsible for, is hopeless.”

Cook believes that over time, Petraeus began to believe the glowing press accounts of him as a great leader. “I think it really fed his ego,” Cook says. “You can’t be a diplomat, statesman and combat commander at the same time. When you twist the war into a vague, politically correct, disembodied policy and worry too much about what the politicians are saying, you lose your way. He lost his way.”

Cook holds Gen. John Allen in similarly low regard. Allen, the four-star Marine general who was Petraeus’s hand-picked successor in Afghanistan, is now also under investigation by the FBI and the Pentagon inspector general because of his alleged relationship with Jill Kelley, the Florida socialite who initiated the FBI probe by reporting threatening emails she had received from Broadwell.

A year ago, Allen fired a close friend of Cook’s, Maj. Gen. Peter Fuller, deputy commander for programs at the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, for public comments Fuller made about Karzai, after the Afghan president said that if the U.S. went to war with Pakistan, Karzai would support Pakistan.

“Why don’t you just poke me in the eye with a needle! You’ve got to be kidding me,” Fuller told Politico at the time. “I’m sorry, we just gave you $11.6 billion and now you’re telling me, ‘I don’t really care?’ ”

Those words cost Fuller his job. And Cook lost all respect for Allen after that.

“He threw Pete [Fuller] under the bus,” Cook says. “Allen is a lot like Petraeus. They’re both this new kind of general that doesn’t have the brass to stand up to the folks in Washington for what is right, unlike generals of the past. Allen, like Petraeus, has no integrity. Pete and John Allen were good friends, but Allen had no reservations about firing him just for saying what everyone was thinking.”

The day before Fuller went back to Washington D.C. on business in November 2011, Cook says, “He and I had breakfast at the dining hall at Camp Eggers [in Kabul]. He is a truly honorable man and what happened to him was completely unacceptable.”

Cook says he wrote the book about Afghanistan and is speaking out now about Petraeus, and Allen, because, “I love our troops. They represent the best America has to offer. To waste them in a lost cause is beyond words.”