Many, and many among my friends in particular, will celebrate the reported appointment of General David Petraeus to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, but allow me to express my qualms about the choice. If there’s a Petraeus doctrine, a key component is the willingness to accommodate our enemies for short-term gain.
When Petraeus led the 101st in Mosul, he empowered Baathists and Islamists in order to pacify his area of operation. He assigned former Baathist General Mahmud Muhammad al-Maris, for example, to lead Iraqi Border Police units guarding the Syrian border. Al-Maris handpicked Baathist allies and poked holes in an already porous border, enabling Syria to become the major transit point for foreign fighters. Petraeus seemed indifferent to the problem: He boasted to a visiting American delegation about booming Syrian-Iraqi trade. He allowed another former Baathist, General Muhammad Kha’iri Barhawi, to be Mosul’s police chief. Not only did such a choice demoralize Iraqis who suffered under the former regime, but it undercut security.
On July 26, 2004, Brigadier General Andrew MacKay told Pentagon officials. “We are seeing an increasing confidence within the Iraqi Police Service as they realize they are more than a match for the terrorists—even more so when they are led by officers of Major General Barhawi’s ability.” After the November 2004 uprising in Mosul, Coalition officials learned that Barhawi had organized insurgent cells and enabled Islamists and former Baathists to briefly seize the city. Scores of Americans and even more Iraqis died. Barhawi is now in prison. As soon as the money ran out, Petraeus’s fair-weather friends turned on their former paymasters. Petraeus succeeded not in pacifying Mosul, but simply in kicking the can down the road.
I understand from insiders that Petraeus later understood the lessons of Mosul, but that is not entirely evident from the experience of the surge. Petraeus deserves enormous credit for taking on a mission most analysts said was impossible and convincing insurgents in al-Anbar that they would be better off with us rather than al Qaeda. But while the fighting was successful, the politics supporting it were less so. Anbar leaders I have met with in the last year still reject the Iraqi government and the legitimacy of the current system.
And then there is Afghanistan. I have been lucky enough to spend a good deal of time in Afghanistan, though not as a guest of the ISAF command. As a result, I don’t know what is said in the ISAF briefs, but what Afghan officials said to me last fall and earlier this month when Petraeus and his lieutenants were not in the room is troubling: They denigrated U.S. efforts to accommodate the Taliban and described the local councils Petraeus encouraged as frauds which no one besides ISAF and the embassy take seriously.
So what does this history bode for DCI Petraeus? If his worrisome penchant for accommodating ideological enemies is any guide, trouble. The general is right to divide our enemies into reconcilable and irreconcilable. But our enemies are a lot less reconcilable than Petraeus would like to believe.