All In: The Education of General David Petraeus

Image of All In: The Education of General David Petraeus
Release Date: 
January 24, 2012
Penguin Press
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“. . . this book is not so much about ‘the education of General David Petraeus’ as it is about his attempt to educate future American leaders about his vision of how best to fight that type of war. If read within the broader context of his overall career and ongoing debates about differences between, complementaries among, and the relevance of various counterinsurgency and counterterrorism approaches to ‘small wars’ and what that all suggests for American future involvement in them, this book is worth reading—at least until a future definitive biography is written.”

There is much talk among candidates for the presidency of the United States about leaving decisions about our involvement in Afghanistan to “the generals.” This book, the newest addition to a growing literature devoted to General David Petraeus’ life, character, and contributions to American military strategy, can, if read in a broader political context, provide some insight into whether or not that would be a good idea.

The primary author, Paula Broadwell, had exceptional access to General Petraeus, a fellow alumnus of West Point, as well as to several other military officers that she refers to variously as his “acolytes” or “COINdinistas.” After meeting him for the first time in 2006 while studying at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, she corresponded with him and ultimately chose to write a doctoral dissertation at the University of London focused on his advocacy of counterinsurgency approaches to the “small wars” fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, on a more covert basis, elsewhere. This book is an expanded version of that dissertation; substantially based on her extended embed with Petraeus’ headquarters in Afghanistan.

General Petraeus was born on November 7, 1952, in Cornwall, New York, the youngest of two children of a Dutch mariner stranded in New York City by the German invasion of The Netherlands in 1941 and an American librarian who attended Oberlin College (Ohio). Graduating from West Point 40th in his class in June 1974, he married the daughter of the Academy’s Commandant (Holly Knowlton).

Commissioned as an infantry second lieutenant, he spent the next year completing the Basic Infantry Officers course and qualifying as a Ranger (airborne) before obtaining his first command as a Platoon leader stationed in Vicenza, Italy (May 1975). Over the next 31 years, he advanced to the highest levels of the American military establishment, earning his fourth General’s star while serving as Commander of the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in February 2007.

At the relatively young age of 59 and with a new career as Director of Central Intelligence still ahead of him, General Petraeus has already earned an in-depth and analytically critical biography of his life. Unfortunately, this book is not that book. Readers looking for that full biography are likely to be disappointed. Indeed, 250 of the book’s 328 substantive pages (76%) are devoted to the relatively short period between July 2010 and August 2011 during which he served as Commander of all United States, NATO, and other coalition military forces in Afghanistan, leaving only 78 pages devoted to the previous 57 years of his life.

Instead of a conventional biography, Dr. Broadwell and her collaborator Vernon Loeb present an argument that implicitly supports General Petraeus’ advocacy of counterinsurgency (COIN) approaches to “small wars.” That theme is woven through all 13 chapters of the book. The book provides a blow-by-blow account of his last war in uniform, as well as some other interesting revelations.

Examples include Dr. Broadwell’s report that General Petraeus was the first person to suggest his interest in becoming CIA Director a full six months before President Obama came to that conclusion. She also describes an incident when, as a 38-year-old Lieutenant Colonel in command of an airborne battalion at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, he was almost killed “after being accidentally shot in the chest with an M16 rifle by a soldier who tripped during a training exercise.”

And she informs us that “a special program created by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [exists] by the name ‘Afghan Hands’. . . . [to train officers] in either Dari or Pashto . . . [who] spent three years rotating back and forth between Afghan-related billets in Afghanistan and the United States [in order]…to build language fluency, cultural expertise and country knowledge.”

The authors’ decision to skip detailed coverage of General Petraeus’ entire career in favor of an almost exclusive focus on his most recent experience in Afghanistan is understandable given his important role in a war that had become America’s longest (eight years, nine months), and because a more complete and still relatively recent biographical history of the general’s life and career up to his assignment to Afghanistan already existed (Bradley Gerick, David Petraeus: A Biography).

The American military’s ability to understand and conduct counterinsurgency warfare (COIN) had largely atrophied following the American withdrawal from Viet Nam. It was General Petraeus’ belief that positive lessons could be learned from counter-insurgency experience in Vietnam, a belief informed by his Ph.D. dissertation The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era written during the mid-1980s. That view was reinforced by his own personal experience as Commander of the 101st Airborne Division in the northern area of Iraq during 2003.

Subsequently serving as commander of coalition forces during “surges” sequentially in Iraq and then Afghanistan, he is credited with “regaining the strategic initiative in both of those wars; . . . [shaping] not only doctrine but also organizational design, training, education and leadership development in the Army and, in many respects, the broader military [while]. . . . charting the Army’s course for the kind of war the nation [has been] fighting.” However correct that assessment might be, the discussion in these pages of COIN theory and practice as it has evolved during the last few years is likely to disappoint some readers.

Firstly, although several references are made to the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual written under the joint leadership of General Petraeus and Marine Corps General James Mattis and released in 2006, no overall summary of its key provisions, substantive analysis of explicit links back to earlier American experience with the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Support (CORDS) program in Vietnam, or the identification of specific aspects of that program that might be relevant to America’s current operations in Afghanistan are provided.

Nonetheless, the book does describe the counterinsurgency guidance issued by General Petraeus to all ISAF forces in Afghanistan soon after his arrival. Identified by Dr. Broadwell as “the twenty-four commandments” accompanying “King David’s Bible” (i.e., the counterinsurgency manual), that command guidance specified the need to “secure and serve the population;” “live with the people;” “pursue the enemy relentlessly;” “be first with the truth;” and “live our values.”

Based on that guidance, Ms. Broadwell suggests that “one had to wonder what Afghanistan might have looked like, eight years after September 11, 2001, had these tactics been carried out from the beginning.” This is offered as an interesting question, but no critical analysis of whether such an approach might have worked is presented.

Secondly, Ms. Broadwell’s anecdotal reporting often begs the question about why specific events occurred. With respect to the “Afghan Hands” referenced above, no information is provided about when that program began, how many military personnel were or are currently enrolled in that program, and whether or not it still exists. Further, although Ms. Broadwell tells her readers about a private one-on-one meeting between General Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Afghanistan during which he was told he would not be nominated as the next Armed Services Chief of Staff, the reader is not told why—even though General Petraeus’ interest in being the next Director of the CIA was expressed in response to that message.

Thirdly, several other important aspects of the American effort in Afghanistan are ignored altogether. Nowhere in this book are the responsibilities of senior American Embassy staff for important aspects of COIN implementation acknowledged. Indeed, the embassy’s official lead responsibility for the overall “rule of law” program is ignored even as the role of Brigadier General Mark Martins, a military lawyer with prior experience in Iraq who was hand-picked by General Petraeus to take command of the Rule of Law Field Force-Afghanistan, is profiled in some detail.

Indeed, viewed from the pages of this book, the American Ambassador and his staff are barely visible actors in an Afghanistan dominated by a General Petreaus exercising power in the manner of Douglas MacArthur in early post-WWII Japan or Ambassador L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer in Iraq. No matter that such an impression would be as inaccurate as the view that could easily result from the minimal space devoted to General Petraeus’ responsibilities for the effective maintenance of “the largest international coalition . . . ever assembled.”

The organizational complexity through which General Petraeus was required to maneuver included NATO’s own Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan; a position established in 2003 and held at different times by ambassadorial-ranked British, Dutch, Italian, and Turkish diplomats.

But beyond simply mentioning such arrangements and concerns, there is precious little discussion of actual operational issues arising from the need to integrating the actions of allies, their military and civilian operatives, and interactions between the American and other allied embassies, United Nations’ programs, and international non-governmental aid groups.

From a strictly military perspective, the most telling paragraph on this subject refers to an American “task force . . . [placed] under the command of a Polish brigade . . . that did not have the enablers of a U.S. brigade and thus had a difficult time executing some of the counterinsurgency tactics favored by Petraeus.” But the American task force commander “knew the importance Petraeus placed on the presence of NATO allies on the battlefield, and the Poles and all of the allies were steadily improving along the way—a benefit of coalition warfare.” Nonetheless, the specific methods used by General Petraeus, or the vast majority of other officers engaged in “coalition maintenance,” to manage such political and tactical issues are not described.

Questions of coalition maintenance are particularly important in Afghanistan because the integration of most American military forces and those of other NATO and coalition forces under unified American command is a relatively recent phenomenon. During the first six years of the war there, almost all United States’ forces operated under American commanders separate from NATO and other non-NATO forces operating under European commanders of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Indeed, while American military involvement in Afghanistan during the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was limited primarily to Special Forces and a few CIA operational staff, a relatively small force of European troops under the command of a British major general in Afghanistan within three months after 9/11.

An expanded command under the ISAF designation was not established until August 11, 2003. Between the 2003 establishment of ISAF and the integration of all United States’ troops in 2007, almost all foreign non-American troops served under a succession of German, Canadian, French, Turkish, Italian, and British general officers. It has only been since 2007 that all forces serving under separate American command were merged into ISAF.

Since that time, ISAF’s unified command has been held exclusively by an American four star general. It is noteworthy that prior to the “surge” of approximately 58 thousand additional American troops during 2010, the combined number of NATO and other third country troops significantly exceeded those of the United States.

For example, non-American troops accounted for about 63 percent of total ISAF strength in 2007, declining to only a slight majority of about 53 percent during 2009. Along with the surge, Americans expanded their responsibilities to command of forces in half of Afghanistan’s six military regions with a German, Italian, and Turkish General in command within each of the other three. Yet no significant discussion of issues related to the integration of forces within and among those important non-American subordinate commands is provided.

Finally, Ms. Broadwell’s narrative never brings the general to life. He is presented as a “preternaturally gifted,” “conscientious,” “disciplined,” “outgoing,” “enthusiastic,” “dedicated,” “soldier-scholar” and collaborative team player. But she does not present anything much beyond those character traits. Nowhere is the flesh and blood person described beyond his identity as a particularly talented military officer. Not much insight is presented into what must be a complex personality living a multidimensional life.

Notwithstanding the various deficiencies summarized above, this book does provide some unique insights into counter-insurgency theory as General Petraeus understood it. Ms. Broadwell’s claim that he is “arguably the Army’s most influential general officer since World War II” echoes the judgment of Secretary Gates who characterized him back in 2008 as “the preeminent soldier-scholar-statesman of his generation.”

In that vein, this book is not so much about “the education of General David Petraeus” as it is about his attempt to educate future American leaders about his vision of how best to fight that type of war. If read within the broader context of his overall career and ongoing debates about differences between, complementaries among, and the relevance of various counterinsurgency and counterterrorism approaches to “small wars” and what that all suggests for American future involvement in them, this book is worth reading—at least until a future definitive biography is written.