Around 15 000 feet over the US East Coast, the Gulfstream G3 jet flying General David Petraeus to Washington to face congressional misgivings about the Afghanistan war effort abruptly lost cabin pressure earlier this month.
A rising star who some think aspires to be not only chairman of the Joint Chiefs but also president one day, Petraeus brushed aside directions by flight attendants to put on the oxygen mask that dangled in front of his face.
He kept working instead, but the four-star general insists he wasn’t being reckless.
“I’ve jumped from as high as 16 000 feet. And I know that you can go up to certain altitudes without oxygen for a certain period of time,” he said in an hour-long interview in his Pentagon office on Wednesday.
“I did the math and breathed the air and Dr. Petraeus made his assessment, diagnosed the situation and made a decision for himself,” he said with a smile.
Petraeus, who actually does hold a doctorate, also made his own assessment of the faltering war in Afghanistan.
It won’t be easy or swift, but a soft landing for that troubled campaign is possible, he told Reuters just minutes before he was whisked to the White House to huddle with President Barack Obama, who was facing the biggest military crisis of his presidency.
In their 40-minute-long Oval Office meeting, Obama asked Petraeus to take over from disgraced General Stanley McChrystal as US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, a position that will require Senate confirmation.
Petraeus agreed, effectively stepping down from his role as head of the US military’s powerful Central Command. He called his wife from the White House just ahead of Obama’s Rose Garden announcement — but he left a message on her voicemail. She was in a meeting.
After talks with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, he took his family out to dinner in Washington to explain the surprise move.
At the time of his exclusive interview, aides said Petraeus did not know he was even being considered to replace McChrystal — an indication of just how much Obama’s decision was intended to shake up command of the Afghan war.
Petraeus seemed genuinely pained by the incendiary comments in Rolling Stone magazine that cost McChrystal his job, and declined to discuss them. He noted how the two had been close friends since they first went running together as Army captains three decades ago at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
It was an eight or 10-mile run, he recalled. “He’s a great athlete. We’ve both had a few physical nicks and bumps since then,” he said.
A big gamble
A risk taker by nature, Petraeus’s decision to accept the job has put his hard-won reputation back on the line at a moment when doubts are growing fast that the strategy in Afghanistan can succeed.
Widely credited with turning the tide of the war in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, Petraeus is arguably the US military’s biggest star — one some of Obama’s domestic advisers view with suspicion because they think he could one day make a formidable Republican candidate for the nation’s highest office.
Petraeus, a “warrior-scholar” with a doctorate from Princeton, dismisses such suggestions, insisting: “I’m not ever going to run for president.”
Obama hopes to use Petraeus’s abundance of credibility with Republicans and Democrats alike to fend off growing doubts in Congress about the nine-year-old war.
He is also looking to Petraeus to put a stop to backbiting that was laid bare by the Rolling Stone article, which quoted McChrystal and his top aides mocking top administration officials, from Vice President Joe Biden to National Security Adviser Jim Jones.
The article, which was released to the media on Monday, prompted Obama to sack McChrystal just two days later.
Waves of optimism and pessimism
Internecine bickering will probably be the least of Petraeus’s problems. With violence soaring and support for the war plummeting, analysts are divided about the strategy’s prospects just six months after Obama approved sending 30 000 additional troops to the war zone.
“What has really changed is the vast realization that the strategy is not working and will not work,” said one consultant who works closely with NATO in Kabul.
Petraeus, who graduated with honours from West Point in 1974, has never been one to sugarcoat. He told Reuters a “rapid” turnaround was not on the cards. “I want to be brutally honest about what is going on,” Petraeus said on Wednesday. “It’s hard and it’s hard all the time.”
The exact state of play depends on who you ask.
Last week, Defence Secretary Robert Gates decried a wave of negativity about the conflict, touting encouraging — albeit tentative — signs of progress.
Several outside experts who advised the Obama administration and McChrystal on war strategy said the situation is tough to gauge but they think it may be deteriorating.
For starters, Pentagon war planners underestimated how long operations in the south would take. “The reality on the ground is much more difficult than most observers suspect,” said Bruce Riedel, a regional specialist at the Brookings Institution who oversaw a review of the Obama administration’s Afghan strategy in early 2009.
“Obama inherited a disaster in Afghanistan.”
Now, Riedel, a former CIA analyst, says it is far from clear that the 30,000-troop surge the president authorized in December will be sufficient to reverse the insurgency’s growing momentum.
“By next summer at the earliest we will know if we are on the right path,” Riedel said, referring to the July 2011 date set by Obama to begin to gradually withdraw the additional troops. “There is a good chance we will then still be in doubt about whether we have enough resources in place to defeat the insurgency.”
Another outside expert who advised McChrystal’s review of war strategy last summer said a wave of “optimism” from US and NATO commanders this winter may have raised expectations too high.
In February, for example, a top commander predicted a relatively brief campaign to fully secure the small southern town of Marjah in Helmand province, once controlled by the Taliban. In fact, the battle risks dragging out through the summer.
Marjah was supposed to create “a sense of momentum that will sweep eastwards towards Kandahar,” the commander said at the time, but the outside expert said the reality is a counterinsurgency campaign, known in military circles as COIN, “is always a slow, protracted, drawn out process.”
The main challenge is that a counterinsurgency is almost by definition a time-consuming affair. “The process of establishing the trust of the civilian population cannot be accelerated,” the expert said.
Citing problems in Marjah, McChrystal confirmed earlier this month that he was putting off the main thrust into Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace and the linchpin of the administration’s strategy, which had been scheduled to begin this month.
Now the full contingent of more than 20 000 US and Afghan forces are expected to be in place in Kandahar city and the surrounding areas by the end of August.
Petraeus called the holdups in Kandahar and Marjah “understandable” given the need to expand the Afghan role in the mission. “None of this, I think, was unforeseen. Clearly there are unknowables. No plan survives contact with reality or the enemy,” he said. “And so you are constantly adjusting, making adjustments and refinements.”
He said central Helmand, including the town of Marjah, was “generally moving in the right direction. But… the enemy does fight back when you take away his sanctuaries and safehavens, particularly ones that are important as Marjah was to him.”
Petraeus said he expected to be able to show Obama some “indicators” about the course of the campaign in Kandahar by the end of the year, when the White House is scheduled to conduct an in-depth review of strategy.
By then, “we’ll have had substantial additional forces on the ground for a number of months,” Petraeus said. “What you won’t see, though, is a dramatic downturn in levels of violence writ large. It all just plays out more slowly in Afghanistan. I think (that) is the only accurate way to describe it.”
Petraeus is a fitness buff who runs five miles several days a week.
Yet, the image of him likely to linger in Washington’s collective memory is his inopportune fainting spell earlier this month during testimony before a contentious Senate hearing on the war in Afghanistan.
Petraeus was listening to Senator John McCain explain his deep concerns about the Afghan campaign, when suddenly he felt a burning sensation and his vision narrowed. Without warning, he slumped face-forward in his chair.
For a moment, a terrifying moment for many in the room, it was unclear what had happened. A stroke? Symptoms of prostate cancer that had stricken him earlier making a comeback? McCain stopped mid-sentence.
“It was like a heat injury, if you’ve ever run really hard,” Petraeus said, running through the symptoms before he collapsed. “Plus also, there was the vision which, it came in one time and went back out.”
Petraeus later shrugged it off as a travel bug, which he says his wife got as well. The virus had left him dehydrated and, as veterans of long congressional hearings without bathroom breaks will tell you, never drink water before testifying.
“You just gotta time it right. What you gotta do is the minute you get there you start drinking water,” Petraeus said. “And if you notice I was doing that but I just couldn’t get enough in before sort of running out of (steam).”
This being Washington, the limited testimony Petraeus managed to deliver, before that scare forced an early end to the hearing, was interpreted by some as a sign of his lack of support for Obama’s July 2011 timeline to start bringing surge troops back home.
Pressed at one point before fainting, he appeared to condition his backing, saying, after an unusually long pause: “In a perfect world … we have to be very careful with timelines.”
“There was much made of the ‘Petraeus pause,'” he said. “Well, part of the Petraeus pause was because Petraeus was trying to clear his head.”
Petraeus blamed his travel bug partly for the somewhat lacklustre response. He issued a statement the next day squarely supporting the July 2011 timeline.
“I just realized I wasn’t quite — every cylinder wasn’t hitting fully. But I hadn’t sort of self-diagnosed yet. But I wasn’t, again, feeling terrific with this bug.”
When Obama announced the July 2011 date, he had hoped to drive home a sense of urgency. Afghans had to ramp up the size of their forces quickly because the US commitment was not open-ended.
But it was a nuanced message — perhaps too nuanced, some say — because Obama also made clear that any withdrawal would be gradual and based entirely on conditions on the ground.
Critics say the timetable strategy has backfired, sending a signal to the Taliban that the United States was preparing to wind down the war while also setting unrealistic expectations to Americans about the pace of progress in Afghanistan.
A few concerned observers of the fainting episode wondered out loud whether others — including America’s enemies — might also read too much into the day’s events.
Petraeus, whose discipline and physical prowess are a thing of legend in Washington, collapsed in front of the world on television. Even the Taliban, commenting on Petraeus’s nomination, said the fainting spell raised questions about his physical fitness.
“Let’s hope Petraeus fainting doesn’t become a visual allegory for what’s happening to our Afghan policy,” a senior Republican congressional official said after the episode.
Comparisons to Iraq
While the Obama administration undoubtedly hopes Petraeus’s Midas touch in Iraq will translate into success in Afghanistan, the general is wary of comparisons between the two conflicts, saying there are “huge differences.”
On his way home from his second tour in Iraq in 2005, Petraeus recalled a visit he made to Afghanistan at the request of then-Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who asked him to assess the effort there. One of the power-point slides Petraeus prepared for Rumsfeld appeared under the headline: “Afghanistan does not equal Iraq.”
Petraeus pointed to Iraq’s educated, urban population and relatively modern infrastructure compared to Afghanistan, which is the fifth poorest country on the planet.
Petraeus, who served as commander in Iraq in 2007-2008, said it was also important to remember that sectarian violence in Iraq in December 2006 claimed the lives of an average of 53 people a day in Baghdad alone.
In March 2007, one month after Petraeus took over command, he said an average of three car bombs exploded every day in Baghdad. And by that June, there were over 220 attacks per day in Iraq, higher than initial tallies, he said.
By contrast, the number of attacks per day in Afghanistan has averaged between 45 and 60, Petraeus said. Likewise, there are fewer large concentrations of insurgents in that country than there are in Iraq.
“None of this in any way says anything about Afghanistan being easy,” Petraeus said. “Afghanistan is very violent. The casualties are very tough.”
He declined to speculate whether succeeding in Afghanistan would be harder than Iraq. “It is just different,” he said.
Besides, Petraeus understands that the Afghan mission also involves managing expectations. “At various times it’s been necessary, if you will, to contribute to what one might call expectations management … to be very careful not to raise undue expectations, recognizing the magnitude of the difficulty, the enormity of the challenges,” he said.
Asked to assess what he thought was going wrong, Petraeus singled out challenges “in the areas of establishing local governance, in some cases resurrecting or rebuilding local security forces,” though he said that was improving.
Pentagon officials are blunt about what they see as the war strategy’s Achilles heel — a corrupt Afghan government and the failure to deliver services and economic development quickly enough to convince local villagers that they are better off without the Taliban.
Anthony Cordesman, an expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies who also helped advise McChrystal’s 60-day strategy review last summer, said progress on a wide range of fronts has been slower than expected, raising doubts about the White House timeline to start handing over authority to Afghan forces.
“When you look at actual Afghan force development, you are just in the process of getting quantity up to the goals you have, and the question is whether you can get quality on the same track,” he said.
Cordesman said that only 12 percent of Afghan National Police units in key provinces were now considered “effective.” There were still not enough Western trainers on the ground and too few army battalions and police units have partnered up with US and NATO units.
“Getting the quality you need for the planned forces is probably not obtainable by July 2011,” he said.
For his part, Petraeus sees important signs of progress, but acknowledges the challenges. He said one of the steps that McChrystal and Afghan President Hamid Karzai wanted to take before “pushing out” in Kandahar was expanded “partnering with Afghan forces.”
The frustratingly sluggish, uneven progress in Afghanistan has stoked concerns within military circles that patience will run out in the White House and Congress before the war strategy gets a chance to work.
“People in a lot of ways hoped you’d have faster progress,” said Cordesman, who visited Afghanistan within the last month. “But it wasn’t just a matter of slippage on the US side. You also had pledges of NATO trainers that didn’t show up. You had the Afghan election crisis.”
Obama’s national security and foreign policy advisers understand the problems, but there is a “disconnect of expectations with some of his domestic advisers” in the White House, Cordesman said.
“There are people in the Congress who want this to be over. There are people who have limited understanding of the complexities and details of this kind of combat and little understanding of the civil-military situation,” he added.
None of this is lost on Petraeus, who said he was always concerned about the political “clock” in any conflict and pointed to his experience in Iraq, where he also understood that time was not his friend.
“There were times when you would hit the Baghdad clock to see why it was moving backwards,” Petraeus said.
And no one gets the constraints he faces more than the Taliban, who, as Petraeus points out, are fond of saying: “You may have the watches, but we have the time.”
“But again, this is, you know, welcome to reality,” he said.
Petraeus hasn’t had a sick day in years. “I don’t get sick,” he says.
What makes that boast all the more remarkable is that Petraeus spent the spring of 2009 battling prostate cancer — including more than 40-odd radiation sessions. Yet he didn’t miss a day of work, which, incidentally, includes travelling to war zones.
In fact, Petraeus was working at such a driven pace throughout his illness that no one seemed to notice. “We just kept it quiet. I never stopped,” he told Reuters in a conversation earlier this year at his office at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida. “There are people who say that it makes them pretty tired, but we were able to keep working the entire time.”
In truth, Petraeus, the son of a Dutch sea captain who came to the United States after World War Two, has made a habit of cheating death. In 1999, his parachute failed to open during a training jump and he plummeted 60 feet (18 metres), breaking his pelvis.
Eight years before that, he was shot through the chest. A soldier under his command accidentally fired his weapon after tripping during a live-fire exercise. The bullet grazed an artery but Petraeus recalled that getting shot wasn’t nearly as painful as the emergency treatment to keep his lung from filling up with blood.
“What (the doctor) did do is he cut an X into my skin with no aesthetic at all and drove a plastic tube right into my lung,” Petraeus said in an earlier interview. “That was the most painful experience in my life. That was the only time in my life when I felt like saying: ‘That’s it.'”
It’s not hard to understand, then, why Petraeus would be so nonchalant as an oxygen mask dropped before him during an otherwise comfortable Air Force flight.
“There’s been some very sporty moments in my life, and that one did not rank with them,” Petraeus said. “I’ve had a reasonable number of bullets shot at us over the years. We’ve heard more than our fair share of … you know, rockets and explosions.”
So as the plane dove to a lower altitude, Petraeus did not instruct others whether to use the masks or not. His choice was his own, he said.
“When your time comes, it comes,” he quipped, according to someone else on the flight.
Pic: President Barrack Obama and Doctor David Petraeus