By Michael Hastings, the man who brought down General Stanley McChrystal. This article appears in the February 17, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone:
On the morning of June 15th, 2010, Gen. David Petraeus skipped breakfast. He was jetlagged from a trip earlier in the week to the Middle East, and he was due at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill at 9:30 a.m. to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. A veteran at these things — he had testified at least half a dozen times over the past three years, most famously as commander of U.S. troops at the height of the Iraq War — he decided not to drink much water that morning. He knew, as others sitting in front of the senators had learned the hard way, that once the marathon session began, he wouldn't have a chance for a bathroom break. "No one wants to be sitting there with a full bladder," a senior military official close to Petraeus tells me. "Those who ask the questions get to go in and out — but if you're the one sitting there in front of the cameras, you have to stay there the entire time."
The hearing started to get interesting after 45 minutes, when Sen. John McCain took the floor. McCain wanted Petraeus, the supreme commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, to say that the deadline President Obama had set for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan — July 2011 — was a bad idea. But the general, while no fan of the deadline, was too shrewd to be drawn into such an obvious spat with his commander in chief. As he evaded McCain's badgering with an almost Clintonian ease, the senator grew increasingly frustrated.
"Do you believe that we will begin a drawdown of forces in July 2011, given the situation as it exists today?" McCain prodded.
"It's not given as the situation exists today," Petraeus corrected. "It's given as projections are for that time."
"You believe we can begin a drawdown in July of 2011 under the projected plans that we have?" McCain persisted, rephrasing his question for the third time.
"That is the policy, and I support it," Petraeus answered, taking a sip of water.
"I understand you're supporting the policy," McCain pressed. He again pushed Petraeus for an answer, and even resorted to quoting his old foe, Vice President Joe Biden: "In July of 2011, you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out — bet on it." But a minute later, McCain's expression suddenly changed from one of exasperation to befuddlement. Petraeus had fainted, slumping forward in his chair. "Oh my God," McCain gasped.
The general regained consciousness a few seconds later, and was escorted out of the hearing room with the help of his aides. After recovering from a combination of dehydration and jet lag, he returned under his own power a half-hour later. But the committee, shaken by the unexpected turn of events, decided to adjourn for the day.
To those watching, it was shocking to see Petraeus in such a vulnerable state. As a soldier, he had survived being shot in the chest during a training accident in 1991, had broken his pelvis jumping out of an airplane in 2000, and was considered by many to be a hero for engineering the last-ditch "surge" in 2007 that enabled U.S. forces to stage a face-saving withdrawal from the disastrous war in Iraq. In reality, though, it had been a tough year for Petraeus. He had undergone two months of radiation treatment for prostate cancer — a fact he kept private for fear of giving the Taliban a propaganda edge. He had also fallen out of favor with the Obama administration, which was keeping him at arm's length. Under Bush, the general had enjoyed direct and regular access to the White House, speaking with the president once a week during the height of the Iraq War. But Obama and his top advisers were furious at Petraeus for working to "box in" the president during a strategic review the year before, effectively forcing Obama to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. The White House was also worried about rumors that Petraeus planned to run for president in 2012. ("They saw him as a general on his white horse," another senior U.S. military official tells me.) Petraeus, the golden boy under Bush, found himself out of the loop for the first time. A month earlier, in a moment of frustration, he reportedly told his spokesman that the White House was "fucking with the wrong guy."
But all of that was about to change. Seven days after Petraeus collapsed during his Senate testimony, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the war in Afghanistan, was summoned back to Washington. McChrystal and his top advisers had been quoted making a host of critical comments about the White House in a profile published in Rolling Stone, and the general's career was suddenly on the line. No one knew whether McChrystal would keep his job; NATO officials had prepared two press releases — one for if he stayed, another for if he was fired. Even the military's top brass was kept out of the loop: Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, viewed as particularly untrustworthy by the Obama administration, was frantically calling NATO headquarters in Brussels to find out what was happening across the Potomac at the White House.
On June 23rd, McChrystal entered the Oval Office. According to a source familiar with the conversation, Obama told the general, "You've done a very good job, but . . . " and then informed McChrystal that he would accept his resignation. Afterward, the president held a meeting of the National Security Council. "I've accepted Stan McChrystal's resignation," Obama told those gathered in the room, according to a senior administration official who attended the session. There was a shocked silence. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had all lobbied hard to keep McChrystal onboard. In the end, it was the president himself, heeding the advice of Biden and National Security Adviser James Jones, who had decided that the general had to go.
Then Obama made an equally startling announcement: He was placing Petraeus, the commander who had so skillfully undermined him during the strategic review the year before, in charge of the war in Afghanistan. Petraeus had arrived at the White House that morning "with no indication at all" that he was about to get tapped to replace McChrystal, according to a senior military official close to the general. "He walked into a more or less regular NSC meeting," the official says, "and walked out with a new job." The question that Petraeus had been trying to avoid when he collapsed at the Senate hearing a week earlier — When are we getting out of Afghanistan? — was suddenly one he would be forced to answer, and quickly.
Obama and Petraeus met for 40 minutes. A press conference was scheduled in the Rose Garden to break the news — but the announcement couldn't be made public until Obama allowed the general to fulfill one simple request.
"Before we announce this," Petraeus told the president, "I better call my wife."
For a brief moment, the appointment of Petraeus united civilian and military leaders in Washington, who had been at war with each other over the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan. Within the Obama administration, doubts about McChrystal's ability to lead had been festering privately for months. In May, a month before the blowup, one White House official had told me that Petraeus was "the one who should really be in charge." The general was widely seen as having enough clout in Washington to alter the course of the war, as he had done in Iraq. If Petraeus can't do it, the thinking went, then no one can — and no one back home could blame Obama for losing with Petraeus in charge.
The irony is that Petraeus had literally written the book on counterinsurgency, the strategy that was failing so miserably in Afghanistan. After serving two years in Iraq, where he oversaw training of the Iraqi army and police, Petraeus returned to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 2005. Fed up with what he saw as the Pentagon's outdated, Cold War mentality, he took it upon himself to assemble a handful of the military's most dynamic thinkers and to develop a new field manual, called FM 3-24, which became the basis for America's policy in Iraq.
"Counterinsurgency is not just thinking man's warfare," the manual grandly declares of the doctrine now known as COIN. "It is the graduate level of war."
As McChrystal's boss, Petraeus had also been intimately involved in applying COIN to Afghanistan. During the summer of 2009, he met secretly with McChrystal in Belgium while his subordinate penned an assessment that declared the war on the brink of "mission failure." Petraeus, who graduated two years ahead of McChrystal at West Point, was both a friend and rival to the younger general. Serving under Petraeus in Iraq, McChrystal had overseen the lethal Special Forces operations that had made the surge a tactical success. But once he took charge in Afghanistan, he had struggled to implement the strategy pioneered by his boss. The Taliban, it seemed, were far less cowed by counterinsurgency than Iraq's fractious opposition.
Taking over from McChrystal, Petraeus moved quickly to institute his own, more aggressive version of COIN — one that calls for lots of killing, lots of cash and lots of spin. He loosened the restrictions McChrystal had placed on the rules of engagement, giving U.S. soldiers the green light to use artillery, destroy property and defend themselves more vigorously. He drastically upped the number of airstrikes, launching more than 3,450 between July and November, the most since the invasion in 2001. He introduced U.S. tanks into the battle, unleashed Apache and Kiowa attack helicopters, and tripled the number of night raids by Special Forces. The fighting was calculated to force the Taliban to the bargaining table and reduce NATO casualties, which soared to 711 last year — the highest of the war.
On the political front, Petraeus knew that his primary weapon was money. Unlike McChrystal, who had bent over backward to appease President Hamid Karzai, Petraeus had no qualms about hurting Afghan feelings. Within weeks of assuming command, he went toe-to-toe with Karzai, pushing through a controversial initiative to arm and fund Afghan militias that effectively operate as local gangs, outside the control of the Afghan army and police. He also doled out cash to jump-start reconciliation talks with the Taliban, which had gone nowhere over the past nine years. "Petraeus is big enough," says a senior U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy. "When Karzai pushes, he pushes right back."
Above all, Petraeus launched a full-scale offensive to reshape how Congress and the American people view the war. One lesson he learned during the surge in Iraq is that it's not what's happening on the battlefield that counts — it's what people in Washington think is happening. As Petraeus wrote in The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam, his 1987 doctoral dissertation at Princeton, "What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters — more than what actually occurred." Success lies in finding the right metrics, telling the right story, convincing the right people we're not losing. The key to victory, Petraeus concluded, is "perception."
After taking over in Afghanistan, the general sat down for interviews with virtually all of the major networks, and his staff is currently grappling with another 130 interview requests. (Petraeus declined to be interviewed for this story.) He also began quietly maneuvering to ditch what he viewed as a major obstacle to success in Afghanistan: the July 2011 deadline that President Obama had set to begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
The White House had announced the date in December 2009, slipping it into a major speech on the war that the president gave at West Point. According to U.S. military officials, who were angered by the announcement, Obama's advisers added the date to the speech without checking with them. The reason: The White House felt it needed to set a public benchmark so it wouldn't get boxed in again by the Pentagon, as it had been during the strategic review earlier that year. "They felt like they got jammed," says a senior U.S. official, "and they didn't want to get jammed again."
In public, Petraeus began walking back the 2011 deadline, saying it wasn't a "sure thing" that the war would be over by 2014. That put him directly at odds with the vice president, who was insisting that U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by 2014 "come hell or high water." In November, at a NATO summit in Lisbon, Petraeus also lobbied U.S. allies to support his plan for prolonged fighting and nation-building. By the end of the conference, NATO's secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was telling reporters, "One thing must be very clear: NATO is in this for the long term." The Lisbon summit, says one U.S. official, "finally got everyone's mind off July 2011."
If Petraeus really wanted to extend the war, however, he knew he would have to derail the latest Afghanistan review, a declassified version of which was made public in December. The White House hoped the review, originally billed as a major event, would settle the primary sticking point it had with the Pentagon: How soon, and in what numbers, would U.S. troops begin to leave Afghanistan? As the review started over the summer and barreled forward through the fall, staffers at the National Security Council in Washington and at ISAF headquarters in Kabul pulled 14-hour days to put together a document they could agree on.
From the outside, the process appeared to lack the drama of the highly publicized 2009 review. But behind the scenes, say U.S. officials familiar with the debate, the infighting was just as fierce. Petraeus and his staff squared off against a handful of key players in the White House, most of them closely aligned with Vice President Joe Biden, who has pressed for a faster withdrawal. It was "the optimists versus the pessimists," as one U.S. official who worked on the review puts it. Although the metrics used to judge progress in Afghanistan are classified, U.S. officials familiar with the review say Petraeus focused on a few key statistics to make his case: the growing number of Taliban commanders being killed and captured, evidence that the local population is becoming more receptive to U.S. troops, and signs that more Taliban fighters are joining the government. Military commanders in Afghanistan also stressed what they see as security gains in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. As Petraeus and his allies in the Pentagon sought to reshape the review to their liking, they had "daily battles with the White House," says one U.S. official.
During the review process, Petraeus also clashed with America's intelligence community over what is really going on in Afghanistan. The CIA wasn't buying the military's spin about progress, and the new National Intelligence Estimate — a document that distills the insights of the nation's 16 intelligence agencies — threatened to repeat the "grim" assessment it had offered two years earlier. So the general set out to remake the NIE to his liking. "Petraeus and his staff completely rewrote it," says a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the assessment, which remains classified. Every time the CIA or the NSC cited something negative, Petraeus pushed to include something positive. "There was much more back-and-forth between the military and the intelligence community than usual," says another official who has read the NIE. "The draft I saw reflected this debate."
Thanks to such internal maneuvering, the strategic review did little to clarify the timetable for withdrawal. The final report, in fact, says almost nothing. We are making progress, but that progress is fragile and reversible. We have broken the momentum of the Taliban, but there will still be heavy fighting next year. The troops will start coming home soon, but they won't start coming home soon. We aren't "nation-building," the president says, though we'll stay in Afghanistan past 2014 to build its nation. It was, in the end, a nonreview review, which suited Petraeus just fine, giving him more time to shape the outcome not just in Kabul, but in Washington. As the general had spelled out in his doctoral dissertation, winning the hearts and minds of Congress is what matters most. Or as one U.S. military official puts it, "If anyone can spin their way out of this war, it's Petraeus."
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At least three events in this story appear impossible. First, and this is no boast, Petraeus couldn't have been ignorant of his promotion as he flew back to Washington, as we anticipated such a move the night before. Second, Petraeus had already chipped away at July 2011 since May, making it impossible for Obama not to know his position. Finally, in consideration of the Obama administration's entire handling of Afghanistan, it takes a long leap of faith to believe Obama made the call alone. Gates's hands were all over Petraeus's promotion.