Juan Cole: Real Petraeus Failure Was Counterinsurgency in Iraq, Afghanistan
Juan Cole: Real Petraeus Failure Was Counterinsurgency in Iraq,
November 12, 2012
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today's show with the surprise resignation of CIA
director David Petraeus last week following revelations of an extramarital
affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, a married Army reservist. In a
message to CIA staff, the 60-year-old four-star general confessed he was
resigning because of the affair. He wrote, quote, "After being married for
over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an
extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as
the leader of an organization such as ours," end-quote.
The former head of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Petraeus retired from 37
years in the military to head the CIA last year. Broadwell's biography is
called All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. It was published in
January. Over the weekend, new revelations suggested she had sent harassing
emails to Jill Kelley, a 37-year-old woman from Florida and a family friend
of Petraeus and his wife Holly. The FBI launched an inquiry after Kelley
said she had received vicious emails from the CIA director's biographer. Its
investigation revealed the affair and led agents to believe that she or
someone close to her had sought access to his email.
Well, on Sunday, Democracy Now! spoke to historian Juan Cole about the
significance of Petraeus's resignation. Juan Cole is professor of history at
the University of Michigan. His most recent book is called Engaging the
JUAN COLE: I was opposed to General Petraeus becoming head of the CIA in the
first place, because one of the CIA's charges is to evaluate policy, and one
of the big policies that needs to be evaluated is the troop escalation, what
is called the "surge," in Afghanistan, the big counterinsurgency program
that Petraeus put into place and then shepherded through as commander on the
ground. And the CIA can't properly evaluate that program if its head is the
author of the program. And I'm sure the analysts tried, and maybe Petraeus
tried to be objective, but it's just not right. So I think that's the real
issue here, is why did the Obama administration put an actor in a military
role, then as the head of the agency that will evaluate the actions?
And I think that we need a big national debate about Obama's troop
escalation in Afghanistan. It was a failure. Obama is committed to
withdrawing in 2014. I think that's generally a good thing. But did we
really need the troop escalation? How well did it work? Should we do any
more of them? All of those things can't be addressed unless we have a
national debate on this policy. I'm sure General Petraeus's Gmail was very
important and that the security issues were there, but really, that's not
the big issue here.
AMY GOODMAN: It's interesting. This all takes place as Robert Bales is being
questioned, whether he will be court-martialed for the murder of 16 Afghans
at Fort-he's now at Fort Lewis-McChord in Washington state.
JUAN COLE: Yeah, well, you know, I'm from a military family, Amy, and I
really mind that the events in Afghanistan are kind of offstage. We have
almost no mainstream media reporting on Afghanistan. Our guys are out there
fighting, and if they get killed, it's on page 17. It's not right for a
country to be at war unless it's committed to the war. It's not right to
have the war proceed offstage. It's not right not to have any public
discussion of the mistakes that were made, the kind of command structure
that was there. Obviously, there's a lot of troops there who have been in a
lot of rotations and some of them have a lot of PTSD, and there's a lot of
issues here which our country is not coming to grips with.
AMY GOODMAN: When you talk about the surge failing, why did the surge in
JUAN COLE: Well, I believe that it was doomed to fail, because the way that
Petraeus and his colleagues conceived of a counterinsurgency program had
this mantra: "take, clear, hold and build." So they would take a village,
clear it of Taliban, hold it for some months to reassure the local people,
"Taliban are not coming back; you don't have to be afraid of reprisals if
you cooperate with us," and then build up local police, local security. At
one point, General McChrystal talked about bringing "a government in a box"
from Kabul. I mean, this entire project was so fantastic and unconnected to
reality. Kabul barely has a government itself, much less having boxes full
of them to send around to the provinces.
And it was overambitious. In order for this kind of thing to succeed-and I
doubt it could succeed, it required convincing Pashtun villagers that they
should like us better than their cousins, right? And how likely was that?
But if it were going to succeed, it would require a lot more troops than
were committed to it. So, you had that famous Marjah campaign, remember? And
then they said they were going to do Kandahar, and then the whole thing
petered out, and we never heard anything more about it. And Vice President
Biden was opposed to this plan. He thought, if terrorism crops up, if you
get explosions going off killing villagers, send in a SWAT team to deal with
that, and instead of trying to kind of reformulate Afghanistan. And they
attempted to do it relatively on the cheap. And so, in my view, it was one
of the big mistakes of Obama's first term, was this attempt to do
counterinsurgency on that scale in Afghanistan. And it clearly failed.
AMY GOODMAN: Anything else we should know about General Petraeus?
JUAN COLE: Well, you know, I think General Petraeus, in his heart, was
opposed to the Iraq War and a little bit puzzled as to what in the world the
Bush administration thought it was doing, because there's that famous
interview he gave early on, and when he was in Mosul, he said, "How does
this end?" He couldn't even conceive of it. I saw him on television
interacting with Arab families. It was set in Mosul. He went to them and
asked, "What do you need? What can I get you?" So, I think among the
generals who served in Iraq, he was one of the ones who tried to reach out
to people and tried to accomplish something.
And I think he learned the wrong lessons from Iraq, because the U.S. was
defeated in Iraq. And the only reason that they didn't have to leave on
helicopters suddenly at the end was because the Shiites ethnically cleansed
the Sunnis. And it happened around the same time as the Petraeus troop
escalation or surge in Iraq. And I think he took the wrong lesson from what
happened in Baghdad. He kind of allied with the majority community, then
took it and tried to replicate it in Afghanistan. That was the big error.
And this personal issue that cropped up that ruined his career at the end,
is very much a minor thing, as a historian, I have to say, compared to his
big exploits in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the tragedy here is that even with
someone like Petraeus, who had a Ph.D. in international studies, is an
intelligent, competent man, was put in an impossible situation. The days
when a great power can successfully occupy a Global South country were over
with. And the Project for the New American Century simply wouldn't come to
terms with that reality. And so, in many ways, General Petraeus's career got
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you mean, Project for a New American Century, PNAC?
Explain what that is.
JUAN COLE: Well, the Project for the New American Century was thought up by
the neoconservative movement in the late 1990s. They felt that the Soviet
Union had fallen, the U.S. was now the sole superpower, what the French call
a "hyperpower," and that it could act with impunity. So if it wanted to
invade and occupy Iraq and reformulate Iraq and put a government in and
exploit Iraq's natural resources, like the petroleum, that it could do so
And while it is true that, Russia and China didn't interfere with the United
States going into Iraq in that way, the Iraqi people did. The Iraqi people
were educated, mobilized. You know, Iraq had had a big pharmaceutical and
other industries, petrochemicals. They were wired. They were educated, and
networked. And they inflicted damage on the U.S. military all along the way,
and it came both from Sunnis and from Shiites. Many Iraqis simply never
accepted the idea of a foreign occupation of their country, and it failed.
The Project for a New American Century formulated as a proposition that the
U.S. could be an empire on the old British model, that you could bring back
the age of empire in that way. That crashed and burned, because people in
the Global South are now mobilized, both politically and socially. And it
was the lack of mobilization in the old 19th century empires, when people
were 300 people in a village, and they weren't literate, and they weren't
connected with each other, then maybe the British Empire could exist. But
that's not the situation anymore. And what I'm saying is that Petraeus was
sent to these countries by the Project from a New American Century. It was
the big neoconservative thinkers who thought up these kinds of wars and
these kinds of projects for occupation and reformulation of entire
countries. And they are anachronistic. You can't do this anymore. The age of
the British Empire had passed.
AMY GOODMAN: And you're saying that the Project for a New American Century
persisted under President Obama; he didn't change it.
JUAN COLE: Well, I'm saying that, in some ways, the Afghanistan troop
escalation or surge was one last iteration of some of that project to try to
formulate Afghanistan in a way favorable to the United States before we then
And again, I should be clear, I don't think that that's what President Obama
wanted. He went to the Pentagon and asked, "Give me three plans," you know,
an ambitious one, a less ambitious one and a minimal one. And they
stonewalled him for nine months. And people in Washington were saying,
"Well, what are you going to do? You're president now. You need a plan." And
he went back to the Pentagon and said, "Well, where's the plan?" And they
said, "Well, we've got one for you, but the others are going to take a
while." So they kind of boxed him in to this troop surge.
AMY GOODMAN: And Petraeus's role in that?
JUAN COLE: Petraeus was the one who boxed him in. So, Petraeus got what he
wanted. But in my view, he got a failed policy.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, this day, this weekend, has been very important
for-not only for one Pakistani 14-year-old girl, but for a nation. Can you
talk about Malala, what's happening with here, and how that fits into the
story of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
JUAN COLE: Well, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by a radical Talib,
one of the Taliban in Pakistan, because she had become well known for her
advocacy of girls' education. She was from the Swat Valley in Pakistan. The
Swat Valley was a place that the Taliban briefly took in 2009, and the
Pakistani military, partially under the pressure from the Obama
administration, went into Swat and expelled the Taliban, largely. Of course,
they're still around somewhat. So, one of them shot Malala. And she
survived. I think she'll have a slow but successful recovery. Saturday was
Malala Day all through the world. And in Pakistan, girls came out in
demonstrations, asking for the right to be educated, all through the
country. And the U.N. is also putting pressure on the Pakistani government
to devote more resources to children's education, in general, which the
Pakistani government is making noises that it may try to do more.
The way in which this intersects with the story of the United States in the
region is, first of all, the Afghanistan war, as it was fought by the Bush
administration with search-and-destroy missions and an attempt to put in
large numbers of Western troops, radicalized the Afghan population. In 2001,
when the Taliban fell, Afghans were largely happy about that. The Taliban
were disliked. But if they were going to have 140,000 Western troops in
their country, well, a lot of the Pashtuns, in particular, minded that, and
sort of you had a revival of Taliban sentiment, which then spilled over onto
northern Pakistan. Now, I think that the U.S. made a big mistake by trying
to stay in Afghanistan after 2002. It should simply have withdrawn and let
the Northern Alliance try to make its alliances and govern. And again, this
idea that the U.S. can occupy these countries successfully militarily and
reshape them in our image is wrong. A lot of people say, well, the U.S. had
a responsibility to help Afghan women. And, you know, Gayatri Spivak defined
"colonialism" as white men saving brown women from brown men. And there's
Newsweek covers sort of have adverted to this kind of project. What I would
argue is that if you associate women's liberation, women's education with a
foreign imperial project, you actually harm it in the eyes of locals. And
it's much more likely that Malala, this brave, young Pashtun girl, will
succeed in becoming a symbol and a spearhead for that kind of educational
project than that Donald Rumsfeld ever would have.
AMY GOODMAN: Historian Juan Cole. I spoke with him Sunday in Princeton, New
Jersey, at the 32nd anniversary of the Coalition of Peace Action. Juan Cole
is a professor of history at the University of Michigan. His most recent
book is Engaging the Muslim World. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org,
The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we continue with our Veterans
Day special. Stay with us.
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