When David H. Petraeus retires from the Army this summer and starts his new job as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, he will scrutinize the latest spy service reports about the war in Afghanistan, the same unpopular war he has run for the last year.
But Petraeus will face a crucial question: Can a former four-star general objectively grade his own work?
As chief of the agency that helps collect and analyze intelligence from Afghanistan, Petraeus will be expected to give President Obama a clear-eyed assessment of the progress so far and problems ahead. His appraisal could be crucial to Obama’s decisions on how quickly to withdraw America’s nearly 100,000 troops, a process that the president has pledged to start in July.
Under outgoing CIA chief Leon E. Panetta, who will become secretary of Defense, U.S. intelligence agencies have taken a more skeptical view than Petraeus and his staff about the success of the general’s strategy in the decade-old war against the Taliban and other militants.
In March, for example, Petraeus told a congressional hearing that the momentum achieved by the Taliban since 2005 “has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas.”
A week earlier, Gen. Ronald Burgess, chief of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, had painted a far less rosy picture. He said intelligence analysts could see “no apparent degradation” in the Taliban’s capacity to fight.
For its part, the CIA has warned that the Taliban still fields a capable fighting force and that tactical gains by U.S. forces since Obama approved the deployment of 30,000 additional troops has not added up to strategic progress in winning the war.
“That’s going to be a serious issue,” said Mark Lowenthal, former assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production. The CIA analysts assessing the war “may have a different view” than that of Petraeus, “and that’s his war.”
Petraeus “tends to be pretty sober” about the prospects for defeating the Taliban, said Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst and Petraeus fan at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “But you can’t imagine he would ever admit that we have failed in a mission that he was given to succeed in.”
“He’s going to be able to second-guess a lot of the intelligence that comes up, and that may be a good thing,” said Andrew Exum, a former Army officer who advised Petraeus in Afghanistan. “I actually think that his ability to ask tough questions of his analysts will be a strength.”
Josh Rovner, assistant professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College, wonders whether Petraeus “will offer candid conclusions” and protect CIA analysts “even if that means tacitly criticizing his own previous public statements.”
“If I was a senator, this is a question I would be asking Petraeus” at his confirmation hearing, Rovner said. “Can he objectively represent the views of his analysts?”
The stakes are huge. If the Pentagon convinces the White House that the Petraeus strategy is working, it could support an argument for keeping more troops in Afghanistan for a longer period to sustain and build on that improvement.
If Obama and his war council conclude, however, that 100,000 U.S. troops and highly sophisticated weapons weren’t enough to beat the poorly armed and largely untrained Taliban forces, it could create momentum for a faster drawdown and a shift to a less ambitious strategy.
The CIA director presumably will play a key role in those White House deliberations.
Petraeus may face other difficulties. The CIA has never shown enthusiasm for
Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine, which calls for a large number of troops and a major humanitarian effort, said a former senior U.S. intelligence official who asked not to be quoted discussing internal deliberations.
“It’s bizarre,” the official said. “You take the evangelist of COIN [counterinsurgency] and you put him in the agency that never has given COIN the time of day.
“The agency is an insular place that’ll eat you alive,” the official said. “There is no way, no matter how powerful Petraeus is, that he’s going to run that place. They are going to run him.”
His retirement from the Army before he joins the CIA may ease the concerns raised when Navy Adm. Stansfield Turner, under Jimmy Carter, and Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, under George W. Bush, became directors of the civilian agency while still in uniform.
Yet Petraeus enters a culture very different from the world where he has spent his career. CIA staffers will watch closely to see whether he can cultivate an intellectual distance from the military and its unique mores and customs.
Petraeus backers contend that he will thrive at the CIA, however.
The 58-year-old West Point graduate holds a doctorate in international relations from Princeton University. He is said to be a voracious consumer of intelligence and an independent thinker who helped turn a deadly insurgency around in Iraq. He became head of Central Command, and then took over the Afghanistan mission last summer when Obama fired Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal for comments critical of his superiors that were published in Rolling Stone magazine.
Retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair, who served as Obama’s first director of national intelligence, which oversees the CIA and 15 other agencies, expressed confidence that Petraeus will be “a very knowledgeable, involved agency director.” He said the CIA view is only part of the intelligence brief given to the White House each morning.
Paula Broadwell, a former Army intelligence officer and Petraeus advisor who is now writing an authorized biography, said the general “has routinely overseen and been critical of his own campaign assessments.” She said he cautions aides not to be “overly optimistic about gains on the ground” and urges them to “under-promise and over-deliver.”
“I think he likes the intellectual rigor of bright, informed intellectuals and will appreciate the expertise that members of the [CIA] bring to the table,” she said. “If one of these perspectives is critical of a strategy or campaign, and there is a logical way to address the criticism, his record shows that he is willing to constantly tweak the campaign to get it right.”