The Best Defense

Dave does dull: Storm warnings on the Petraeus-ometer

In the decade or so that I've been keeping an eye on Gen. David Petraeus, I've noticed that the more worried he gets, the more boring his public pronouncements become.

If I'm right, his mind-numbing appearance yesterday at a Marine Corps conference on counterinsurgency is a leading indicator that he is profoundly worried. One reporter told me after the event that she fell asleep during it. I am guessing Petraeus is fretting primarily about President Obama's public dithering on Afghanistan strategy, but perhaps also about some weird vibes inside the U.S. official establishment in Baghdad.

Normally I don't mind when Petraeus serves up lukewarm leftovers. It's his right, after all. And the precepts of being a general is to never let them see you sweat, smooth out the highs and lows, and steady as she goes. But I thought that reading aloud Powerpoints that I think of as "Your Friend Mr. CENTCOM" to an audience heavy with Marine officers who have led regiments, battalions, companies, and platoons in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are prepping to go back, was at best awkward and at worst insulting.  

The one hint time I thought he tiptoed into current controversies was the conclusion on one slide: "Countering Terrorism requires more than Counter-Terrorist Forces." On the face of it, this would appear to show him siding with Gen. McChrystal and against VP Biden on whether to send additional troops to Afghanistan, or to fall back on a "raiding" strategy. (By the way, when was the last time Biden was right about anything?) But Petraeus was quick to note that this was an old slide, not something new or about Afghanistan in particular.

The other mildly interesting comment he made was when he was asked about similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam. "There are some similarities," said Petraeus, who noted that his doctoral dissertation at Princeton was about how the Vietnam War affected the U.S. Army's view of the use of force. "But I think the biggest lesson of Vietnam is to not be a prisoner of lessons you may have learned."

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Best Defense

The top commander vs. Mr. "Supreme Command"

In the closing talk of the COIN conference, Gen. David Petraeus said that 70 percent of the violence in Afghanistan is in just 10 percent of the country's districts. (Meaning that a troop-intensive counterinsurgency campaign might not need as many troops as you might think.)

I guess he missed the opening talk by former State Department counselor Eliot Cohen, author of the terrific study Supreme Command, about civilian leadership in war. One metric that drives him batty, he said, is when officials say, "Well, 75% of the violence occurs in 10 percent of the country," an approach Cohen said he finds, "profoundly misleading." First, he said, if we aren't there, we don't know how much violence is occurring. Second, he said, the place might be "completely quiet" because the Taliban have already won in that area.

Irony alert: Cohen was one of the people -- and I think the first one -- who, at a meeting in the White House in December 2006, advised President Bush to dump Gen. Casey and pick Gen. Petraeus to replace him as the top commander in Iraq.

Cohen, fwiw, remains a Petraeus fan. Speaking of him and Gen. McChrystal, he said, "I think they are both truly exceptional commanders, and exceptional human beings."

Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press