Inside the mind of General Petraeus

Does the general still believe that victory is obtainable in Afghanistan and, if so, that we have the right strategy to obtain it?

When speaking about Iraq or Afghanistan, Petraeus has long called himself a “qualified realist.” He recognizes the complexity of insurgency warfare and has said waiting for progress in counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is like watching paint dry.

That said, he knows why President Obama sent him to Afghanistan — to set the conditions for U.S. troops to begin to draw down forces and transition to an Afghan lead in security, governance and development. The surge of forces was effective there, clearing some areas in Regional Command South at such a level that insurgent attacks went down by 30 percent in the last year. That said, in areas where resources were not surged, including Regional Command East, attacks went up by 19 percent. Progress has been made in Afghanistan, but it is fragile and reversible, as Petraeus has repeatedly noted.

The probability of continued progress and “victory,” as you frame it, depends on our continued resilience and commitment and on Afghans’ ability to stand up their own security forces and improve governance. No one, especially Petraeus, expects Afghanistan to become a Switzerland or beacon of democracy and human rights, but there is hope that it can become a state capable of preventing al-Qaida and other nefarious actors from establishing training camps where they train and plan another attack against the U.S. I think that the comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy, if properly resourced, can obtain such an outcome.

What are some of the most interesting facts or stories about Petraeus you discovered while researching and interviewing him?

I was surprised to learn how important educational reading is to him. Given the pace of his various commands in Iraq, CENTCOM, Afghanistan and now at the CIA, and the hours he works each day, can you imagine he finds time to read something outside of his work domain nearly daily as well? His educational reading interests range from grand strategy to biographies of statesmen to historical fiction.

I was also surprised to learn and witness that he really has what his crew at the CIA has called a “genetic mutant” physical fitness capability. He can do over 100 pushups, abdominal crunches and run sub-seven minute miles for miles! He works out twice a day (including cycling on a stationary bike from home in the morning while reading daily intelligence updates). He maintains that taking time to stay “fit to fight” also provides him with time to reflect and plan. Finding time for solitude is a rarity for busy people, as is finding time for fitness, but Petraeus has prioritized a way to maintain both. I attribute his energy — and his ability to keep 18-hour days for nearly a decade while dealing with the weight of the world in some jobs — in part to his dedication to physical training.