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Petraeus's Next Battle

By Barry, John | Newsweek, July 25, 2011 | Go to article overview

Petraeus's Next Battle

Barry, John, Newsweek

Byline: John Barry; With Christopher Dickey and John Solomon

As top commander in Afghanistan, he rewrote the book on combating terror. Now, as spy chief, he must transform the CIA to help fight 21st-century wars.

The young man peered into a basement office at the White House, where a pair of military officers sat talking. "Does anyone know where General Petraeus is?" he asked. "I'm right here," the general answered, raising his hand. "They want you in the Oval, sir," the aide said.

This was June 2010, and Gen. David Petraeus was in charge of Central Command, one of the supreme jobs in the U.S. armed forces. But that was about to change. Minutes before, the president had fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan. As Petraeus climbed the narrow staircase and headed down the short corridor to the Oval Office, the president's national-security team was filing out: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and others. Petraeus knew them all, but they avoided eye contact, like physicians about to deliver a grim diagnosis.

Inside, Barack Obama was alone. He motioned Petraeus to a chair by the fireplace. There was no preamble. "As your president and commander in chief, I am asking you to take over command in Afghanistan," he said. "Yes, sir," Petraeus replied. He would be accepting what was formally a demotion to go back to the field. Nine days later, the dutiful soldier was unpacking his bags in Kabul.

Now, after 13 months, the 58-year-old Petraeus is coming home to head the Central Intelligence Agency. Since that day in the Oval Office, hopeful signs have begun appearing that he may have performed the seemingly impossible task of stabilizing the Afghan battlefield. He achieved a similar feat four years ago in Iraq, turning its savage killing fields into a more manageable landscape of political infighting and chronic but relatively small-scale violence. In both countries, merely staving off complete disaster looked enough like victory to allow the Obama administration to start pulling out troops. "I've always said this would be very hard, but it can be done," Petraeus told NEWSWEEK during a series of interviews this month in Afghanistan. "That's still my view."

In Kabul, the hard-as-a-rock, 5-foot-9, 150-pound, -distance- running, push-up-pumping Petraeus has conducted the war from an Edwardian villa, surrounded by a labyrinth of shipping containers piled into two-story blocks of offices and sleeping quarters, and all of it behind high walls, concertina wire, and a lot of firepower. An aide loaded down with three laptops follows him everywhere he goes: one laptop for unclassified emails, one for U.S. secrets, one for International Security Assistance Force secrets. In the colorless corridors of Langley, Va., he'll be largely on his own. But Petraeus has been preparing a long time for this post. "History will regard him as one of the nation's great battle captains," then-defense secretary Robert Gates said in 2008. "He is the preeminent soldier-scholar-statesman of his generation." Even then, Gates might well have added "intelligence director."

Since at least the end of 2008, Petraeus has been a key figure in efforts to develop new approaches to covert warfare and take full advantage of real-time information on enemy movements captured by drone technology. The military's Special Operations Forces and the CIA's Special Activities Division carry out attacks with ever-higher levels of coordination and integration in Pakistan, in Yemen, in Somalia--and, indeed, in Afghanistan. The way Obama shuffled his cabinet recently (Gates, a former CIA director, has been replaced as defense secretary by outgoing CIA chief Leon Panetta) is testimony to the president's faith in this approach, at least when it comes to fighting Al Qaeda and its spinoffs.

Petraeus, the hardened veteran of four decades in the Army, will confront a hardened bureaucracy at CIA headquarters.

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