David Petraeus, Whose Greatest Aptitude Lies in Rewriting History

As always in stories involving David Petraeus, this story about his plan to work with al Qaeda to defeat ISIS involves some rewriting or forgetting of history. There’s the fiction that what is usually called the surge but here is at least called co-opting members of al Qaeda “worked.”

The former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan has been quietly urging U.S. officials to consider using so-called moderate members of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front to fight ISIS in Syria, four sources familiar with the conversations, including one person who spoke to Petraeus directly, told The Daily Beast.

The heart of the idea stems from Petraeus’ experience in Iraq in 2007, when as part of a broader strategy to defeat an Islamist insurgency the U.S. persuaded Sunni militias to stop fighting with al Qaeda and to work with the American military.

The tactic worked, at least temporarily. But al Qaeda in Iraq was later reborn as ISIS, and has become the sworn enemy of its parent organization. Now, Petraeus is returning to his old play, advocating a strategy of co-opting rank-and-file members of al Nusra, particularly those who don’t necessarily share all of core al Qaeda’s Islamist philosophy. [my emphasis]

To be fair to the Daily Beast, they call it a “tactic,” not a strategy, which is correct and part of the problem with it — it provides no path to lasting peace and can easily lead to the metastasis of new violent groups — as DB makes clear happened with the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq. The description of how Petraeus engaged the Sons of Iraq also neglects to mention the financial payoff, which seems important both to understand the play but also its limitations. Thus far, though, DB at least hints as why Petraeus’ plan is so batshit crazy.

Then there’s the silence in the story about how every attempt to train allied troops that Petraeus has been involved with has turned to shit: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. That seems worth mentioning.

But I’m most interested in this claim:

Petraeus was the CIA director in early 2011 when the Syrian civil war erupted. At the time, he along with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly urged the Obama administration to work with moderate opposition forces. The U.S. didn’t, and many of those groups have since steered toward jihadist groups like the Nusra Front, which are better equipped and have had more success on the battlefield.

While it is true that Obama did not systematically arm rebels in Syria in 2011, it is also a public fact that the CIA was watching (and at least once doing more than that) Qatar and Saudi Arabia move arms from Libya before Petraeus’ departure in 2012, and Obama approved a covert finding to arm “moderate” rebels in April 2013, with CIA implementing that plan in June.

That’s all public and confirmed.

So how is it that we once again are pretending that the CIA — the agency Petraeus led as it oversaw a disastrous intervention in Libya that contributed to radicalization both there and in Syria — didn’t arm purported moderates who turned out not to be?

In other words, the story here should be, “David Petraeus, after overseeing a series of failed training efforts and covert efforts that led to increased radicalization, wants to try again.”

Which would make it even more clear how crazy this idea is.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

6 replies
  1. bloopie2 says:

    Petraeus, Powell, all the others. Is the Peter Principle at play in these high-level government / military / intelligence positions? I’ve got to believe there are people much more competent than the usual suspects we keep running into. Or perhaps not – perhaps these jobs are simply too difficult, the problems too complex and not subject to resolution, for humans. Or ,is every action of theirs informed (either directly or through osmosis), to ill effect, by the politics flowing down from above?

  2. orionATL says:

    writing wrongs :
    .
    general david petraeus, possible vice(no sniggers please)-presidential candidate on a mo’ war ticket with senator whoever b. republican, today said …

  3. RUKidding says:

    IMO, why don’t we ask Paula Broadwell for her recommended “tactic” or “strategy” for dealing with ISIS (which, some say, was recruited, armed and trained by the CIA, but I digress)?? After all, Ms. Broadwell enjoyed all of that pillow talk, which included deep state secrets, plus Top Secret memos and such, when she had an adulterous affair with Petraeus (while writing his biography or something). Broadwell’s meant to be a smart cookie – well, after all, nothing has happened to her so far – so perhaps her “take” on the situation will be as, uh, “enlightening” as that serial failure machine called “General” David Petraeus. Can’t hurt to get her opinion, at any rate. Could it be any stooopider than what Petraeus thinks??

  4. gmoke says:

    We know so much about making war but know less and less about making peace. There is nobody I know of in government who is actively studying peace and peacemaking and even the work on the tactics of nonviolence by Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution was subverted to create “revolutions” throughout Eastern Europe that served US interests more readily than the interests of their own citizens.

  5. Les says:

    We know that The Army of Conquest rebel coalition that’s headed by Nusra Front was created by the US and its alliance of governments in seeking to take down the Assad regime. The US is already working with ‘Al Qaeda’. It seems this article was intended to prepare public opinion for the fact that the US is doing one of many things contrary to its stated public counterterrorism propaganda.

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