Petraeus as Ozymandias

I only met David Petraeus once before he came to CIA, in 2006 at U.S. Central Command while he was winding up his tour as commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command Iraq (acronymically pronounced “minsticky”), and before he took command of MNF-I or CENTCOM, or the war in Afghanistan for that matter. I briefed him on something topical going on (I was still working at DIA at the time) and we certainly didn’t talk long. In fact I came away with only one impression: not so much about him, but about his already-well-commented-on entourage of “Petraeus guys.” He had a reputation as a fast-moving reformer, but it was an outsized group of admirers, I thought, who showed not respect for him, but devotion – even awe.

They weren’t alone; the man’s been compared as a military leader to “Ulysses S. Grant, John J. Pershing, George Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower” – and that was by his own boss! (That’s the comparison made by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen last year when Petraeus retired from the military to join CIA.)

So, yes, news that the Director of the CIA had resigned because of an extramarital affair hit DC like a thunderclap yesterday.  Check out the volume of this twitter search for the prevailing phrase people uttered when they heard the news: “Holy shit.” It was almost comic that the news broke the same day that the new James Bond film opened in DC. Its plot features an intelligence agency director under personal assault and its title mirrors the mood of many in Langley today: “Skyfall.”

I’m not surprised by the fact that a powerful man was having an affair – heck, I did marry a divorce lawyer after all.  The news won’t affect intelligence operations immediately; the professionals at CIA and the intelligence community are still going about their business and tend to look forward to the horizon, not backward. Meanwhile journalists are already delving into the particulars of this peculiar turn of events. Pundits (and the Congressional intelligence oversight committees) will be exploring any linkages or ramifications of this scandal for the Benghazi investigations, and the candidates for Petraeus’s replacement are already making their direct or whisper campaigns known, in emails already bcc’ing around the Beltway. More on that in due time.

I only have two observations now, one larger in scope and one quite small, at human scale. The first is the question of what the scandal says about the intelligence security practices in our modern national security state. Petraeus held the highest security clearances. He earned the confidence of the President, the trust of his silent warrior employees, the endorsement of the U.S. Senate (94-0!) and the faith of a nation that had cheered his battlefield successes in the Iraq surge and in Afghanistan. Yet the CIA’s confidence in its director was undergirded not only by the Petraeus resume, but by our national security infrastructure of clearances, polygraphs, and professional investigators. Forget the question of one man’s integrity – he was living a lie, big-time, and we missed it. Completely. There will be many questions asked about what that means for other high government clearance-holders, but for now there’s a feeling prevalent in DC akin to what happens when a law-enforcement crime lab discovers shoddy mistakes: all previous convictions are under suspicion and, sometimes, verdicts are reversed. Something to ponder about CIA institutional analytic or operational judgment over the past year….

Secondly, I’m struck by the ironies in the personal side of this affair. David Petraeus grew up as a literature-loving son of a New England village librarian. I know this because I read his biography – yes, the hagiographic book All In: The Education of David Petraeus written by the woman at the center of the affair. Now I may be one of the few in DC who actually read the whole book when it came out – as in, I didn’t just flip through the index looking for the “good parts.”

The book has the literature-loving Petraeus actually quoting poetry at a pivotal point in his life. At his change-of-command ceremony, giving up his praetorian position in Afghanistan, Petraeus gave a thoughtful set of remarks and then chose to quote several lines from an obscure poem by young British soldier John Bailey, serving in Afghanistan in 2008. I say “obscure,” because until today the poem itself appears in only one spot on the Internet: a small U.K. site devoted to British war poetry.  Did poetry-lover Petraeus find the poem there himself, or was it simply good staff/speechwriter work? These are the words Petraeus used, in his “emotional” farewell to the wars he had led, and to his chosen career as a military leader:

And what is asked for the service we give?

No high praise or riches if we should live,

Just silence from friends, our name on a wall,

If this time around, it is I that fall.

- from “The Volunteer” by John Bailey

When Petraeus read out that poem, he was standing like Caesar astride a narrow world, a four-star general having “won” two wars in distant ancient lands and commanded USCENTCOM, whose mission area sprawls across Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

Perhaps this poetry lover knows Percy Bysshe Shelley well; perhaps like me in school Petraeus read Shelley’s Ozymandias, based on the ironic life of Ramesses II, mighty Egyptian pharaoh. One account writes, “Ramesses could have filled an ancient edition of the Guinness Book of Records all by himself: he built more temples, obelisks and monuments; took more wives (eight, not counting concubines) and claimed to have sired more children (as many as 162, by some accounts) than any other pharaoh in history. And he presided over an empire that stretched from present-day Libya to Iraq in the east, as far north as Turkey and southward into the Sudan.”

Yet Ramesses is mostly forgotten now, and Shelley’s poem about him captures the fall of great men in a short, powerful sonnet. When I first heard the news about Petraeus from my wife, this is the poem I thought of, and I believe its irony pairs with the lines Petraeus quoted quite sadly.

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Through the Afghan Looking Glass

The news today that the United States government will be paying $367 million dollars to Russia, for 21 Russian Mi-17 “Hip” helicopters for use by Afghanistan’s military, for some reason made me recall something I heard Monday.  I was talking about the Libya crisis to an E-Ring friend and former colleague in the Pentagon who told me, “the difficulty in Libya is that this is all new territory for us, new because it’s more complex, and so we have to figure it out as each new complication comes along.”

That’s one way of looking at modern life, as if drowning in too much data. Perhaps there’s another, driven more by longer memory, and analysis “à la recherche du temps perdu.”  Let’s set down some facts, past and present, and see if any lessons emerge. With apologies to Mark Twain whose forward to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reads:

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author”

Once upon a time, not so long ago (the 1980s), the United States armed Afghan “rebels” against an oppressive central government and its foreign puppetmaster patron, the Soviet Union. The rebels pre-existed the foreign involvment; in fact there is difficulty finding a historical point in the region’s history when there weren’t “rebels” against anyone claiming to be “the government.” (If it’s easier for you, imagine the residents of the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia.)

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An Afghanistan Echo from 1986

In all the hubbub over Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s disastrous Rolling Stone profile which sparked an international furor today, I notice there hasn’t been time yet for most Beltway armchair analysts to focus on the article’s actual depiction of the state of American policy in Afghanistan.

To sum up: grim.  The quotes from McChrystal’s team reinforce the assessment – there’s little confidence on display. (Here’s the full article in pdf, it’s worth the read.)  As the RS article’s last lines put it: “There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word “victory” when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.”

Is that an unfair assessment, too bleak? I’ve been a fairly consistent supporter of the Afghanistan war since the inception, but even I was struck that a “senior military official in Kabul” is quoted in the article saying: “There’s a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success here.”  So even hypothesized success of McChrystal’s current surge would result in more troops, not less, heading for the fight – a decade in. 

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Cruise Missiles and Yemeni Neighborhoods

“The US is planning retaliatory strikes in Yemen against al-Qaida over its attempt to blow up a transatlantic flight on Christmas Day.  American officials [...] warn that finding those responsible is unlikely to be swift and say that identifying other ‘high-value’ al-Qaida targets for retaliatory attack would also be a priority.” – The Guardian (U.K.), 12/30/2009

As U.S. officials are quoted mulling cruise-missile strikes on Yemen, it should be noted that the Yemeni government, such as it is, has already been fighting the hard slog – on the ground, rooting out Al Qaeda in Yemeni neighborhoods and villages.

Below is an interesting 7 minutes of film fresh from Yemen,  just posted to youTube today:  a moment-by-moment video documenting the Arhab raid by the Yemeni Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU) on an Al-Qaeda-in-the-Arabian-Peninsula (AQAP) safe-house, on 17 December, the same day as a coordinated U.S. cruise missile attack on another site.

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SecDef Blasts Air Force on ISR

FACT: U.S. military use of airborne drones (UAVs) dawned at the turn of the millenium, with nearly 100 vehicles in use before the Sept. 11 2001 attacks. By the end of that year the number had doubled, with the majority in use in Afghanistan. Today, according to a speech today by Sec. of Defense Bob Gates, “We now have more than 5,000 UAVs, a 25-fold increase since 2001.”

ANALYSIS: The Gates speech today, to an Air Force audience, is being covered mostly with a focus on his “harsh criticism” of that service. For example, CNN’s headline was “Defense Secretary Scolds Air Force for War Effort,” or Fox News “Gates Says Air Force Must Step Up Efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan.”  And there was plenty of raw material for the tough stories, including CNN’s inclusion of the Gates soundbite that getting the Air Force to send more surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft to Iraq and Afghanistan has been “like pulling teeth.”

Others (like a Reuters story) struck a less frenzied tone, including more depth about his proposals going forward, and the Defense Department’s actual plans for improved acquisition and use of Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR. I’d encourage you to read the full transcript (get it here).  (By the way, here’s some background on ISR and its variants.)

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