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An Historic Leader of Modern Warfare

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The remarkable career of David Petraeus has been a parade of challenges and achievements. From West Point to Princeton University to United States Military Academy and then on to Iraq and Afghanistan, his work has been efficient, effective and intelligent. Whether he was advising students or Presidents, Petraeus has been acknowledged as a voice to which one listens and learns from. So, although unexpected to many people, his move to the role of Director of the CIA should not be a complete surprise.

Early Life

Born in 1952 in Orange County, New York, David “Peaches” Petraeus graduated in 1974 from the United States Military Academy at West Point in the top 5% of his class. This won him the title of a “distinguished cadet”, but top 5% wasn’t good enough and in 1983 he was received the General George C. Marshall Award as the top graduate from the United States Army Command and General Staff College. He then went on to attain a Masters of Public Administration and a Ph. D in International Relations from Princeton University.

In the course of these studies, Petraeus expounded a theory in relation to the lessons of Vietnam that ran counter to that of many of his contemporaries. Where others felt that the United States role in such conflicts should be hit hard and fast and avoid what General Colin Powell described as the “messy stuff” of “nation building”, Petraeus asserted that “we don’t always get to fight the wars we want”.

Leading On the Frontline

Even though that statement was made as a response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it echoed the principles of his 1987 dissertation that, rather than avoiding counterinsurgency, the United States Army had to become better at it. Foreseeably, Petraeus implied this boldness in terms of having to deal with the potential “rise of terrorism” throughout the 21st century.

But, despite his years of academia, which included a fellowship at Georgetown University, Petraeus rose to the rank of a four-star general and, in February 2007, he was appointed Commanding General of the Multi-National Force – Iraq. This would have to have been the military poison chalice of the age; Sunni and Shiite factions, al-Qaeda terrorists behind every corner and pressure from critics in Congress to begin the withdrawal of United States troops.

It is no wonder that Petraeus’s old nickname “Peaches”, the result of people mispronouncing his name, was replaced by “King David” as he replaced what he described as a “downward spiral” with an optimistic future. But Petraeus has never had the temerity to claim that the dramatic change of fortunes was as a result of his work. He enthusiastically points out that, “What turned it around was the local population deciding to reject al Qaeda”. Working closely with powerful tribal leaders, Petraeus has created an environment where United States service members are no longer approached with suspicion and the coalition forces were welcomed as peacekeepers and supporters of the Iraqi nation.

Rise to Leadership

Petraeus’s work in Iraq has been described as “Heculean” and “historic leadership”. He created “an incredibly talented and diverse team” and created “the Counterinsurgency Field Manual”. This work was not limited to the Iraqi arena, but is able to be used as the foundation for success in Afghanistan and other similar warzones. But he remains a realist and while celebrating successes such as a reduction in attacks from 220 per day in 2007 to only 15 per day in 2011, he acknowledges that some of those 15 are still high-profile and damaging and that every attack is troubling for a nation seeking peace.

General Petraeus’s final role in the United States Army was that of Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan. No doubt he was to apply his unique and highly effective approach to the dangerous and complex Afghan situation. However, after only twelve months in the post, he was nominated by President Obama for the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Having worked closely with the CIA in his counterinsurgency efforts, Petraeus had recognized an interest in the Agency and its operations. His strengths in this regard were recognized by the President and played a significant role in his nomination. The sincerity and determination of Petraeus is best illustrated in a statement at his confirmation hearing, “I wanted this job. I am taking off the uniform I have worn for thirty-seven years to do this the right way.”

Throughout his long and distinguished career there can be no doubt that General David Petraeus has been a dedicated, courageous and successful leader. He has learnt from the experiences of history and employed tactics that have brought peace in troubled lands. In his new role as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency his work will probably not have the profile it has had in the past, but there is no question that it will be undertaken with the same tenacity and strength.