Was David Petraeus as great a general as the write-ups of his downfall routinely claim? This is a provocative question that I will begin to answer with another question: Did America prevail in the Iraq War? I suspect few would say "yes" and believe it, which is no reflection on the valor and sacrifice of the American and allied troops who fought there. On the contrary, it was the vaunted strategy of the two-step Petraeus "surge" that was the blueprint of failure.
While U.S. troops carried out Part One successfully by fighting to establish basic security, the "trust" and "political reconciliation" that such security was supposed to trigger within Iraqi society never materialized in Part Two. Meanwhile, the "Sunni awakening" lasted only as long as the U.S. payroll for Sunni fighters did.
Today, Iraq is more an ally of Iran than the United States (while dollars keep flowing to Baghdad). This failure is one of imagination as much as strategy. But having blocked rational analysis of Islam from entering into military plans for the Islamic world, the Bush administration effectively blinded itself and undermined its own war-making capacity. In this knowledge vacuum, David Petraeus' see-no-Islam counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine would fill but not satisfy the void.
The basis of COIN is "population protection" -- Iraqi populations, Afghan populations -- over "force protection." Or, as lead author David Petraeus wrote in the 2007 Counterinsurgency Field Manual: "Ultimate success in COIN is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force." ("COIN force" families must have loved that.) Further, the Petraeus COIN manual tells us: "The more successful the counterinsurgency is, the less force can be used and the more risk can be accepted." "Less force" and "more risk" translate into highly restrictive rules of engagement.
More risk accepted by whom? By U.S. forces. Thus we see how, at least in the eyes of senior commanders, we get the few, the proud, the sacrificial lambs. And sacrificed to what? A theory.
The Petraeus COIN manual continues: "Soldiers and Marines may also have to accept more risk to maintain involvement with the people." As Petraeus wrote in a COIN "guidance" to troops in 2010 upon assuming command in Afghanistan: "The people are the center of gravity. Only by providing them security and earning their trust and confidence can the Afghan government and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) prevail." That was a theory, too. Now, after two long COIN wars, we know it was wrong.