A Year in Kabul

This is the story of General David Petraeus and how he fought a battle on two fronts, one in Afghanistan and the other in Washington.

Jeff Cunningham
19 min readMar 31, 2024
General David Petraeus with Hamid Karzai (president of Afghanistan from 2002–2014)

“Defense Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Clinton were leaving the Oval Office as I entered. They avoided eye contact with me.”

July 4, 2010

On a day studded with American symbolism, General David Petraeus took the reins of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. It was like whipping an old nag while she was feeding. The country was in a state of chaos, which was perpetual, at least to Afghans. It has endured countless bouts of bloodshed and conquest since its settlement around 7000 B.C. with the same outcome each time. Nobody wins here.

Part of the problem is geography. Towering mountains loom over the landscape, their peaks shrouded in snow most of the year. But within the valleys below, where fertile land thrives, Afghans live lives of quiet desperation in a relentless cycle of tending to family, clan, religion, crops, and animals — a way of life that is unforgiving yet somehow sustainable. For reasons unknown, this harsh region has always been a magnet for empire builders.

In 330 BC, Alexander the Great took a turn at bat. He was followed by the 7th century Arab Conquest, which brought with it the harshest medieval rules of Islam. But that faded as Genghis Khan and his Mongol army left widespread destruction by the 13th Century. In the following two hundred years, Timur (Shakespeare called him Tamerlane) tried his hand. And then came the Mughal Empire from Muslim India, bringing with it competition from the Persia. Everyone wanted to get in on the act, a land that had nothing but was a bridge to everywhere. By the 18th century, the Afghan tribes banded together to form a unified state — one that still exists today. Sort of.

The Great Game is the name that was given to Afghanistan when it cone again became a battleground between the British and Tsarist Russia in the 19th Century. The British attempted three Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839–42, 1878–80, 1919), resulting in eventual British withdrawal. Even the Soviets had one of their few failed coup attempts in 1979 against Islamist guerrillas (mujahideen) before withdrawing in abject defeat in 1989.

Of course, America had to join the fun when it invaded in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001. The strategic goal was to oust the Taliban government, which harbored al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Once again, plans were disrupted. Now it was the Taliban’s turn. In this region, death counts are the only lasting metric, and this time would be no different.

There is a reason it is called the “Graveyard of Empires.”

In the shadow of the post-Soviet era, the Taliban insurgency smoldered with resentment. But following the US invasion after 9/11, it sparked new life as embers relit from across the border in Pakistan. Then quite suddenly, it regrouped and began slowly retaking former territory. To them, America was just one more conqueror who needed a taste of Afghan medicine.

The Taliban are a predominantly Pashtun and they practice a brand of Islamic fundamentalism that make Saudi Arabia look like Las Vegas. Known or brutal fighting, irrational bravery, and cunning, they treat citizens much the same way as enemies and outsiders (or Infidels). No one can survive in their midst while disobeying their edicts. As they began to weave their way back into Afghanistan, it set the stage for a resurgence that would eventually see them return to power in 2021.

General David Petraeus landed into this vortex, on July 4th, with a mission to quell the disturbance, turn off the killing machine, and withdraw without consequences — within one year — or so a president would hint, before the next election.

Sitting on top of the wreckage was President Hamid Karzai, a tribal leader whose father was shot dead by the Taliban while returning home from a mosque. Understandably, he chose to cast his lot with the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban coalition. It meant that he stepped into the vortex, trapped in the web of corruption that had entangled Afghanistan politics for generations. The seasoned veteran of survival had to navigate the shifting allegiances that had become a way of life — a way that confused and humiliated the greatest powers on earth. Now it was America’s turn at bat.

Karzai’s challenges were further complicated by a shortage of leadership skills, particularly in a crisis situation, forcing him to lean heavily on the U.S. Army for training and support. This reliance came at a steep cost: a rising toll of blood and bravery. Between October 2001 and August 2021, the grim tally would include 2,459 military deaths and 20,769 wounded in action for American servicemembers.

Understandably, public trust began to erode as the conflict dragged into its second decade, with no visible end and no victory or progress. It was the almost predictable American story of prolonged warfare. Society expects clear outcomes, like a football or soccer match. Winners and losers are clear, and the game is over. But there is a third way, In Afghanistan nothing is forever, and the wars aren’t fought between two enemies, but three.

War in Afghanistan takes place not on battlefields but poppy fields. Nature herself conspires against outsiders by providing perfect conditions for cultivating crops but also quite suitable for poppies—not for their beauty but for heroin—recycled to fund terror. In business model terms, it was a perfect closed loop. With cash in hand, Taliban religious fervor sweetens the pot of loyalty, and clannishness does the rest.

The Taliban were masters of strategy and exploited it to their advantage, winning support from villagers and farmers through coercion, corruption, and fear. Meanwhile, militants from across the Pakistani border join the fray, eager to stake their claim in this unforgiving game of power and survival. For David Petraeus, the Afghanistan he was assigned to conquer was a hothouse of destruction, and a thin line stood between life and total collapse.

The reason he was there is that President Obama recalled his top military leader, General Stanley McChrystal, for speaking out of turn to a reporter from Rolling Stone. The article embarrassed the the administration, and Obama acted out of self interest, as always. But he was fortunate.

Another leader was waiting in the wings.

On June 23, 2010, on a stiflingly hot, humid afternoon, General Petraeus was on his way to a security briefing. Although he did this every month at work, no day was like another. But even in the confines of an air-conditioned GMC Yukon Denali, rivulets of sweat poured down his shirt front, revealing a gnawing anxiety. About what? Nothing seemed to trouble the calm general, not war, not being shot, not dealing with intransigent enemies. America's most decorated four-star hero was not bothered by the heat nor the grinding Washington D.C. traffic. Something else was in the air.

As the black SUV pulled up to the White House security checkpoint, the boyishly handsome Petraeus, whose chestnut brown hair belies his age by ten years, gave the guard a crisp salute and a wry smile, "I think I know the way." A few seconds later, the smile vanished as he exited the vehicle. And who could blame him? He was, after all, fighting wars on two equally treacherous fronts, and now there was to be a third in a terrain where lives were not lost, just destroyed.

In 2003, before Petraeus engineered the Surge in Iraq, a brilliant counterinsurgency strategy that for a while put an end to sectarian violence, he began to have a nagging feeling, a sixth sense about people in power. That was his milieu. He trafficked in tribal clans who came from parts of the world that were closer to the medieval era than America is to the 1900s, and his job was to undo their malicious habits by restoring a sense of order.

As Petraeus exited the vehicle and walked towards the "sit-room" or the Situation Room in White House jargon, he wondered if anyone else grasped the gravity of our predicament. It was only a few years after he famously said to our Iraqi Ambassador Ryan Crocker, "Tell me how this ends?" He asked the same question now, only once again, there was no answer. The air was silent with tension. Like all such occasions in his life, the outcome would be clear soon, and it would come as a surprise.

Two senior cabinet members, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, both hardcore security experts, were scheduled to meet in the Sit Room. He felt simpatico in their presence as if they weren't politicians, which was undoubtedly true of Gates. Before that, he ran the CIA under George W. Bush's father and Reagan. He was someone Petraeus could trust. Only he was not there. What was going on?

The routine nature of the once-a-month visit belied another fact that was not obvious to anyone outside the inner circle. The thought that kept flashing across his mind was, "I hope General Stan McChrystal makes it through his meeting with Obama."

Some knew what that meant. Petraeus did. Washington was like that, a very efficient gossip machine, perhaps its most vaunted talent. Unfortunately, it meant that nothing gets in the way of power in politics, not people, issues, generals, and even war. It meant that Voltaire was right when he said of the Bourbon Kings of France, "They forgot nothing and learned nothing." Petraeus was about to learn that presidents don't forget, either.

General Stan McChrystal was technically subordinate to Petraeus, who was the head of the United States Central Command. It meant Stan's problems became Dave's problems. McChrystal had been his protégé during their time in Iraq and directed Special Forces operations vital to the surge's success, according to a shared vision of dealing with the insurgency.

McChrystal and Petraeus could be sparring partners one day and a band of brothers the next. In the 2009 summer, Petraeus held a covert strategy meeting in Belgium to help draft a stark report on COIN, the counterinsurgency plan to save a war teetering on the edge of "mission failure." The strategy had dual sets of fingerprints all over it.

Yet, when McChrystal assumed the command in Afghanistan, he tried to replicate the Iraq tactics; only the Taliban tribal leaders didn't have a word in Pashtu for counterinsurgency. They may as well have tried sending the Peace Corps. As America would soon discover, this was to be our longest war, and it is why it cost so many American lives. The reason was becoming apparent. We weren't prepared to make the proper commitment or shouldn't have had troops there in the first place.

And then, in so many words, McChrystal said the hard part out loud. That was the problem now.

McChrystal had a dramatic flair. The White House called it a 'risk factor.' That is, he was a grandmaster. He made his moves on gut feeling and wasn't afraid to break the rules to win. That can be a powerful weapon for a chess player because it catches the opponent off guard. In politics, there is no such thing as a good surprise. And that became the turning point when political fortunes began to diverge.

As Petraeus made his way to the briefing, the thought banging around in his mind was not the overseas conflict but the meeting taking place simultaneously in the White House. It had the potential to create a sharp detour between the military and the commander—in—chief—Petraeus and McChrystal saw the problem through a similar lens. The boss went to sleep with visions of poll numbers dancing in his head.

Knight Checks King

McChrystal shot himself in the foot during an off-the-record conversation within earshot of a reporter. It was recorded in The Runaway General and coincidentally appeared online just the day before. Or was it? To make matters worse, McChrystal's team referred to Vice President Biden as "Vice President Bite Me," which didn't get many laughs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But it gave Obama the move he was looking for.

The actual sin wasn't the dig. It was the lack of deference. To a president susceptible to those in uniform, Obama's Achilles heel, recognizing he had no military credibility. It was incredibly annoying for him to be dressed down by a soldier, even if the accusation was true. In the court of presidential opinion, the verdict for intimidating a preening president, a reckoning, was due. But firing a commander in the middle of a war would be tricky, even reckless. Obama made his move. In chess, a knight threatens the queen. King topples the Knight.

You lose one Knight, and you bring in the other. What better way to fire a general than by hiring his boss?

Only a few, including Petraeus, knew that the president's meeting with McChrystal would be over by the time he arrived at the security briefing. There was nothing random about two four-star generals meeting here simultaneously. Obama had taken a whole sleepless night to orchestrate how the day would unfold.

Although Petraeus didn't know the outcome yet, the plan had been in the works for 24 hours as soon as the Rolling Stone article went online. As he began preparing in the Situation Room, there was a sharp knock at the entrance. He was known as the 'scholar general,' as Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution characterized him: "Petraeus always showed an impressive command of details and the ability to communicate complex issues straightforwardly." But there wasn't any time to deliver the brilliant report. One of the president's assistants stuck his head in the door.

"General Petraeus? You're wanted up in the Oval."

Defense Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Clinton were leaving as I entered. They avoided eye contact."

Petraeus made his way towards the Oval Office. SecDef Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were leaving, which was not a good sign. After he stepped into the room, he and Obama were alone. Petraeus knew what was coming. Stan McChrystal had been fired. What he didn't realize was that he was the answer.

The president and the general sat down. Obama was never comfortable with military men, similar to Bill Clinton, another softie on defense challenged by the presence of a medal-encrusted chest.

Obama cut to the chase: "As your president and commander in chief, I am asking you to command the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan."

In hierarchical terms, it could have been seen as a demotion. That had been McChrystal's, his predecessor's, and his subordinates' job. However, Petraeus believed there was only one answer for anyone in uniform when a president asked such a question.

Many thoughts went through his mind. His president and commander-in-chief had just fired his most trusted subordinate for what amounted to locker-room banter without naming a replacement in one of the most critical moments of the war in Afghanistan.

When President Obama first asked me to take on the assignment in Afghanistan, we sat together in the Oval Office to discuss the challenges. I said in the most straightforward terms: Sir, it would be an honor.

Despite these efforts, Petraeus's tenure in Afghanistan also faced significant challenges. The Taliban proved resilient, adapting their tactics in response to ISAF's strategies. Incidents involving civilian casualties and misconduct by U.S. troops strained relations with the Afghan population and government. The enduring corruption within the Afghan government and security forces also undermined efforts to establish effective governance and security.

As it turned out, there was more here than duty. Petraeus had a vision as well.

It was just the two of us, and now I wanted to talk. I said, 'Look, you should understand that I will provide my best professional military advice based on the facts on the ground. Congressional politics, national politics, strain in the force, budgets, deficits—these are your province. I'll be aware of those, but facts on the ground will determine my advice and the options that we craft.

The President must have considered this standard 'general speak,' as he did not react but stared back blankly. After all, he was under tremendous pressure from party stalwarts to change things up. He saw what Iraq did to Bush. As the war's unpopularity grew, Obama moved up the timetable and troop withdrawal, and now his only option to make that happen was getting Petraeus to agree.

That's when the general concluded his remarks.

But Mr. President, you should understand that the issues with which you have to deal uniquely are your province, and I'll be aware of those, but facts on the ground will determine my advice. If those facts are unchanged, so my advice, too, will be unchanged. I felt he needed to know who he was getting."

Chief Warrant Officer Four Mark Howell, Petraeus's trusted personal security officer, braced himself for what was coming. Everyone believed a significant shift in the horizon would lead straight to Afghanistan or something else.

One of the many ironies of the story—from his name, David, the slayer of Goliath, to growing up five miles from West Point—was that Petraeus's security chief was named Howell. It was Holly Petraeus's maiden name and his son's. It signified that family might play a more significant role in the scheme of things this time.

General Petraeus called the Central Command's congressional liaison and lined up meetings with Senate Armed Services Committee members for the following week. Then, he set about packing his bags back in Tampa. And if you're willing to deploy one more time, he told Chief Howell, "you're needed."

Howell didn't hesitate. "Might as well. We've spent more time together over the past three years than I've spent with my wife."

"I know, Chief," Petraeus agreed. "We have."

And therein lay another irony.

Petraeus dialed Holly, got her voice mail, and left a simple message: Watch the news at 1:30 for a presidential announcement — we'll be in the Rose Garden.

Photo Op

At the news conference, with eyes almost watering, Obama said, "This is a bad day, a sorrowful day," not revealing a trace of irony. Keeping McChrystal in command, he added, "would have made it difficult to achieve unity of effort and maintain respect for the military." Again, no muffled laughter could be heard. Obama was a master of the podium and teleprompter.

He loosely acknowledged that replacing McChrystal might slow momentum in Afghanistan — though, fortunately, Petraeus would mitigate that risk. He added there would be no sniping in the press, and a dutiful media was sure to comply. Obama had the entire press corps under his thumb, denying access when there was a lack of cooperation. They got the memo.

As Obama had already committed additional troops, he noted, "We'll see next July if the strategy is working."

He meant if his poll numbers were down.

Then, "If not, we'll redesign it."

He meant firing Petraeus.

No one within five miles of the Rose Garden believed that Petraeus and Obama had agreed on a plan. Obama noted that he had asked Petraeus to meet with him candidly and share his views. "We've agreed to trust each other and share assessments privately."

In Oval Office speak, that means he's got his ideas, and I've got mine, but I'm president, and he's not.

Vice President Biden added thoughtfully, "It was the right decision, and a sad day, to let McChrystal go."

He managed to keep a straight face.

The Senate Hearing

Later that month, Petraeus testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Ostensibly there to be confirmed to his new post, Petraeus was there to defend the war effort.

He sat alone at a large rectangular witness table in the cavernous hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, across from the U.S. Capitol. His wife, Holly, sat in the first row of seats in the gallery, making her first appearance at one of her husband's confirmation hearings, again another irony. Throughout his illustrious career, Holly preferred to stay out of the public light, but she was there this day to support the sacrifice of military families — to "show the flag," she would later say. Little did she know she, too, would be a casualty.

Petraeus wore his dress green uniform, with decorations on his left breast, the Ranger tab on his left shoulder, and the patch of the 101st Airborne Division, the unit he'd commanded in combat in the early days in Iraq, on his right. Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, gaveled the hearing to order and thanked Petraeus for his "willingness, at the president's request . . . to take charge of the campaign in Afghanistan. We appreciate your sacrifice and that of your family."

Again, with the refrain of the hour, he acknowledged Holly's presence and thanked her for her commitment and sacrifice. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the committee's ranking Republican, also thanked Holly, adding, as a personal aside, "We think you made a wise decision many years ago to accept a blind date with a young cadet."

It sounded like ordinary banter between prominent league Senators and a general they admired. It didn't mean anything, just pleasantries—or so it seemed.

But his universe was talking to him. It was a warning.

Hollister Knowlton was the daughter of the West Point superintendent, Lieutenant General William Knowlton, when she arrived one football weekend in the fall of 1973 and wound up attending the game with David Petraeus, a cadet who was the assistant brigade adjutant and who would graduate that spring in the top 5 percent of his class, a "star man." After an initial wariness passed, they quickly hit it off; they were married in the chapel on West Point's campus on July 6, 1974.

Beyond the warm Senate reception for the general and his wife, McCain and his Republican colleagues were on a mission. They wanted to expose the folly of Obama's July 2011 drawdown date. They tried their hardest to create a rift between Petraeus, who was no fan of the July 2011 drawdown commitment but had to defend it publicly.

Petraeus proved an elusive target. "I am, needless to say, humbled and honored to have been nominated by the president to command the NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. forces in Afghanistan," he said, reading from a prepared statement that he had written over the weekend and carefully vetted with his most trusted aides, including nonmilitary colleagues.

As we take stock of the situation in Afghanistan, it is essential to remember why we are there," he said. Petraeus took advantage of the bully pulpit to convey to the public why the mission mattered. "We should never forget that the 9/11 attacks were planned in southern Afghanistan before the attackers moved on to Germany and then on to U.S. flight schools. It was, of course, in response to those attacks that a U.S.-led coalition entered Afghanistan and defeated al-Qaeda and the Taliban elements that allowed al-Qaeda to establish its headquarters in Afghanistan."

With a glance over his shoulder, Petraeus concluded his remarks by thanking his wife. He was seated behind him, perhaps not realizing he was speaking to the universe about the issue that would nearly catastrophically destroy his life. At the moment, it wasn't clear, and he continued:

As you noted, Mr. Chairman, my wife, Holly, is here with me today," he said. She is a symbol of the strength and dedication of families around the globe who wait at home for their loved ones while they're engaged in critical work in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. She has hung tough while I've been deployed for over five and a half years since 9/11. Our families are the unsung heroes of the long campaigns we have embarked on over the past decade."

He would get the opportunity to test that theory. He closed with a flourish:

One of America's greatest presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, once observed that life's best prize is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. If the Senate confirms me, it will be a great privilege to soldier with them in that hard work that is worth doing in that country.

The liberal Democrat from Michigan, Carl Levin, began the questioning.

"General, you've commented on these questions in your testimony. Two fundamental elements of the Afghanistan strategy that the president announced in December 2009 are, first, a surge of thirty thousand additional U.S. troops by the end of the summer to help regain the initiative and, second, the setting of a July 2011 date for the beginning of the reduction in our combat presence in Afghanistan, with the pace of a reasonable drawdown to be determined by the circumstances at that time. Do you agree with the president's policy?"

"I do," Petraeus said.

"Do you agree that setting a July 2011 date to begin reductions signals urgency to Afghan leaders that they must increasingly take responsibility for their country's security, which is important for the mission's success in Afghanistan?"

"I do," Petraeus said.

But McCain, who was next in line for questioning, was undeterred. "General, at any time during the deliberations that the military shared with the president when he went through the decision-making process, was there a recommendation from you or anyone in the military that we set a date of July 2011?" "There was not," Petraeus said.

He would regret those words.

Before Petraeus's arrival, Afghanistan was in a tumultuous state, with the Taliban insurgency gaining momentum and control over significant portions of the country. The Afghan government, led by Karzai, was grappling with issues of corruption, limited governance capacity, and a lack of public confidence. NATO and U.S. forces faced significant challenges, including counterinsurgency, a rising number of civilian and military casualties, and the complex task of training Afghan security forces. The situation was further complicated by cross-border insurgency movements from Pakistan and the cultivation of poppy, which financed the insurgency.

The stage was set for a surge. An additional 30,000 U.S. troops were dispatched to the Afghan front, swelling the ranks to a hundred thousand boots on the ground. The objective was clear: to break the resurgent Taliban, especially in the southern areas of Helmand and Kandahar. Yet, Petraeus knew the rules of engagement—always seeking a balance to protect his troops and the innocents they were sworn to defend. It would be an understatement to say he found this challenging.

There were fleeting glimpses of progress. Villages once under the shadow of the Taliban experienced moments of restoration to the Afghanistan side, and Afghan forces, trained by coalition mentors, began to stand taller. Petraeus poured his heart into this endeavor, but it was not enough.

Petraeus’s tenure in Afghanistan was marked by a continuation of the counterinsurgency strategy but the ground war was different, and land of the Pashtuns was an unforgiving teacher. Gains were met with setbacks, and for every area cleared, the insurgency reappeared. It was like stamping out an invading species in the backyard with a small hoe. The Taliban, ever resilient, continued their guerrilla war, and the country began to fall into chaos.

The other problem was that the clock was ticking — especially in Washington. In June 2011, the cold winds of change blew from the Oval Office as President Obama announced the beginning of the end — the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. It was time to pass the torch.

July 4, 2011

Petraeus's tenure, marked by the dualities of war and peace, progress and setback, drew to a close in July 2011. He left behind a legacy etched in the sands of Afghanistan — a general who sought not conquest but a chance for a nation to find its footing amid the ruins of war. It may have been impossible. If it could have been done, Petraeus would have done it.

The saga of Petraeus and the Afghan war was a chapter in his much longer tale, one of empires, insurgents, and warriors with a mission to find the unending quest for peace in a land that time could not tame.

As he departed, succeeded by General John Allen, Afghanistan stood at a crossroads from which it has not emerged. The connection to Allen, however was to play a leading role in his life. These ironies come with the territorty of greatness, as it is a phenomenon that crosses all the borders, both pleasing and unfortunate.

It was one year later, and that was the way that I structured my advice. When the president asked if I agreed with the decision that was made — which was less than what I'd recommended; it was a more aggressive drawdown initially and then more aggressive overall — I said, "With great respect, as you'll recall, our discussion, my recommendation was driven by facts on the ground, awareness of what you're dealing with, but at the end of the day, the facts on the ground haven't changed over the last week. And so my recommendation is also unchanged."

I asked him how Obama reacted.

Petraeus smiled, “That was an interesting, tense moment.”