King David's War

Petraeus has a new plan to finish the war: Double down on a failed strategy

February 2, 2011 8:25 AM ET
General David Petraeus
General David Petraeus
Sean Gallup/Getty

On the morning of June 15th, 2010, Gen. David Petraeus skipped breakfast. He was jetlagged from a trip earlier in the week to the Middle East, and he was due at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill at 9:30 a.m. to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. A veteran at these things — he had testified at least half a dozen times over the past three years, most famously as commander of U.S. troops at the height of the Iraq War — he decided not to drink much water that morning. He knew, as others sitting in front of the senators had learned the hard way, that once the marathon session began, he wouldn't have a chance for a bathroom break. "No one wants to be sitting there with a full bladder," a senior military official close to Petraeus tells me. "Those who ask the questions get to go in and out — but if you're the one sitting there in front of the cameras, you have to stay there the entire time."

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The hearing started to get interesting after 45 minutes, when Sen. John McCain took the floor. McCain wanted Petraeus, the supreme commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, to say that the deadline President Obama had set for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan — July 2011 — was a bad idea. But the general, while no fan of the deadline, was too shrewd to be drawn into such an obvious spat with his commander in chief. As he evaded McCain's badgering with an almost Clintonian ease, the senator grew increasingly frustrated.

"Do you believe that we will begin a drawdown of forces in July 2011, given the situation as it exists today?" McCain prodded.

"It's not given as the situation exists today," Petraeus corrected. "It's given as projections are for that time."

"You believe we can begin a drawdown in July of 2011 under the projected plans that we have?" McCain persisted, rephrasing his question for the third time.

"That is the policy, and I support it," Petraeus answered, taking a sip of water.

"I understand you're supporting the policy," McCain pressed. He again pushed Petraeus for an answer, and even resorted to quoting his old foe, Vice President Joe Biden: "In July of 2011, you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out — bet on it." But a minute later, McCain's expression suddenly changed from one of exasperation to befuddlement. Petraeus had fainted, slumping forward in his chair. "Oh my God," McCain gasped.

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The general regained consciousness a few seconds later, and was escorted out of the hearing room with the help of his aides. After recovering from a combination of dehydration and jet lag, he returned under his own power a half-hour later. But the committee, shaken by the unexpected turn of events, decided to adjourn for the day.

To those watching, it was shocking to see Petraeus in such a vulnerable state. As a soldier, he had survived being shot in the chest during a training accident in 1991, had broken his pelvis jumping out of an airplane in 2000, and was considered by many to be a hero for engineering the last-ditch "surge" in 2007 that enabled U.S. forces to stage a face-saving withdrawal from the disastrous war in Iraq. In reality, though, it had been a tough year for Petraeus. He had undergone two months of radiation treatment for prostate cancer — a fact he kept private for fear of giving the Taliban a propaganda edge. He had also fallen out of favor with the Obama administration, which was keeping him at arm's length. Under Bush, the general had enjoyed direct and regular access to the White House, speaking with the president once a week during the height of the Iraq War. But Obama and his top advisers were furious at Petraeus for working to "box in" the president during a strategic review the year before, effectively forcing Obama to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. The White House was also worried about rumors that Petraeus planned to run for president in 2012. ("They saw him as a general on his white horse," another senior U.S. military official tells me.) Petraeus, the golden boy under Bush, found himself out of the loop for the first time. A month earlier, in a moment of frustration, he reportedly told his spokesman that the White House was "fucking with the wrong guy."

The Generals' Revolt: Rolling Stone's 2009 Story on Obama's Struggle With His Own Military

But all of that was about to change. Seven days after Petraeus collapsed during his Senate testimony, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the war in Afghanistan, was summoned back to Washington. McChrystal and his top advisers had been quoted making a host of critical comments about the White House in a profile published in Rolling Stone, and the general's career was suddenly on the line. No one knew whether McChrystal would keep his job; NATO officials had prepared two press releases — one for if he stayed, another for if he was fired. Even the military's top brass was kept out of the loop: Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, viewed as particularly untrustworthy by the Obama administration, was frantically calling NATO headquarters in Brussels to find out what was happening across the Potomac at the White House.

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