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Juan Cole: Real Petraeus Failure Was Counterinsurgency in Iraq, Afghanistan

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CIA director David Petraeus has resigned following revelations of an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, a married U.S. Army reservist. “This personal issue that cropped up that ruined his career at the end, I think, is very much a minor thing … compared to his big exploits in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says historian Juan Cole, who responds to the surprise departure of the former head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Petraeus retired from 37 years in the military to head the CIA last year. Over the weekend, new revelations suggested Broadwell had sent harassing emails to Jill Kelley, a 37-year-old from Florida and a family friend of Petraeus and his wife, Holly. The FBI launched an inquiry after Kelley said she had received vicious emails from the CIA director’s biographer. Its investigation revealed the affair and led agents to believe Broadwell or someone close to her had sought access to his email. On Sunday, Democracy Now! spoke to Cole about the significance of Petraeus’s resignation and about Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani activist who was shot in the head by a Taliban militant for demanding the right of girls’ education. Cole is professor of history at the University of Michigan, and his most recent book is “Engaging the Muslim World.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with the surprise resignation of CIA director David Petraeus last week following revelations of an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, a married Army reservist. In a message to CIA staff, the 60-year-old four-star general confessed he was resigning because of the affair. He wrote, quote, “After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours,” end-quote.

The former head of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Petraeus retired from 37 years in the military to head the CIA last year. Broadwell’s biography is called All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. It was published in January. Over the weekend, new revelations suggested she had sent harassing emails to Jill Kelley, a 37-year-old woman from Florida and a family friend of Petraeus and his wife Holly. The FBI launched an inquiry after Kelley said she had received vicious emails from the CIA director’s biographer. Its investigation revealed the affair and led agents to believe that she or someone close to her had sought access to his email.

Well, on Sunday, Democracy Now! spoke to historian Juan Cole about the significance of Petraeus’s resignation. Juan Cole is professor of history at the University of Michigan. His most recent book is called Engaging the Muslim World.

JUAN COLE: I was opposed to General Petraeus becoming head of the CIA in the first place, because one of the CIA’s charges is to evaluate policy, and one of the big policies that needs to be evaluated is the troop escalation, what is called the “surge,” in Afghanistan, the big counterinsurgency program that Petraeus put into place and then shepherded through as commander on the ground. And the CIA can’t properly evaluate that program if its head is the author of the program. And I’m sure the analysts tried, and maybe, you know, Petraeus tried to be objective and so forth, but it’s just not right. So I think that’s the real issue here, is why—why did the Obama administration put an actor in a military role, then as the head of the agency that will evaluate the actions?

And I think that we need a big national debate about Obama’s troop escalation in Afghanistan. It was a failure. And we are now committed—Obama is committed to withdrawing in 2014. I mean, I think that’s generally a good thing. But did we really need the troop escalation? How well did it work? Should we do any more of them? All of those things can’t, you know, be addressed unless we have a national debate on this policy. And I’m disturbed that—you know, I’m sure General Petraeus’s Gmail was very important and that the security issues were there and so forth, but really, that’s not the big issue here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. This all takes place as Robert Bales is being questioned, whether he will be court-martialed for the murder of 16 Afghans at Fort—he’s now at Fort Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

JUAN COLE: Yeah, well, that’s another kind of issue that—you know, I’m from a military family, Amy, and I really mind that the events in Afghanistan are kind of offstage. We have almost no mainstream media reporting on Afghanistan. Our guys are out there fighting, and if they get killed, it’s on page 17. And it’s not right. It’s not right for a country to be at war unless it’s committed to the war. It’s not right to have the war proceed offstage. It’s not right not to have any public discussion of the mistakes that were made, the kind of command structure that was there. Obviously, there’s a lot of troops there who have been in a lot of rotations and are—some of them, I think, probably have a lot of PTSD, and there’s a lot of issues here which our country is not coming to grips with.

AMY GOODMAN: When you talk about the surge failing, why did the surge in Afghanistan fail?

JUAN COLE: Well, I believe that it was doomed to fail, because the way that Petraeus and his colleagues conceived of a counterinsurgency program was they had this mantra: “take, clear, hold and build.” So they would take a village, clear it of Taliban, hold it for some months to reassure the local people, “Taliban are not coming back; you don’t have to be afraid of reprisals if you cooperate with us,” and then build up local police, local security. At one point, General McChrystal talked about bringing “a government in a box” from Kabul. I mean, this entire project was so fantastic and unconnected to reality. I mean, Kabul barely has a government itself, much less having boxes full of them to send around to the provinces.

And it was overambitious. In order for this kind of thing to succeed—and I doubt it could succeed, I mean—and it required convincing Pashtun villagers that they should like us better than their cousins, right? And how likely was that? But if it were going to succeed, it would require a lot more troops than were committed to it. So, you had that famous Marjah campaign, remember? And then they said they were going to do Kandahar, and then the whole thing petered out, and we never heard anything more about it. And Vice President Biden was opposed to this plan. He thought, you know, if terrorism crops up, if you get explosions going off killing villagers or whatever, send in a SWAT team to deal with that, and instead of trying to kind of reformulate Afghanistan. And they did it relatively on—attempted to do it relatively on the cheap. And so, in my view, it was one of the big mistakes of Obama’s first term, was this attempt to do counterinsurgency on that scale in Afghanistan. And it clearly failed.

AMY GOODMAN: Anything else we should know about General Petraeus?

JUAN COLE: Well, you know, I think General Petraeus, in his heart, was opposed to the Iraq War and a little bit puzzled as to what in the world the Bush administration thought it was doing, because there’s that famous interview he gave early on, and when he was in Mosul, he said, “How does this end?” He couldn’t even conceive of it. And I think—you know, I saw him on television interacting with Arab families. It was set in Mosul. He went to them and said, you know, “What do you need? What can I get you?” So, I think among the generals who served in Iraq, he was one of the ones who tried to reach out to people and tried to accomplish something.

And—but I think he learned the wrong lessons from Iraq, because the U.S. was defeated in Iraq. And the only reason that they didn’t have to leave on helicopters suddenly at the end was because the Shiites ethnically cleansed the Sunnis. And it happened around the same time as the Petraeus troop escalation or surge in Iraq. And I think he took the wrong lesson from what happened in Baghdad. He kind of allied with the majority community, and so had a fairly soft landing, and then took it off and tried to replicate it in Afghanistan. That was the big error.

And there’s—this personal issue that cropped up that ruined his career at the end, I think, you know, is very much a minor thing, as a historian, I have to say, compared to, you know, his big exploits in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the tragedy here, I take away, is that even with someone like Petraeus, who had a Ph.D. in international studies, is an intelligent, competent man, I think, often was trying to do the right thing, was put in an impossible situation—that the days when a great power can successfully occupy a Global South country were over with. And the Project for the New American Century simply wouldn’t come to terms with that reality. And so, in many ways, General Petraeus’s career got ruined twice.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you mean, Project for a New American Century, PNAC? Explain what that is.

JUAN COLE: Well, the Project for the New American Century was thought up by the neoconservative movement in the late 1990s. They felt that the Soviet Union had fallen, the U.S. was now the sole superpower, what the French call a “hyperpower,” and that it could act with impunity. So if it wanted to invade and occupy Iraq and reformulate Iraq and put a government in and exploit Iraq’s natural resources, like the petroleum, that it could do so without opposition.

And while it is true that, you know, Russia and China didn’t interfere with the United States going into Iraq in that way, the Iraqi people did. The Iraqi people were educated, mobilized. You know, Iraq had had a big pharmaceutical and other industries, petrochemicals. They were wired. They were—they were educated, then networked. And they inflicted damage on the U.S. military all along the way, and it came both from Sunnis and from Shiites. Many Iraqis simply never accepted the idea of a foreign occupation of their country, and it failed.

The Project for a New American Century formulated as a proposition that the U.S. could be an empire on the old British model, that you could bring back the age of empire in that way. That crashed and burned, and it crashed and burned because people in the Global South are now mobilized, both politically and socially. And it was the lack of mobilization in the old 19th century empires, when people were in three—300 people in a village, and they weren’t literate, and they weren’t connected with each other—OK, then maybe the British Empire could exist. But that’s not the situation anymore. And what I’m saying is that Petraeus was sent to these countries by the Project from a New American Century. It was the big neoconservative thinkers who thought up these kinds of wars and these kinds of projects for occupation and reformulation of entire countries. And they are anachronistic. You can’t do this anymore. The age of the British Empire had passed.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re saying that the Project for a New American Century persisted under President Obama; he didn’t change it.

JUAN COLE: Well, I’m saying that, in some ways, the Afghanistan troop escalation or surge was one last iteration of some of that project to try to formulate Afghanistan in a way favorable to the United States before we then left.

And again, I should be clear, I don’t think that that’s what President Obama wanted. He went to the Pentagon and asked, “Give me three plans,” you know, an ambitious one, a less ambitious one and a minimal one. And they stonewalled him for nine months. And he was in a position where people in Washington were saying, “Well, what are you going to do? You’re president now. You need a plan.” And he went back to the Pentagon and said, “Well, where’s the plan?” And they said, “Well, we’ve got one for you, but the others are going to take a while.” So they kind of boxed him in to this troop surge.

AMY GOODMAN: And Petraeus’s role in that?

JUAN COLE: Petraeus was the one who boxed him in. So, Petraeus got what he wanted. But in my view, he got a failed policy.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, this day, this weekend, has been very important for—not only for one Pakistani 14-year-old girl, but for a nation. Can you talk about Malala, what’s happening with here, and how that fits into the story of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

JUAN COLE: Well, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by a radical Talib, one of the Taliban in Pakistan, because she had become well known for her advocacy of girls’ education. She was from the Swat Valley in Pakistan. The Swat Valley was a place that the Taliban briefly took in 2009, and the Pakistani military, partially under the pressure from the Obama administration, went into Swat and expelled the Taliban, largely. Of course, they’re still around somewhat. So, one of them shot Malala. And she survived. I think she’ll have a slow but successful recovery. Saturday was Malala Day all through the world. And in Pakistan, girls came out in demonstrations, asking for the right to be educated, all through the country. And the U.N. is also putting pressure on the Pakistani government to devote more resources to children’s education, in general, which the Pakistani government is making noises that it may try to do more.

The way in which this intersects with the story of the United States in the region is, first of all, the Afghanistan war, as it was fought by the Bush administration with search-and-destroy missions and an attempt to put in large numbers of Western troops, radicalized the Afghan population. In 2001, when the Taliban fell, Afghans were largely happy about that. The Taliban were disliked. But if they were going to have 140,000 Western troops in their country, well, a lot of the Pashtuns, in particular, minded that, and sort of you had a revival of Taliban sentiment, which then spilled over onto northern Pakistan. Now, I think that the U.S. made a big mistake by trying to stay in Afghanistan after 2002. It should simply have withdrawn and let the Northern Alliance try to—try to make its alliances and govern. And again, you know, this idea that the U.S. can occupy these countries successfully militarily and reshape them in our image is wrong. A lot of people say, well, the U.S. had a responsibility to help Afghan women. And, you know, Gayatri Spivak defined “colonialism” as white men saving brown women from brown men. And there’s—you know, Newsweek covers sort of have adverted to this kind of project. What I would argue is that if you associate women’s liberation, women’s education with a foreign imperial project, you actually harm it in the eyes of locals. And it’s much more likely that Malala, this brave, young Pashtun girl, will succeed in becoming a symbol and a spearhead for that kind of educational project than that Donald Rumsfeld ever would have.

AMY GOODMAN: Historian Juan Cole. I spoke with him Sunday in Princeton, New Jersey, at the 32nd anniversary of the Coalition of Peace Action. Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we continue with our Veterans Day special. Stay with us.

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