August 31, 2011

As Leadership Changes, So Could Afghanistan Strategy


MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel.

General David Petraeus retired from the Army today, after 37 years in uniform. He starts his new job next week as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

NPR's Rachel Martin was at the retirement ceremony outside Washington. And she reports on how Petraeus changed the Army and whether that change will last.

RACHEL MARTIN: It was what you'd expect for a retiring four-star general, a marching band...


MARTIN: ...a gun salute.


MARTIN: But the tributes were anything but standard protocol. Here's the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN: When it comes to the art of the possible, there is General Dave Petraeus and then there's everybody else.

MARTIN: That line was a tribute to how Petraeus turned things around in northern Iraq as commander of the 101st Airborne, and later his role in the search strategy that ultimately helped turn the war. But isolating David Petraeus as somehow different from the rest also says a lot about his relationship with the Army he served.

TOM RICKS: The Army has never really liked David Petraeus very much. They don't see him as being at the core of their culture.

MARTIN: Tom Ricks has written two books on Iraq and is now with the Center for a New American Security.

RICKS: Here is this sort of intellectual guy, Ph.D. from Princeton, who doesn't seem to mind the culture of Washington - reporters and politicians. And at a time when they were saying nothing is working, he found a way to work in Iraq.

MARTIN: A few years after Petraeus left Iraq, he was asked by President Obama to take over as top commander in Afghanistan. In both war zones, he carried out the counterinsurgency strategy that he wrote, nicknamed COIN. During his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he surrounded himself with military officers and civilians who called themselves COINdinistas, a term that Petraeus embraced.

At his retirement ceremony, Petraeus thanked his team and defended the strategy.

Dr. DAVID PETRAEUS: Now please rest assured that I'm not out to give one last boost to the counterinsurgency field manual or to try to recruit all of you for COINdinistas nation. I do believe, however, that we have relearned, since 9/11, the timeless lesson that we don't always get to fight the wars for which we're most prepared or most inclined.

MARTIN: That's the debate in the military now, whether Petraeus's vision of the Army endures or not. Tom Ricks isn't so sure it will.

RICKS: I think he ultimately will be a passing figure for the Army because, for whatever reason, he's not been able to reach in and drag the culture of the Army over to his side.

MARTIN: John Nagl disagrees. He helped Petraeus write that counterinsurgency field manual. And Nagl says over the past few years, the American military has completely changed how it thinks about this kind of war.

Dr. JOHN NAGL PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR A NEW AMERICAN SECURITY: It's become a force that understands counterinsurgency, that understands enemy networks and that can attack them directly and precisely. And I think he's created a true learning organization that is going to live on after him.

MARTIN: At today's ceremony, there was an understanding that while General Petraeus has now retired, his military battles done, the wars he led are not over.

Watching today's ceremony in from the front row, Petraeus's son, Stephen, a first lieutenant in the Army, one tour in Afghanistan already under his belt.