Inside Story America

David Petraeus: A US war hero?

After a scandalous affair brought him down, we ask how successful the retired general’s military strategies have been.

A scandalous affair has brought down a man referred to by many as one of the greatest generals in US history. But how successful have David Petraeus’ strategies really been in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Until a few years ago, few people had heard of Petraeus. But in Washington DC, he has been long revered. 

If you ask the families of the 2,000 US service people who were killed in Afghanistan, it was bound to be a fool’s errand. Or if you ask the people who were killed in Iraq unnecessarily, if you talk to the people who were tortured in Iraqi prisons with Petraeus looking the other way, you would get quite a different answer.

– Ray McGovern, an ex-CIA officer

He has been compared to the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, the man who led the allied forces to victory in World War II. 

His counter-inserguency strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan have been hailed as great sucesses. 

And as he accepted his assignment as head of US central command in 2008, his boss at the time, Defence Secretary Robert Gates referred to him as “the pre-eminent soldier-scholar-statesman of his generation”.

But his critics say, the legacy of his career is not that stellar and deserves far more scrutiny than the US media and politicians are willing to give it.  

Earlier this year, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis released a whistleblower report on conditions in Afghanistan.

He said that Petraeus consistently gave glowing and inaccurate accounts of US military progress and that Petraeus built a so-called “cult of personality” around himself.

“A message had been learned by the leading politicians of our country, by the vast majority of our uniformed service members, and the population at large [that] David Petraeus is a real war hero – maybe even on the same plane as Patton, MacArthur, and Eisenhower …. But the most important lesson everyone learned [was to] never, ever question General Petraeus or you’ll be made to look a fool!”

There is a great irony in Petraeus’ role in Iraq because the fact is that he never believed in that war in the first place. He told a friend of mine in 2005 that it was too late to try counter-insurgency in Iraq, that the damage had already been done …

– Gareth Porter, an investigative journalist

In his report, Davis was scathing in his assessment of US military commanders:

“Senior ranking US military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the US Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognisable.

“This deception has damaged America’s credibility among both our allies and enemies, severely limiting our ability to reach a political solution to the war in Afghanistan.”

So, is David Petraeus really the American war hero he has been portrayed as?

To discuss this, Inside Story Americas, with host Kimberly Halkett is joined by guests: Gareth Porter, an investigative journalist and historian; Larry Korb, the former assistant Secretary of Defence; and Ray McGovern, a retired CIA officer.


  • David Petraeus resigned as head of the CIA due to an extra-marital affair with Paula Broadwell
  • Broadwell met Petraeus in 2006 at Harvard University function
  • Petraeus’ former spokesman said his affair began after he left military and ended four months ago 
  • President Obama gave Petraeus 24 hours to decide after hearing about the affair
  • Petraeus called his involvement in the affair “extremely poor judgement” 
  • Michael Morrell, who was Petraeus’ deputy, will be acting CIA chief 
  • Petraeus assumed command of US forces in Iraq in 2007
  • He then took command of US troops in Afghanistan in 2010 
  • Petraeus left the military to become CIA director in September 2011 
  • He oversaw the agency’s use of drones for targeted killings 
  • His military career lasted for 37 years 
  • Petraeus has been married to his wife Holly since 1974