After bringing the 101st home, he returned to Iraq to take charge of the troubled effort to build a new army and police force. His efforts met with only limited success. In subsequent discussions about his wartime experiences, he frequently glossed over that period.
His next assignment seemed to his colleagues to be a career-ender—command of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.—but Petraeus used it to vault himself into the elite ranks of warrior diplomats by overseeing a rewrite of the Army’s counterinsurgency manual at the very moment America’s strategy in Iraq was adrift. Petraeus advocated the use of U.S. troops to provide security to Iraqi civilians, reasoning that reducing sectarian warfare would bring the conflict under control. His approach found favor with President George W. Bush, who authorized a troop surge to implement the strategy and sent Petraeus back to Baghdad—with a fourth star—to oversee it.
For much of his 37-year Army career, Petraeus had a mixed relationship with his Army colleagues. He had few close friends among his peers, who saw him as too ambitious and criticized him for spending more time as a generals’ aide than leading troops in the field. As a battalion and brigade commander, he was regarded as smart, hardworking and creative, but he was never seen as an inspirational leader.
In Washington, however, the Petraeus mythology took hold. He was feted at the White House. His appearances on Capitol Hill received live cable television coverage.
After Iraq, Bush gave him the Central Command. It could have been a sinecure, but Petraeus spent much of his time traveling in the Middle East and South Asia. When he wasn’t overseas, he didn’t go back to his home base in Tampa. He stayed in Washington, where he could more easily meet politicians and journalists for dinner.
When Obama fired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal in June 2010, after the general’s aides made intemperate remarks to a magazine reporter, the president asked Petraeus to take over the Afghan war. Although Petraeus rode to fame on counterinsurgency strategy, he quietly shifted emphasis in Kabul, authorizing a massive increase in Special Operations raids and airstrikes intended to hammer the Taliban. Although he never admitted it in public, he effectively embraced a counter-terrorism approach that he had opposed during strategy discussions at the White House a year earlier.
It was, in many respects, vintage Petraeus. He wasn’t going to remain wedded to a strategy that wasn’t working. It also had the virtue of pleasing the Obama White House, which had long been skeptical of counterinsurgency.
Petraeus had hoped his Afghan service would lead Obama to select him as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But the White House feared he would use that perch to oppose troop reductions in Afghanistan, so he was sent to the CIA, where he was given the reins of the agency’s covert global war against Al Qaeda, including a blistering drone campaign in Pakistan.
Top Obama administration officials figured the CIA job would keep him out of politics this year, making it difficult for him to run for president or even emerge as a vice presidential candidate. In the wake of Tuesday’s election, he once again found himself on many lists of possible GOP contenders in 2016.
By Friday, he was no longer even a long shot. His resignation reverberated across Washington with the power of a 2,000-pound bomb. Friends expressed dismay. Politicians voiced shock. Fellow generals were incredulous. Some who knew him wondered how he could have been so hypocritical. Others cast it as a forgivable lapse in judgment and predicted he would eventually reenter public life.
A few recalled his admonition about character and nobody watching. And they remembered the warning he often tacked on: “Someone is always watching.”
Greg Jaffe and Julie Tate contributed to this report.