CIA teams operate alongside U.S. special operations forces in conflict zones from Afghanistan to Yemen. The agency has also built up a substantial paramilitary capability of its own. But perhaps most significantly, the agency is in the midst of what amounts to a sustained bombing campaign over Pakistan using unmanned Predator and Reaper drones.
Since Obama took office there have been at least 192 drone missile strikes, killing as many as 1,890 militants, suspected terrorists and civilians. Petraeus is seen as a staunch supporter of the drone campaign, even though it has so far failed to eliminate the al-Qaeda threat or turn the tide of the Afghan war.
But if Petraeus is ideally suited to lead an increasingly militarized CIA, it is less clear whether he will be equally adept at managing the political, analytical and even diplomatic dimensions of the job. His nomination coincides with new strains in the CIA’s relationship with its counterpart in Pakistan, and a chaotic reshuffling of the political landscape in the Middle East. If confirmed, he would be the CIA’s fourth director in seven years.
“I think in a lot of ways Gen. Petraeus is the right guy for the agency given the way in which the operational side of the house has really increased” since the Sept. 11 attacks, said Andrew Exum, a military expert at Center for a New American Security, who has also served as an adviser to Petraeus’s staff. “Having said that, I think where Gen. Petraeus will struggle will be looking at the broader global responsibilities of intelligence.”
For Petraeus, Pakistan is likely to be a particularly nettlesome trouble spot. A series of recent ruptures — including the arrest of a CIA contractor in Pakistan — have undermined cooperation against al-Qaeda and prompted threats by Pakistan to place new limits on drone strikes.
Petraeus has been a frequent visitor in Islamabad with key players, including Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani and intelligence director Ahmed Shuja Pasha. But he has engendered the resentment of Pakistani officials because of his demands that they do more against the Afghan Taliban. Many of them believe he is too transparently ambitious — a criticism that he has at times faced among his peers in the United States.
During an interview late last year in Islamabad, a high-ranking Pakistani intelligence official repeatedly referred to the U.S. commander as “Mr. Petraeus,” refusing to acknowledge his military rank.
“I call him Mr. Petraeus because he’s less of a general and more of a politician,” the official said, alluding to rumors that Petraeus might run for president. The Pakistani official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the interview dealt with sensitive intelligence matters between Pakistan and the United States.
Petraeus seems unlikely to encounter significant opposition from Capitol Hill. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which will consider the nomination, signaled support for Petraeus but stopped short of a formal endorsement.
“He is clearly a very accomplished officer and familiar with the parts of the world where many of the threats to our security originate,” Feinstein said in a statement. But being a military commander “is a different role than leading the top civilian intelligence agency,” Feinstein said, adding that she would “look forward to hearing his vision for the CIA.”
Petraeus’s nomination triggered some grumbling among CIA veterans opposed to putting a career military officer in charge of an agency with a long tradition of civilian leadership.
Others voiced concern that Petraeus is too wedded to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and the troop-heavy, counterinsurgency strategy he designed — to deliver impartial assessments of those wars as head of the CIA.
Indeed, over the past year the CIA has generally presented a more pessimistic view of the war in Afghanistan than Petraeus has while he has pushed for an extended troop buildup.
“The question is, what does [the administration] want the intelligence service to be?” said a former senior CIA officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Are they going to have a civilian intelligence service or is it going to be a giant counterterrorism center?”
Obama administration officials said that Petraeus would retire from the military to take the CIA job. Even so, a U.S. official close to the general said he is likely to view running the agency largely through the prism of his experience as a wartime commander.
The official said Petraeus would likely make frequent visits to CIA stations around the world, and defer to the Director of National Intelligence on Washington-based issues such as budgets and big-ticket technology programs.
Petraeus has spent relatively little time in Washington over the past decade and doesn’t have as much experience with managing budgets or running Washington bureaucracies as CIA predecessors Leon E. Panetta and Michael V. Hayden. But Petraeus has quietly lobbied for the CIA post, drawn in part by the chance for a position that would keep him involved in the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen.
As top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, Petraeus has relied heavily on CIA and special operations forces to capture and kill mid-level and senior insurgent leaders. But he has insisted that the targeted strikes be a part of a broader and more comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign — putting him at odds with advocates of a more surgical approach, including Vice President Biden.
Petraeus, 58, is intensely organized and has relied on a network of trusted advisers, many with biographies similar to his own, with stints in combat units, graduate school and teaching at West Point. CIA veterans said it would be a mistake for Petraeus to arrive with an entourage. “If you look like you’re coming in to fix us and show us how to do things,” one former official said, “the antibodies start rejecting the transplant.”
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.