The Trouble with Professor Petraeus

By Arun Gupta

When CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein announced that retired four-star General David Petraeus would be named Visiting Professor of Public Policy at Macaulay Honors College he lauded Petraeus as a “distinguished leader with extraordinary experience and expertise in international security issues, intelligence matters, and nation-building.”

Petraeus was highly regarded in Washington after overseeing the “surge” of 30,000 U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007, which many credit with diminishing the anti-U.S. insurgency. From there he headed up a similar surge in Afghanistan, was appointed director of the CIA and was considered presidential matter before resigning his CIA post in November 2012 after his extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, became public.

A flawed but storied figure, Petraeus has a lot to offer undergraduates if they do their homework. A good place to start is Iraq. The same week Petraeus’s professorship was announced, sectarian warfare flared in Iraq with the Shia-dominated government attacking Sunni protesters, leaving 190 dead after four days. Year earlier Petraeus made decisions as head of the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq that are still reverberating today.

The story begins in April 2004. A year after U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad, toppling Saddam Hussein, the occupation was on the ropes. Public services such as electricity and water were in disarray, poverty and unemployment was rampant, and U.S. military night raids, checkpoint killings and mass arrests had alienated most Iraqis. That month two spontaneous revolts, one by Shia in Baghdad and the other by Sunnis in Fallujah west of the capital, exposed the fragility of America’s national-building project. Then in May photographs and eyewitness accounts were published exposing systematic torture in the sprawling U.S. prison camp at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad.

President Bush tapped Petraeus to ride to the rescue. In June 2004, Petraeus began revamping Iraqi security forces after their collapse with the aim of training 271,000 soldiers and police. The U.S. strategy was to fight fire with fire, so it recruited former members of the ruling Ba’ath Party by installing Ayad Allawi as prime minister in June 2004, creating a spy service culled from the dreaded Mukhabarat, and setting up the Special Police Commandos drawn from Hussein-era Special Forces. Petraeus and his staff were instrumental in backing the Commandos, who would quickly gain notoriety for extrajudicial assassinations, brutality and torture.

Now, the Bush administration choose Allawi, a CIA asset, to give a veneer of Iraqi rule, but the United States was paying all the bills and had personnel in every important ministry. Similarly, Petraeus tried to distance himself from the Special Police Commandos. In February 2005, The Wall Street Journal reported the Commandos were among a dozen “pop-up” militias, most with government funding and backing, totaling 15,000 men that began forming around September 2004. Despite thousands of heavily armed men organized into trained units at military bases the Americans claimed they “stumbled” across the militias after they were formed.

Yet a U.S. government report noted that Petraeus and other senior officers concluded in the summer of 2004 that Iraq “urgently needed” Commando-style units, “trained, equipped, and prepared for counterinsurgency operations.” In June, Petraeus added $850 million to police equipment and training, nearly doubling the budget. One of the main advisers to the commandos, Col. James Coffman, Jr., was described as Petraeus’s “eyes and ears out on the ground.” And Gen. Adnan Thabit, the head of the Commandos, told The Guardian recently that contrary to reports presenting him as the mastermind, the Americans choose him to run the outfit and the main person he “used to contact was David Petraeus.” The Guardian also claimed that Petraeus had been introduced to Thabit and other commandos by Coffman and another U.S. military advisor and veteran of Latin America’s dirty wars, Col. James Steele.

Then in July 2004, Allawi said the government would establish “internal intelligence units called General Security Directorate, GSD, that will annihilate terrorist groups.” Jane’s Intelligence Digest reported that the GSD “will include former members of Saddam Hussein’s feared security services, collectively known as the Mukhabarat. These former Ba’athists and Saddam loyalists will be expected to hunt down their colleagues currently organizing the insurgency.”

In any case, Petraeus never hid his support for the outfit. He called the Commandos “a horse to back,” and he gave “the fledgling unit money to fix up its base and buy vehicles, ammunition, radios and more weapons,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

This history matters because the Special Police Commandos were central to tipping Iraq into a bloody sectarian war that prevails today. In January 2005, retired Gen. Wayne Downing, former head of U.S. Special Forces, spoke approvingly of the “Salvador option” in Iraq, a reference to the use of U.S.-backed death squads in Central America during the 1980s that killed tens of thousands of civilians. Downing stated, “We have Special Police Commandos now of the Iraqi forces which conduct these kind of strike operations.”

Contrary to reports presenting the Commandos as a professional force, terror was their calling card. They aired a reality TV show called “Terrorism in the Grip of Justice,” in which alleged insurgents confessed to improbable crimes like “drunkeness, gay orgies and pornography” and “raping and beheading civilians.” The Guardian noted some insurgents had “the swollen and bruised faces and robotic manners of those beaten and coached by police interrogators off-camera.” The show was said to be a big hit among Shia and Kurds, but was stoking religious tension by depicting Arab Sunni nationalists “as nothing more than a coalition of thieving scumbags.”

And then reports started accumulating of torture and death-squad activity by the Commandos. Confessors who appeared on the show started turning up dead days later. In July 2005 a cable from U.S. officials noted two incidents in which up to 20 Sunni men were tortured and killed by the Commandos, adding that the incidents gave credence to charges of “sectarian violence aimed at Sunnis.” The cable also quoted an Iraqi human rights official charging that the seventh floor of the Interior Ministry housed torture chambers. Other accounts cast doubt on the Commandos being well-disciplined warriors, with evidence they would loot and torch houses in some cities.

That July, The Guardian reported on the seventh-floor torture chamber, said to be one floor below the offices of the Americans, and it detailed two other torture centers run by the Commandos. The Guardian’s recent investigations state there were up to 14 secret prisons in Baghdad alone run by the Commandos. Gen. Thabit and Gen. Muntadher al Samari involved in the policing effort said Col. Coffman and Col. Steele, Petraeus’s advisers, “knew exactly what was going on and were supplying the commandos with lists of people they wanted brought in.”

Samari said “the American top brass and the Iraqi leadership knew all about these prisons. The things that went on there: drilling, murder, torture. The ugliest sort of torture I’ve ever seen.” One American soldier likened the Commandos to the Nazi Gestapo, saying they would torture anyone whom they considered suspect.

Conveniently in June 2004 the U.S. military issued an order not to investigate such abuses “unless it directly involves members of the coalition.” This was an effective method to outsource torture and murder to the Iraqis while the Americans could claim ignorance.

Gen. Samari recounted one incidence in which he was having lunch with Coffman and Steele. The door happened to open and outside an Iraqi captain was torturing a prisoner who was hanging upside down. “Steele got up and just closed the door, he didn’t say anything – it was just normal for him.”

Over the next two years Iraq would plunge into civil war. Commando ranks swelled to more than 10,000 as the Shia-led government that came to power in 2005 stocked it with sectarian militiamen. At the height of the civil war in 2006, some 3,000 bodies a month were turning up on the streets of Baghdad alone. The well-documented study on excess mortality in Iraq published in the Lancet medical journal, estimated that by mid-2006 a staggering 655,000 Iraqis had died as the result of the war.

But Petraeus was long gone. In late 2005 he took charge of training programs for the entire U.S. Army, writing its first manual on counterinsurgency warfare in more than 20 years. When he left Iraq of the 100,000 troops who were “trained,” only one battalion was capable of independent combat operations. The fact that he returned in 2007 as head of the U.S. troop surge was an admission that his training mission in Iraq was a complete failure. To this day Iraq is one of the most violent countries in the world, it has the highest rate of unemployment and poverty in its history and Iraqis continue to flee their homeland because of the violence, corruption and destroyed country the Americans left behind.

There is much Petraeus can obviously teach about “international security issues, intelligence matters, and nation-building.”

7 comments to “The Trouble with Professor Petraeus”
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