They were said to be generals cut from the same cloth, David Petraeus and John Allen: whip-smart, adaptable, erudite and above reproach. Indeed Allen was Petraeus’s hand-picked successor in Afghanistan, having served as deputy commander at Centcom in Tampa, Fla., first under Petraeus, then under Marine Gen. James Mattis. Petraeus and Allen, the soldier and the Marine, represented, in other words, the very best that the U.S. military has to offer.
And yet, in less than a week, the careers of two very different men may be ruined as a result of alleged inappropriate behavior with women.
It was scandalous enough when Petraeus stepped down as CIA director after an FBI investigation uncovered his extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. The latest hairpin plot twist came early Tuesday when the Defense Department abruptly announced that the nomination of Allen, the outgoing commander in Afghanistan, to be commander of NATO forces was “on hold” pending an investigation by the FBI and the Pentagon inspector general related to his relationship with Jill Kelley – the woman who kicked off the FBI probe by reporting threatening emails she had received from Broadwell, and who has denied having any relationship with Petraeus beyond family friend.
A senior U.S. defense official told National Journal on Tuesday that investigators are now looking into “potentially inappropriate communications” between Allen and Kelley, 37, a doctor’s wife who worked at Centcom in Florida. According to The Washington Post, in the course of the Petraeus-Broadwell probe, the FBI uncovered between 20,000 and 30,000 documents — most of them e-mails —shared between Kelley and Allen.
To those in the media who communicated with her, Broadwell was no hapless victim. She was passionate, highly intelligent and, above all, an eloquent defender of Petraeus, his strategic thinking and his reputation in history. “She was territorial when it came to Petraeus,” says one former Army officer who knew them both, and who says he is not surprised by the FBI probe of allegations that Broadwell might have sent threatening emails to Kelley.
In conversations and emails in 2011, a half year before the publication of her book, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, Broadwell often sounded more like an adoring press agent than a biographer. Questioned whether Petraeus, then commander in Afghanistan, was losing faith in his faltering counterinsurgency program there, she replied in one email to National Journal: “Your sources must be smoking something.” Petraeus, she insisted (or “P4,” as she called him), knew exactly what he was doing and what the pitfalls of his strategy were. At the same time, it was clear that Broadwell was no mindless mouthpiece who was acting blindly out of love. By spending a lot of time with Petraeus and his staff, she had developed a deep and sophisticated understanding of that strategy, even if she occasionally punctuated her comments with smiley-face emoticons.
Asked whether a pared-down “counterterrorism“ (CT) strategy of killing off al Qaeda had displaced a more ambitious counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy intended to rebuild Afghanistan, Broadwell responded that both tactics were being used. “It's not a CT vs. COIN argument. If you get that right in your article, you'll have reached the graduate level of comprehensive COIN comprehension!” she wrote. “The ideal outcome, if you can visualize it, is the spread of a wet inkspot on a napkin... the secure area will get bigger and bigger, ideally connecting to other inkspots until important corridors are secure (picture a big long ink streak!) :)”
For his part Petraeus, while widely admired for his intellect and integrity, was hardly immune to the charms of an adoring public—especially, it seems, when they appeared in the form of an attractive fellow West Pointer, Broadwell, who was as addicted to physical fitness as he was. Although the celebrity general surprised many observers by keeping a low profile after he became CIA director in September 2011, Petraeus had long been known as a "performer" who loved positive press, in the words of a former senior civilian official in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.
That reputation accompanied his rise to prominence and power in the 2000s. I observed Petraeus's political skills up close while flying with him above the Iraqi city of Mosul in a Blackhawk helicopter in early 2004, when Petraeus still commanded the 101st Airborne Division. Speaking through headphones over the loud whirring of the helicopter engines, Petraeus gave then-Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer III an early view of his emerging “counterinsurgency” doctrine—how he was winning hearts and minds in his sector.
Petraeus pointed out how many satellite dishes had popped up on Iraqi homes, courtesy of the American occupation. He touted his “Mosul’s Most Wanted” TV show as a means of encouraging locals to call in with tips on finding insurgents, and proposed that Bremer develop a national version of it. Petraeus also called in a large press gaggle to observe training exercises at his local Iraqi military training academy.
Afterward, back in Baghdad, Bremer shook his head in an interview and laughed indulgently. "He loves headlines," Bremer said. "But he's very good."
There’s no doubt that Petraeus was very good at what he did. And that Broadwell was very ambitious. And that what Broadwell called Petraeus’s “open-door policy” to those eager to tout his accomplishments led, ultimately, to a more intimate relationship between them. The question is whether this sad and salacious story amounts to anything more than another episode in the long saga of human failings, with the apparent destruction of two or more careers as a result.
It probably doesn’t. According to FBI officials quoted by The New York Times on Monday, the bureau’s investigation into whether Petraeus had compromised security in any way found that he had not. Similarly, the timing of the FBI probe suggests that it reached its final stages just as the U.S. presidential election was coming to a close, rather than being held up for political reasons. Although Broadwell was said to be in possession of classified material, she denied that it came from Petraeus, and given her wide network of contacts, it could have come from the same places that journalists often get such material.
This week, news reports also suggested that Broadwell revealed classified or sensitive information when she said in an Oct. 26 Denver speech that the fatal attack on the CIA site in Benghazi on Sept. 11 was retaliation for the detention of Libyan militia members, and that Petraeus knew “almost immediately” that the attack was launched by terrorists and had requested assistance. But the allegations of possible terrorist involvement were publicly known at the time, posted on Facebook, and the details about Libyan militia had been reported earlier that day by Fox News. Beyond that, in the last two weeks the CIA has effectively discredited charges made in the same Fox News report that it was slow in responding.
In the end, Petraeus’ downfall marks the formal finish to a career that had in some ways passed its peak. The influence of his signature contribution to U.S. military doctrine—expensive counterinsurgency programs that take years to implement, with little to show in the way of results, as in Afghanistan —has been fading.
As for Allen, his tenure in Afghanistan is proving at least as troubled as Petraeus’, beset by “green-on-blue” attacks by Afghan soldiers and officials on allied troops, and a stubborn Taliban supported by Pakistani elements across the border.
During a visit to Afghanistan I made last May, he came across as sober and largely humorless in manner as he described in intellectual terms his strategic plans in Afghanistan. “There is this sense, and it’s a very Western sense I think, that there is a Napoleonic decisive battle that tends to end wars. In counterinsurgency, it’s much less about that than about creating an enduring capacity that grows and compounds on itself over time," Allen said. "And that’s what’s happened.”
He was far less of a glamorous or show-boating figure than Petraeus. Nevertheless, he’s now one of the leading men in a national soap opera.