The claim that General David Petraeus, one of the few serving US soldiers with instant name recognition, is underrated might seem perverse. He won world fame when three years ago he argued for a surge of US forces in Iraq, then used it to all but destroy the Sunni insurgency and al-Qaeda in Iraq in little over a year.
But the cerebral, charismatic commander has a habit of disappearing from view — making it easy to underestimate his achievements. He has changed the outlook and ethos of the US forces more radically than any US commander since Vietnam, and probably since the Second World War. His approach is now profoundly affecting the way British forces go about their business. Today, his ideas are being implemented in Afghanistan by his protégé General Stanley McChrystal. These ideas focus on the psychological rather than kinetic approach to warfare and emphasise the defence of the population as much as defeating the enemy.
A few weeks ago, I met Captain Brian Huysman, a veteran of two major operations in Iraq, in charge of a US Marine reconstruction team in Narwa, a bazaar on the edge of Marja district, now the focus of the international surge in Afghanistan. Last autumn, the Marines finally cleared the Taliban from Narwa. Now the bazaar is thriving with more than 100 stalls and shops whereas the Taliban had allowed only half a dozen stalls. Huysman put his success down to "Approach, which means getting in among the people, meeting them, eating with them in the bazaar, some days for all meals — and getting the right numbers on the ground in the first place." This was pure Petraeus.
Petraeus, 57, graduated from West Point in 1974, the year before the end of US involvement in Vietnam. His thinking was summed up in his doctoral thesis at Princeton, The American Military and the lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam era. Rarely can an investment in a military PhD have yielded such a far-reaching dividend.
A natural athlete, he is a man of formidable physical as well as mental endurance. When he was commanding his battalion as a colonel, he was accidentally shot in the chest by a soldier on the practice ranges. He was patched up by the future Senator Bill Frist, then a surgeon in Nashville, and discharged himself early from hospital after proving his fitness by doing 50 press-ups in the ward.