KABUL, Afghanistan — From Baghdad to Kabul and coming soon to Langley, Va., there’s a single image that Gen. David Petraeus keeps framed in his mind – and on his wall.
It’s a 1908 Frederic Remington oil painting titled “The Stampede.” A classic of the American West, it depicts a cowboy riding on rugged terrain, with an ominous storm overhead, trying to rustle up a herd of frightened cattle. Even the cowboy’s own horse is wild-eyed with fear at the hard rain and lightning bolts that streak across the horizon.
But the rider is fearless, focused, determined and looking straight ahead.
“The metaphor is about accepting chaos and staying focused amid all the uncertainty and the risk and the danger and the bad terrain. That’s what we need to do here,” said Petraeus, standing just outside the intelligence briefing room in the Kabul military headquarters where a copy of the painting is reverently framed like an icon of his command.
And now it looks like that painting will soon be hanging in the office of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, where the White House has asked Petraeus to serve his country next. He will face confirmation hearings, but the overwhelming consensus is that Petraeus will sail through based on his credentials for the job.
In an interview at the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the U.S.-led coalition of 42 nations that is commanded by Petraeus, the four-star general offered GlobalPost a glimpse inside a turning point in the war, but also inside a more personal side of his life as a commanding general at the end of what is likely to be his “last fighting season.”
(Read: In the next few months, General Petraeus expects a decisive moment in Afghanistan)
In a rare moment of kinship and candor with other military families, Petraeus also opened up about his own family’s experiences and the worry he felt having his own son, Stephen, serving under him in Afghanistan.
Petraeus declined to answer any questions about what’s next for him, and whether he might someday have aspirations for the White House, an idea that those close to him dismiss. Just a few weeks after the interview, the whispers were starting to surface that he was being actively considered as a candidate to lead the CIA.
But at this point in February, the general was just staring straight ahead and trying to lead the herd through the peril of the storm.
Entering the ISAF headquarters, you immediately feel the layers of history in the place. It’s originally a military garrison that dates to the British presence here and it was once used by the Soviet forces when they occupied Afghanistan. The Taliban operated from there as well when they controlled Kabul. Walk through the corridors past the long line of 42 national flags of the international forces, and you come to Petraeus’ office, where he seemed relaxed and well rested.
The last time I interviewed Petraeus was in Baghdad in 2008, and at that point he looked exhausted. You could see the bags under his eyes and you could literally hear the mortar fire landing in and around the Green Zone just outside his office. But Kabul was comparatively quiet. Petraeus says he sleeps well. He still daily runs a 5-mile course at a hard pace even in Kabul’s thin air at 6,000 feet above sea level. He expressed confidence about what can be accomplished in the spring fighting.
And from Baghdad to Kabul or from Fort Leavenworth, Kans., where he rewrote the field manual, to Tampa, Fla., where he headed U.S. Central Command, Petraeus offers proof of the efficacy of his plan through one beloved tool of communication: the PowerPoint presentation.
In a wide ranging interview and set of briefings with the full-on PowerPoint experience, I asked Petraeus what motivated him through his five wartime commands over the last eight years, a longevity for a wartime commander rivaled by only one other American general, George Washington.
“What keeps me going is what keeps all of our leaders and troopers going. Many of our men and women in uniform have been on multiple tours in Iraq and/or Afghanistan … What keeps everybody going is a recognition of the importance of this mission. In Afghanistan in particular, we only have to look at photos of ground zero and realize that this is a hugely important mission to our country,” Petraeus said.
Before he undertook this command in Kabul, Petraeus was securely ensconced at Central Command in Tampa. There, Petraeus was thinking strategically about the threat posed by Iran and about regional issues. He had in some ways lifted himself up and out of the all-consuming role of serving as a commander in a war zone to take on a higher and more strategic perch at Central Command.
But then everything changed and just like that rider in the painting he was back in the saddle and the chaos and danger of the storm.
Last summer, U.S. President Barack Obama asked him to take up command of the U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan. The call came in the wake of the dramatic resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal after his military career self-destructed amid the toxic fallout from a June 2010 interview with Rolling Stone magazine in which he and his staff expressed criticism and sometimes disdain for the Obama administration’s approach to counterinsurgency.
Those close to Petraeus say that he immediately accepted the president's orders. But they also recognize that he now faces an extraordinary set of challenges in Afghanistan — the most difficult task of his eight years in command. And the next six months will provide the turning point in the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, and the definitive moment of Petraeus’ career.
It will define his legacy.