America’s most influential officer, General David Petraeus, bade farewell to the military with a warning against budget cuts that could jeopardize the army’s ability to fight insurgencies.
As he prepares to take over as CIA chief, Petraeus voiced concern at his retirement ceremony that fiscal pressures could undermine the force he helped shape.
Amid “difficult” budget decisions, Petraeus said it was imperative to build a force “that maintains the versatility and flexibility that have been developed in the past decade in particular.”
During 10 years of war, Petraeus said the military had “relearned since 9/11 the timeless lesson that we don’t always get to fight the wars for which we’re most prepared or most inclined.”
“Given that reality, we will need to maintain the full-spectrum capability that we have developed over this last decade of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere,” he said at a ceremony featuring honor guards and martial music.
President Barack Obama meanwhile called him to congratulate him on an “historic career,” the White House said in a statement, while he welcomed his “continued commitment to public service” as CIA chief.
The 101st Airborne Division paratrooper, who rewrote the US Army’s manual for counter-insurgency, embodies the military’s transformation since the September 11, 2001 attacks as it shifted away from conventional warfare.
His ideas have influenced a new generation of officers, who embraced the model of a lighter, more agile force working closely with foreign militia and US spy agencies.
But fiscal pressures and the strain of two ground wars have prompted calls to resume more conventional training and move away from the counter-insurgency approach.
Petraeus, 58, left his mark on the US force in the post-9/11 era, but history’s verdict on his time as commander in both Iraq and Afghanistan remains an open question.
Celebrating a 37-year military career that began in the shadow of the Vietnam War, top officers and former classmates turned out for the event under sunny skies at Fort Meyer, next to Arlington National Cemetery where fallen soldiers from current and past wars are buried.
Next week, Petraeus will don a civilian suit as he takes the helm at the Central Intelligence Agency, where he will focus on some of the same enemies he faced in the military, including Islamist militants from South Asia to the Horn of Africa.
With his acute intellect and celebrity status, the four-star general is revered by some as a hero, but his detractors on the left and inside the military often portray him as a hyper-ambitious “King David” with designs on the presidency.
At the ceremony, top military officer Admiral Mike Mullen praised Petraeus as a “giant” on a par with the country’s greatest generals, who dared to question army orthodoxy.
“Quite simply, General David Petraeus has set the gold standard for wartime command in the modern era,” said Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Petraeus made his name in Iraq, taking over in January 2007 as the war appeared on the verge of catastrophe.
“When General Petraeus took command of Multinational Force Iraq in early 2007, it was a time of doubt, of chaos, of death,” Mullen said.
Leading a surge of additional troops and encouraging his officers to cut deals with former militants, Petraeus was credited with salvaging the war.
The success of the troop surge in Iraq is still under debate, with critics arguing that violence receded because Al-Qaeda’s brutal tactics alienated Sunni tribal leaders.
Petraeus tried a similar approach in Afghanistan, backed up by a surge of some 30,000 American troops.
Before stepping down in July after nearly a year as head of the US-led force there, Petraeus claimed progress against the Taliban as American troops rolled back the insurgents in the south while Afghan security forces expanded.
But the insurgency has proved resilient, and the jury is still out on the general’s tenure there.
Public doubts about the nearly 10-year-old war are mounting, with Washington planning a gradual troop withdrawal over the next four years.
Mullen, however, said that “Afghanistan is now a more secure and hopeful place than a year ago.”
Petraeus’s relations with President Barack Obama’s aides have been strained, especially during a protracted White House debate in 2009 over Afghan war strategy.
The general’s supporters believe Petraeus was passed over for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military’s top post, because of the tensions with the White House.
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