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Petraeus, Our Old New Man in Iraq
Proceedings | Tom Bowman | February 26, 2007
As Saddam Hussein's forces were collapsing in April 2003, Army Major General David Petraeus walked through an empty factory near Baghdad. "Now the hard part begins," he told writer Rick Atkinson, who was trailing the 101st Airborne Division through the vast deserts and teeming cities of Iraq. The two also had a running joke, "Tell me how this ends?"

The answer to that question now largely falls to Petraeus, the son of a Dutch sea captain who sailed into New York just as World War II was breaking out.

Sixtus Petraeus commanded a Liberty ship during the war, plying the icy and treacherous waters to the Soviet port of Murmansk. He met a Brooklyn woman at the Seaman's Church Institute and settled in Cornwall, New York, not far from the U.S. Military Academy.

Their son, David, entered West Point, just as the Vietnam War was winding down. Slight, ambitious, and brainy, he finished near the top of his class in 1974. He also married Holly Knowlton, the daughter of Lieutenant General William Knowlton, the academy's superintendent.

Petraeus thrived under the intense mental and physical strain of Ranger School, finishing first in his class. To this day the 54-year-old general will challenge soldiers half his age to pushup or sit-up contests. Asked by one strapping soldier how many sit-ups he could do, Petraeus replied with a toothy grin, "One more than you." Then he proceeded to prove it.

Petraeus went on to earn a doctorate at Princeton with a dissertation entitled, "The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam." One of his conclusions was that low-intensity conflicts are inevitable and the American military better prepare for them.

On Point

Donning four stars, the general now will oversee President Bush's new Iraq strategy, complete with a planned "surge" of an additional 21,500 U.S. Soldiers and Marines. These added forces will attempt to secure both Baghdad and the restive Sunni enclave of al Anbar Province.

After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Petraeus and the 101st won praise for pacifying northern Iraq around the city of Mosul. Petraeus quickly went to work providing security, working with local religious and tribal leaders, and getting businesses and factories up and running again.

He and other commanders were often at loggerheads with the Coalition Provisional Authority, headed by L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer. Safely inside the Green Zone, described by military wags as "the ultimate gated community," were young and/or inexperienced bureaucrats. They were too slow in sending the needed money to begin reconstruction projects or pay Iraqi workers.

Petraeus knew the Americans had to quickly fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Iraqi government. He said that the way to win was to convince people they have "a stake" in the success of a new Iraq. And he described the challenges he faced in the fall of 2003.

"This is a race," he said. "This is a race to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. And there are other people in this race. And they're not just trying to beat us to the finish line. In some cases, they want to kill us."

There are some who say that Petraeus was fortunate to be assigned to northern Iraq. That region, dominated by the Kurds, did not have the levels of violence and the bitter ethnic divide that plagued Baghdad and al-Anbar Province.

He was also lucky to have an entire division of 17,000 American soldiers. Over time the 101st was replaced by units that were smaller in size or split to deal with violence elsewhere. Never again would the north be as quiet as under Petraeus.

Second Hardest Job

The following year, and into 2005, Petraeus became the top American trainer for the Iraqi security forces. He picked up a third star and recalled that he met with President Bush and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz before he left.

"When the President tells you something's important, you know he's serious about it and we're serious about it," Petraeus would tell Iraqis. "They told me, 'Whatever you need -- you've got it.'"

But the results of the American training efforts were uneven and it still has not produced a competent Iraqi force that can secure the country, although the Pentagon says 325,000 Iraqi soldiers and police have now been trained and equipped.

Not enough Sunnis are signing up for the Army, which is largely Shi'a. The Iraqi soldiers take one week off a month. Others are reluctant to patrol in Shi'a areas or even deploy outside their home areas. The police force has been infiltrated with Shi'a death squads. Other police officers simply look the other way when they see sectarian violence. Many American officers in Iraq will sum up the Iraqi security force with two words: "Mixed bag."

Writer Atkinson says Petraeus would likely agree that the American training effort has fallen short.

"My guess is that he would concede that the training of the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi police and the other security forces isn't what he hoped it would be at this point," Atkinson says. "It's the hardest job on earth, except for the one he's about to take over now."

Petraeus left Iraq and went on to run the Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, co-authoring Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24, which was released in December. Petraeus and some other generals said that the Army after Vietnam collectively forgot how to tackle such missions.

The manual says Soldiers and Marines must be "nation builders as well as warriors," able to fight, restore local institutions, and basic services. These are all key to removing the discontent that feeds an insurgency. And these modern warriors must be nimble and adaptive, prepared "to be greeted with either a handshake or a hand grenade."

It was a retooling of the "clear and hold" strategy General Creighton Abrams mounted in Vietnam, after he took over in 1968 from General William Westmoreland.

Westmoreland favored "search and destroy" missions as a way to defeat his elusive enemy. Abrams came to understand that force could be counterproductive in fighting an insurgency. It was the "hearts and minds" of the people he was after.

Petraeus himself takes over the Iraq mission from a predecessor with a different strategy for victory. General George Casey balked at an increase in U.S. troops. Instead he wanted to focus on training the Iraqi soldiers and police and quickly turn over responsibility to them.

But Petraeus and the new day-to-day ground commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, believe that more American forces are needed to provide the requisite security.

The Man

Retired Army General Jack Keane, one of the leading supporters of a troop surge, says Petraeus is the right man for the job. "Absolutely the hands down perfect choice," says Keane. "He's very experienced in Iraq and he clearly understands proven counterinsurgency practices, which have got to be put in place finally."

Petraeus has displayed a Molly Brown-style unsinkable quality over the years. He once broke his pelvis in a parachute jump but worked his way back to his usual fast-paced running style. Just before the war, he finished the Army 10-miler in 63 minutes.

And during a training exercise in 1991 near Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, a soldier tripped and accidentally fired his M-16. The round slammed into Petraeus' chest and left a gaping exit wound. Keane was standing next to him.

"I put him on the ground, called for medics, and we just went into emergency procedure to stop the bleeding and make sure he didn't go into shock," remembers Keane. "In the helicopter I was holding his hand and encouraging him."

Petraeus was rushed to a medical center in Nashville, Tennessee. Awaiting him was a surgeon who was called off the golf course. Dr. Bill Frist would later become the Senate Majority leader.

"He went into five and a half hours of surgery under Bill Frist's hands," recalls Keane. Petraeus bridled at being bedridden. He pleaded with Ft. Campbell's doctors to discharge him and finally persuaded them to remove the tubes from his arms. Then he dropped to the floor and pumped out 50 pushups.

"He's very competitive, the most competitive man on the planet, according to one of his former aides," says Atkinson. "And there's something to that. He's also quite intense."

Another Side

Petraeus' intensity, image building, and competitiveness have rubbed some peers the wrong way. There would be chortles when Petraeus would quickly dispatch helicopters to bring reporters up to northern Iraq. Others rolled their eyes when he appeared in full battle dress on the cover of Newsweek magazine two years ago, looking for all the world like Patton.

Throughout his career, Petraeus cultivated some of the Army's prominent generals as mentors: John Galvin, Carl Vuono, and Henry Shelton. That led some fellow officers to dub him a "professional son." Another nickname: "King David."

Into the Fire

Now it is up to this warrior intellectual and student of the Vietnam War to find the right fix for Iraq. In the middle of the Army field manual Petraeus helped craft is this overall measure of success.

Success in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations requires establishing a legitimate government supported by the people and able to address the fundamental causes that insurgents use to gain support. Achieving these goals requires the host nation to defeat insurgencies or render them irrelevant, uphold the rule of law, and provide a basic level of essential services and security for the populace.

But several Marine and Army officers in Iraq say that the Sunni minority, about 15 percent of the population or upward of six million people, does not believe that the Shi'a-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is providing either essential services or security.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been promised for rebuilding al Anbar province. But the Maliki government has sent only a portion of the money, say U.S. officers.

Al Malaki has not disbanded the sectarian militias and he has political ties to radical cleric Moqtada al Sadr, whose Mahdi Army is the largest militia. It is the Mahdi Army that U.S. officers say is ethnically cleansing Baghdad of Sunni residents. Each day scores of Sunni families load their belongings on trucks and flee to al Anbar province.

The continued ethnic divide has led to this grim statistic: The Defense Intelligence Agency now estimates that 80 percent of the Sunni population either is part of the insurgency or supports its goal of opposing the Iraqi government and the Americans.

The Sunnis sat out the national elections a year ago. Provincial elections were planned for this spring, and the Sunnis hoped they would at least be given a say in local governance. Marine Major General Rick Zilmer, who leads Marines forces in al Anbar, said that if the elections were not held in the spring, it would only serve to strengthen the Sunni insurgency. Now it appears they will be delayed beyond spring, though President Bush says Malaki promised elections later this year. No date was specified.

In the fall of 2003, Petraeus talked of the challenges ahead and the feeling that the Iraqis, like the American public, have limited patience.

"There are some that, you know, say jeez, when are these guys going to leave?" he said. "Inevitably, over time, the best liberators will be seen as occupiers. And it's something we're wrestling with all the time."

Now Petraeus picks up the baton once carried by Creighton Abrams, whose own counterinsurgency efforts came to a close when the American people and the Congress soured on the long war in Southeast Asia.

Mr. Bowman is the Pentagon correspondent for National Public Radio.

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