Petraeus Set for Another Shot at Iraq

Gen. David Petraeus, shown from behind during a tour of an Iraqi Army training facility in June 2004 i i

Gen. David Petraeus, shown during a tour of an Iraqi Army training facility in June 2004. Brent Stirton/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Gen. David Petraeus, shown from behind during a tour of an Iraqi Army training facility in June 2004

Gen. David Petraeus, shown during a tour of an Iraqi Army training facility in June 2004.

Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will grill President Bush's new choice to lead the fight in Iraq, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus. He's expected to win easy confirmation to become the top ground commander.

A photo on the cover of Newsweek magazine showed Petraeus in front of a Blackhawk helicopter, wearing combat fatigues, a helmet and thick body armor. It featured five giant words in the center: "Can This Man Save Iraq?"

It's a timely question. But the question was first posed in July 2004, when the White House sent Petraeus to rebuild the Iraqi army.

A few days before he left for that trip, Petraeus stopped at NPR, where All Things Considered host Melissa Block asked him this question:

"How much pressure do you feel to get this done quickly, to get the U.S. troops in a position where they can leave?"

"Well, this obviously has a lot to do with our exit strategy," Petraeus said of his training mission. "So all of us want to move out on this as quickly as we can. But at the same time, we need to have tactical patience. And I think we need to be careful not to overaccelerate this and actually rush to failure."

That was a wise premonition, but Petraeus didn't factor in political pressure from Washington. He ended up doing just what he hoped not to do: rush the process. And for a while, the numbers actually looked good.

The Pentagon was making sunny announcements about how the Iraqi army was ready to roll. First it was 50,000 troops. Then 100,000. And by 2006, 200,000 Iraqi soldiers.

Yet only a tiny fraction of those Iraqis Petraeus trained are actually ready to fight today.

Petraeus is not the only one to blame for this, but remarkably, he wasn't ever really blamed at all. There's a simple reason. Almost everybody loves to love David Petraeus, including the hawkish former Army Gen. Jack Keane.

"I think General Petraeus is absolutely the most qualified general officer we have to undertake a change of mission strategy in Iraq," Keane says.

Retired Gen. John Batiste, a Bush critic, counts himself a Petraeus fan:

"If anybody can figure it out, Dave Petraues can," Batiste says.

And to Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus is "extremely bright, tough-minded, physically tough, a front-line leader," as well as "thoughtful" and "self-confident."

In 2003, Petraeus commanded the Army's 101st Airborne Division in Northern Iraq, with about 20,000 troops under his command.

Unlike the rest of Iraq, his area of command was remarkably stable. Part of the reason was his philosophy of counter insurgency. You win over a population by staying attuned to grievances.

"We don't want to have a situation a month from now when people are saying the equivalent of 'Mussolini didn't give us our personal freedom, but at least the trains ran on time,'" Petraeus said at the time. "'Saddam didn't allow us to speak our mind but at least there was gas at the gas station.'"

It would be nice if this story had a happy ending, but at least so far, it doesn't.

Shortly after Petraeus and his troops left Iraq and returned to Fort Campbell, Ky., in early 2004, most of what they had achieved in their patch of Northern Iraq disintegrated, just as things deteriorated elsewhere in the country.

Now Petraeus finds himself on the verge of returning to Iraq — once again, round three — to work his magic. He has spent the past 15 months writing the Army's new counterinsurgency manual. It's an impressive and massive tome.

But Petraeus now has to put up or shut up. Counterinsurgency theory is... well... theory. And this is the rare case where the person who comes up with the theory is also the one who has to implement it.

Leader of the Fabled 101st to Command in Iraq

Lt. Gen.  David Petraeus makes a visit to a coalition base in Tikrit, Iraq, in June 2004.

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus visits a coalition base in Tikrit, Iraq, in June 2004. Brent Stirton/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Bush Reshuffles Iraq Team

In a high-level reshuffling of his Iraq team, President Bush on Friday announced replacements for many of the top officials responsible for war policy. The changes come as Bush prepares to unveil a new strategy — expected next week — for a war that has become deeply unpopular at home.

  

Read bios on Bush's new Iraq team.

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus is soon expected to take over command of all U.S. forces in Iraq. If he is confirmed by the Senate, this will be his third tour of duty in the country. He commanded the 101st Airborne during the invasion in 2003 and oversaw the northern part of the country immediately after the invasion. He returned to Iraq in 2004 to oversee the training of Iraqi security forces.

The son of a Dutch sea captain, Petraeus began his military career at West Point. And he is no ordinary general. He has a Ph.D. in history from Princeton. His thesis topic: The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam.

He also recently coauthored an Army manual on counterinsurgency operations. Petraeus and other officers say the Army collectively forgot how to fight an insurgency after Vietnam.

As major combat operations began to end in April 2003, writer Rick Atkinson was trailing the 101st Airborne through the wide-open deserts and teeming cities of Iraq. He says he and Petraeus had a running joke.

"Tell me how it ends," Petraeus would say. Atkinson says it was said tongue-in-cheek, but also with an understanding that it was the pertinent question.

Once Baghdad fell, the 101st was dispatched to Mosul in northern Iraq, where Petraeus won praise for his work. He provided security, listened to tribal and religious leaders and focused on the economy, reopening factories and businesses.

In October 2003, Petraeus described the effort this way: "This is a race. 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."

Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, a close friend, says Petraeus understands how to work with a local population and encourage them to break with insurgents. That's the essence of what the military calls counterinsurgency. He says Petraeus is the perfect choice for the job.

During a training exercise, Keane recalls, an accidental rifle shot hit Petraeus in the chest. Keane held his hand as he was flown to a nearby hospital. A surgeon named Bill Frist, who would later become Senate Majority Leader, was pulled off a golf course to treat him.

A few days after surgery, Petraeus demanded to be released. A doctor told him that it was impossible to release him so soon after major surgery. According to Kaine, Petraeus told the doctor to take out the tubes and then got down on the floor and did 50 pushups. The hospital sent him home.

Petraeus's almost fanatical devotion to physical fitness is legendary. He often challenges men less than half his age to contests. One story is that a young special forces soldier asked him how many push-ups he could do. "One more than you," replied Petraeus, who immediately proved it.

When he was commanding the 101st in Mosul, Petraeus became known as a man who could get things done, often bending the rules to accomplish his goals.

But Petraeus has also rubbed some fellow officers the wrong way. One former aides described him as the most competitive man on Earth, according to writer Rick Atkinson. He does not suffer fools gladly. He also has had a long history of cultivating high-ranking generals, which led some peers to label him a "professional son."

His intellect, ego and ambition also earned him a less charitable nickname: "King David."

Some say Petraeus was lucky to be stationed in northern Iraq. The violence and ethnic tensions were not as pronounced as in Baghdad or the more turbulent Anbar Province.

Petraeus is credited with doing a better job than his predecessor of training Iraqi soldiers and police in 2004 and 2005. But the Iraqis still cannot secure their own country, and corruption remains endemic. Sectarian militias have penetrated many security forces. And large numbers of Iraqi police and soldiers simply don't show up for duty.

Atkinson says Petraeus began training Iraqis when he was full of optimism and most likely would concede that they aren't where he hoped they would be at this point. But, Atkinson points out, training the Iraqi security forces is the hardest job in the world. Except for the one Petraeus is about to take on.

In a 2003 interview with NPR, Petraeus seemed to be aware that the road ahead would not be easy.

"There are many here who regard us still as liberators," he told NPR's Deborah Amos in Mosul. "But there are also some that say, jeez, when are these guys going to leave? And inevitably, over time, even the best of liberators will become seen as occupiers."

Now it is Petraeus who is in charge — at a time when it is likely that even more American soldiers will be dispatched to Iraq. And there is still no sense of when they might be able to leave.

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