A Reporter at Large
The General’s Dilemma
David Petraeus, the pressures of politics, and the road out of Iraq.
by Steve Coll
September 8, 2008 Text Size:
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Petraeus tours a market in Yusufiya, a town near Baghdad. “The idea is to stay away from the whole optimism-pessimism thing,” he says. Photograph by Franco Pagetti.
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Foreign Policy Early in 2007, when David Petraeus became Commanding General of United States and international forces in Iraq, he had in mind a strategy to manage the political pressures he would face because of the unpopularity of the war, then four years old, and of its author, George W. Bush. He pledged to be responsive to “both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue”—to his Commander-in-Chief in the White House, of course, but also to antiwar Democrats on Capitol Hill. Petraeus earned a doctoral degree at Princeton University in 1987; the title of his dissertation was “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam.” In thinking about how to cope with political divisions in the United States over Iraq, he was influenced, he told me recently, by Samuel Huntington’s 1957 book “The Soldier and the State,” which argues that civilian control over the military can best be achieved when uniformed officers regard themselves as impartial professionals. Petraeus is registered to vote as a Republican in New Hampshire—he once described himself to a friend as a northeastern Republican, in the tradition of Nelson Rockefeller—but he said that around 2002, after he became a two-star general, he stopped voting. As he departed for Baghdad, to oversee a “surge” deployment of additional American troops to Iraq, he sought, as he recalled it, “to try to avoid being pulled in one direction or another, to be in a sense used by one side or the other.” He added, “That’s very hard to do, because you become at some point sort of the face of the war, the face of the surge. So be it. You just have to deal with that.”
On September 10, 2007, Petraeus awoke at his stateside home at Fort Meyer, Virginia, which is on a hill above Arlington Cemetery. The General went for a morning run and tried “to get my game face on,” as he recalled it. He was scheduled to appear before Congress that day to offer the first comprehensive assessment of whether his leadership had yet fostered any progress in Iraq. Petraeus regarded these hearings, he remembered, as “the oral exam of one’s life.” Partisan debate over the war had grown even more intense since his appointment; the Bush Administration, for its part, had entered its late Karl Rove period, characterized by rococo flourishes—the White House had insured, for example, that Petraeus’s first critical testimony about the surge would coincide with the anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
After his workout, Petraeus donned a dress uniform bearing nine rows of ribbons. Someone called his attention to a full-page advertisement that had been placed in that morning’s Times by MoveOn, the liberal activist group. The ad featured the General’s photograph above the headline “GENERAL PETRAEUS OR GENERAL BETRAY US?” It accused him of “cooking the books” for the Bush White House. The Iraq conflict was “unwinnable,” the advertisement argued; it also claimed that some of Petraeus’s past accounts of progress there had been “at war with the facts.”
When we met recently in Iraq, I asked Petraeus if that ad in the Times had marked the low point of his personal experience in this command. It had not, he said; coping with the deaths of soldiers had been considerably more difficult. He added, however, that he rarely feels stress at all, an assertion supported by his appearance: at the age of fifty-five, he has a lightly lined face and chestnut hair that is barely marked by gray. When he does experience an occasional spike in his blood pressure, he said, it is usually caused by an unexpected event, particularly on the battlefield. By contrast, in Washington, he remarked, referring to the city’s culture of political ambush, “you know what’s coming.”
When the General arrived on Capitol Hill to testify that September day, some Democrats poured their frustrations out on him, as if he had been the war’s creator. “How many more names will be added to the wall before we admit it is time to leave?” Representative Robert Wexler, of Florida, demanded at the first of three hearings before House and Senate committees. “How many more names, General?”
Bright lights illuminated the cavernous room, and the elevated faces of congressmen produced a disorienting sensation, Petraeus remembered. “It becomes an out-of-body experience very, very quickly,” he said. “You can start to feel yourself sort of looking down at this guy who’s reading this statement or answering questions. You have to actually work very hard to stay focussed. . . . They don’t have comfortable chairs. You can’t adjust the height. You have to sit on the edge of them. Actually, I really had back pain, which I don’t normally have, just from sitting there for ten hours that first day. So it was just something to be endured, candidly.”
Victory Base Complex, the headquarters of Multi-National Force-Iraq, lies to the west of Baghdad on an eroded wasteland crossed by marshy canals. It is a vast military-industrial park, resembling a northern New Jersey superfund site. Fuel and dust scent the air; helicopters thump overhead. About fifty thousand people inhabit Victory, making it one of the largest of sixty-one American bases in Iraq. (There are also about two hundred and fifty smaller American outposts and facilities in the country.) Victory’s main dining hall, the Oasis, is the size of an airplane hangar; it is organized on a sports theme, with separate salons for fans of the National Football League and Major League Baseball.
General Petraeus commands the war from a lakeside palace built by Saddam Hussein in 1992. Modular office cubicles now fill its five dozen marble-floored bedrooms. The General occupies a high-ceilinged room furnished with a mahogany desk and conference table, video screens, flags, and wall-mounted maps. (He also maintains a smaller office at the U.S. Embassy in the International Zone, formerly known as the Green Zone, in central Baghdad.) When I visited him in late July, Petraeus seemed reflective, open, and at times even wistful about the approaching end of his third Iraq tour.
The challenges of civil-military relations that he must manage these days are considerably less intense than they were a year ago, principally owing to the decline of violence in Iraq under his command. Iraq today is a far from stable or normal country: about two million refugees remain outside its borders; nearly three million remain displaced within the country; and car bombs periodically kill and maim civilians. Yet it is a much more peaceful place than it was last summer. The number of daily attacks recorded by the U.S. military has fallen from a peak of about a hundred and eighty in June, 2007, to about twenty in early August of this year. Violent deaths of Iraqi civilians, while difficult to measure, have also dropped steeply, although the figure remains high: about five hundred per month, at a conservative estimate. Fatalities among U.S. military personnel have declined from a hundred and twenty-six in May, 2007, to just thirteen this past July, the lowest total of any month since the war began, in March, 2003.
The surge was designed to change Iraqi politics by providing the security needed to induce a national reconciliation; this has not occurred, although there has been progress of a tentative nature. In the United States, however, the surge has had more obvious political effects. The Iraq war is no longer the most important issue on the minds of voters (the economy is), and election-year debate about the war, formerly an argument about strategic failure, now must also account for provisional successes.
Indeed, because of the reductions in Iraq’s violence, General Petraeus has been cast in the Presidential campaign’s emerging narrative as a sort of Mesopotamian oracle, one that must be consulted or honored by the two remaining candidates. In July, Senator Barack Obama went to Iraq and saw the General; he was rewarded, courtesy of Petraeus’s energetic press aides, with an iconic photograph, printed in many dozens of newspapers, which showed the Senator aboard a command helicopter, smiling confidently at the General’s side. A few weeks later, Senator John McCain, while speaking at a nationally televised forum hosted by the evangelist Rick Warren, invoked Petraeus as one of the three wisest people he knew; McCain called the General “one of the great military leaders in American history.” Afterward, on the campaign trail, the Republican Senator attacked Obama for not being as staunch an acolyte of Petraeus as McCain has been.
Within the Army itself, as the field commander who has presided over the only sustained drop in Iraq’s death toll since the war began, Petraeus has become the most influential general of his era. Recently, the Army Secretary asked him to chair a panel to select about two per cent of the Army’s full colonels for promotion to brigadier or one-star general; through this assignment, Petraeus helped to identify the men and women who will lead the institution for the next decade or more. The National Defense Strategy paper issued by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates this summer bears the imprint of Petraeus’s ideas about military doctrine, particularly his belief that the Army must organize itself to be as competent at stabilizing impoverished countries as it is at high-intensity combat. Beginning in mid-September, as the leader of CENTCOM—Central Command—the General will oversee all U.S. military forces between Pakistan and Egypt and attempt to apply lessons from his Iraq campaign to the intensifying war in Afghanistan.
Petraeus’s influence has spread within the Pentagon even as some military officers continue to debate exactly why violence in Iraq has declined, how the role of the surge should be interpreted, and how its strategic costs should be assessed. This internal discourse is not widely publicized; it takes place in privately circulated white papers and in specialty periodicals such as Small Wars Journal. One of its provocateurs is Colonel Gian Gentile, a historian at West Point, who has served two tours in Iraq, most recently in 2006, as a cavalry squadron commander in Baghdad; he argues that Petraeus’s command has had only a marginal effect on events, and that the recent fall-off in violence has been due mostly to local causes, such as a decision by Sunni tribes to turn against Al Qaeda, which began before the added deployments. “If we convince ourselves that it was the surge that was the primary cause for the lowering of violence, that may convince us that we can tackle another problem like Iraq in the future and have the same results,” Gentile told me. “It pushes us into a sort of dogmatic view of ourselves.”
Gentile’s view represents a minority dissent within the Army, but it reflects the persistence of debate about the war’s implications among the military professionals who have borne its burdens. The surge is a particularly complex subject; the term is not easy to define, because the scope of Petraeus’s command has encompassed much more than the deployment of additional American combat troops, as ordered by Bush. These days, when “the surge” is employed as a shorthand label, it is usually intended to refer also to the application of new battlefield tactics by Petraeus and his commanders, and to the political work carried out by the General and Ambassador Ryan Crocker during 2007 and 2008. (Crocker arrived in Iraq shortly after Petraeus, in early 2007, and they have worked together closely.) By that broader definition, many independent analysts and, by now, many Democrats, including Obama, credit Petraeus and the surge for the relative quiet in Iraq. The General’s command has certainly benefitted from unplanned events—the turn by Sunni tribes, above all. And yet “it was Petraeus who had the wit to seize on that and exploit it,” Toby Dodge, a British political scientist who has occasionally advised the General, said.
A separate question, Dodge noted, is how durable the ceasefires and political accommodations fashioned by the surge will prove to be. Arrangements Petraeus has made with Iraq’s Sunni tribes, for example, have clearly helped to reduce violence, and thus have proved to be a gamble worth taking, Dodge said, and yet “that’s not bringing the state into people’s lives—that’s recognizing powerful actors on the ground and giving them autonomy.” Some American skeptics of Petraeus’s achievements go further: they argue that the General’s reliance on local deals (sometimes referred to as a “bottom-up” approach) may yet exacerbate the country’s instability. Unless the United States can craft a much more successful effort, reinforced by international diplomacy, to strengthen Iraq’s central government, “we’re midwifing the dissolution of the country,” Steven Simon, a senior director at the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration, said. He continued, “There are two things that every successful state in the Middle East has had to do to insure its viability. One is to stamp out warlordism, and the other is to suppress tribalism. Where that has not happened, you find unsuccessful states, like Yemen, for example—and now Iraq. . . . We’re creating dependencies in a decentralized state that will be at risk when we leave.”
Simon’s argument points to a tenet of Petraeus’s command philosophy, one that might be called constructive opportunism. “One of the keys with counter-insurgency is that every province is a unique case,” Petraeus told me. “What you’re trying to figure out is what works—right here, right now.” In defense of his approach in Iraq, the General and his staff argue, essentially, that they inherited a war of many fronts and managed to stop it, or at least pause it—an achievement that they regard as necessary and remarkable but also insufficient. Indeed, how sturdy Iraq’s patchwork calm will prove to be, and how it might best be reinforced, in the context of America’s broader national-security and economic interests, are questions that await the next President—as well as Petraeus, serving as that President’s commander of United States forces in the Middle East.
Petraeus is not a physically imposing man; he is five feet nine inches tall, and he possesses the slender physique of a fitness enthusiast. Years ago, he swept top honors at Ranger School, one of the military’s most difficult endurance tests, and he is still known within the Army as a fiercely competitive runner and performer of one-armed pushups. When victorious, he is not always a paragon of gracious rectitude: “You can write that off on your income tax as education” is one of his trash-talking lines. His upper body tilts slightly as a result of two traumatic non-combat injuries. In 1991, a soldier under his command accidentally fired a rifle; the bullet struck Petraeus in the chest and opened a bleeding wound. (The thoracic surgeon who saved him at a Tennessee hospital was Bill Frist, later the Senate Majority Leader.) Eight years ago, Petraeus’s parachute failed to open on a training jump; he plummeted sixty feet, smashing his pelvis. None of this has discouraged him from continuing to run and exercise aggressively, although recently, according to several of his aides, he has toned down his competitive displays. As Command Sergeant Major Marvin Hill, who has twice served as Petraeus’s highest-ranking noncommissioned officer, put it, “The self-actualization box has been checked.”
The General leads the Iraq war in the style of a corporate chief executive, one influenced by the recent managerial preference for “flatness,” or horizontal forms of communication. He told me that as Commanding General he believes he should not only direct battlefield action but also disseminate a few easy-to-grasp concepts about the war’s prosecution, which subordinate officers can then interpret on their own. He does this by continually re-stating what is known as “the commander’s intent,” in letters to the troops, in e-mails, in PowerPoint and storyboard briefings, on visits to the field, and in commentary at his daily morning meeting with senior commanders—the Battlefield Update Assessment, or BUA, referred to by all who participate as “the boo-uh.”
Petraeus is a professional briefer, and with a PowerPoint slide before him he will slip into a salesman’s rapid-fire patter. He illustrates his remarks with a laser pointer; he will swirl a bright dot of emerald light around a particular sentence fragment until a listener risks succumbing to hypnosis. Petraeus and his staff will discuss at length the shading of colors on a slide, or the direction of arrows depicting causality. When I asked, in a skeptical tone, about this passionate use of PowerPoint, the General responded in the staccato of the medium: “It’s how you communicate big ideas—to communicate them effectively.”
The underlying text from which Petraeus proselytizes these days is a classified document, totalling several hundred pages, called the Joint Campaign Plan, written by Petraeus and Crocker. In essence, it is the Iraq war plan, although it prescribes many activities other than war. Petraeus began rewriting the plan during the first days of his command; Bush formally approved the current version in November, 2007. It is divided into four main “lines of operation”—security, politics, diplomacy, and economics—and it lays out the approaches to counter-insurgency that Petraeus favors. These include a strong emphasis on keeping civilians safe, in order to isolate violent groups and create conditions for delivery of better government services; to accomplish this, Petraeus has pushed U.S. and Iraqi soldiers into Baghdad’s neighborhoods. The plan’s ultimate goal is to move all U.S. forces from direct combat to a more removed posture of “overwatch,” wherein the United States would provide logistical, intelligence, and air support to Iraq’s Army and national police.
More than any single document, Petraeus’s Joint Campaign Plan is the framework for Iraq policy which America’s next President will inherit. In many ways, the document is a compendium of the intellectual history of the surge—a history, like Petraeus’s own rise within the Army, that begins with the reckonings of Vietnam.
Petraeus matriculated at West Point in 1970. He excelled there, not least in his social life; he dated and later married the superintendent’s daughter. “Obviously,” recalled Conrad Crane, a classmate who now teaches military history at the Army War College, this “would give him a certain reputation. But he was very competent, very capable, not egotistical.”
It was not a particularly uplifting time at West Point. The dropout rate in Petraeus’s class ran high; a failing war shadowed the Army and the cadets who would enter it. “We were basically watching Vietnam collapse on television,” Crane recalled. “It was hard to forget.”
When I asked Petraeus, one recent morning in Baghdad, what impact Vietnam had on him as a cadet and a young officer, he replied that it “was not that significant, believe it or not.” He would read the Times each morning, he explained, and he would attend occasional football games at civilian universities whose campuses were engulfed by antiwar protests. Debates about gender and race “were swirling around in America at the time, and that, I guess, caused all Americans to question authority. . . . We weren’t immune.” And yet he enjoyed a relatively cloistered existence, he said.
Petraeus attended an airborne school in France after graduation and consorted there with French paratroopers who had fought in Vietnam during the nineteen-fifties. Intrigued, he began to read. It was through books that he entered into Vietnam in depth. He read the military historian Bernard Fall’s accounts of French failure during the fifties, “Hell in a Very Small Place” and “A Street Without Joy.” He read, too, the work of American journalists, such as “The Best and the Brightest,” David Halberstam’s portrait of the arrogance of the war’s overseers in Washington; and Neil Sheehan’s account of an ambitious American specialist in counter-insurgency, John Paul Vann (part of which ran in this magazine). That book, “A Bright Shining Lie,” Petraeus recalled, “seemed to put a sort of punctuation mark on the whole scholarship.”
By the mid-nineteen-eighties, Petraeus had become one of a small circle of post-Vietnam military officers who had developed an interest in counter-insurgency doctrine. At the time, this was a neglected subject within the Army. In the late Cold War period, and during the nineteen-nineties, the Army embraced what became known as the Powell Doctrine, which emphasized the decisive use of overwhelming force in conventional wars, as well as the enunciation of clear exit strategies for U.S. troops. Powell’s cohort of officers had served in Vietnam and had known the war’s entrapments firsthand; their doctrinal emphasis on short, popular, winnable wars was designed to prevent the recurrence of such a catastrophe. But Petraeus and those around him believed “deep in their bones that we don’t get to choose what kind of wars we fight,” John Nagl, a 1988 West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who became part of Petraeus’s circle, said. They felt that it was therefore essential to vanquish Vietnam’s ghosts and learn to wage irregular war successfully.
These officers developed a particular interest in the generalship of Creighton Abrams, who assumed command of U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1968, after William Westmoreland. Westmoreland had failed in his campaign to destroy the Vietcong through a war of attrition that emphasized devastating firepower. Abrams tried a more supple approach, stressing population security and improved governance. The General’s 1969 campaign plan for Vietnam, titled “One War,” anticipated the Joint Campaign Plan that Petraeus would write in Iraq.
At Princeton, in 1987, Petraeus finished a three-hundred-and-twenty-eight-page dissertation on what he described as “the impact of Vietnam on America’s senior military with respect to their most important task—advising the nation’s leadership on the use of American military forces in potential combat situations.” Reviewing geopolitical crises after the fall of Saigon, Petraeus observed a pattern of “military caution” in the United States caused by Vietnam’s “chastening effect.” He also described in disapproving tones the Army’s reduction of counter-insurgency training. The “world situation” would determine how long this “Vietnam legacy” would endure, he concluded; among the trends that might force the Army to return to the challenge of irregular warfare, Petraeus forecast, was “the rise of terrorism.”
The General arrived in Iraq for the first time in March, 2003, as the invasion began, in command of the 101st Airborne Division, one of three divisions assigned to the initial drive toward Baghdad. On the afternoon of March 26th, just six days into the war, he stood on the outskirts of Najaf with Rick Atkinson, the journalist and military historian, and observed combat involving irregular Iraqi fedayeen forces. “Tell me how this ends,” he remarked to Atkinson, referring to the war now unleashed around them. “Eight years and eight divisions?” This was the estimate that General Matthew Ridgway had given President Eisenhower when the latter inquired what it might take to rescue French forces from their debacle in Vietnam.
I asked Petraeus why he was so quick to voice such wry pessimism about the war’s likely duration. “It was a sense that we’re just taking the leadership structure off this country that’s held it together,” he said. “And we’re taking the top off it with a pretty thin density of troops. And so it’s ‘O.K.—what’s next? How does this go forward?’ ” In Najaf that first week, he recalled, he tried in vain to find a mayor who could help him stabilize the city. “I mean, everything just disappeared,” he said. “You could just feel that this is going to be really hard.”
President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did not share this intuition. The subsequent failures of White House leadership, blindness at the Pentagon, civilian arrogance in Baghdad, and misguided generalship in the field have been richly documented in such books as “Cobra II,” by Michael Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor; “Fiasco,” by Thomas Ricks; “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran; “The Assassins’ Gate,” by George Packer; and “State of Denial,” by Bob Woodward. Again and again, from 2004 until 2006, American military commanders in Iraq found that they did not have enough American and Iraqi troops to provide security for civilians or to hold ground once it had been cleared of enemy fighters. The generals made killing and imprisoning insurgents their priority, instead of attempting to change the conditions in which the insurgency thrived, and they repeatedly overestimated the reliability of Iraqi forces; Petraeus himself contributed to this last pattern of error, during his second tour in the country, between 2004 and 2005, when he oversaw a command to train and equip Iraqi soldiers and police.
In December, 2005, Iraqi citizens braved violence to elect a parliament. The Bush Administration hoped a credible government might emerge in Baghdad, but negotiations to identify a new Prime Minister dragged on for months. Amid this stalemate, in February, 2006, Al Qaeda-inspired bombers damaged a beautiful and renowned Shia mosque in the city of Samarra; in the aftermath, Iraq descended into a cruel conflict between Sunnis and Shias. Death squads roamed Baghdad; some of the killers were Shia policemen working from the Interior Ministry. Bush and his advisers steadfastly refused to call the deepening violence a civil war, although by any reasonable definition it had become one.
According to officials involved in the discussions, it was not until June, 2006, at a retreat called by Bush at Camp David, that the President began seriously to reassess his strategy for Iraq. American policy was then encapsulated by the catchphrase, regularly pronounced by Bush, “As the Iraqis stand up, we’ll stand down.” General John Abizaid, at CENTCOM, and General George Casey, Jr., the field commander in Iraq, oversaw a war plan that emphasized handing off to Iraqi forces as much of the fighting as possible, as quickly as possible. Abizaid said he was concerned that a large U.S. occupation force would inhibit Iraq’s efforts to govern itself. Casey agreed that reducing the American presence was key. Their outlook complemented Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s endorsement of a relatively small force to carry out the original invasion in 2003, and his subsequent decisions to minimize U.S. troop commitments in order to hasten a transfer of responsibilities to the Iraqis.
The Pentagon had planned to reduce American forces in Iraq from fifteen combat brigades to about twelve by the end of 2006. (The number of soldiers in a combat brigade can range from about thirty-five hundred to as many as five thousand.) In July of that year, however, Casey called Marine General Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to say that, because of the deepening sectarian violence, he did not think he could recommend going forward with those withdrawals. “In fact, I may need to ask for more troops,” Casey said, as Pace recalled it.
Pace concluded that he needed to “do some homework” and to reëxamine the war “from soup to nuts.” He initiated three parallel Iraq strategy reviews that summer—one by Casey and his staff, a second by Abizaid at CENTCOM, and a third by his own office at the Pentagon. Pace told Bush that he would probably need until the autumn to synthesize this work and report back.
The contest under way in the United States to take credit—politically or in the eyes of history—for the recent reduction of violence in Iraq has barely begun; the memories of participants in the White House decision-making that led to the surge are, inevitably, selective, and, as one official involved put it, the deliberations were entirely “non-linear.” According to interviews with civilian and military officials, however, the critical Bush Administration debates occurred during the last six months of 2006, climaxing in the President’s decision to dispatch more troops to Iraq, and to appoint Petraeus as Commanding General early in 2007. The deliberations appear to have been similar to other cases in which postwar American Presidents have decided upon the use of force, at least in one respect: there was a prolonged, often delicate and indirect call-and-response between the White House and the Pentagon about the decision to put soldiers in harm’s way. Rumsfeld, the interlocutor between the President and the military, had long resisted any plan to send American divisions abroad for projects that smacked of nation-building. As Iraq crumbled, however, Bush, Vice-President Cheney, and their staffs nonetheless prodded the Pentagon for more troops. For their part, the Joint Chiefs of Staff resisted these requests and simultaneously adapted to them.
The Joint Chiefs’ 2006 study group on Iraq strategy, under Pace, became known as the Council of Colonels—it was made up of just over a dozen officers selected because of their Iraq combat experience or their reputations as strategic thinkers. Beginning that summer, they worked from cubicles in the Pentagon basement. At periodic meetings in the Tank, the secure conference room of the Joint Chiefs, “anyone could speak,” recalled Peter Mansoor, then an Army colonel, who participated. “You had colonels challenging the thinking of four-star generals and admirals.”
“Like any military operation, without being overly glib about it, you talk about everything from ‘Surrender’ to ‘Nuke ’em,’ ” Pace recalled. In essence, however, he said, “it was always a discussion about how much of our force do we need to commit to buy the Iraqis enough time for their force to do the job. . . . How could we get ourselves back on track to that goal?”
After five years of continuous war in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, the Joint Chiefs were increasingly concerned about the demands being placed upon American land forces; some Pentagon commanders feared that the Army and the Marines were approaching a breaking point. Talented young officers were abandoning their careers because their lengthy overseas deployments made it difficult to hold on to a marriage or start a family. Military recruiters struggled to meet their goals; the Army’s logistics system heaved under the pressure of two expeditionary conflicts. Strategic planners at the Pentagon worried about how well the Army could respond if it had to dispatch troops unexpectedly to a conflict elsewhere in the world.
Any new deployment to Iraq “was going to add additional strain to the armed forces of the United States,” Pace told me. “The math was the math.” Finite combat troop levels in the Army and the Marines meant, for example, that if more troops were dispatched, the length of overseas deployments would have to be increased from twelve to fifteen months—a major new burden on the force.
Bush, however, had invested his Presidency in the Iraq war. Bush told his National Security Council staff, as one of them recalled it, that he feared that if the U.S. did not change its strategy the war would be lost. On another occasion, according to this former official, Bush declared that there were few things he cared about more than the health of the United States military, but losing in Iraq was one of them.
In September, 2006, the N.S.C. began its own review of Iraq policy. “Of the assumptions that were no longer valid, the most important one was that ‘political progress will drive security gains,’ ” Meghan O’Sullivan, then the deputy national-security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, recalled. “At a certain level of violence, you cannot expect people to make serious decisions about their country’s future. Iraq reached that point.”
As a graduate student, O’Sullivan had written her doctoral dissertation on Sri Lanka’s civil war. She was well acquainted with academic theories and case studies about how civil wars end: either the stronger party defeats the weaker, or a third force intervenes to create a truce. In Iraq’s conflict, a decisive victory by the country’s Shia majority over its Sunni minority would likely cost tens of thousands of civilian lives and would also destabilize the Middle East. Unpopular though the United States might be, American soldiers could serve as a third force, O’Sullivan thought. “We believed in my office that U.S. forces were the only neutral force that the Iraqis had,” she said.
In early October, at the instigation of Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national-security adviser, William Luti, a retired U.S. Navy captain who served as a senior director on the N.S.C. for defense policy and strategy, produced a PowerPoint briefing, “Changing the Dynamics in Iraq,” with a detailed subtitle: “Surge and Fight, Create Breathing Space, and Then Accelerate the Transition to Iraqi Control.” Along with similar work developed outside the Administration by defense analysts such as Jack Keane, a retired Vice-Chief of Army Staff, Luti’s briefing provided a framework for a Cabinet-level debate on the possibility of a new Iraq deployment.
On November 7th, American voters handed control of Congress to the Democratic Party, whose leaders had pledged to try to end the war. The next day, Bush accepted Rumsfeld’s resignation, which became effective in mid-December. By this time, Bush later told Fred Barnes, of the Weekly Standard, “I was thinking about a different strategy based upon U.S. troops moving in there in some shape or form, ill-defined at this point, but nevertheless helping to provide more security through a more robust counterinsurgency campaign.”
On November 10, 2006, the President appointed J. D. Crouch, Hadley’s deputy, to chair a new interagency working group on Iraq strategy, a “deputies committee” made up of representatives from a number of Cabinet departments, as well as the Joint Chiefs. This group would pull together and reëxamine the various strategy studies percolating at the Pentagon, the N.S.C., and the State Department. Through the end of the year, Crouch’s group convened as often as six days a week, often for six or eight hours at a time, in Room 208 of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House.
Each participating department submitted an initial policy paper. The State Department’s memo was titled “Advance America’s Interests, Preserve Iraqi Independence.” Its thrust, reflecting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s view at the time, was that the U.S. should limit its ambitions to defending Iraq from Al Qaeda and Iranian-backed extremists, and to preventing sectarian violence from spinning out of control; the paper did not make a case for a surge. The Defense Department’s initial memo, containing the essence of current Pentagon policy, was called “Accelerate the Transition to Self-Reliance.”
The Joint Chiefs’ advice to the White House was complicated, reflecting divided opinion among them, according to the account of its former chairman, Pace. By mid-November, the General told me, the heads of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force were “not at all focussed on ‘accelerating the transition’ ” to Iraqi forces anymore. “We were focussed on, by then, the need to add additional U.S. troops.” At the same time, Pace continued, the service chiefs had also concluded that “a military surge in and of itself was not going to be sufficient.” Unless the Bush Administration developed, in addition, a convincing strategy for improved economic development and governance in Iraq, Pace said, “militarily, we’d be using the reserve assets of the United States inappropriately.”
At a December meeting in the Tank, Bush endorsed the Joint Chiefs’ recommendations for a parallel surge effort in Iraq by the State Department and other U.S. civilian agencies. The President also pledged to seek fresh commitments for reform from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had been appointed in the spring of 2006, and who had worked to only a limited extent with the Bush Administration. Maliki’s control over his own administration seemed questionable; his government displayed little competence, and his cabinet and his allies among Iraq’s Shia Islamist political parties promoted an ardently sectarian agenda. Nonetheless, Bush told the Joint Chiefs he would work to persuade Maliki to become a constructive partner. To assuage his generals further, Bush promised that he would seek a permanent increase in the size of the Army and the Marine Corps; he later requested authority to recruit about a hundred thousand soldiers and marines, which would raise the size of the two forces, including National Guards and reserves, to more than 1.2 million.
It was almost Christmas; the President’s policy reviews had dragged on for nearly half a year. (More than ten thousand Iraqi civilians and more than five hundred American soldiers died in Iraq between the first of June, 2006, and the end of December.) Bush believed that he required such extensive deliberations “at a very minimum,” he told Fred Barnes, in order to win the Joint Chiefs’ support for more troops, and so that other Cabinet departments felt “they had a say in the development of a strategy.”
Petraeus had played only a marginal role in the decision-making. He appeared before Pace’s Council of Colonels and met with Cheney, outlining for the Vice-President his ideas about counter-insurgency. Consulted by the White House during a last round of debate, the General also asked for a deployment of the greatest possible size.
On January 10, 2007, Bush announced in a nationally televised speech that he was sending “more than twenty thousand” additional troops to Iraq. “Many listening tonight will ask why this effort will succeed when previous operations to secure Baghdad did not,” Bush said. “This time, we’ll have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared.”
When Bush appointed Petraeus to the Iraq command, the General was running an Army think tank, the Combined Arms Center, at Fort Leavenworth. The billet had allowed him to tackle the intellectual project he had been working toward since his days at Princeton: a complete rewrite of the Army’s field manual on counter-insurgency operations. On this project, Petraeus had displayed the instincts of a Manhattan book editor. Early on, he organized a conference with Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, inviting journalists and political scientists to contribute their ideas about nation-building. Petraeus recruited as lead drafters his West Point classmate Conrad Crane, the historian, and John Nagl, whose dissertation at Oxford became the influential book “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.” Their final product, Field Manual 3-24, “Counterinsurgency,” published in December, 2006, just as Bush decided upon the surge deployments, was reviewed on the front page of the Sunday Times Book Review, a first in Army field-manual letters.
Its reception reflected Petraeus’s considerable media networking skills as well as the appeal of counter-insurgency doctrine among sections of the country’s liberal-minded intelligentsia. This was warfare for northeastern graduate students—complex, blended with politics, designed to build countries rather than destroy them, and fashioned to minimize violence. It was a doctrine with particular appeal to people who would never own a gun. The field manual illustrated its themes with case-study vignettes whose titles suggested the authors’ ethical ambitions: “Defusing a Confrontation,” “Lose Moral Legitimacy, Lose the War.”
Within the Army, the publication of “Counterinsurgency” marked a triumph for Petraeus and his intellectual allies in their effort to reshape post-Vietnam doctrine: “Throughout its history, the U.S. military has had to relearn the principles of counterinsurgency,” the manual’s introduction declared. “It is time to institutionalize Army and Marine Corps knowledge of this longstanding form of conflict.”
It was one thing to write the book; it would be another to apply its theories in Iraq. “You have all kinds of self-doubt—obviously you do,” Petraeus said when I asked if he had considered whether Iraq might prove impervious to his ideas. That winter, the General noted, as he was preparing for his confirmation hearings, Casey and Zalmay Khalilzad, the outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, had signed a classified evaluation of their own Joint Campaign Plan’s progress; they had used the word “failing.” Petraeus said that he respected Casey greatly; this formal admission struck him as courageous and honorable, but also “quite stark.” He decided to approach the Iraq command as if this would be the “last job” of his Army career, he recalled.
Petraeus asked Peter Mansoor, who had participated in the Council of Colonels, to serve as his executive officer in Iraq, a position similar to that of chief of staff in a civilian office. Just before they departed, in early February, Mansoor, who is a West Point graduate with a doctoral degree in military history, went bowling with his family. He bought his daughter a fifty-cent plastic prize from a gumball-type machine. It turned out to be a poker chip marked with a royal flush. On the flight to Baghdad, Mansoor recalled, he handed the chip to Petraeus and invoked the mantra of high-rolling gamblers. “Hey, sir,” he said. “All in.”
“Population security” was the big idea that Petraeus sought to communicate upon arrival in Iraq. This goal—to make Baghdad’s neighborhoods safe for civilians—was “the overriding objective of our strategy,” he declared in a letter to his troops on March 15th. “We can’t commute to the fight in counter-insurgency operations; rather we have to live with the population we are securing. . . . I also count on each of you to embrace the warrior-builder-diplomat spirit.”
Petraeus and Crocker summoned to Baghdad a group of outside advisers who became known as the Joint Strategic Assessment Team. The members included more than a dozen military officers, Iraq specialists from the State Department, and outside academics who could think conceptually about the war and the application of counter-insurgency doctrine. Among them was David Kilcullen, an Australian specialist on guerrilla warfare, whose unconventional thinking had made him an influential figure in the State Department’s counterterrorism office. Petraeus also invited Stephen Biddle, a military analyst and a Democrat, whose published work about Iraq had previously made the General “very unhappy,” in Biddle’s words. The invitation to join the advisory group, Biddle concluded, spoke to “a different way of thinking and working.” Once in Iraq, he found that if Petraeus believed the tenets of the counter-insurgency field manual were impractical on a particular point, he simply disregarded them. “This clearly was not a guy who feels obliged to follow some cookbook, even one he co-wrote,” Biddle said.
Petraeus divided his time between managing Iraq and managing Washington. “We had to tamp down expectations,” Mansoor recalled. “We had to fight the information war with a variety of audiences in mind. There were the Iraqi people. There were our own forces. There were our own people. There was our own government. . . . General Petraeus kept saying, ‘Things are going to be worse before they get better.’ . . . He wasn’t trying to sell anything. He was very adamant about telling it like it is: ‘Don’t put lipstick on the pig.’ ”
The General’s relationship with Bush proved to be one of the easiest to manage. At least once a week, the General and Ambassador Crocker participated in a videoconference with the President, the Vice-President, General Pace or his deputy, and Admiral William Fallon, Abizaid’s successor at CENTCOM, among others. The video meetings allowed Petraeus and Bush to communicate directly, and they also permitted Bush to avoid ponderous Cabinet-level deliberations by making his intentions on Iraq clear to all of his uniformed commanders simultaneously. Fallon, however, was uneasy about the conferences; the Admiral was Petraeus’s superior, and the videoconferences did not conform to a normal chain of command. Pace supported this approach, as an exigency of war. “For the President to be talking directly to his senior commander in the field makes all the sense in the world in a war where you have the capacity” through video links, he believed. Inexorably, however, tensions developed between Fallon’s command staff, headquartered in Tampa, Florida, and Petraeus’s staff at Victory Base.
Not long after the surge began, for example, Fallon undertook his own independent review of Iraq strategy; he dispatched Vice-Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Jr., to Iraq to examine the war. Fallon had to balance troop deployments to Iraq with requirements elsewhere in the Middle East and Afghanistan. He questioned whether Petraeus might be able to plan troop reductions on a faster timetable. Petraeus ultimately had his way, but the back-and-forth ratcheted up the pressure on the General’s staff. Petraeus’s aides felt that Fallon should be trying to win support for Iraq from neighboring Middle Eastern governments, not second-guessing their strategy and deployment timetables.
In counter-insurgency operations, Petraeus has written, the critical issue for military commanders is “how to think, rather than what to think.” In part because insurgencies and civil conflicts involve political and perceptual contests as well as military ones, “tactics—both those of the enemy and our own—constantly change, and the winning side is generally that which learns faster.”
Bush and his National Security Council staff originally designed the troop increase largely as a way to buy time for Iraq’s senior political leaders to reach agreement on critical national compacts such as sharing oil revenues and reintegrating former Baath Party members into government—a top-down model for the country’s progress. Yet factionalism and sectarian stalemate within the Iraqi cabinet and parliament proved to be intractable throughout 2007 and beyond. Instead, unexpectedly, the most important political development in Iraq during the first year of Petraeus’s command—the change of heart by the Sunni tribes—took place in Anbar Province, a large area stretching to the west of Baghdad, which had been the site of some of the war’s bloodiest fighting for three years after the invasion.
In September, 2006, long before the surge had been decided upon, Sunni tribal sheikhs had approached U.S. Marine commanders and offered to switch sides—to align themselves with the United States against Iraq’s Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militants. The sheikhs had grown weary of Al Qaeda’s brutality, puritanism, and arrogance, and they resented its attempts to take control of tribal smuggling businesses. By the time Petraeus arrived, the Anbar Awakening, as it would become known, had started to spread. Petraeus and his commanders turned it into a national project; they spent millions of dollars of American funds and backed up the Sunni sheikhs with military operations against the tribes’ enemies. Ultimately, during 2007 and 2008, the United States Army hired about a hundred thousand militiamen, known as Sons of Iraq, at three hundred dollars per month, to serve as neighborhood guards; the Army eventually expanded the program to include Shia militiamen. Most of these guardsmen were former insurgents, some with a history of killing Americans. To Petraeus and his advisers, however, the project presented a prime example of adaptive learning. “Anbar, you could just feel it flipping,” Petraeus told me. “Really, the early spring, the mid-spring of 2007, it just started to speed down the chain.”
Initially, as U.S. soldiers pushed into Baghdad neighborhoods they had not previously occupied, violence rose, and that spring more U.S. soldiers and marines died in combat than during any previous period of the war. It was a time when it seemed that Petraeus could not complete a routine meeting without being interrupted by an aide handing him a three-by-five card reporting the latest assassination of an Iraqi ally or the detonation of a car bomb in a Baghdad marketplace. American helicopters crashed; soldiers under the General’s command were kidnapped and mutilated; and when the reports of multiple casualties would arrive, he recalled, “you sort of put your hands on the desk and think about it for a second.”
No general—not even a self-conscious modernizer and communicator like Petraeus—can win the confidence of his own soldiers through the quality of his doctrinal ideas. When the General first arrived, many soldiers and mid-level officers were “leery” of the General’s desire to push into insurgent-infested neighborhoods, “from a force-protection perspective and a creature-comfort perspective,” Marvin Hill, the sergeant major who supervised the force’s noncommissioned officers, said. “There were units on the ground on their third rotation; some of them felt they were being punished for something,” Hill recalled. “The only way you could really get some of the mid-grade leaders to really understand was to say, ‘We will not commute to the fight.’ ” That slogan spoke to their toughness, but, just as important, Petraeus himself came across as “bigger than life in the eyes of the troops,” Hill said. “Competitive, physical—that’s what appeals to them.”
Petraeus “did a lot of reading on Lincoln and Grant,” Mansoor recalled, and he would then talk with his subordinate commanders about “Grant’s idea that we need to stop thinking about what the enemy can do to us—let’s start thinking about what we can do to the enemy.”
“At certain points, this was about force of will and determination and that we are going to prevail,” Petraeus told me. He tried to project an air that was resolute but “not cocky,” he recalled. On the worst days of combat casualties, he and his senior officers—inspired by an anecdote that Petraeus had read—quoted what Grant had reportedly said to William Tecumseh Sherman after a day of carnage at the Battle of Shiloh. As Petraeus described it, “Grant literally has his back to the river—the whole army has its back to the river. He’s in the rain, because the only place with shelter was full of wounded people who were obviously crying out. . . . The rain’s dripping off his hat, and he’s got this soggy cigar, as he always did. Sherman comes up and says, basically, ‘Well, we had a tough day today, Grant.’ And Grant says, ‘Yup. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.’ ”
On a Saturday morning in late July of this year, Petraeus invited me to his morning Battle Update Assessment at Victory Base. The meeting began promptly at seven-thirty. Several dozen officers rose to attention as the General entered an amphitheatre-style room. He took his place before a wall of flat video screens; some of the monitors displayed PowerPoint slides, while others showed the faces of colleagues piped in on secure conferencing lines. The colonels and majors who delivered the morning’s briefings spoke crisply. There was a heavy emphasis on numbers, describing a wide range of subject matter—enemy attacks carried out, development projects completed, kilowatt hours of electricity generated, barrels of oil exported, palm trees sprayed against disease, chicken embryos imported.
Afterward, I joined Petraeus at a nearby helipad and boarded his UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter for a day of what Army officers call “battlefield circulation,” a version of management-by-walking-around. I sat across from the General’s Arabic-language translator, Sadi Othman, an American of Palestinian and Jordanian descent who used to drive a taxi in New York, and who is locally renowned as the first player on the Jordanian national basketball team ever to successfully dunk. We lifted off and flew east above Baghdad’s expanse of flat rooftops. Over his headset, Petraeus talked about the sectarian demographics in particular neighborhoods we passed. He pointed out the many concrete barriers, known as T-walls, that his forces had erected to separate Sunni areas from Shia ones, or to protect mixed districts from hostile outsiders.
Periodically, the General jabbed his finger at scenes below and inventoried what he called “counterintuitive” signs of “normalcy” on Baghdad’s streets—a median strip under repair here, palm trees being planted over there. “This is Iraq—we’ve come a long way,” he declared.
This, though, was not Iraq but, rather, a section of its airspace being traversed by an armed helicopter. Petraeus gives many of these airborne, progress-on-the-march tours to visiting congressmen, journalists, and academics, and there was a cringe-inducing quality to some of his recitations as he skimmed above the country at an altitude of a thousand feet. The statistics about reductions of violence in Iraq are irrefutable; the country’s qualitative experience of loss and partial recovery is perhaps more elusive. Petraeus speaks often about the “fragility” of Iraq’s recent gains, and he is self-consciously cautious about ever voicing broad optimism about the war; yet, as a tour guide and war spokesman, he can sound preternaturally enthusiastic about his command’s achievements. This problem of tone suggested something about the bubble that insulates any military leader at his level, perhaps, but it also pointed toward the treacherous complexity of Petraeus’s performing role in what Army officers refer to as I.O., or information operations.
We flew on to Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces were preparing a local offensive. We landed at Area of Operations Wolfpack, a base occupied by the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, the oldest continuous regiment in the United States Army; “Toujours Prêt” is the motto it adopted during its tour in France during the First World War. After lunch and yet more PowerPoint, we boarded armored Stryker troop transports and rumbled to Moqtadiya, the site of a recent clearing operation by American and Iraqi forces, directed against remnant Al Qaeda cells and criminal Shia kidnapping gangs.
In late-afternoon temperatures well above a hundred and twenty degrees, Petraeus took off his helmet, donned a cloth cap, and embarked on what he called a “market walk” down the town’s main street, a trash-strewn corridor of tea stands, fabric shops, and food stalls. Soldiers of the 2nd Stryker in full battle gear formed a moving phalanx; they jumped around like Secret Service agents on amphetamines. Petraeus often makes these helmetless walks in areas that are, at best, marginally safe; nobody wants to be the captain or colonel in charge of the stroll that goes badly.
The General, who seemed cheerfully indifferent to the dark pools of sweat spreading on the shirts and suits of everyone around him, drank Pepsi with a local police chief and an Iraqi Army general, chatted with the town’s mayor, bought fresh bread, received several hand-scrawled petitions from sullen-looking shopkeepers, and told a joke or two about the lingerie on sale in a store that Petraeus dubbed “the Victoria’s Secret of Moqtadiya.” The townspeople were compliant but sometimes hesitant; even after five years of occupation they seemed to lack a manners guide for how to behave when an American general and his mechanized bodyguard drop by for tea.
After sunset, we boarded a Blackhawk for the flight back to Victory Base. Petraeus settled beside the window and propped his feet on a red picnic cooler. An aide handed him a laptop computer and a satellite cord so he could check his e-mail. “This is what I’ll miss the most,” he remarked—“a morning boo-uh and then just spending the whole day out on the battlefield.”
As we flew through darkness, I raised the subject of public relations. In 2004, on his second tour, Petraeus was placed in charge of training and equipping Iraqi Army and police forces. In September of that year, he published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that later drew some criticism; there were Democrats, in particular, who felt that the General’s statements about the progress he had made in training Iraqi forces were overly optimistic, and might even be interpreted as an improper endorsement of President Bush’s reëlection. (The op-ed piece was cited in the MoveOn ad of September, 2007.) Petraeus regards this criticism as misplaced and unfair; he has long been a published writer, he said, and the Post essay was qualified, and certainly not intended as any kind of political argument.
To some extent, the criticism of the article was directed not at its particular claims but at the author’s high profile. Unlike the other generals who have struggled to rebuild the Iraqi Army since the war began, Petraeus speaks regularly in public and grants more than an occasional interview; the op-ed piece was an extension of his habit of entering unabashedly into the public arena. In part, this reflects his professional beliefs about the importance of strategic communication; it also reflects his ambition. There have been very few successful military commanders who did not wish to be known or honored; Petraeus, however, has made himself visible while commanding a war that is regarded by many of its opponents, and even by some of its supporters, as morally repugnant.
As we flew, I asked if there wasn’t a natural tendency for a general in his position to overestimate the capacity of Iraqi forces, if only out of sheer hopefulness that the indigenous troops could provide a ticket home for American soldiers.
“You have to fight your inner enthusiasm,” he answered over the headset. “The military is a can-do organization.” When he was training those Iraqi battalions, he continued, “I thought the approach was reasonably on track, but sectarian violence over time eroded it.”
I pointed out that giving public voice to optimism about the war might be a way for a general in his position to create momentum for his command. “That’s an area where I learned some lessons,” he replied. “You have to be so precise, so that neither side can use it against you. Either side is trying to use what you say. The idea is to stay away from this whole optimism-pessimism thing. . . . No matter how many qualifiers you put in, there will be a car bomb that day and people will use that against you.”
The lights of Baghdad glowed on the horizon. Petraeus asked the pilot to take a long way around so that we could see an illuminated Shia shrine in the capital’s Kadimiyah neighborhood. As we banked, our helicopter emitted flares, twinkling like holiday sparklers, to distract any heat-seeking missiles that might be fired from the city. A few minutes later, Kadimiyah’s brightly lit mosque appeared on our right side; a neon-lit amusement park glowed to our left. Petraeus talked about the park’s roller coaster, and the hours when it was most crowded, as if this were his home-town county fair.
Over the headset, I tried to summarize a recent essay by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national-security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. Brzezinski had seemed to suggest that a problem with America’s counter-insurgency strategy in countries like Iraq lay in its proximity to European colonial policies; we send out expeditionary armies and civilian administrators whose missions look uncomfortably like those of imperial subdistrict officers of old. Brzezinski, I said, seemed to argue that the United States had yet to come to terms with the strategic requirements of a post-colonial era.
“It’s a wonderful debate to have,” Petraeus answered. “But we are where we are.” The United States had two counter-insurgency wars on its hands, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. My question reminded him, he continued, of a conversation he had joined a couple of nights before, in Amman, at a dinner party attended by Jordanian intellectuals, some of whom were veterans of the Arab world’s anti-colonial Baath Party era. “At a certain point,” he remarked, “you have to say, with respect, ‘Let’s take the rearview mirrors off this bus.’ ”
At the September, 2007, hearings on Iraq’s progress, Petraeus’s questioners included Senator Barack Obama, who noted that under the hearing’s rules he had only “seven minutes,” which he found “a little frustrating,” because the war was “extraordinarily complex.” Obama continued, “The question, I think, that everybody is asking is: How long will this take? And at what point do we say, ‘Enough’?” The Senator’s formulation evoked Petraeus’s own question, on the sixth day of the war: “Tell me how this ends.”
Petraeus opposes a firm timetable for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, because he fears this might lead to a revival of intense violence in the country. At the hearing, Obama asked him, “If we’re there—the same place—a year from now, can you please describe for me any circumstances in which you would make a different recommendation and suggest it is now time for us to start withdrawing our troops? Any scenario?” Ryan Crocker, who accompanied Petraeus that day, offered an answer, but the Senator’s time expired before Petraeus could utter a single word in reply.
Obama’s questions gnawed at the General. The issue was fundamental: What was a minimally acceptable end state in Iraq, from the perspective of American interests?
Obama and Petraeus have some similar talents—they are calm under pressure, cerebral, and adaptive. Their professional relations, however, have not been intimate. After the MoveOn episode, Senate Republicans introduced a resolution, transparently crafted for political effect, to condemn the “General Betray Us” advertisement; this ploy forced Senate Democrats either to cast a vote that would alienate one of their party’s most important grassroots organizations or to cast one that would appear to question Petraeus’s integrity. Obama skipped the vote. Some of Petraeus’s aides took note of his decision disapprovingly. This year, Obama twice telephoned the General and expressed support, and he also praised Petraeus publicly. Still, he was not among those senators who made regular visits to Iraq. Late last spring, after Obama emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee, McCain criticized him for failing to visit the war front or to consult with Petraeus. (McCain had been an early supporter of increased troop deployments to Iraq, a view that brought him into a natural alliance with Petraeus.) Obama scheduled travel to Afghanistan and Iraq; he was accompanied by two Senate colleagues who are military veterans, Chuck Hagel, a Republican, of Nebraska, and Jack Reed, a Democrat, of Rhode Island.
For Petraeus, because “the clock ran out” at the September, 2007, hearing, he recalled, the Senator’s arrival offered “an opportunity” to answer Obama’s question about the way out of Iraq. The main briefing for the three senators took place in a conference room at the U.S. Embassy complex. Petraeus and Crocker had mounted large storyboard charts on easels; for about thirty minutes, Petraeus ticked off bullet points with his laser pointer.
The General later described to me what he sought to convey to Obama about the prospective pace of U.S. troop reductions: “There are very rigorous plans. And they’re being executed. And we actually met the goals that were in much of the security lines for the summer of 2008. Here’s what they are for the summer of 2009—and for the end state, the eventual end state.”
Petraeus spoke about the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who had called a series of ceasefires against U.S. troops during 2007 and 2008. Some analysts have argued that Sadr’s pullback did more to reduce violence in Iraq than U.S. actions. Petraeus told the three senators, he recalled, that these ceasefires had not been undertaken “out of the goodness of their heart” but because U.S. and Iraqi forces had struck at Sadr’s militias and killed many of his commanders and recruits as well as Iranian fighters who worked with him. This battlefield action, rather than Sadr’s ceasefires, had deepened and sustained the lull in Iraq’s violence this summer, Petraeus argued.
The General also reviewed classified charts that outlined the Joint Campaign Plan’s priorities, divisions of labor, and timetables. The plan’s basic prescription, he said, is to move successfully through Iraq’s national elections, scheduled for late 2009, and then to begin a major transition: to get U.S. forces as quickly as possible to a role of pure overwatch. Exactly when this might be achieved, though, and how many troops might be required to make it work, is deliberately omitted from the plan.
The biggest difference between Obama’s goals for Iraq and the current Joint Campaign Plan is the Senator’s pledge to withdraw all American “combat brigades” within sixteen months. (Under his plan, a “residual” U.S. force would remain, to support Iraqi troops and conduct counterterrorism operations.) By contrast, in the Petraeus-authored design, which McCain has endorsed unequivocally, U.S. troop reductions would not be firmly dictated by any timetables but would be “conditions-based.” As the briefing ended and a discussion with the senators began, Petraeus made clear that he hoped to make further troop reductions in the near future, but he reiterated his belief that military commanders in Iraq needed flexibility to manage the pace of these reductions.
Reed cited the declaration made only days before by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, effectively endorsing Obama’s withdrawal deadlines. “You’re going to have timelines—that’s what the Iraqi political leaders will say to their publics,” Reed told Petraeus, as he recalled the thrust of his remarks. “The reality here is there will be some type of timeline or deadline”—and Petraeus and other commanders needed to start adjusting to that.
Obama told Petraeus, in Reed’s recollection, “that his responsibility as a prospective President was not limited to Iraq alone.” Among other American interests that had to be considered, Obama said, was a need to rebalance American forces in the region to reinforce the war in Afghanistan. This would soon be Petraeus’s responsibility, as CENTCOM commander, but the General did not declare his views on that subject.
Immediately after his meetings with Petraeus, Obama described for Terry Moran, of ABC News, what he considered to be the critical issue discussed in the briefing. “The question for me was: Does he consider the gains reversible when it comes to Al Qaeda in Iraq, or some of the Shia militias?” Obama said. “And, if so, what kinds of resources are required to make sure that we reach a tipping point where they can’t reconstitute themselves? And I think what came out of the conversation was a sense that this is not a science. It’s an art.”
Obama also said he refused “to get boxed into what I consider two false choices”; namely, that he should either embrace a “rigid timeline” or pledge, in advance of becoming President, to do in Iraq whatever Petraeus tells him is best, “which is what George Bush says he’s doing—in which case, I’m not doing my job as Commander-in-Chief. I’m essentially simply rubber-stamping decisions that are made on the ground.” The Senator’s distinction involves some intellectual acrobatics, but his meaning seems clear enough: Obama prefers his announced timeline, but he is not wedded to it.
Iraq may yet pull away, once again, from the presumptions of all American politicians and planners. During my recent visit, I discussed the war with several dozen American and British generals, colonels, and majors, and many of them described the conflict as having recently entered a new phase. Iraq’s government, they said, is increasingly animated by independent ambition. This has been evident, for example, in recent negotiations between Maliki’s administration and the United States over a new legal framework that would permit American troops to remain in the country; the current agreement, endorsed by the United Nations, expires at the end of the year. The negotiations are continuing, and the outcome is uncertain, but some on the Iraqi side have started to suggest that all American soldiers—not only combat troops—should leave Iraq within a very few years. Iraqi nationalism is rising, along with popular pride in the recent achievements of the rebuilt Iraqi Army, such as its successful operations, earlier this year, against the militias of Sadr in Baghdad and in the southern city of Basra. This gathering sense of Iraqi sovereignty and prerogative is, of course, the stated goal of U.S. policy, but it may prove to be no easier to manage on American terms than the insurgency was.
There remains a list of dangers that could reignite violence or even civil war in Iraq. Tens of thousands of Sunni Sons of Iraq must yet be transformed from militiamen into government servants in a Shia-dominated administration; so far, Maliki’s government has been slow to accommodate these Sunni tribesmen. Earlier this year, when I spoke with Senator Joseph Biden about the surge, he emphasized the centrality of this challenge. Progress in Iraq will evaporate “unless they figure out what to do about eighty thousand people in the Awakening,” he said. “Guess what? They’re awakened. . . . They want a piece of the action, and they’re not getting any.”
In addition, the battle for control of Kirkuk, a city in an oil-rich region, must still be resolved. Iran continues to arm and train radical Shia cells and to cultivate influence in the Maliki cabinet. There remain multiple possibilities for military or political miscalculation by Maliki’s government, or for the development of a coup attempt against him (a strikingly common form of sudden political change in Iraq during the past half century). With its big Army, weak government, and unpopular politicians, Iraq increasingly resembles the post-colonial states of Africa and the Arab world, which produced coup upon coup during the second half of the twentieth century. Even if Iraq holds on to its embryonic democracy, it may be settling into a state that resembles Algeria or Colombia—unstable, and troubled by internal violence, but secure within its borders, and unthreatened by existential collapse. This may not be the “victory” sought by Bush Administration speechwriters, but for many Americans in both major political parties, after the expenditure of so much blood and treasure in a war that became a strategic cul-de-sac, it would be more than good enough.
On September 16th, at the palace at Victory Base, Petraeus will hand over command of the Iraqi theatre to General Raymond Odierno, who will also be undertaking his third Iraq tour; he served as Petraeus’s deputy during the first period of the surge. Petraeus will move to CENTCOM headquarters, in Tampa. Petraeus was selected for CENTCOM in considerable part because Bush and Gates hope that he can help to turn around the deteriorating war in Afghanistan; both Obama and McCain have said that they intend to increase American troop and financial commitments there. Petraeus did not want to “tip his hand,” he told me, by going into detail about approaches to this next war, but he said that he was wrestling with such questions as how to build up Afghan security forces.
His most daunting challenge may lie in Pakistan, whose western tribal areas have become a sanctuary for Al Qaeda and for a revitalized Taliban movement, which has been widening its authority and launching increasingly effective attacks. To challenge the Taliban inside Pakistan, where American foreign policy is deeply unpopular and U.S. forces can operate only covertly, the United States relies almost exclusively on the Pakistan Army. “What works in Iraq definitely won’t work in Pakistan in the same way,” Petraeus said. “I mean, you cannot envision large numbers of Americans on the ground in any scenario, at least not in the way that they are here.”
Petraeus will also oversee General Odierno in Iraq. Even so, none of the large questions about when and how the war in Iraq ends will be Petraeus’s to decide; they will belong to the civilian chain of command in the next Administration. The General insists that he has no Presidential ambitions of his own; when the subject came up between us, he quoted the country-song lyric “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”
During our last meeting in Baghdad, in his office at the Embassy, we talked about the issue of political and military uncertainty—in Iraq and in the United States. Even if the next American President accepted Petraeus’s conditions-based formula for troop reductions, and if Iraq’s government acquiesced, I asked him, what would that mean, as a practical matter? How would the size and timing of troop withdrawals actually be determined?
In reply, the General spoke with some energy about the military planning process he oversees—how a forward headquarters in one Iraqi province can be closed and consolidated, for example, and how one can carefully “thin out” U.S. troops by building advisory teams with Iraqi brigades, and how his own knowledge of particular Iraqi commanders and units shapes his thinking as he constructs a transition to full Iraqi control. After a few moments, however, the General paused. The kind of planning he was describing was fairly technical, he said; he would probably never discuss that sort of detail with an American President. Like the invasion of Iraq, and like the surge, the withdrawal will have to proceed, ultimately, from a President’s best instincts, with the advice of his generals. “The truth is, at the end of the day, some of that has to be subjective,” Petraeus said. “I mean, there’s no magic formula.” ♦
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