The Petraeus Factor
While Congress wrestles with the White House, Gen. David Petraeus is trying to make headway in Iraq. Can he do it?
BAGHDAD-The U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is under no illusions about the difficulty of his task. He keeps by his desk a cartoon from an Arab newspaper depicting a small soldier named David looking up at a ferocious, looming Goliath named Iraq. When he returned here in February to lead the U.S. war effort, he was shocked at how deeply sectarian violence had torn the country over the past year. He visited Baghdad neighborhoods where hundreds or even thousands of Iraqis had been killed or forced to move. "It's by far and away the most complex and challenging environment I've ever seen," Petraeus told U.S. News during an interview at his office-far worse than he encountered on his first two tours here as well as on earlier assignments in the Balkan, Haitian, and Central American conflicts.
It is no exaggeration to say that the future of U.S. policy in Iraq rests on this man's shoulders. Petraeus, a slim, intense man of 54, was chosen to lead what many view as the Bush administration's last-ditch effort to rescue its troubled war effort. He is overseeing a temporary buildup to 170,000 troops under a new plan that aims to dampen violence in Baghdad and thereby give Iraqis an incentive to make peace among themselves. Petraeus was chosen for his experience in political-military conflicts, his intellect-including a Princeton Ph.D.-and a drive that has propelled his career from West Point through a near-fatal training accident (when he took an M-16 round to the chest) to the current challenge of bringing about the best possible end to a war that most Americans now regret waging.
Petraeus has many fans in Congress-which approved him overwhelmingly for the job and for his fourth star-but ebbing American patience means he does not have much time to produce. Reviewing his record since February, Petraeus sits in a straight-back chair, arms folded, with a somber look on his face. Some neighborhoods are safer and fewer Iraqis are being murdered by Shiite death squads, he says, but there have been setbacks as well-particularly the devastating car bombs largely blamed on the Sunni terrorist group al Qaeda in Iraq. "It takes a long time to clear a neighborhood," he says. "This is not for the impatient."
Under the plan, small groups of soldiers are fanning out to live in combat outposts and "joint security stations" to provide round-the-clock security to the population. Whereas U.S. troops previously returned to the safety of large, heavily fortified bases for the night, many are now living out among the people-and the enemy.
Buying time. Since the last of five additional U.S. brigades will not be on the ground until June, Petraeus argues that it will not be possible to assess the results of the security plan until summer's end. But it is critical to get some political progress before then, he says. "This [strategy] is about buying time for Iraqis to reconcile," he says. The Shiite majority has already agreed in principle to share oil revenues with the Sunni and Kurdish minorities, but the details need to be enshrined in law. Similarly, there are four competing versions of a law that would allow more former regime members to participate in government. Provincial elections and provincial powers are two other pending matters. "We have to start getting progress on these issues," he says.
A sense of urgency pervades the military command. Each day at 8 a.m., Petraeus and a phalanx of generals and staff officers file into an amphitheater in Saddam Hussein's former Republican Guard headquarters for the morning briefing. In addition to detailed accounts of military operations and enemy attacks, staff officers report on political developments and a host of economic data. Amid conflicting Iraqi and U.S. reports over car-bomb casualties, Petraeus asks an officer to find the right numbers. "I don't want spin," he says, "just the ground truth."
Petraeus understands that the conflict is inherently political and that his job is as much political as military. He formulated the basic precepts of his approach in an article written after his last tour in Iraq, as head of the command charged with training the new Iraqi security forces. Last year at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, the general drew together a group of experts to help him rewrite the Army's counterinsurgency manual. The Petraeus plan differs dramatically from past strategies in two respects: It is focused on providing security for the population rather than chasing down elusive fighters. And it sees that security as a means to an end, a political settlement rather than an old-fashioned military victory.
If Iraq's endgame is a political settlement, that means the general has to be part battlefield commander, part diplomat-a dual role that seems to fit him well. He has been a visible presence since he arrived in Iraq. Most weeks he visits a crowded market, buys ice cream or candies, and talks to Iraqis.
In this diplomatic gambit, Petraeus's key partner is the new U.S. ambassador, Middle East veteran Ryan Crocker. The two have forged a close bond in contrast to the often toxic relations between the top civilian and military U.S. officials in Iraq in the past. "We are determined that this has to be one mission, one team. That's why my office is right across from his," says Petraeus. As Crocker tells U.S. News: "Lord knows where this is going, but he and I are committed to getting there together."
Both men mince no words when dealing with Iraq's top officials behind closed doors, according to sources who have been present. "This 'tough love' is what Iraq needs," one official says. Crocker, who speaks fluent Arabic and has been ambassador to five countries in the region, has little patience for tirades and prevarications; the situation is far too dire, and time is short. "Both of us engage a wide spectrum of Iraqi leaders," Petraeus says, ranging from the cabinet to provincial leaders to tribal sheiks and technocrats. "I try to encourage group meetings, but everybody wants to have a private, secret meeting," he adds, laughing. Crocker relates the same experience, attributing it to the conspiratorial culture bred by necessity under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.
In fact, some of the meetings are very secret. "There is a pretty substantial effort ongoing to reach out to groups that at least want to oppose al Qaeda," Petraeus says, "which has been helped enormously by having a British three-star who has Northern Ireland experience that is really quite instructive." His deputy commander, Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb, has been meeting with insurgents, militias, and tribal chiefs to see who might be ready to reconcile. Lamb, a special operations veteran who is on his fourth tour in Iraq-the first one was during Desert Storm in 1991-tells U.S. News that his overtures are all coordinated with the Iraqi government. "We are trying to see how we can help, not hinder, the process," he says.
Changing minds. Lamb believes real progress on reconciliation can be made this year. To skeptics, he notes that the current peace in Northern Ireland would have seemed impossible not long ago. Iraq, he says, "has the potential to re-establish itself as a formidable economic power and force for good in the region."
Negotiators see the opportunity to wean large numbers of Sunnis away from the armed struggle, as increasing numbers are fed up with al Qaeda's relentless bombing campaign against civilians and its foreign influence. Tribes in Diyala and Salahuddin province now want to follow the lead of Sunni tribes in Anbar province, who joined provisional militias called "emergency response units" last year and began fighting al Qaeda.
Still, there is the problem that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki resists dealing with key Sunnis. Moreover, Maliki governs by relying almost entirely on a small coterie of Shiite advisers from his Dawa party. Only Maliki and his advisers are in the room for his weekly video teleconferences with President Bush.
In a surprise visit to Iraq on May 9, Vice President Dick Cheney met with Maliki behind closed doors to urge him to move forward. The message from Congress is also loud and clear: U.S. support will evaporate at summer's end if the Iraqi government has not made any progress on political reconciliation. But two formidable obstacles stand in the way. One is the Shiites' desire for power after years of oppression. They are the first Shiites to head an Arab state, and the temptation to play winner-take-all politics is strong. The other obstacle is Shiites' deep fear, paranoia even, that the Baathists will come back to power if they yield an inch.
Those sentiments are powerfully reinforced every time a car bomb explodes. After a recent attack near the most important Shiite shrine, Ambassador Crocker said, "We have got to do everything we can to keep them from hitting a target of cataclysmic proportions. There is a limit beyond which society just begins to come unglued."
The mounting pressure from Washington may help prod Iraq's government. But officials here say that the American bargaining leverage will be fatally weakened if the United States is determined to withdraw from Iraq at all costs. The various Iraqi factions then have no incentive to compromise and instead will seek safety in their own sect's armed camp. Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd, appeals for Americans' patience. "This is not a battle that could be won in any cycle of any administration, and it will not be subject to American political timetables," he says.
Short-term goals. Still, Petraeus and his subordinate generals in Iraq know that to buy more time for the plan to work they need to show some progress by September-when Petraeus is due to report to Congress on the Iraq situation and the impact of deploying the additional nearly 30,000 U.S. troops. A Joint Strategic Assessment Team, led by one of Petraeus's informal "brain trust" members, Col. H.R. McMaster, has just completed a study assessing what goals are achievable in the short term. (President Bush's new war czar, Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, is supposed to help push Petraeus's and Crocker's requests through the bureaucracy.)
Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, Petraeus's West Point classmate, heads the training of the Iraqi security forces. He believes that by year-end, Iraq will be able to defend itself everywhere but Baghdad and Diyala province with help from coalition aircraft and intelligence. The National Police, a wayward Shiite force formed without the U.S. military's oversight, is farther behind the Army. Dempsey reports that half of the eight brigades have been retrained and five brigade commanders suspected of sectarian crimes have been fired. "They have not been prosecuted, but they are out," he says.
The unfolding Baghdad security plan will test just how ready Iraq's forces really are. While one quarter of Iraqi troops are on leave at any time, some units have shown up with half the troops on their rosters. Some officers have been fired for taking on Shiite militias. But there are also good Iraqi officers who take their subordinates to task when they do not perform. A real question is whether Iraq's Shiite-led government wants a professional force, or whether it intends to use the security forces as an instrument to consolidate Shiite control of the country.
There is a newly realistic air among top officers. "There are several reasons why the policy may not work," acknowledges Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who leads day-to-day military operations. "If so, there will come a time when we have to make adjustments." Petraeus knows well just how short that time may be.
This story appears in the May 28, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.