David Petraeus and the Surge

If George Casey was the Walton Walker of the Iraq war, Gen. David Petraeus would be its Matthew Ridgway, arriving and soberly reassessing the situation and then, through clear thinking and impressive willpower, as well as taking advantage of changes on the ground, putting a new face on it.

Behind him, and enabling him to act, was a major improvement in civil-military discourse. The American position in Iraq began to improve only after President Bush turned away from Casey and his other senior generals and sought the advice of others, asking some hard questions that had been deflected for years. Taken aback by the setbacks suffered by Republican candidates in the midterm elections of 2006, President Bush asked outside experts to come to the White House. It is significant that at his meeting with several strategic thinkers on December 11, 2006, one of the major subjects was accountability and generalship. It is not enough that your generals are good men, advised Eliot Cohen, of Johns Hopkins University; they also must be competent commanders. “Not a single general has been removed for ineffectiveness during the course of this war,” Cohen gently scolded Bush.

The foremost result of that December meeting was that Gen. Petraeus would be selected to replace Casey as the new American commander in Iraq. It is significant that Petraeus was suggested by outsiders and picked by the president. He expressly was not the choice of the military. He was regarded by many of his peers as something of a thrice-cursed outlier—an officer with a doctorate from Princeton who also seemed to enjoy talking to reporters and even to politicians and who had made his peers look bad with his success leading the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul in 2003–4.

Together with Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, Petraeus revamped the American approach in Iraq, taking more risks, moving more aggressively, and, despite suffering an increase in casualties, radically improving the morale of American troops. Petraeus and Odierno also brought in like-minded officers, such as Lt. Gen. James Dubik, another outlying intellectual the Army seemed puzzled by. The common trait in all these officers was the ability to think critically, enabling them to arrive at new solutions when their Army training proved insufficient. Like other successful post-9/11 generals, such as Martin Dempsey (who became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2011) and James Mattis (who became chief of Central Command in 2010), these were not officers who fit the relentlessly tactical mode developed by DePuy but rather men who had, on their own, found the alternative mode supported by Gen. Cushman in the 1970s and ’80s: flexible commanders able to think independently. It is typical of Dubik that, upon retiring a few years later, he decided to pursue a doctorate in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University.

Petraeus and Odierno reversed some of Casey’s directives. They ordered their troops off the big bases where Casey had consolidated them and organized scores of small outposts, “patrol bases,” where groups of perhaps thirty-five to seventy-five soldiers would live near and even among the Iraqi people. They also told subordinates that it was not just acceptable but necessary to begin negotiating with insurgent groups. The biggest change was the hardest to see: They formally demoted “transitioning” to Iraqi security forces from the top American priority to number seven on their mission list. Replacing it as the number-one task was the mission of protecting the Iraqi people.

Equally significantly, Petraeus worked to repair the civil-military relationship at his level. He and the new American ambassador, Ryan Crocker, made it clear that they would work relentlessly closely and expected the same “unity of effort” from their subordinates.

Casey was in the dark about the coming changes. He learned only belatedly that retired Gen. Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the Army, had been bypassing the chain of command and communicating directly with Odierno, a former subordinate of his, and even carrying messages between the White House and Odierno, as well as to Petraeus. Not long after returning to the United States, Casey—kicked upstairs to Army chief of staff, as Westmoreland had been during the Vietnam War—ran into Keane at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and angrily braced him. “We feel—the Chiefs feel—you are way too out in front in advocating a policy for which you are not accountable,” Casey said. “We’re accountable. You’re not accountable. And that’s a problem.” Asked about this in an interview, Casey confirmed the exchange, saying, “I always felt that as a professional military officer if he felt that he had something he thought that he could offer to the mission he ought to have called me or sent it to me or contacted me in some way. And he never did.” Casey’s reasoning was dead wrong. Keane was in fact injecting accountability into the system. He was repairing civil-military discourse by helping civilians ask tough questions about the conduct of the war. Keane’s intervention might superficially resemble the role played by Maxwell Taylor in the early 1960s, but actually it was radically different. Both retired generals alienated the Joint Chiefs of Staff of their time. But Taylor’s actions diminished the quality of civil-military interactions, while Keane’s improved them.

Unlike Ridgway, Petraeus already had served in the war he would transform, with two previous tours in Iraq, the first as commander of the 101st Airborne Division in northern Iraq, in 2003–4. It had not been inevitable that Mosul and the rest of the north would be relatively quiet. Some intelligence analysts had predicted that it would likely be one of the more violent parts of the country, because over 100,000 former Iraqi officers and soldiers lived there, including more than 1,000 retired generals. Nearby were 20,000 Kurdish militiamen, backing conflicting claims to various parts of the region. The city contained so many opponents of the American occupation that Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, chose to hide there. Yet on Petraeus’s watch, Mosul and the surrounding area remained relatively calm. This was in part because Petraeus, operating so far from Baghdad and under the uncertain command of Ricardo Sanchez, was able to run his own operation with his own policies. For example, he was notably more forgiving of former Baathists than was official American policy. As he said in 2004, when he had all but split from Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials, “It is not possible to fire all former Baathists and expect them to become anything other than enemies.”

In many ways, Petraeus in Iraq in 2007 was running higher risks than Ridgway had when he took command in Korea at the end of 1950. Unlike Ridgway, Petraeus did not have the military establishment backing his new direction. Rather, it is striking how many senior officials opposed the changes he and Odierno proposed to make: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the chief of staff of the Army, and the head of Central Command all spoke out against the new course. (Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, would be ousted by Defense Secretary Gates in mid-2007, having served just two years in the job, half the normal tenure.) There also was opposition in Congress to Petraeus’s changes, although that was not expressed with any kind of determination.

But Petraeus and Odierno enjoyed a kind of secret source of support: After four years of often fruitless combat, lower echelons of the American military were receptive to trying a new course. As Petraeus’s executive officer, Col. Peter Mansoor, would observe, “By the beginning of the surge in early 2007, the military had undergone a renaissance in its ability to connect with the Iraqi people, an adaptation that greatly assisted its ability to conduct counterinsurgency operations.”

Although this phase of the war, beginning in early 2007, became known as the surge—with 30,000 additional troops ultimately sent to Iraq, for a peak strength of about 166,000—the number of troops was far less meaningful than how they were employed. The measure of their success, American soldiers were told, was not trends in American casualties but trends in Iraqi civilian losses. Despite their lack of backing from their superiors, Petraeus and Odierno were effective in conveying this message down through the echelons of their command, from corps to divisions to brigades, battalions, companies, and platoons. “Our mindset was not to kill, it was to win,” said Lt. John Burns, leader of a scout platoon in Baghdad during the Petraeus counteroffensive. “We constantly evaluated our situation and made certain we were fighting the war we had and not necessarily the one we wanted.” The time also was ripe for a different American approach. Sunnis had lost control of western Baghdad to Shiite militias, and their backs were to the wall. In Anbar Province, sheikhs were angry with al-Qaeda for muscling in on their cross-border smuggling operations.

Success often looks inevitable in retrospect. But at the time in Iraq, the changes Petraeus and Odierno had implemented looked very risky—and indeed they were. Petraeus’s biggest risk was reaching out to the Sunni insurgents and offering them money to turn sides. He did not clear this move with President Bush. “I don’t think it was something that we needed to ask permission for,” he would say in an interview, but he probably had realized that the best course was not to put the president in a box, but instead to take action first and seek approval afterward.

When Petraeus arrived in Iraq in February 2007, said Philip Zelikow, the State Department strategist, “he basically inherited a strategic void.” It was a surprisingly tough time. In the first days of the surge, there was an average of almost 180 attacks a day on American forces. For several months, through the entire spring of 2007, there was almost no sign that the changes were working. April was ghastly, with Baghdad feeling like a dying city under siege. May was worse, with 126 U.S. combat deaths, the worst month for American troops that year. Petraeus later would call this time “almost an excruciating period . . . [a] horrific nightmare.” In June, a smart colonel who knew Iraq well concluded that Petraeus had lost: “I think he had one shot at winning. Frankly, I think he’s past that point.”

Yet even as that officer spoke, a major shift was under way. It was difficult to perceive and took months to fully emerge. The wide-ranging battle for control of Baghdad, a sprawling metropolis of about five million people, reached its climax in late spring and early summer. By June 2007 the new approach had begun to show results. As summer began, Sunni insurgents began coming over to the American side—not surrendering, but keeping their weapons and going on the American payroll in return for agreeing to cease their attacks on Americans. Eventually, more than 100,000 insurgents would turn. As they did, the sanctuaries of their more hard-core former comrades began evaporating, Petraeus recalled: “We were literally over-running their support zones, if you will, their command and control facilities.” There were ninety-three Americans killed in action in June 2007, then sixty-six in July, fifty-five in August, and, as the changes spread, just fourteen in December. The American role in the war in Iraq began to diminish.

The following year, Petraeus would be promoted to take over Central Command. It looked as if he and those around him were successfully conducting a campaign not just in Iraq but inside the U.S. Army. Underscoring his newfound influence, he had been called back from Iraq to Washington to lead a promotion board to pick the Army’s new class of brigadier generals—an unprecedented assignment for a theater commander in the midst of a war. He appeared to try to push the selection of brigadier generals back toward the Marshall template, picking a slate notably heavy in officers with successful combat commands, especially leading infantry and Special Operations units. Among the colonels picked for promotion was H. R. McMaster, not only author of one of the best studies of senior generalship in the Vietnam War but also leader of one of the first successful counterinsurgency campaigns in northwestern Iraq.

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