Gen. Petraeus and the New Team

Historians, military strategists and journalists discuss the new leadership on the ground in Iraq, as of early 2007, and what it might mean.

Thomas Ricks
The Washington Post

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…[A]t the end of '06 …that's where you get this wholesale changeover that not a lot of people noticed. Casey, Khalilzad, Abizaid and [Gen. Peter] Chiarelli, [commander, Multi-National Corps-Iraq, 2005-2006] are all moved out, and Petraeus, [Gen. William J.] Fallon, Ryan Crocker, and [Gen. Raymond] Odierno are moved in as their replacements. It was the biggest change in the people on the ground in Iraq since the summer of '03. And the reason, I was told, was the White House wanted not only a new strategy, but new people to implement that strategy.

I think the commonality in the new crew is the willingness to take one last shot at this. At the same time, there's an element of realism that runs through them. Petraeus wrote his Ph.D. at Princeton on the French in Vietnam, and [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates himself I believe has a Ph.D., and has studied Soviet politics in the Third World.

So I think while they also take this last, best shot in Iraq, they're also thinking about, what happens if it doesn't work?

Gen Jack Keane (Ret.)
Army vice chief of staff, 1999-'04

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…It's as demanding, I think, a position we placed a general in, in my understanding of our history -- his rucksack is very, very heavy, to be sure. And that's the truth of it. He's got military functions to perform in the theater, significant political functions in assisting Prime Minister Maliki and Amb. Crocker, and also obligations back here to keep the American people informed, and specifically the Congress of the United States. He walks a difficult line not only here, but also in Iraq itself. It's very challenging; it's complex; it's hard.

But, as he likes to say, it's not hopeless. And he's up to the task. I found him to be extraordinary in the way he's dealing with this thing. Watched him very closely. I'm biased, obviously, because I've known Petraeus for years. But even all the talents I knew he had, watching what he is doing over there is remarkable. He is clearly the best that we have available to do this job.

... Why did he do it? You talk about a thankless -- as you say, the heaviest rucksack. Why does a guy do that?

He's on active duty; he's in uniform. The country asks him to do something, his first instincts are to answer the call, because that's what a soldier always does: He answers to call, and he doesn't question whether it's a good call or not. When you can't do that, then you should probably stop being a soldier, because at its essence, that's what being a soldier is all about. And though he [may] be a general, he is at his core a soldier, and he's just answering the call to duty.

Philip Zelikow
Counselor, State Department

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…The biggest obstacle Petraeus faces is that I think he's going to have to come in and write a strategy that hasn't been written yet. Washington couldn't do that work that hadn't been done in Baghdad, and hasn't really been done yet, in my judgment.

I think [Petraeus] and the people with him may actually do it the right way and come up with honest conclusions about it. If they do, I think we're going to be reinventing the strategy on the fly. Speaking now in February of '07 -- I don't think he knows yet really what he's going to need.

Then he has a situation in which the political scope to get what he needs done is now so much narrower than it was earlier, because the occupation is now entering its fifth year, and we've substantially worn out our welcome there. The scope for action is more limited. The scope of resources that the American military can make available to him is more limited, and the political will inside the United States is narrowed.

Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies

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…The group that's there, Petraeus, Odierno, McMaster, ... you've seen them, you've watched them. What are we likely to get out of that group that may be different than what's been happening before?

I think you have a far more practical group of war fighters who do understand political and economic dimensions. They're focused on a task which is very, very challenging. ...

What may happen is they succeed for all the wrong reasons. And I say that in the sense that they succeed largely because the Shiites essentially use them to consolidate Shiite power at the expense of the Sunnis and work out some deal with the Kurds. That doesn't mean that if you can succeed more broadly in Baghdad, and it is going to be months before we know, ... then there is some prospect that this victory could have more strategic meaning.

But I think the problem is we've put very, very good people in three years too late without a balancing economic and civil effort which can't possibly be improvised to support them, even in the Baghdad area. And we may well end up winning tactically, defeating the Sunni insurgents while losing strategically, bringing essentially Shiite theological parties to power.

Col. Kalev Sepp (Ret.)
Gen. Casey strategy adviser

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…[I]f you are going to change commanders just to change the dynamic of the war, then Gen. Petraeus -- no one is better prepared, better educated, better experienced to take that particular job, which may be ultimately thankless, because a straightforward military victory in the country of Iraq is probably not achievable. So he is going to try and come out with the least bad outcome that can be managed in Iraq. And that may not be very optimistic, but there's not that much going on in Iraq that indicates that we should hope for anything better than that right now. ...

Frederick Kagan
Military historian

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…I'm a big fan of Dave Petraeus, and I think they got this one exactly right. You've got a guy who was commander of the 101st [Airborne Division] when it went in, saw the initial operation, saw the transition to the post-kinetic phase, ran Mosul, ran the area in the north. Did a pretty good job, by all accounts, but certainly had the experience of having to deal with that from the division commander's viewpoint. Great thing.

Then he came back. And then he went back over to command MNSTC-I [Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq], which was the organization that was designed to train up the Iraqi force. So here you've got a guy who's fought with an American division in a counterinsurgency fight in Iraq, in a tough part of Iraq, and you've got a guy who's also built up the Iraqi security forces and knows what they can do, knows what their issues are and all of that sort of stuff.

Then after that, he goes to Fort Leavenworth, [Kan.], where he oversees the production of a terrific manual on counterinsurgency, and he really gets to think through all of his practical experience and all of the theoretical basis for all of this stuff. And then you send him back. It's as though they had been designing him to be the guy to take charge.

It's not a case of Petraeus needing to get his ticket punched? …

I don't think Dave Petraeus would have taken this job if he felt that he didn't have a chance to win it. You know, when you get to that level of an Army career, you have a lot of options. There are a lot of places that you can go. ... You don't have to take a job like this, and I don't think that Petraeus would have taken that job if he thought he was going to lose.

Michael Gordon
The New York Times

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[Petraeus is] obviously a very dedicated, capable and thoughtful officer. He had some success in Mosul in engaging in nation-building activities, which he basically dreamed up himself since nobody else was thinking this way in Baghdad. At a time when [Ambassador L. Paul] Bremer, [head of Coalition Provisional Authority, 2003-2004], was trying to promulgate a very rigid and sweeping de-Baathification effort, Petraeus managed to persuade Bremer to exempt the professors at Mosul University from this, because otherwise he'd have to shut down the university. ...

What you will have now in Baghdad are two people, first of all, who are committed to the idea that additional U.S. troops can be a positive influence, who haven't been committed to the notion that we have to withdraw to transfer responsibility to the Iraqis. But really, they've changed the mission.

... The mission now is going to be population security. And what do I mean by that? It means so much of the effort before was on enabling the Iraqis, getting them to step up, not doing too much because they have to do it, putting them online as quickly as possible. They stand up; we stand down.

I think now the thinking is more is they stand up, and we also stand up, and together we try to do something that we really haven't done that effectively in Baghdad, which is actually protect the people who live there. ...

It's an entirely different operational concept. We're going to put forces that will stay in these areas, as Gen. [Raymond] Odierno, [commander, MNC-I, 2006-present], says, 24/7. They're going to be a presence there all the time. And that's the hold phase. The Iraqis are supposed to do most of it, but we're going to be there to make sure it actually happens and to kind of stiffen their spine. This is some of what was done in Tal Afar. So they're applying these lessons in this town out west and trying to do it and scale it up and do it to a larger extent in Baghdad. ...

Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich (Ret.)
Defense Department consultant

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…Gen. Petraeus is about the best we have if you're looking for someone who can lead the effort to secure Baghdad and improve our position in Iraq.

On the other hand, there are formidable barriers. First of all, there is this surge in American troops. American military leaders have said the Army is stretched thin. ... Can you really count on the Iraqi government to provide you with the kind of support that you're going to need to secure Baghdad? Can you really count on the Iraqi police forces to be effective? Can you count on the implicit cooperation of Sadr, or will the Iraqi government allow you to go after him and the Mahdi militia and secure Sadr City, which is a population of 2 million within the city of Iraq?

All these deals that Ambassador Khalilzad has been trying to cut with the various factions in Iraq to allow this to occur. The president has just told you that this man is leaving, and in that culture, that means the bazaar is open. We can all try and cut a new deal with Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker, who is reportedly the successor to Ambassador Khalilzad. [Editor's Note: Ryan Crocker was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Iraq in March 2007.] So what does that do for Gen. Petraeus, who is trying to get the cooperation of the Iraq government?

Again, in principle, the idea of securing Baghdad as the first critical step in a city strategy that allows you to progressively secure one area after another in the country is attractive. But you also have to look at the risks. And the risks, I think, are formidable. I think some of the things that the administration has done, for example, changing over the entire senior team that we have in Iraq, make the problem more difficult still.

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posted june 19, 2007

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