May 1, 2008  

Warfighter in chief

Petraeus delivers — to Iraqis and his troops

If he’d shown signs of being interview-weary, it would have been understandable. It was late afternoon on the Friday that capped a week of congressional hearings during which he’d been peppered a thousand different ways with the same question: When are we getting out of Iraq?

But when Army Gen. David Petraeus joined AFJ editors and their colleagues from sister publications Army Times and Defense News, he was far from weary. Relaxed, humorous and ready to engage in conversation on topics that visibly compel and energize him, the field commander was neither question-weary nor war-weary.

His answer on the timing of an Iraq exit remained resolutely the same, of course. American troops — or troopers, as he refers to them, using the cavalry term — will come home when it feels right on the ground. This talk of battlefield geometry “feel” understandably frustrates lawmakers desperately seeking endpoints in an election year. But “feel” is very real and practical from Petraeus’ perspective. Since his first deployment in 2003 as 101st Airborne division commander -the general has accumulated some 4½ years in Iraq. His knowledge of the landscape, terra firma and cultural, is both deep and personal. He will know and recognize success when he sees it, and he won’t pretend to see what’s not there. What he’ll be looking for is “commanders on the ground, Iraqi as well as coalition and local officials, having a feel for the area in which they’re operating and having the confidence that they can, in fact, reduce that presence and thin it out in a way that allows redeployment of additional troops.”

Any drawdown decision will be based on “making sure that the conditions permit it, because we don’t want to put at risk what these great young troopers have fought so hard to achieve.”

During the interview, however, and seemingly motivated by the opportunity to speak to the troops via what he called his “hometown newspaper,” Army Times, he was prepared to give a slightly closer definition of the “when.” A recommendation for a troop reduction might come as soon as the September-October timeframe, he acknowledged (though the logistics demanded by any drawdown mean it could not begin then). He has in mind four or five places where troop reductions might be possible, and will watch developments there keenly with a drawdown in mind.

“We are fairly riveted to some of these locations,” he said. “The concept is to thin our forces out rather than to hand off.”

That thinning — he also referred to “shrink and share” of some bases as Iraqi forces gain strength — isn’t negotiable, he acknowledges. “As I mentioned a number of times on Capitol Hill, there’s a very keen awareness of the strain on the force, the overall force, of the stress on troopers and their families, costs, and on the strategic flexibility because of requirements in Iraq. And so there is, again, very much that informs the desire to draw down further. But, again, to do that without jeopardizing what we fought so hard to achieve over the course of the last year.”

Petraeus retains a soldier’s desire to see and acknowledge battles won. There was a moment in the interview when he learned that the Army had just issued a news release declaring that Special Forces soldiers had destroyed an al-Qaida training camp in Iraq’s Jazeera Desert near the Syrian border. Petraeus’ face lit up. He clearly knew about the operation, but didn’t know the Army would go public about it. He was delighted: “They did? They just announced that? Good!”

And when questioned about counterinsurgency versus conventional operations, the strategic-thinking officer was unleashed. He enthusiastically sketched out “a wonderful slide” that appears in the Army’s new FM 3-0 Operations doctrine manual that sets out the three aspects of full-spectrum operations — offense, defense and stability operations. “No matter where you are on the spectrum of conflict, you are always doing some mix of those,” he said.

Gen. William Caldwell, Petraeus’ successor as commander of the Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., was the lead author of FM 3-0, a thoughtful document that raises stability and civil-support operations to the same level of importance as combat operations, and empowers soldiers to think out of the box and accept risk. It’s a document in tune with its time and which Petraeus excitedly embraces because it makes sense to what he sees around him. As an example, he points to a snapshot of Iraq in November 2004 which, when broken down into divisions, shows there was a mix of combat, defense and stability operations being conducted simultaneously. Today’s and tomorrow’s cadre of junior officers are being weaned on FM 3-0 and the Counterinsurgency Field Manual that preceded it (and which Petraeus helped mastermind).

Whatever and whenever his next assignment, the Petraeus influence across the Army will be far-reaching. There are those who believe the Army is fighting a battle with itself over what kind of Army it will be in the future. On one side are those who believe the Army is too focused on counterinsurgency and risks being unprepared for a future large-scale land war with a peer competitor; on the other are those who argue that tomorrow’s wars will look more like the three-faceted war Petraeus and others see in Iraq.

A wartime commander has three responsibilities: to take the political directive of his commander in chief; to turn that directive into a warfighting strategy that everyone wants to want; and to make it a strategy that motivates and enables those under his command while simultaneously scaring and deterring the enemy. It’s the battlefield commander’s job to give purpose to his troops while denying purpose to the enemy. Petraeus is delivering. He devised a plan in answer to the president’s directive, and it’s a plan that has scored some striking payoffs in areas such as Anbar province. His plan going forward is for more of the same.

“Over time, the mission again is going to be one where we are less in the lead, the Iraqis are more in the lead, and we are more in the enabling mode, the support mode, the operational overwatch mode and so forth,” he said.

Contrary to Bush administration critics, Petraeus is not the president’s puppet and he is not in Iraq to manage Bush’s legacy. Any plan he offers, to this or a future commander in chief, will be only what he believes is the best bet among a set of options, all of them militarily difficult and politically unpalatable. But the best (and most warriorlike) players are those who can win despite being dealt a poor hand.

Petraeus knows to whom he and the Army answer, and he is confident that everyone is best served when he and others give honest answers.

“You know, it’s not my Army or the commanders’ armies. It’s the American, it’s the citizens’ armies. They have a right to know what those forces are doing. I think they have a right to know a little bit about those who are leading them. We need to be forthright and if you have a bad day, you say, ‘We had a bad day.’ And if we make a mistake, we say, ‘We made a mistake and here’s what we have learned from it,’” he said.

Ultimately, however, it will be how the Army leadership handles Petraeus’ fame that will determine what happens next. Petraeus has become a household name – a star – in an institution that typically expels those who stand out from the crowd. Only if the Army can accept that fame can it come to terms with the more important fact that what he’s doing in Iraq is what leadership is all about.