Our man in Iraq
Lt. Gen. David Petraeus GS '87 is not easy to sum up. In a rapid-fire clip, he recalls studying in Firestone Library's now-defunct Halliburton Map Room, arranging elections in the Iraqi city of Mosul and coauthoring the American military's new counterinsurgency doctrine with equal enthusiasm. And then he effortlessly draws a link between the three.
Having led the 101st Airborne Division into battle and built today's Iraqi Army from the ground up, he has spent more time in Iraq than any other U.S. general. But he also reminisces about his years at the Wilson School and enthusiastically describes the benefits of civilian higher education. One article has called him a "warrior monk" (he laughs at that one), while Capt. Jeanne Hull GS — whom Petraeus "took under his wing" after learning that she had done even better than he did at West Point — uses the term "soldier-scholar."
To Rick Atkinson, a military historian and reporter, Petraeus is a "perpetual student" who "foreshadows the next generation of Army officers [and] the qualities they need to be successful."
"He has enormous influence in shaping what the Army should and will be — not next year, not in five years, but in maybe 20 years," Atkinson said.
During the first of his two yearlong tours of duty in Iraq, Petraeus presided over the reconstruction of the city of Mosul, one of the few success stories of the war's first year. Though Mosul became a battlefield in 2004, it enjoyed a year of relative calm under the 101st, rebounding economically and holding a series of successful municipal elections at a time when other divisions in Iraq were still getting their bearings. Petraeus' second tour, as commander of the effort to train the Iraqi military and police, was more difficult, but by fall 2005, when he returned to America to take over the doctrinal hub of Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., the Iraqi military had grown significantly from the force that notoriously evaporated in Fallujah just before he arrived.
Rising through the ranks
Despite a two-year absence to earn his MPA and Ph.D. at Princeton — a time Petraeus calls "incredibly rewarding" — the general has passed through nearly every echelon of Army command. After graduating from West Point in 1974 ranked 10th in his class, he entered the world of the infantry, becoming a lieutenant in a parachute battalion in Italy.
Petraeus spent much of the 1980s in mechanized units, working with the heavy armor that has been crucial to many units in Iraq. After leaving Princeton he taught at West Point and was assistant to both the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. By 2001, when he was sent to Bosnia, he was one of the Army's most well-rounded one-star generals.
After leading the 101st Airborne into Iraq, Petraeus spent the first of two years in what Maj. Matt Zais GS, who led a company in the 1-502nd Infantry, describes as "a double effort, chiefly to stabilize and assist Mosul and the surrounding areas but also, to do that, to combat a lot of the Army's conventional wisdom."
During the year in Mosul, Zais says, Petraeus "took a holistic approach to the deployment, not just a military approach, which is something many officers have a hard time wrapping their mind around."
Zais and Capt. Mark Crow GS, who also served in the 1-502nd, describe a tour of few combat operations but hundreds of reconstruction projects, patrols "to get to know the guy on the street" and successful efforts to rebuild Mosul's municipal government.
One of the strengths of the 101st during its tour, Zais and Crow said, was Petraeus' command style: "He was always out there," Zais said, "always visiting his battalions, meeting the company commanders, going on patrols with them to get to know the area and the officers."
Almost as soon as he and his division returned to the United States, Petraeus was appointed commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq (MNSTC-I, pronounced "Minsticky"). During his year in Baghdad with MNSTC-I, the general, with Hull as his aide for their third successive deployment, overhauled the plan for rebuilding Iraq's military.
Despite spartan conditions at MNSTC — "I never had more than 60 percent of the officers I was authorized," Hull said — the command that Petraeus patched together by gathering the most intelligent, best-educated officers he knew of was by all accounts successful. Fall 2004 was, the general says, "extremely trying," with Iraqi units taking heavy casualties and deserting during battles in Fallujah and Mosul, which had "spiraled out of control since we left."
Hull described the period as "rock bottom, as bad as it has gotten in Iraq." But by the time Petraeus left a year later, Iraqi forces had performed better than expected during the 2005 elections and a number of Iraqi battalions had begun to share responsibility for towns with U.S. units.
Training a new Army
In the fall of 2005, Petraeus returned to the United States and took his current post as commander of Ft. Leavenworth, the Army's doctrinal nerve center. His tasks there have been varied, but most deal with better preparing Army units for tours of duty in Iraq. Most dramatically, he and Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis have written a new counterinsurgency doctrine for U.S. troops, the first official document on the subject in three decades.
In co-authoring the new doctrine, Atkinson says, the general "was drawing on both his major sets of experiences, the peacekeeping, diplomatic, stability operations approach that he learned in the Balkans and applied so well in Mosul, but also the combat part of it, from Najaf and Karbala, because there's no question that Iraq is an incredibly difficult environment."
Though preparing the Army for Iraq is the most immediate aspect of Petraeus' job, there is an even more important one: as the guardian of tactical doctrine and officer training, he plays a major role in shaping the longterm future of the U.S. Army. "He's one of the Army's pre-eminent thinkers, if not its pre-eminent thinker, in an extremely difficult but crucial time — the transition to a new Army for the duration of this war, in Iraq but also elsewhere," Atkinson said.
Questioned on the topic of safeguarding the Army's post-Iraq viability, Petraeus paused for a moment, then said, "The Army that I was in during the late '70s, after I graduated from West Point in '74, was, as Gen. Meyer, the Chief of Staff, described it, a 'hollow Army.' It was inadequately manned and staffed and very poorly trained, suffering badly from the after-effects of Vietnam and the transition from the draftee army to the all-volunteer Army ... The army spent a lot of difficult time rebuilding from that and recreating its doctrine. No one wants to see our Army go through the 'hollow Army' stage again after Iraq."
'What our Army needs'
To Petraeus, the key to ensuring the Army's future success is grooming and educating the captains and majors who will be tomorrow's colonels. Throughout his time as a general officer, Petraeus has made this a priority, keeping his eyes peeled at every post for promising lieutenants and captains, like Hull and Zais.
In scouting out promising officers, Atkinson said, Petraeus looks above all for a capacity to learn and innovate: "He knows that the Army has to be ready to roll into Baghdad in two weeks, but that officers have to also be prepared to be the viceroy of a third-world province, which doesn't come naturally to a lot of them. For that you have to be partially a diplomat, partially a war fighter, a critical thinker, a reader, a student of history, comfortable in multinational situations and with a wide variety of missions and objectives ... and at some level you have to be like him."
Petraeus sees graduate school, like his time at Princeton, as a good way of fostering these qualities: "Spending two years out there is, and was for me, an incredibly rewarding experience, very eye opening, and in some ways quite humbling as well — you're exposed to people, very, very bright people for the most part, who operate with a wide variety of different assumptions and even basic worldviews from you. That can be a very uncomfortable experience for an Army officer, but it's extremely important, and we've recognized that and increased by several hundred the slots for captains and majors with a couple of deployments under their belt to go off to graduate school at a high-caliber institution."
"What we try to foster through this and other means," Petraeus added, "are young officers who [not only] have the discipline and integrity that every Army officer needs, but also have a well grounded historical perspective and a lifelong learning approach to their experiences, as well as a real willingness to just go do off-the-wall kinds of stuff, try things that don't seem like the normal course for an officer but that allow you to experience other people, other cultures and other points of view."
Hull, Zais and Crow "are stellar examples of that," Petraeus says. "They and more like them, whether that starts at West Point or at the Tiger Battalion at Princeton, are what our Army needs."
Looking forward in Iraq
What does the general with the most experience in Iraq see in the cards for the war there? Petraeus is, says Hull, "cautiously optimistic. He certainly thinks this war, whether it's the war in Iraq or the long war, is something we can win with commitment and effort, but he's also candid about setbacks and poor decisions that we've made."
Petraeus himself offers Mosul, the city he painstakingly developed and which collapsed into violence soon after he left, as a metaphor for Iraq as a whole: "The city has gone through some hard times, and in late '04 some pretty horrific times as it spiraled downward. But luckily, with time and hard work on the part of the brigades that have served there, Mosul has spiraled up again, and it's far, far better now that it was."
"Which isn't to say that it'll be easy from here forward," he added. "It won't be."
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