President Bush last week tapped Lt. Gen. David Petraeus GS '85, regarded as one of the military's foremost experts in counterinsurgency, to replace Gen. George Casey as the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
When Petraeus receives his fourth star and takes over the command later this winter, he will become the highest-ranking military graduate in Princeton's history, having received a Ph.D. in international relations from the Wilson School.
A career infantry officer who has served two Iraq tours and coauthored the military's new counterinsurgency doctrine, Petraeus is generally recognized as one of the Army's leading experts on irregular warfare.
In addition to Petraeus' nomination, Bush is expected to outline the second element of his new war strategy, including the much-debated "troop surge," in a televised primetime address tonight.
Petraeus' appointment has thus far been well received in the press, the military and Congress. Along with Adm. William Fallon, the new officer in charge of the regional command that includes Iraq and Afghanistan, his nomination is broadly welcomed at a time when Iraq strategy appears to be in crisis. As commander of the 101st Airborne Division, he first gained attention for rebuilding the city of Mosul in 2003, one of the few successes of the war's first year.
But the second element of the strategy shift — an increase in the number of combat units into the country — has proven far more controversial. The White House hopes, however, that with his strong ties to other generals and his popularity with Congress and the press, Petraeus will be able to win support for the strategy and see it through.
"In high command, good relationships and a spirit of collaboration are more important than any history book can tell you," Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who worked with Petraeus on the new counterinsurgency doctrine, said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian.
The question on many officers' minds is whether that popularity and high regard will stay with the "soldier-scholar" if he is put in charge of a strategy unpopular with Congress and the American public.
That may rest with the size and duration of the force increase that Petraeus is offered tonight. According to Rick Atkinson, a Washington Post reporter and military historian who was embedded with the general when he commanded the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, "there's a huge difference between a three-brigade surge for three months and a five-brigade surge with no expiration date," the two extremes from which the president will likely choose tonight.
With 15 brigades and regiments now deployed in Iraq, and a 16th in Kuwait, Atkinson said, "the longer, five-brigade increase would allow for a degree of flexibility and creativity in altering the situation, both in Baghdad and Anbar, that a brief, three-brigade increase would not." Regardless of the popularity of the surge, in other words, Petraeus' vaunted counterinsurgency skills will work best with more troops.
While his predecessor Casey was often seen as being wary of a troop surge, Petraeus, Atkinson was quick to point out, is perceived as more of an advocate, though not a particularly vocal one. Nonetheless, the purist counterinsurgency approach that Petraeus endorses in the field manual pointedly calls for a strong, visible military presence as the best way to combat an insurgency. Atkinson added, however, the new doctrine that Petraeus and Mattis produced last year is "a guide, not a blueprint."
No matter how many brigades he is given, Petraeus is likely to reinforce Baghdad, the main battlefield of the war for the past eight months. Whether or not he also reinforces Anbar province, where a smaller U.S. force has been battling insurgents in Ramadi, Fallujah and other cities for three years, depends on the size of the surge, Mattis and Atkinson said.
"Anbar has always been an economy-of-force operation," explained Mattis, who commanded U.S. troops in the province during much of 2004. "So we tend not to commit the number of American troops to that operation as we might want." With five brigades, that could change.
Many politicians on both sides of the aisle have been quick to condemn the surge. Most recently, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced legislation yesterday that would prevent further troop deployments unless specifically authorized by Congress.
Some of the officers at Central Command and in Iraq who are now being replaced have also been skeptical of the idea of increasing troop levels. Casey and Gen. John Abizaid, whom Fallon will replace, both have advocated an approach that limits the visibility of U.S. combat troops for fear of further inflaming insurgent violence.
The Petraeus-Mattis doctrine acknowledges some of Casey's and Abizaid's concerns. In their field manual, the generals pointedly quote T. E. Lawrence on the subject: "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them."
Significantly, Petraeus and Mattis accept the problem of increased presence leading to increased casualties as a "paradox of counterinsurgency." According to their manual, "the more successful the counterinsurgency is, the less force can be used and the more risk must be accepted." It also emphasizes that to succeed, counterinsurgents must commit for the long haul.
In an interview last fall, Petraeus, then completing work on the counterinsurgency manual, said, "You know, I have the most months of deployment of any senior officer, from two tours in Iraq and one in Bosnia ... so I can attest to the fact that repeated deployments, no matter how rewarding, are a strain, particularly on officers with children."
Now entering his fourth tour, Petraeus' experiences in the theater will be tested as he takes the reins of the highest military command in Iraq. "He's got his work cut out for him," Atkinson acknowledged, "but he has no illusions about that."
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