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Petraeus Set for Another Shot at Iraq

Gen. David Petraeus, shown during a tour of an Iraqi Army training facility in June 2004.
Brent Stirton
Getty Images
Gen. David Petraeus, shown during a tour of an Iraqi Army training facility in June 2004.

Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will grill President Bush's new choice to lead the fight in Iraq, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus. He's expected to win easy confirmation to become the top ground commander.

A photo on the cover of Newsweek magazine showed Petraeus in front of a Blackhawk helicopter, wearing combat fatigues, a helmet and thick body armor. It featured five giant words in the center: "Can This Man Save Iraq?"

It's a timely question. But the question was first posed in July 2004, when the White House sent Petraeus to rebuild the Iraqi army.

A few days before he left for that trip, Petraeus stopped at NPR, where All Things Considered host Melissa Block asked him this question:

"How much pressure do you feel to get this done quickly, to get the U.S. troops in a position where they can leave?"

"Well, this obviously has a lot to do with our exit strategy," Petraeus said of his training mission. "So all of us want to move out on this as quickly as we can. But at the same time, we need to have tactical patience. And I think we need to be careful not to overaccelerate this and actually rush to failure."

That was a wise premonition, but Petraeus didn't factor in political pressure from Washington. He ended up doing just what he hoped not to do: rush the process. And for a while, the numbers actually looked good.

The Pentagon was making sunny announcements about how the Iraqi army was ready to roll. First it was 50,000 troops. Then 100,000. And by 2006, 200,000 Iraqi soldiers.

Yet only a tiny fraction of those Iraqis Petraeus trained are actually ready to fight today.

Petraeus is not the only one to blame for this, but remarkably, he wasn't ever really blamed at all. There's a simple reason. Almost everybody loves to love David Petraeus, including the hawkish former Army Gen. Jack Keane.

"I think General Petraeus is absolutely the most qualified general officer we have to undertake a change of mission strategy in Iraq," Keane says.

Retired Gen. John Batiste, a Bush critic, counts himself a Petraeus fan:

"If anybody can figure it out, Dave Petraues can," Batiste says.

And to Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus is "extremely bright, tough-minded, physically tough, a front-line leader," as well as "thoughtful" and "self-confident."

In 2003, Petraeus commanded the Army's 101st Airborne Division in Northern Iraq, with about 20,000 troops under his command.

Unlike the rest of Iraq, his area of command was remarkably stable. Part of the reason was his philosophy of counter insurgency. You win over a population by staying attuned to grievances.

"We don't want to have a situation a month from now when people are saying the equivalent of 'Mussolini didn't give us our personal freedom, but at least the trains ran on time,'" Petraeus said at the time. "'Saddam didn't allow us to speak our mind but at least there was gas at the gas station.'"

It would be nice if this story had a happy ending, but at least so far, it doesn't.

Shortly after Petraeus and his troops left Iraq and returned to Fort Campbell, Ky., in early 2004, most of what they had achieved in their patch of Northern Iraq disintegrated, just as things deteriorated elsewhere in the country.

Now Petraeus finds himself on the verge of returning to Iraq — once again, round three — to work his magic. He has spent the past 15 months writing the Army's new counterinsurgency manual. It's an impressive and massive tome.

But Petraeus now has to put up or shut up. Counterinsurgency theory is... well... theory. And this is the rare case where the person who comes up with the theory is also the one who has to implement it.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Guy Raz
Guy Raz is an independent producer who has been described by the New York Times as "one of the most popular podcasters in history."
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