The Iraq success story that propelled David Petraeus to the top

November 9, 2012

General David Petraeus walks away from a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter. (DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images))

The first six months after President George W. Bush sent General David Petraeus to lead the U.S.-dominated force in Iraq were some of the worst in a war full of bad months. The fighting had already claimed around 3,000 American lives in its first four years, and casualties steadily climbed all spring. Bombings worsened, including one in a Baghdad market that killed 125, and became more sophisticated. In February, insurgents used chemical weapons for the first time, detonating chlorine gas in three cities. Baghdad saw an average of one car bombing every day that month.

Back in Washington, Bush, who had dismissed both Petraeus's successor and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was shifting responsibility for the war – and thus much of his administration's legacy – to his new general there. He mentioned Petraeus's name 150 times in speeches and press conferences over those six months, according to The Gamble, a history of the war's latter years by then-Post reporter Tom Ricks.

"This is a period in which it gets harder before it gets easier," Petraeus told Ricks that May, anticipating even worse violence that summer and a return to a skeptical Washington. He later called the period of the war "excruciating," watching nervously as his new strategy of community outreach, small military outposts, and political development only saw violence rise. This was in part to be expected: the U.S. had responded to worsening violence in 2005 by bunkering up in sprawling military compounds, letting Iraqi militant groups tear each other and their country apart, so moving back into the field exposed Americans to greater harm. It was nowhere near obvious that the strategy would pay off, and as the summer worsened, many in the newly democratic Congress called for Petraeus to come home and the U.S. to finally withdraw. But that wasn't what happened.

Today, Petraeus has resigned from his post as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the senior-most of several top positions he's held since the 2007 Iraq campaign that won him such prominence. We'll likely hear much in the comings days about the extra-marital affair that lost him his job, and about his role in the still deeply troubled Afghan War, which he ran for a time, and the controversial U.S. drone program, led in part by the CIA. But it's worth looking back to how Petraeus got there in the first place.

Petraeus had entered the war as something of a skeptic. In March 2003, as he led the 101st Airborne Division toward Baghdad, he posed a rhetorical question to the Post's Rick Atkinson: "Tell me how this ends." He added, "Eight divisions and eight years?" in a reference to the U.S. military's early, and dead wrong, assessment of the Vietnam War's costs. Two years later, he ended up at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where he ran the army's general staff college, which gave him distance from the declining war in Iraq and its ugly side-battles in Washington over blame and responsibility. He published on counterinsurgency, an idea that earned him some attention in D.C. policy circles – including some conservative think tanks with access to the White House – and would later guide his "surge" approach in Iraq.  

In many ways, Petraeus's approach was more about helping Iraqis than it was about the American troops and their numbers, an idea not quite conveyed in the "surge" moniker.  Iraqis "felt disrespected, dispossessed, and disgusted," Ricks quotes him as saying. Petraeus had troops move out of the giant bases into smaller outposts across the country; there were 75 just in Baghdad, which helped to fill the security vacuum that had allowed militant groups to run wild and shut down civilian life. He negotiated a ceasefire with the hugely influential Moqtada al-Sadr, a fiery Islamic figure who nominally ran a number of Shia militias in Iraq and today leads a political party with a number of seats in the Parliament. Separately, his team purged police and military forces thought to be riddled with Shia militiamen. 

Controversially, he even started putting some Sunni groups – including some that had previously fought the U.S. – on the American payroll. The "Anbar Awakening" of Sunni groups willing to cooperate with the Americans had begun in 2005, but at a smaller scale. Petraeus recognized that the groups had real community influence and ability to bring security, whether he liked them or not, and brought them on board. At the program's peak in 2008, the U.S. had "contracted" 103,000 fighters who were now ostensibly paid to assist an American-dominated peace rather than the disrupt it. That same year, according to Ricks, the U.S. signed ceasefire deals with 779 separate Iraqi militias.

Petraeus also littered Baghdad with onerous blast walls and checkpoints, making it more difficult for car bombers and separating some Sunni and Shia neighborhoods. He was too late to stop much of the Sunni-Shia violence in the city, though, and the drop-off was due as much to Sunnis having fled or been killed as to any U.S. action. Still, the violence eased enough that American diplomats were able to start putting Shia and Sunni leaders in the same room and have them at least talk productively.

American casualties began dropping precipitously in the fall of 2007 and declined throughout 2008, ending that year one-third of what they'd been the year before. In September 2008, Petraeus handed over command to his successor. The New York Times' Dexter Filkins wrote that he left "Iraq a remarkably safer place than it was when he arrived. Violence has plummeted from its apocalyptic peaks, Iraqi leaders are asserting themselves, and streets that once seemed dead are flourishing with life." Petraeus was lauded in Congress and confirmed to head U.S. Central Command, responsible for all U.S. forces in the Middle East, which he ran until President Obama asked him to lead his own "surge" in Afghanistan in 2010. That effort was not nearly as successful, but he was nonetheless confirmed as CIA director the next year.

The 2007 and 2008 campaign that Petraeus led in Iraq was, of course, far from perfect. Like much of the war, it saw violence, corruption, political turmoil, sectarian infighting – all the dynamics that have plagued Iraq since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, and still trouble it deeply today. Still, he left Iraq and the U.S. effort there in far better shape than he'd found it, overseeing a reversal of the near-apocalyptic decline that, it's easy to forget five years later, deeply traumatized the country and left even far-away Washington shaken.

The debate over how important a role Petraeus really played in Iraq's dramatic improvement – some argue, not without reason, that internal Iraqi forces resolved much of the fighting on their own – will likely continue for years. But it's worth remembering the moment, in the early autumn of 2007, when Iraq began calming in a way that few except Petraeus had considered possible, and when the man who'd entered the war a three-start  major general began his glide through some of the top jobs in military and intelligence before it all came tumbling down.

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Olga Khazan | November 9, 2012