Iraq Will Be Petraeus's Knot to Untie

David H. Petraeus has earned accolades for his work in Iraq ever since the invasion.
David H. Petraeus has earned accolades for his work in Iraq ever since the invasion. (By Christopher Berkey -- Associated Press)
By Rick Atkinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 7, 2007

Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is President Bush's choice to become the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, posed a riddle during the initial march to Baghdad four years ago that now becomes his own conundrum to solve: "Tell me how this ends."

That query, uttered repeatedly to a reporter then embedded in Petraeus's 101st Airborne Division, revealed a flinty skepticism about prospects in Iraq -- and the man now asked to forestall a military debacle.

Long recognized as one of the Army's premier intellectuals, with a PhD from Princeton to complement his West Point education, Petraeus, 54, will inherit one of the toughest assignments handed any senior officer since the Vietnam War. He takes command of 132,000 U.S. troops in a country shattered by insurgency and sectarian bloodletting, with a home front that is divided and disheartened after 3,000 American combat deaths. If his riddle of 2003 remains apt, so does the headline on a Newsweek cover story about Petraeus in July 2004: "Can This Man Save Iraq?"

Skepticism is rife, inside and outside the Army. "Petraeus is being given a losing hand. I say that reluctantly. The war is unmistakably going in the wrong direction," retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey said in an interview yesterday. "The only good news in all this is that Petraeus is so incredibly intelligent and creative. . . . I'm sure he'll say to himself, 'I'm not going to be the last soldier off the roof of the embassy in the Green Zone.' "

Petraeus, if controversial among some peers who deem him arrogant or excessively ambitious, is seen by many others as perhaps the last, best hope for success in Iraq. "If anyone can pick up the baton and run with it, it is David Petraeus," said retired Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, a former Army chief of staff.

After spending 2 1/2 of the past four years in Iraq, as a division commander and then as the officer overseeing the initial reconstruction of Iraqi security forces, Petraeus is known to believe that a stable, pacified Iraq is still possible -- if not probable -- but not without dramatically improved security. Having also served in Bosnia after the catastrophic civil war there, he has told friends that he sees troubling parallels between that country and Iraq. Two months ago, he said, "I actually stay awake occasionally at night trying to figure out the path ahead."

Upon Senate confirmation and the receipt of his fourth star, making him a full general, he is expected to spend some weeks assessing conditions in Iraq and drafting a strategic plan that goes beyond the current debate over whether to increase U.S. troop levels by up to five brigades, roughly 20,000 troops. That "surge" is consistent with the military's new counterinsurgency manual, much of which Petraeus wrote, which stresses protecting the indigenous population and imposing security as a condition for stability.

One of Petraeus's longtime Army patrons, now-retired Gen. Jack Keane, has advocated an even larger deployment this spring. But many strategists say such an increase is pointless without a sweeping economic reconstruction program and a robust rearmament of the Iraqi army with artillery, attack helicopters and other heavy weapons.

Many also say the additional forces to be used in any troop increase are already badly worn down by the military's intense operational tempo since the first deployments to Afghanistan in 2001. The new Democratic leadership in Congress on Friday pointedly rejected even a short-term escalation in U.S. forces in Iraq.

These problems and more confront Petraeus, who has told friends that he has no illusions about the complexity of the job at hand. Unaccustomed to failure, he is, in the words of one former aide, "the most competitive man on the planet." The son of a Dutch sea captain who took refuge in New York during World War II, Petraeus grew up in Cornwall on Hudson, a few miles outside the gates of the U.S. Military Academy, which he entered as a new cadet in July 1970.

"A striver to the max, Dave was always 'going for it' in sports, academics, leadership, and even his social life," the West Point yearbook noted in 1974. A month after graduation, he married Holly Knowlton, the daughter of the academy superintendent. They have two grown children.

As a young lieutenant, Petraeus entered an Army battered by defeat in Vietnam and badly frayed by drugs, lack of discipline and the American public's diminished esteem for the military. Accolades and achievements followed as he moved from post to post. Petraeus received all three prizes awarded in his class at Ranger School, perhaps the Army's toughest physical and psychological challenge, and he later won the George C. Marshall award as the top graduate in the Army Command and General Staff College class of 1983.

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