Clarification to This Article
An extended conversation with General Petraeus after this column was posted online suggests that his differences with the Kurds over Mosul were overstated. I should have noted that the Kurds do not form a majority in the province in which Mosul is located, and that Kurdish leaders have publicly welcomed his new appointment.

In Baghdad, a Test Of the Petraeus Principles

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, January 14, 2007

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the soldier-intellectual chosen by President Bush to provide new leadership in the war in Iraq, got one thing he needed from the president Wednesday night. But what was missing will ultimately be more important than what was provided.

Petraeus, who holds a doctorate from Princeton, is often described as the smartest and most ambitious member of the class of generals and admirals available to Bush. He has been given a rare opportunity to put the theories he has developed as a man of ideas into battlefield practice as a man of action.

Shortly before Bush appointed him to command the multinational forces in Iraq, Petraeus finished assembling a new counterinsurgency training manual for U.S. forces. The manual's opening sections emphasize the importance of political will in avoiding defeat in unconventional warfare:

"Constant reaffirmations of commitment, backed by deeds, can overcome" the perceptions of insurgents and local populations that "a few casualties or a few years will cause the United States to abandon a counterinsurgency effort," the manual states in a passage that could have been the basis for most of Bush's explanation to the nation of a new Iraq strategy. Bush provided the rhetoric of commitment to the struggle that Petraeus says is essential.

But the all-important Iraqi political context for the measured escalation in U.S. forces that Bush outlined remains murky and undeveloped. It falls to Petraeus more than any other individual to fill in the blanks left by Bush.

It is not clear whether Bush is counting on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ineffective and corrupt government to pull itself together suddenly and counter the bloody anarchy gripping Baghdad, as most of the president's words were designed to suggest, or if the president in fact expects American forces to take greater control over Iraqi units and their combat operations, as his actions indicate.

The surge of five brigades into Baghdad is supposed to enable U.S. troops to embed themselves in Iraqi units and to be posted overnight or longer in the capital's most violent neighborhoods. This necessarily undercuts Iraqi commanders and turns the emphasis away from the training of new Iraqi units. Bush mentioned training Iraqis as a primary U.S. mission late and glancingly in his speech.

The appointment of Petraeus is another indication of Bush's willingness to go on the offensive and his dissatisfaction with the cautious, bureaucratic approach taken to the Iraqi campaign by Gen. John Abizaid, who is departing as head of Central Command. Abizaid's repeated protestations to Bush and his national security team that military means could provide only 20 percent of what was needed to make Iraq secure wore thin in White House meetings, officials who were there have told me.

Petraeus, in contrast, highlights the responsibilities of the military in his counterinsurgency blueprint. The manual cogently argues that Western militaries "falsely believe that armies trained to win large conventional wars are automatically prepared to win small, unconventional ones. . . . The military forces that successfully defeat insurgencies are usually those able to overcome their institutional inclination to wage conventional war against insurgents."

Petraeus's determination to take charge of any situation in which he finds himself is a widely noticed characteristic. When he commanded the 101st Airborne Division in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in 2003, he turned even a routine briefing for visiting officials and journalists into an all-encompassing, riveting overview of how military commanders had to work continually at winning hearts and minds.

But his refusal to cede any authority over Mosul to the region's Kurdish majority or to prepare the way for a new political order there alienated one of Iraq's three major population groups. That experience will reinforce the suspicions among some Iraqis that the surge of new troops under his command is intended to reassert U.S. combat control, at least temporarily.

That may not be a bad thing if there is a strong follow-up to provide a new political context for Iraq and the region. But a conceptual flaw that runs through both Bush's speech and the counterinsurgency manual assembled by Petraeus will make that transition difficult if it is not corrected.

These two documents fail to give sufficient weight to the fact that all insurgency is local, to paraphrase Tip O'Neill's famous dictum about American politics. The Petraeus document does note the need to address "local grievances" and the new precision tools of insurgency, such as suicide attacks. But the strategy Petraeus then lays out echoes many of the counterinsurgency practices formulated in the unsuccessful campaigns of Algeria, Vietnam and elsewhere. In all likelihood, David Petraeus's work to design a successful counterinsurgency has only just begun, and against big odds.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company