Officers With PhDs Advising War Effort

Gen. David H. Petraeus speaks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., which he led until Friday, when he left for his post in Iraq.
Gen. David H. Petraeus speaks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., which he led until Friday, when he left for his post in Iraq. (By Larry W. Smith -- Getty Images)

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By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 5, 2007

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, is assembling a small band of warrior-intellectuals -- including a quirky Australian anthropologist, a Princeton economist who is the son of a former U.S. attorney general and a military expert on the Vietnam War sharply critical of its top commanders -- in an eleventh-hour effort to reverse the downward trend in the Iraq war.

Army officers tend to refer to the group as "Petraeus guys." They are smart colonels who have been noticed by Petraeus, and who make up one of the most selective clubs in the world: military officers with doctorates from top-flight universities and combat experience in Iraq.

Essentially, the Army is turning the war over to its dissidents, who have criticized the way the service has operated there the past three years, and is letting them try to wage the war their way.

"Their role is crucial if we are to reverse the effects of four years of conventional mind-set fighting an unconventional war," said a Special Forces colonel who knows some of the officers.

But there is widespread skepticism that even this unusual group, with its specialized knowledge of counterinsurgency methods, will be able to win the battle of Baghdad.

"Petraeus's 'brain trust' is an impressive bunch, but I think it's too late to salvage success in Iraq," said a professor at a military war college, who said he thinks that the general will still not have sufficient troops to implement a genuine counterinsurgency strategy and that the United States really has no solution for the sectarian violence tearing apart Iraq.

"It's too late to make a difference in Iraq," agreed Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University expert on terrorism who has advised the U.S. government on the war effort.

Expanded Role for Academics

Having academic specialists advise top commanders is not new. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Petraeus's predecessor, established a small panel of counterinsurgency experts, but it was limited to an advisory role. Also, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, created a "Red Team" to examine his operations from the enemy's perspective and to report directly to him.

Still, the team being assembled by Petraeus promises to be both larger and more influential than anything seen in the U.S. war effort so far, both making plans and helping to implement them. The group's members are very much in the high-energy mold of Petraeus, whose 2003-04 tour commanding the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, the biggest city in northern Iraq, gave the U.S. military one of its few notable success stories of the war. He also holds a PhD in international affairs from Princeton University.

"I cannot think of another case of so many highly educated officers advising a general," said Carter Malkasian, who has advised Marine Corps commanders in Iraq on counterinsurgency and himself holds an Oxford doctorate in the history of war.

As the U.S.-designed campaign to bring security to Baghdad unfolds, Petraeus's chief economic adviser, Col. Michael J. Meese, will coordinate security and reconstruction efforts, trying to ensure that "build" follows the "clear" and "hold" phases of action. Meese also holds a PhD from Princeton, where he studied how the Army historically handled budget cuts. He is the son of former attorney general Edwin Meese III, who was a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, whose December critique helped push the Bush administration to shift its approach in Baghdad.

Petraeus, who along with the group's members declined to be interviewed for this article, has chosen as his chief adviser on counterinsurgency operations an outspoken officer in the Australian Army. Lt. Col. David Kilcullen holds a PhD in anthropology, for which he studied Islamic extremism in Indonesia.


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