He Wrote the Book. Can He Follow It?

By Sarah Sewall
Sunday, February 25, 2007

If anyone can save Iraq, it's David H. Petraeus, the ultimate can-do general. Installed in Baghdad earlier this month, he's bringing in his A-team and rolling up his sleeves. The question for the history books is before us: Will he be an alchemist, fusing existing elements of a moribund strategy with his knowledge and willpower to erase the United States' biggest mistake since the Vietnam War? Or does success in Iraq require more than is humanly possible?

Many of Petraeus's strongest supporters fear that his new assignment is a no-win mission, one that could not only stain his professional reputation but also, ironically, discredit the new counterinsurgency doctrine he spent the past year creating.

Petraeus is almost unique among senior Army leaders in fully embracing both the theory and practice of counterinsurgency. During two previous tours in Iraq, he provided relative security and fostered economic and political reform in Mosul and Nineveh province and later overhauled the coalition's training of Iraqi forces. He incorporated lessons from these experiences directly into FM 3-24, the revised counterinsurgency field manual whose preparation he oversaw. The new manual challenges the Army to think differently about how it conducts war.

That's why, as director of a human rights center, I supported his efforts by cosponsoring the doctrine revision seminar and helping shape the field manual. It features such counterintuitive paradoxes as "Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be," and "Some of the best weapons do not shoot."

The paradoxes challenge much U.S. military experience in Iraq over the past four years. Winning, the manual says, requires first ensuring the security and well-being of the civilian population -- the center of gravity in these wars. Counterinsurgent forces must integrate into the population, assuming more physical risk to soldiers, and other tools such as money, humanitarian assistance and construction projects are critical to the fight.

On the surface, President Bush's new "surge" strategy appears to coincide with Petraeus's approach to counterinsurgency: providing security for the population and allowing the host government to take charge. But if you hold the president's strategy up to the light of Petraeus's doctrine, there's only one conclusion you can draw: You can't get there from here. The Bush plan is burdened with three main deficiencies: too few capable U.S., allied and Iraqi counterinsurgent forces; weak U.S. efforts at promoting political and economic reform; and corrupt or feckless Iraqi institutions and leadership. The administration's strategy may have changed, but the supporting components have not. And even if the general asks his chain of command to address these shortfalls, it's unlikely that fixes can be found.

According to the new counterinsurgency field manual, the proper "troop-to-task" ratio for Baghdad requires 120,000 U.S. and allied security forces. During his confirmation hearings, Petraeus carefully predicted that the present numbers will rise to 85,000, but only with some important caveats: if there is a full surge of 21,500 additional U.S. troops (recent administration hints of stopping deployments midway through the increase raise questions about this, however), and if you count all Iraqi security forces (which presumes that the troops both report for duty and prove capable -- both large assumptions). If you also count private American and foreign security contractors and the Iraqi guards that protect government ministries, the counterinsurgent numbers increase by tens of thousands.

Petraeus has never denied that the numbers didn't add up to the ideal. Instead, he has said that he could accomplish the security mission by using these forces differently than they have been used in the past, aggressively pushing them out among the population that they are supposed to secure. Petraeus may conclude -- consistent with the field manual -- that he needs more U.S. forces for a longer period of time. But given current political calculations in Washington, neither the administration nor Congress is likely to provide them.

Petraeus's counterinsurgency doctrine also holds that 80 percent of any counterinsurgency effort should be political. Yet the military has always been the 800-pound gorilla in Iraq. Petraeus is politely urging other government departments to play larger roles, and in particular to increase economic assistance to support the security effort. But the State Department can't even fill the civilian slots on the planned additional provincial reconstruction teams it is sending to Iraq; it has asked the Defense Department to provide military officers instead of foreign service officers. And no one has much confidence that State, Treasury or Justice Department support in Iraq will suddenly become effective -- particularly if security continues to disintegrate.

Finally, there is the field manual's mantra: It's the host government, stupid. Petraeus rightly points out that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is still young -- the fourth in 3 1/2 years. Bush's strategy is to provide the government with enough confidence and breathing room to make tough decisions and take decisive action. All good, except that virtually none of the institutions comprising Iraq's government function as advertised. Both the security apparatus and civilian agencies lack effective oversight or a meaningful national identity. The army, police and intelligence agencies are riddled with sectarian divisions and militia influence, while corruption and a lack of expertise erodes public trust in civilian bureaucracies that still cannot provide prewar levels of services.

Breathing space for this Iraqi government may provide life support, but not a cure. Only a soup-to-nuts overhaul focused on carefully vetting and training personnel and holding them accountable -- for years -- could realistically stem the rot. Given limitations in U.S. capacity and will, this is not feasible.

In addition to facing these jarring realities, an administration happy to return Petraeus to Baghdad should consider whether insurgency is even the right label for the sectarian bloodletting in Iraq. If it's really a civil war or worse, as the recent National Intelligence Estimate concluded, how much can an under-resourced counterinsurgency effort accomplish? In civil conflict, security requirements become paramount, in part because the political space for compromise has all but vanished. Stopping a civil war requires still more of the very resources and time that Petraeus currently lacks.

Placed in charge this late in the game, Petraeus should not have to carry the burden of Iraq's probable failure. Yet there is a silver lining in his appointment. Petraeus has the expertise to identify shortfalls and the likelihood of failure, and he has the credibility to force a political response. Even the president would have to take his assessments seriously. Petraeus vowed to provide forthright, professional military advice regarding the mission in Iraq. He testified that, by late summer, he should know whether the strategy is working. He promised to alert not just his immediate military superior, but Congress as well, if the strategy cannot succeed.

Petraeus may provide the ultimate service to the troops and the nation -- and seal his legacy -- not by winning, but by speaking the truth about Iraq.

Sarah Sewall is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University.

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