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Looking for the Exit

By Alan L. Gropman,
who is distinguished professor of national security policy at the National Defense University in Washington
Thursday, December 18, 2008

TELL ME HOW THIS ENDS

General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq

By Linda Robinson

PublicAffairs. 411 pp. $27.95

Soon after his arrival as U.S. ambassador in Baghdad in March 2007, Ryan Crocker called for the embassy's entire staff to join American troops on a six-mile run. Crocker himself began jogging regularly with Gen. David Petraeus, then the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Both men were avid runners, but exercise was not the point. According to Linda Robinson's highly readable and informative new book, "Tell Me How This Ends," the main purpose of sweating together was getting together.

Robinson, a veteran war correspondent for U.S. News & World Report who previously wrote "Masters of Chaos," a history of U.S. special forces, writes that Crocker and Petraeus set out to heal a serious divide in "U.S. civilian-military relations" that had plagued the conduct of the war since 2003. "Many Foreign Service officers," she explains, believed "their diplomatic expertise had been shunned by the administration and by [former defense secretary Donald] Rumsfeld's Pentagon in particular, and that they were now being tasked to pick up the pieces of a war that had gone awry. For their part, uniformed officials frequently commented that they were carrying the full load of the country's decision to go to war."

Together, over the course of 2007, the top U.S. civilian and the top U.S. military official in Iraq developed a "good cop, bad cop" routine in their talks with Iraqi leaders ("If you don't agree to do this, you're going to have to deal with him," Crocker would say, jerking a thumb at Petraeus). They even altered the blueprints for the giant U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to replicate the adjoining suites of offices they occupied in the former Republican Guard palace, Robinson says.

The improving security situation in Iraq has been widely attributed to the surge, the increase of about 30,000 troops ordered by President Bush beginning in early 2007. But "Tell Me How This Ends" brings out several additional factors. The cooperation between Petraeus and Crocker is one. Even more important was the change in military strategy that took place under Petraeus. His goal was to provide security for the population, giving Iraqi politicians breathing room to build a functioning government and economy. So he switched the military's top priority from killing adversaries to winning them over, politically. He directed his forces to ally with local Sunni and Shia leaders, and he stationed U.S. forces in Iraqi communities to provide security and build relationships.

Robinson is particularly good at describing why some Sunni leaders became fed up with al-Qaeda's extremism and allied themselves with the Americans in places like Ameriya, a former hotbed of insurgency on Baghdad's western side. In the first years of the war, she reports, al-Qaeda operatives in Ameriya threw acid in the faces of a dozen or more women who dared go outside without head scarves, kidnapped prominent residents for ransom and handcuffed a local man to the steering wheel of an explosives-packed car. Such tactics appalled a large part of the population, and Robinson chronicles the gradual accumulation of trust between a U.S. commander, Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, and a 40-year-old Ameriya militia leader named Abu Abid, culminating in a feast of barbecued giant carp at Abu Abid's house in August 2007.

While Kuehl and his soldiers celebrated with Abu Abid's gunmen, Robinson ducked into a back room with the women of the family. The militia leader's wife brought out a photo of her 1999 wedding "as if to show that they had led a normal life once," Robinson writes. "She looked at the fine white gown and her husband in his tuxedo, and burst into tears."

Robinson's account is full of that kind of poignant observation, rooting her sober analysis in vivid, on-the-ground reporting. In the end, she is optimistic about Iraq's future but cautious about the fragility of its political arrangements. And though she clearly admires the job Petraeus did in Iraq before he moved on to head the U.S. Central Command this year, she is not entirely certain how historians will view him. If the war leads to reasonable stability and gradual reconstruction, she suggests, he will be compared to Gen. Matthew Ridgway, who managed to push back the Chinese and eke out a stalemate on the Korean peninsula. But if Iraq comes "undone despite all of the toil and sacrifice," Robinson concludes, "then Petraeus will inevitably be compared to Gen. Creighton Abrams, whose efforts and innovations did not ultimately save the United States from defeat in Vietnam."

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