A Military Tactician's Political Strategy

Capt. Samuel Cook details his unit's efforts to implement an insurgent amnesty program in the Sharqat area of Iraq's. "When we started negotiations, there was a lot of discussion about whether or not this was the right approach," Cook said. "This was a very risky strategy that I felt was worth the risk." Edited by Gaby Bruna/washingtonpost.com
By Thomas E. Ricks
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 9, 2009

As Gen. David H. Petraeus flew into Baghdad in February 2007, preparing to take command of U.S. forces in Iraq, Col. Peter R. Mansoor, his executive officer, knelt alongside his seat. "You know, sir," he said, "the hardest thing for you, if it comes to it, will be to tell the American people and the president that this isn't working."

The general said nothing in response. "But he heard it," Mansoor remembers. And he nodded.

Petraeus arrived for his third tour in Iraq to execute the "surge" strategy developed by Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno and outlined by President George W. Bush a few weeks earlier: 30,000 additional troops, new counterinsurgency tactics, and a mission to protect the population and bring security to a country verging on civil war, with the hope that political reconciliation would follow.

But however daunting his military mission, Petraeus faced no less arduous a political challenge: an impatient American public weary of Iraq, a Democratic Congress bent on ending the war, and a military chain of command eager to draw down forces and suspicious of the Princeton-educated commander who had the ear of the president.

It would be his success on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon as well as in the court of public opinion that would determine the fate of the surge as much as anything that happened in Baghdad. Petraeus proved to be a master on every front.

Throughout his time in Iraq, Petraeus bypassed the chain of command and answered directly to Bush, with whom he held weekly videoconferences from Baghdad. He waged -- and won -- the political fights at home by discreetly but unmistakably downgrading U.S. goals for Iraq, by facing down congressional Democrats, and by winning more time for the new strategy to take hold.

In effect, Petraeus helped lay the groundwork for a much more prolonged engagement in Iraq. The surge itself would last 18 months, with the last of the five additional brigades leaving last summer. But what neither he nor Bush had articulated -- and what lawmakers, the public and even some high up the military chain of command did not recognize -- was that the new strategy was in fact a road map for what military planners called "the long war."

The strategy envisioned a series of stages: First would come increased security. Then, political progress, and with it the creation of a reliable Iraqi army and police force. And all that, even if everything went as planned, could take many, many years.

For Petraeus and Odierno, his second in command, one key to buying time in 2007 was to scale back the Bush administration's ambitions of turning Iraq into a beacon of democracy for the Middle East.

In the course of several weeks that year, "we redefined success in a much more modest way as 'sustainable stability,' " explained Emma Sky, a top adviser to Odierno.

"We're not after the holy grail in Iraq; we're not after Jeffersonian democracy," Petraeus later told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "We're after conditions that would allow our soldiers to disengage."

Another necessity was showing some successes. "The Washington clock is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock," he said in a television interview a few weeks after taking over as commander in Iraq. "So we're obviously trying to speed up the Baghdad clock a bit and to produce some progress on the ground that can, perhaps . . . put a little more time on the Washington clock."

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