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A Military Tactician's Political Strategy
Many of Petraeus's critics in Congress and the military didn't seem to recognize what he needed that time for: not to bring the war to a close, but simply to show enough genuine progress that the American people would be willing to stick with it even longer.
Against these critics, Petraeus proved to be more than an effective foe.
'WE HAVE TO RE-LOOK THIS' Two top officers clash over the direction of the war, but one has the president's ear.
When Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called Petraeus in early 2007 to offer him command of coalition forces in Iraq, he also posed another question: What did Petraeus think of Adm. William J. "Fox" Fallon as head of Central Command, overseeing U.S. military operations throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan?
Petraeus hesitated. In his heart, he would have preferred retired Gen. Jack Keane, his longtime mentor and an influential proponent of the new strategy for Iraq. But he didn't say so, instead telling Gates that he didn't know Fallon but that he had heard Keane speak highly of him.
It was an exchange Petraeus would remember ruefully. Over the months that followed, Fallon and Petraeus clashed over resources, strategy and how quickly to reduce the number of troops in Iraq.
Although new to the Middle East and inexperienced in ground warfare, Fallon was one of the most senior officers in the U.S. military and one of the few Vietnam War veterans still on active duty. Petraeus, by contrast, was one of the first members of the military's post-Vietnam generation, becoming a platoon leader in May 1975, days after the last Marine helicopter left Saigon.
As Centcom commander, Fallon was technically Petraeus's new boss. In practice, however, Petraeus bypassed the chain of command and answered directly to Bush, enjoying what was probably the most direct relationship between a frontline general and his commander in chief since the Civil War.
But Fallon prided himself on being a strategic thinker, and he wouldn't step aside simply because Petraeus dealt directly with Bush. Just weeks after taking over Centcom, Fallon called into his office Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero, who was preparing to become Petraeus's strategic adviser in Iraq. For half an hour, the admiral held forth on what was wrong with the war. The theme of the lecture, Barbero recalled, was "I think we have too many troops there; we have to re-look this."
Fallon soon began holding up troop requests for Iraq that until then had been considered routine, such as for a company of engineers or specialists in traumatic brain injuries. "Fallon's default position was 'no.' You had to prove why he was wrong," recalled Maj. Gen. David Fastabend, Barbero's predecessor working for Petraeus. To smooth the way, senior Centcom staffers began to send back-channel notes to Baghdad, advising Petraeus's subordinates on what not to request.
In June, Fallon quietly dispatched an emissary, Rear Adm. James "Sandy" Winnefeld Jr., to Iraq to review Petraeus's strategy. The move antagonized commanders in Baghdad, who regarded Winnefeld as more of a spy or thought he was there merely to validate Fallon's preferences. "He came here with a conclusion and was looking for evidence to fit above that final paragraph of recommendation in his report," said Col. Bill Rapp, head of the Commander's Initiatives Group, Petraeus's internal think tank.
Winnefeld's eventual proposal indeed echoed Fallon's inclination to withdraw the U.S. military from the fighting and move it completely into training of Iraqi forces. Meanwhile, U.S. combat forces would be cut in half, drawing down to 10 brigades during 2007 -- returning to pre-surge levels almost as soon as the five brigades had all arrived, then shedding another five brigades.
To officers in Baghdad, it amounted to the abandonment of the very premise of the surge and a return to the policies that, in their view, had brought the United States to the edge of defeat.