A Military Tactician's Political Strategy
In Defending the Troop Increase, Commander Paved Way for a 'Long War'

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."

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.

In midsummer, Barbero recalled, Fallon sent word to Petraeus: Get ready for a change of mission. Security was going to be downgraded as a goal, and a drawdown of forces would begin in the fall.

Petraeus sent word back to Fallon: He disagreed and wanted to continue the mission.

In a series of interviews, Petraeus became testy and tight-lipped about his relationship with the Centcom commander. "Look, this isn't a soap opera," he snapped in January 2008. Fallon declined to be interviewed for this article, but in an earlier interview, in December 2007, he conceded that he might have occasionally stepped on subordinates' toes. "If you're trying to lead," he explained, "you're never going to have everyone wanting to do the same thing."

By early August, field commanders were starting to report better cooperation from Iraqi citizens, and U.S. combat deaths were declining. After the number peaked at 126 in May, 93 U.S. troops were killed in action in June, when the surge forces had all arrived, then 66 in July and 55 in August. Petraeus began to conclude that the surge was working.

That same month, as Petraeus and Rapp were flying from the U.S. base at Taji back to Baghdad, Rapp offered his thoughts on the next step in the war. "The violent way is the short way, and the peaceful way is the long way," he said. "Sir, if we want this competition in Iraq for resources to be resolved peacefully, then we have to prepare people for a long, drawn-out process."

"You know, that's really good," the general replied, and he asked Rapp to produce a memo that would be the core of the testimony Petraeus would give in his eagerly awaited appearance before Congress in September. It was an argument that would put him in direct conflict with Fallon, because it posited that looking for a quick exit was likely to lead to a replay of the violence of 2006.

Petraeus planned to say, recalled Rapp, that "we have the right strategy, the surge is showing initial results, and we need to stay the course. And if you're looking for a drawdown, it isn't going to happen." To try to talk Petraeus out of those recommendations, Fallon flew to Baghdad.

A few days later, Bush seemed to settle the debate: He approved Petraeus's mission statement, which called for maintaining security until the Iraqis could perform that role, and keeping the troops to do it.

Fallon never seemed to grasp that even though Petraeus was technically his subordinate, the general held all the cards. As long as Petraeus, Odierno and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker held a united position, they outweighed not just Fallon but the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well.

'OKAY, WHAT'S YOUR ANSWER?' The general and the ambassador head to a showdown with Congress.

Petraeus and Crocker liked to go running together, and during their runs in the summer of 2007 they spent considerable time talking about how they would handle their joint appearance before Congress in September. It was Petraeus's calculation that the debate in the United States over the war was stalemated, especially over the consequences of a troop pullout from Iraq.

For months, congressional Democrats had expected the hearings to be a decisive moment in the war. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) had said in May, "If we don't see a light at the end of the tunnel, September is going to be a very bleak month for this administration."

Even some Republican allies of Bush agreed that the Iraq strategy was doomed. But Col. Steve Boylan, Petraeus's communications adviser, believed that congressional Democrats, not the general and the president, were the ones in a bind.

"My feeling was that Congress wouldn't be able to put together enough votes to override a presidential veto, because then they'd own it," he said, putting his finger on the Democrats' basic dilemma: how to end the war without being blamed for how it ended.

Petraeus and Crocker were determined to deliver a sober assessment of the situation in Iraq that would not open them up to the charges of blind optimism that had undermined the credibility of past officials. At the Pentagon, Boylan set up a "murder board" to help Petraeus rehearse the weekend before his testimony. Boylan's most pointed question was "Sir, explain to me why we have to lose one more American life in Iraq."

Petraeus responded, "Okay, what's your answer?"

Boylan didn't have one -- but he wanted Petraeus to think about it.

On Sept. 10, the day the hearings began, MoveOn.org, an antiwar group influential in the Democratic Party, ran its now-famous full-page advertisement in the New York Times mocking Petraeus as "General Betray Us." Petraeus, the ad charged, was "at war with the facts." And the facts, as MoveOn saw them, showed that "the surge strategy has failed." In addition, it said, "General Petraeus will not admit what everyone knows: Iraq is mired in an unwinnable religious civil war."

That morning, Rapp rode with Petraeus in a car from Fort Belvoir, near George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, to the Capitol. "Petraeus did a good job of not showing it, but I know it stung," he said. "He was just a little quieter than usual."

Crocker, the lifelong diplomat, took an unemotional approach. "I couldn't believe it," he said. As he read the ad again, his disbelief gave way to a grim smile. "They've screwed themselves," he thought. He knew what Petraeus planned to say, and that it would amount to a "word-by-word rebuttal of that allegation."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, began his panel's session. The president had said that the purpose of the surge was to buy time for a political breakthrough, he noted, and that hadn't happened. "It's time to turn the corner, in my view, gentlemen," he said. "We should stop the surge and start bringing our troops home."

Petraeus was mindful that one of the senators facing him that day -- Biden, Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), John McCain (R-Ariz) or Barack Obama (D-Ill.) -- was likely to become his commander in chief in just over a year.

"I wrote this myself and did not clear it with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or Congress," he began. The military aspects of the surge were going fairly well, he asserted. If those trends continued, he thought that by mid-2008 he could reduce his combat forces to the pre-surge level. He made no promises whatsoever, keeping a personal vow.

Two exchanges that day would linger in Petraeus's mind. The first came with Obama, who cast doubt on the strategy and posed several questions. "How do we clean up the mess and make the best out of a situation in which there are no good options, there are bad options and worse options?" he asked.

"How long will this take? And at what point do we say, 'Enough'?" Obama continued. "You said . . . the Iraqi people understand that the patience of the American people is not limitless. But that appears to be exactly what you're asking for in this testimony."

Obama had also identified the Democrats' dilemma -- but he didn't offer a way out of it.

The comment that would irk Petraeus most that day came from Clinton. "You have been made the de facto spokesman for what many of us believe to be a failed policy," she chided. ". . . I think that the reports that you provide us really require the willing suspension of disbelief."

Petraeus later admitted that he had underestimated the depth of antiwar feeling in the United States, calling it "industrial-strength."

But both he and Crocker sensed that they had prevailed, that something fundamental had shifted in the politics of the war at home. "We kind of saw the air go out of the whole thing," Crocker said.

'HEY, WE WON!' After congressional hearings, the tenor of the debate over Iraq changes.

To reinforce the impact of the hearings, the president decided to give a nationally televised address the night of Sept. 13. Late that day, the White House sent a draft of the speech to Rapp. Scanning it, he saw that "the mission wording had been changed to what Fallon wanted," Rapp recalled. He was told that the Iraq staffers at the White House had made the change.

He showed the draft to Petraeus, who made a telephone call to get the wording changed back, Rapp said. (Petraeus remembers it differently, saying that the wording change was the work of White House speechwriters "who weren't sensitive to the balance between security and transition," and that the fix was made by e-mail.)

That night, Bush told the nation that the mission in Iraq would change eventually, but not now. "Over time, our troops will shift from leading operations to partnering with Iraqi forces, and eventually to overwatching those forces," he said. "As this transition in our mission takes place, our troops will focus on a more limited set of tasks, including counterterrorism operations and training, equipping and supporting Iraqi forces."

A few weeks after the hearings, Adm. Michael Mullen succeeded Marine Gen. Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Perhaps more important for Petraeus, the admiral was a longtime friend of Fallon's and was able to reduce friction between Petraeus and Fallon. Indeed, word in Iraq was that Defense Secretary Gates had told the new chairman to get Fallon off Petraeus's back.

Meanwhile, something had changed in the way Democrats talked about the war. On Sept. 26, at a debate in New Hampshire, none of the party's top presidential candidates would promise to have the U.S. military out of Iraq by January 2013, more than five years later.

Seeing those comments, Boylan exclaimed to himself, "Hey, we won!"

He was right. Before the hearings, the dominant question in Washington had been how to get out of Iraq with the least damage. Afterward, the question would become how to find the least damaging way to stay.

David Kilcullen, Petraeus's counterinsurgency adviser, concluded that just as the Iraqis had stared at the possibility of full-blown civil war that year but ultimately turned away, so, too, had the American public considered a leap into the unknown -- and stopped short.

"America," he said, "has taken a deep breath, looked into the abyss of pulling out and decided, 'Let's not do it yet.' "

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