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Petraeus faces tough road in Iraq

    Lt. Gen. David Petraeus GS '87, soon to be the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, undoubtedly faces an uphill battle in quelling escalating sectarian violence. But the general, regarded as one of the military's foremost counterinsurgency experts, is determined to help the U.S. armed forces pull through the increasingly dire situation, despite widespread opposition to the troop increase and fears of overstretching the military, several colleagues and friends said in interviews.

    Petraeus will preside over a dramatic troop surge of more than 20,000 soldiers and Marines, President Bush announced Wednesday. In a sober-toned 20-minute speech, the president outlined his new, much anticipated five-brigade "surge" strategy for the war, defying protests in recent days from many members of Congress and polls suggesting that both the public and military personnel are at best wary of the deployment of more troops.

    "General Petraeus has no illusions about the difficulty of the job for which he has been nominated," a high-ranking officer with knowledge of his thinking said in an email yesterday. "He understands the war is at a critical point." The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the general's plans.

    Under the president's plan, Petraeus will, by summer, command a force of 20 Army brigades and Marine regiments, more than have been present in the country at any other time in the war. To deploy that many troops, the military will prolong the combat tours of some units, while five brigades will be sent to Iraq earlier than expected. The long overlap between arriving and departing units will create a "surge" of unknown duration æ mostly, the president said, in Baghdad.

    The full effect of the surge will not be immediate. The five brigades on the deployment list are to enter the battle zone at a rate of one per month, bringing Petraeus's command up to its new full strength sometime this summer. The general himself is not expected to make drastic changes until he has settled into his new post.

    Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist '74 , who has maintained a friendship with Petraeus ever since he performed lifesaving emergency surgery on the general in 1991, said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian yesterday that Petraeus is "utterly decisive" and "a man of action who does not relish delay," but who is by no means impulsive.

    Petraeus's friend, Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson, said, "I am certain that he will spend the first few weeks in theater, if not the first few months, absorbing information about the situation, hearing what officers have to say and gathering information."

    "He has not been in Iraq since October 2005, and although he certainly knows that, a lot of things have gone downhill in that year and a half, hearing about actions that have happened from your buddies is not the same as being there yourself, in command," Atkinson added.

A vision of irregular war

    Petraeus has neither advocated nor discouraged the surge, but is widely perceived as being in favor of it. "There's no evidence that he's a real surge enthusiast," Atkinson said, "but to turn down a troop increase when it's finally offered ... would be tantamount to admitting failure."

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    This increase in troop levels suits the general's vision of counterinsurgency as described by his friends and colleagues and as codified in a new field manual he coauthored last year on the subject. Variously described as "intellectually rigorous" or the "perpetual student," Petraeus is known for emphasizing the doctrinal and historical underpinnings of any conflict or strategy.

    The key to counterinsurgency, he believes, is a strong, visible military presence that is able to protect the population, even at risk to its own troops. "General Petraeus realizes that securing the population of Baghdad is the first step in this process," the high-ranking official said, "and for that, more troops — Coalition and Iraqi together — are required to help enable the progress needed for longer-term success."

    As applied in Iraq, this strategy will almost certainly entail a heightened pace of operations by larger numbers of troops for more sustained periods, largely in Baghdad. With five new brigades in the city, a force level he will reach this summer, the general is thought likely to move troops out of the few fortified bases they now occupy and into neighborhoods wracked by sectarian strife on long-duration sweeps.

    Despite the emphasis placed on Baghdad, the new strategy that Petraeus will oversee includes the deployment of reinforcements to the western province of Anbar, where U.S. troops have battled hard-line Sunni insurgents, often backed by al Qaeda, for three years.

'Holistic' approach

    Despite the large number of increased troops, the core of Petraeus' strategy is that successful counterinsurgencies are won more by economic and political means than by military ones. "The key element," the general said several times in an earlier interview with the 'Prince,' "is always the political one, never purely military."

    "Dave has a strong understanding of the limits of military force," said Brig. Gen. Daniel Kaufman (Retd.), who supervised Petraeus when the general taught at West Point. Once a neighborhood is secured, the doctrine calls for lavishing economic projects and political initiatives on the population in order to gain and maintain their support.

    As commander of the 101st Airborne Division in 2003, Petraeus gained a reputation for the success with which he and his officers applied this economic and political — or as he calls it, "holistic" — approach. In Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh province, which deteriorated into insurgent violence soon after the general and his division left at the end of their tour, Petraeus dispensed economic aid, jump-started trade and brought the provincial government back on its feet.

A heavy toll anticipated

    The surge, whether or not Petraeus manages to secure Baghdad with it, is expected to take a heavy toll on the military, and not only in terms of casualties. Among the reasons the troop increase has faced such opposition in Congress is that the Army and Marine Corps are widely perceived as bending under the strain of repeated deployments, a problem that could be exacerbated by accelerating departure dates and compressing training.

    In the long term, Bush reiterated in his address, an expansion of the overall size of U.S. ground forces "so that America has the armed forces we need for the 21st century" would address the problem. In the near term, however, there is little argument that some units are becoming less effective because of back-to-back deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

    "It's a small Army," Atkinson noted. "The 10 divisions have been fighting for five years, and my understanding is that in the past few weeks the Army leadership has very pointedly mentioned that some of those brigades earmarked for the surge deployment are just chewed up — very tired, with personnel issues and equipment issues."

'Let's get it done'

    By sending more forces into the fight, the military acknowledges that commitment to the mission in the face of casualties and setbacks is perhaps the most important quality in its forces — and its commanders. By all accounts, Petraeus is nothing if not committed; "determination" was a word that came up time and again in reference to his character.

    Frist described his first encounter with the general, then a lieutenant colonel, as emblematic of Petraeus's attitude. Sixteen years ago, during a training exercise, Petraeus was shot in the chest when a soldier tripped and accidentally fired his rifle. Frist, at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, was the nearest surgeon with the expertise to operate on him.

    "We got a call that there was a patient — we didn't know he was a soldier at that point — being helicoptered in with a severe injury, and that the individual had already had a chest tube inserted," Frist recalled.

    "Because of shock and hemorrhaging, he needed surgery immediately, and he was bleeding out through the chest. So I told him that I was going to have to take him into the operating room and remove the piece of the lung where it connects to the heart, where the bullet entered."

    Most patients, Frist continued, "usually say, 'Do I really need surgery?' because it's such a frightening idea, but Dave didn't. He looked me square in the eye and said, 'If that's what you need to do, let's get it done now.' A decision needed to be made and he made it."

    Petraeus's recovery time was expected to be a week, Frist said, but "24 hours later he said he was ready to go home. Now, we didn't let him out right then, but on the third day he'd convinced us, so we discharged him back to his base æ with the tube still in his chest."

    "That's his attitude: Let's get it done."

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