Published 20 Feb 07
W. Thomas Smith Jr.
Iraq's "King David"
Gen. David H. Petraeus may be the man who can save Iraq
In early March 1864, President Abraham Lincoln – after promoting and firing a long line of marginally successful generals over three years of brutal fighting in the American Civil War – awarded Gen. Ulysses S. Grant command of all the armies of the United States.
It was a post Grant was reluctant to accept.
Meeting with Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Grant said, "I will, of course, come [to lead the armies], but I hear you have a practice here of sending orders from the rear. With us in the west the head of our army is usually in front."
With that, the president turned to his war secretary. "You [Stanton] and I have been running this machine for three years, and we have not made a success of it," said Lincoln. "Let us give up trying."
Grant then ordered his subordinate Gen. George Meade to pursue and destroy Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Gen. William T. Sherman, Grant's other senior subordinate, was ordered to strike deep into the Southern interior and destroy the Confederacy's will and ability to make war.
Grant's following successes were not overnight. Losses were enormous. The Confederacy still had over a year's worth of fight left in it. But as Sherman would later say, "War is all hell." And military success engineered by even the greatest general – when he assumes command of an army (or a group of armies) in the middle of a hard fight – takes time, patience, sacrifice, and much trust and support.
U.S. military forces today have a truly great commander in Iraq, and Congress, the president, and the American people, need to give him all of those things if we hope to succeed in Iraq. The commander is Gen. David H. Petraeus, the newly posted commander of Multi-National Force – Iraq (MNF-I). Whether or not he will be remembered as a U.S. Grant remains to be seen. But he will be remembered as one upon whom all hopes were pinned, and no one is better suited for the task.
A West Point graduate and honor-grad of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, who also holds a Masters and a Ph.D. from Princeton; Petraeus is a hyper-competitive paratrooper who as a 50-year-old commanding general, once challenged a 19-year-old PFC to a push-up contest, and beat him. Having earned American, French, British, and German jump wings as well as U.S. Air Assault wings, a Ranger tab, the Army's new combat action badge, and many other awards and decorations – he has held commands in the famous 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne (Air Assault) divisions, as well as serving as chief of staff of the XVIII Airborne Corps.
Petraeus assumed command of MNF-I last month following a stint as commanding general of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center (CAC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where he began work as co-author of the new counterinsurgency manual currently being used by the Army and Marine Corps. Prior to CAC he was deployed to Iraq, serving in a variety of posts including, the first commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command – Iraq, commander of the NATO Training Mission – Iraq, and commanding general of the 101st, leading the division in combat during the first year of the Iraq war. During operations in Bosnia, he served as assistant chief of staff for Operations of the NATO Stabilization Force and was deputy commander of the U.S. Joint Interagency Counter-Terrorism Task Force.
"If you were going to sit down and draw up a career management plan, he would be the model," Lt. Gen. John Bruce Blount (U.S. Army, ret.), former chief of staff of Allied Forces Southern Europe, told me last week. "Petraeus has held all the jobs to qualify him for this position, especially the buildup in Iraq: The training job, the division commander job, and putting that manual together. He's done everything very well. Petraeus is an engaging character because of his ability [as a fighting commander] and a very smart guy."
U.S. News & World Report, which recognized Petraeus in 2005 as one of "America's 25 best leaders," says he is "one of the most fascinating people in the United States Army." Steven Alvarez writing for The Orlando Sentinel calls him "a superb counterinsurgent," Ralph Peters in The New York Post says he's one of the Army's "most-impressive leaders." Retired General Barry R. McCaffery referred to him as "Probably the most talented person I have ever met in the Army [as quoted in Rick Atkinson's In the Company of Soldiers]." And many Iraqis have dubbed him "Malik Daoud" or "King David."
Gen. Blount says, "He could come out of this a Grant, a George Washington, or someone like that."
It won't be easy.
"The way ahead will be hard, and there undoubtedly will be many tough days," Petraeus said on assuming command. "As I recently told the members of the United States Senate, however, 'hard' is not 'hopeless.' Indeed, together with our Iraqi partners, we can and we must prevail."
As head of MNF-I, Petraeus commands one of the most powerful combined arms forces in the history of the world. He is an expert in counterinsurgency (which also means he is an expert in the collection and processing of "good" intelligence, the premier component of any effective counterinsurgency) and he oversees an impressive war-council made up of experts in everything from counter-guerrilla operations to anthropology and Mesopotamian history. Great. But can he – and they – win in Iraq?
That country is in a mess, and our approach to winning there is less than what it needs to be in the face of an expanding multi-factional insurgency supported and fueled by committed-to-the-death Jihadi terrorists. Back home, America's get-out-of-Iraq-NOW crowd (they don't like to be called "cut-and-runners") will argue that Iraq is already lost, was doomed from the start, and nothing – save complete withdrawal from that country – can save our engaged forces.
And despite the optimism in many corners regarding Petraeus as the new commander, those who want us out of Iraq point to President Bush's and Gen. Petraeus' recent call for a reinforcing surge of some 20,000 to 25,000 new troops in that country as nothing more than an escalation that will make things worse.
The get-out-of-Iraq-NOW crowd points to last year's Iraq Study Group (ISG) report that says a troop increase in Iraq by the hundreds-of-thousands should not be a consideration in the way forward, but they ignore the ISG's statement: "We could, however, support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad, or to speed up the training and equipping mission, if the U.S. commander in Iraq determines that such steps would be effective."
"The additional forces that have been directed to move to Iraq will be essential," Petraeus said before the Senate Armed Services Committee in late January.
Following Petraeus' remarks, ISG co-chair James Baker during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, said, "My bottom line on the surge is, look, the president's plan ought to be given a chance. … The general [Petraeus] you confirmed the other day, 81 to nothing, this is his idea. He's the supporter of it. He's now the commander on the ground in Iraq. Give it a chance." [I personally find it interesting – and somewhat disingenuous – that the get-out-of-Iraq-NOW crowd says they are opposed to increasing troop numbers in Iraq, yet they voted to unanimously confirm a general who will lead the way in Iraq and says the increase in troop numbers is "essential."]
Petraeus needs the reinforcements: He can position them in such a way as to cut off the rat-lines from Syria and Iran. He can increase security in the hot zones. He can increase Iraqi intelligence-collection capabilities. He can aggressively go after the enemy's senior leaders. He can free up existing U.S. forces. With his "dream team" of experts, he can establish a new rapport and a new unofficial covenant with the Iraqi people, many of whom believe in him perhaps more so than they have any other senior American commander on the ground. And he can do what so many Americans believe and hope he is capable of doing: Reversing the insurgency such that it is the insurgents who are losing support, thus losing the war.
Petraeus is an intellectual, an innovator, and an intuitive man with great reserves of reason and common sense. He knows this new command in this war at this point in time, will decide the fate of millions, and it is make or break for him personally. He knows that his new command may well be our last best hope of winning the Iraq war. But he believes in the effort, and with so much at stake, we need to give him everything humanly possible in terms of physical and articulated support so that he may succeed.
— W. Thomas Smith Jr., a former U.S. Marine infantry leader, parachutist, and shipboard counterterrorism instructor, writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is an award-winning author of four books, the co-author of two, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, National Review Online, CBS News, The Washington Times, and many others.
W. Thomas Smith Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 W. Thomas Smith Jr.
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