What Petraeus Understands

Now that he has left Iraq in better shape than he found it, can Gen. David Petraeus save Afghanistan and the rest of the region? He’ll need to apply some tough lessons from Baghdad to his new challenge—just not the ones you think.

Paul J. Richards/Getty Images Handoff: Petraeus may be passing over day-to-day command in Iraq to others, but hell have a lot to contribute in his new role.

Gen. David Petraeus left Iraq last week with proper fanfare for his success in dramatically reducing the violence that had steadily engulfed the country until late last summer. At the end of October, hell take the helm of the four-star Central Command that oversees U.S. military affairs in all of the Middle East and South Asia. His new to-do list will be long and complex. The general will no doubt be applying a number of important lessons from Iraq in his new command. They arent necessarily the lessons most people think, but they just might be the lessons that Americastruggling to contain a growing two-country war in Pakistan and Afghanistan and locked in a tense regional showdown with Iranurgently needs to learn.

The key to the success in Iraq was, first of all, to correctly diagnose and address the fundamental problem. It sounds obvious, but it hadnt been done by the previous commander or the White House policymakers. The job of the leader is to get the big ideas right, Petraeus told me during a Sept. 2 interview in his office in Baghdads Green Zone. When he arrived in Iraq in January 2007, he put together a top-notch multidisciplinary study group of military, academic and diplomatic experts to analyze the wars current state in depth and map out a sophisticated approach. They concluded that the war had become primarily a communal strugglea polite term for civil war. The resulting campaign plan called for all effortspolitical, military, and economicto focus on achieving political accommodation. Previously, U.S. troops had been applying counterinsurgency tactics but in a localized, isolated, and temporary fashion, rather than in an integrated, countrywide approach.

Paul J. Richards/Getty Images Handoff: Petraeus may be passing over day-to-day command in Iraq to others, but hell have a lot to contribute in his new role.

Gen. David Petraeus left Iraq last week with proper fanfare for his success in dramatically reducing the violence that had steadily engulfed the country until late last summer. At the end of October, hell take the helm of the four-star Central Command that oversees U.S. military affairs in all of the Middle East and South Asia. His new to-do list will be long and complex. The general will no doubt be applying a number of important lessons from Iraq in his new command. They arent necessarily the lessons most people think, but they just might be the lessons that Americastruggling to contain a growing two-country war in Pakistan and Afghanistan and locked in a tense regional showdown with Iranurgently needs to learn.

The key to the success in Iraq was, first of all, to correctly diagnose and address the fundamental problem. It sounds obvious, but it hadnt been done by the previous commander or the White House policymakers. The job of the leader is to get the big ideas right, Petraeus told me during a Sept. 2 interview in his office in Baghdads Green Zone. When he arrived in Iraq in January 2007, he put together a top-notch multidisciplinary study group of military, academic and diplomatic experts to analyze the wars current state in depth and map out a sophisticated approach. They concluded that the war had become primarily a communal strugglea polite term for civil war. The resulting campaign plan called for all effortspolitical, military, and economicto focus on achieving political accommodation. Previously, U.S. troops had been applying counterinsurgency tactics but in a localized, isolated, and temporary fashion, rather than in an integrated, countrywide approach.

When Petraeus takes the reins at CENTCOM, hell need to take a similar long, hard look at Pakistans border region and Afghanistan to arrive at the same fundamental diagnosis of the problem. As in Iraq, he is likely to conclude that the solution lays not in merely pumping more troops into the region but rather in how those troops are used. Nor, with apologies to Bob Woodward, will there be some silver-bullet technical solution to kill or capture the al Qaeda leadership. Troop numbers and technology were not the key factors that turned the tide in Iraq.

The Mesopotamian lessons that will be most useful in the South Asian conflict derive from Petraeuss famous counterinsurgency manual, which emphasizes a population-centric approach. In Iraq, his command placed top priority on securing the population, meeting its needs, and shoring up the legitimacy of the government versus the insurgency. Engineers built walls and soldiers erected checkpoints to protect the population and keep out car bombers.

Much has been made of the coalitions recent successes against al Qaeda in Iraq. But only in a very focused way did Petraeus take an enemy-centric approach to the terrorist organization. Killing the bad guys worked because the killing was more discriminate and the hardcore elements were separated from the rest of the insurgency and the population support base. Thanks to new human intelligence gained from the population and former insurgents, these operations were more precisely aimed at small numbers of irreconcilables. Biometric devices helped create a computerized, shareable registry of possible insurgents, which led to more accurate targeting. Other technical means then allowed rapid targeting of entire cells, but it was human intelligence that ensured the targets were the right ones. Then, U.S. and Iraqi troops held the areas after counterterrorist operations, unlike in the past.

Toward the mass of the Sunni insurgency, Petraeus adopted a new strategy. We cant kill our way to victory, he was fond of saying. He sought instead to convert those who were fightingbringing the reconcilable insurgents in from the cold.

The obvious parallel in his new role is to the Pashtun nation that straddles the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pashtuns form the support base for the Taliban insurgency, which in turn gives sanctuary and support to the much smaller al Qaeda network. The United States and NATO need an approach that wins over the Pashtuns, looks for Taliban converts, and uses the resulting intelligence in a very focused counterterrorist campaign against al Qaeda. Unfortunately, this is contrary to the dominant thinking in the policy debate. Many in Washington are pressuring the administration and Pakistan to get tough in the tribal areas when in fact they need to get smart.

Given what he has achieved in Iraq, Petraeus brings unique credibility to the get smart crowd. And unlike many U.S. generals who see war in narrow military terms, Petraeus lives and breathes the Clausewitzian maxim that war is the conduct of politics by other means. He understands better than anyone that each time an errant bomb kills innocent Afghan or Pakistani villagers, the coalition loses support in those countries and at home.

It would be a mistake to think, however, that Petraeus will have the luxury to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan to the exclusion of Iraq. He wont. Hell need to ensure that Iraqs forward momentum continues to prevent his hard-won success from unraveling. Although the primary job for fashioning the right policy will fall to the new administrationand for implementing it to Petraeus successor Gen. Ray Odierno and Amb. Ryan Crocker, Petraeuss legacy is tied to an ultimately stable Iraq. He is prepared to lend his weight to ensuring that Prime Minister Nuri al-Malikis government keeps its promises to stop excluding the Sunnis and bring a more representative government to power in free and fair elections next year. But for maximum effect, the next U.S. president will need to push hard, too.

Then theres Iran, which is continuing its campaign for influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and all over the Middle East. Its true that the success of the surge had much to do with the fact that Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, ordered his Iranian-backed militia to stand down. But this was no mere stroke of luck. Over the past 18 months, Petraeus skillfully drove a wedge between the Sadrists and Maliki, producing the Sadr ceasefire. Intelligence reports warn that these militias are poised to return to Iraq, however, as Petraeus told me on Sept. 2. The best trump card that Petraeus can play here is historic Iraqi nationalism: Even a Shiite-led government in Baghdad does not want to become a vassal of Iran.

Tehran, of course, is an agile adversary, and reining in its ambitions will require all of Petraeuss considerable talents. In an interview with me earlier this year, Petraeus emphasized the need for a broad, united front against Irans bid for a nuclear weapon. That is primarily a job for diplomats, but his trusted aide Sadi Othman and Crocker aide Ali Khedery will be based in Dubai at a new forward office to help promote an alliance of Sunni states, both to stabilize Iraq and to counter Irans moves in the region.

The lesson of Iraq is that there is no magic formula for any of the complex foreign policy challenges facing the United States. The right expertise must be brought to bear on all these problemswhether its South Asia, finishing the job in Iraq, or containing Iran. A dangerous fantasy has taken hold in Washington that the Iraq war is over and that the United States can now turn its hammer on another problem. Yes, the remaining tasks in the Middle East are less combat than conflict terminationa primarily political and diplomatic job that requires military leverage to accomplishbut they are what the mission is all about. When will America learn that hasty exits do not make for stable endgames? The next president, whoever he is, would be wise to keep Petraeus at CENTCOM for long enough to bring some of these needed efforts to fruition.

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