Best Defense

Wait a minute!: I served under Petraeus in Iraq and I saw the difference he made

By Blake Hall Best Defense veterans’ bureau "Tell me how this ends." General Petraeus posed that rhetorical question to historian Rick Atkinson in 2003. Petraeus then was commanding the 101st Airborne during the invasion of Iraq. His question captured the fundamental disconnect between what we were doing in Iraq – removing Saddam Hussein – and ...

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

By Blake Hall

Best Defense veterans’ bureau

"Tell me how this ends." General Petraeus posed that rhetorical question to historian Rick Atkinson in 2003. Petraeus then was commanding the 101st Airborne during the invasion of Iraq. His question captured the fundamental disconnect between what we were doing in Iraq – removing Saddam Hussein – and the purpose of war, famously defined by Carl Von Clausewitz as the "continuation of politics by other means." Because regime change is not a coherent political strategy, Petraeus rightly wondered what our strategy would be for Iraq, even as his soldiers advanced towards Baghdad.

I served under General Petraeus in Iraq after he assumed command in February of 2007, and I have the utmost respect for him as a leader, a soldier, and a man. I led a platoon that hunted high value insurgent leaders in cities throughout Iraq, including Mosul, Lake Thar-Thar, Baghdad and Karbala. Tactically, we were very good at capturing targets, but, strategically, the reality on the ground under General Casey, before General Petraeus assumed command, was farcical.

Prior to Petraeus’ arrival, we sallied out from our fortress like Forward Operating Bases to drive around Mosul or Baghdad for a few hours at a time, only to leave the city with the insurgents as soon as we returned to our base. Worse, we were frequently blown up by roadside bombs while we were driving around, for insurgents could emplace explosives on the streets with impunity while we were sleeping back at our base. I could never hope to adequately articulate the deep sense of frustration that stems from frequent orders to patrol streets with no clear purpose when said streets are laced with explosives meant to kill you and your men.  It was like being the British during the Revolutionary War except we had no strategic design to rule Iraq indefinitely.

We were targeted with bombs because Sunni Arabs had no incentive to integrate into a post-Saddam Iraq. Though they had ruled Iraq as heirs to the Ottoman Empire, they immediately became second class-citizens once American democracy arrived in the country because they only represented about 20% of the country’s population. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority further decreed that no Baath Party member — effectively every Sunni in Iraq — could hold any position in government. Then Bremer disbanded the military, the one institution the Sunnis had left, single-handedly creating a bloody insurgency that caused untold human suffering for American and Iraqi families alike.

It was that context that drove the Sunnis to invite Al-Qaida into Iraq in order to fight for their political rights. Over tea in a house in Dora, an Al-Qaida stronghold in Baghdad from 2004 – 2007, a Sunni sheikh from the Janabi tribe recounted to me the proceedings of a gathering of Sunni sheikhs in 2003. He told me, "Some said the Australians, the British and the Americans are the power now, we should work with them. Others said we must fight." He paused and gave me a wan smile. "Maybe we should have chosen differently."

General Petraeus possessed an intimate understanding of these dynamics. After Paul Bremer exponentially increased the size of the Sunni insurgency by disbanding the Iraqi Army, it was then Major General Petraeus who made a trip down to Baghdad to let Bremer know that, "Your policy is killing our troopers."  It was General Petraeus who stabilized Mosul through the same methods he would employ four years later, after much bloodshed and suffering, for the entire country. And it was General Petraeus who understood that unless he himself wrote the ending for Iraq, the American military might suffer the taint of defeat for the first time since Vietnam.

General Petraeus inherited a crisis when he took command of Iraq in 2007. The crisis had three components. First, a ruthless offshoot of Al-Qaida, not present in Iraq when Petraeus made his remarks to Atkinson, had established itself in Iraq after the Sunnis invited them into the country out of desperation. Second, Sunni Arabs were being slaughtered by Shi’a Arabs in Baghdad. Third, after four years of war, a coherent political strategy for Iraq was non-existent.

Petraeus correctly perceived that the American public and policymakers alike would conflate the establishment of security in Iraq with victory. Michael Hastings has tried to deride General Petraeus for that insight, citing a quote from Petraeus’ Princeton dissertation where he wrote, "What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters – more than what actually occurred." Rather than deriding General Petraeus, however, he should be thanking the man who was able to extricate the American military from a hopeless conflict without the taint of defeat. General Petraeus was subordinate to civilian policymakers; the failure to set a definable political strategy for victory in Iraq did not rest on his shoulders.

Iraq was not, nor did it become, a clear and present danger to the national interests of the United States of America except for the moment when Al-Qaida established a presence on Iraqi soil. Petraeus homed in on that emergent threat to American interests and he crushed the Al-Qaida network by brilliantly integrating American military efforts with the Sunni tribes. I know because I hunted those networks night and day with my men. Petraeus pushed us hard, I lost twenty pounds in the months after he took control due to the operational tempo, but, under his leadership, we decimated Al-Qaida in Iraq.

Today, we are an Army that is not defeated and we do not have to navigate the near-impossible question of how to extricate ourselves from the conflict in Iraq, for our most brilliant General has solved that problem for us in a masterstroke. Because of Petraeus, my men and I will be able to put our grandchildren on our knees and tell them with pride about how we defeated Al-Qaida in Iraq – never mind that they weren’t there when we invaded; the civilian policymakers bear the blame for that development. Because of Petraeus, more American service members will return to their families, and more veterans will live whole and fruitful lives.

I cannot stand the hypocrisy of my country. We have presidents, presidential candidates and corporate executives who fornicate and adulterate with impunity, some when their wives were stricken with cancer, yet this one man who has given his entire life to America errs one time and the media and hacks like Michael Hastings attack him with impunity. There should be no mass audience for a situation should remain a private issue between General Petraeus and his wife.

David H. Petraeus spent the better part of a decade living in shitty little trailers in Iraq and Afghanistan defending the freedoms that we all enjoy. That he is a human being, and therefore fallible, should not come as a shock anyone. His were true accomplishments. He erred in his personal relationship, yet he saved the lives of thousands, and probably tens of thousands, with his intellect. The flaw is miniscule when contrasted against the full body of his accomplishments.

If we are angry, then we should be angry at the effect of war and separations on the military divorce rate, which has steadily gone up as our men and women in uniform spend more time away from their families. We should be angry at the self-righteous tone of a country that insanely demands perfection from those we respect. We should be angry that the incompetent policymakers who started these wars without purpose are writing books and going on vacations despite the trail of human suffering and empty beds they have left in their wake.

General Petraeus allowed me, and my men, to tangibly achieve the strategic defeat of Al-Qaida in Iraq, even if Iraq itself has slipped under Iranian influence. Because of his leadership, the fifteen months in Iraq that my men and I spent in Iraq actually matters in some meaningful way. Under his steady hand, we achieved enough to get out of that country without severely compromising American prestige and the finest military that America has ever enjoyed. It is a national tragedy that we would let a personal scandal deprive the CIA of the most brilliant military mind in the country.

Blake Hall, a former Army captain, led a reconnaissance platoon in Iraq from July 2006 to September 2007. He is the founder of Troop ID, the first digital authentication engine capable of verifying military affiliation online.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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