CAIRO — Lt. Gen. David Petraeus – armed with a Princeton PhD, legions of admirers, and a coterie of advisers who have frequently criticized the approach to America's last long war (Vietnam) – arrived in Baghdadthis week to lead a war that even many of its supporters say is approaching zero hour.
The "warrior scholar" brings a new approach, officially taking over command Saturday of operations in Iraq from Gen. George Casey.
The path forward, as General Petraeus has told Congress, means essentially decentralizing operations in Iraq. It's a plan that aims to place bands of US soldiers with Iraqi forces in Baghdad, a high-risk strategy that will put more Americans in daily contact with Iraqis, providing both opportunities to win hearts and minds and more occasions for casualties.
Petraeus says he's optimistic, but he'll have fewer troops to do the job than recommended by the US military's new counterinsurgency manual, which he spent most of the past year helping to rewrite, calls for in these situations.
If he succeeds, the genial Petraeus, skilled at both befriending journalists and the men under his command, could achieve the hero status last bestowed on a US general, Norman Schwarzkopf, after leading the 1991 Gulf War.
But counterinsurgency experts, and some inside the military, say that the deck is heavily stacked against him.
"The strategy is a good one, Petraeus's approach is by far has the best chance of anyone to win. The problem is it doesn't matter how good a campaign you run if you're not given the resources you need," says Thomas Hammes, a retired Marine Corps colonel who is a counterinsurgency expert who served in Iraq. His counterinsurgency book, "The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century," is considered required reading for commanders in Iraq.
Mr. Hammes, in concert with the counterinsurgency manual that Petraeus helped to write, says the general doesn't have enough manpower for the job that he has been sent to do. In the time frame provided, Hammes is skeptical about success, particularly with Washington looking to substantially reduce US troop levels again in six months time.
Experts say that a standard rule of thumb for counterinsurgency operations, particularly ones aimed at building the security and trust of the host populations, is to have about 20 troops on the ground for every 1,000 inhabitants.
The manual says that this ratio "is often considered the minimum troop density required for effective [counter-insurgency] operations." In his Congressional confirmation hearing, Petraeus said that would indicate a minimum of about 120,000 security forces to control the 6 million resident of Baghdad alone. He estimated that US troops – plus Iraqi soldiers and police – will add up to just 85,000 total during the current escalation in force in Baghdad.
While Petraeus said he was concerned that he wouldn't have more troops, he added that he would be relying on contractors and guards employed by Iraq's ministries to provide some security, "which does give me reason to believe that we can accomplish the mission."
"Why he won't say he needs more troops is, I think, because he knows he's not going to get them. And he knows if you go up on [Capitol] Hill and ask for that you just undercut yourself,'' says Hammes.
Petraeus is a New York state native who starred on West Point's soccer team and is now, at 55, a serious marathoner. He sailed through Senate confirmation hearings earlier this month, but will now have to come to grips with the reality of Iraq, a country he hasn't visited since October 2005.
While he emits an aura of quiet confidence, he admits the mission is far from assured of success.
"We face a determined, adaptable, barbaric enemy," Petraeus said at his confirmation hearing. "He will try to wait us out. In fact, any such endeavor is a test of wills. There are no guarantees."
Petraeus has become a proponent of spreading more troops out in the capital, working with Iraqi soldiers, both to keep them honest and improve their capabilities, and focusing on systematically securing the capital, neighborhood by neighborhood.
US combat strength in the country is currently being increased by 21,500, all but 4,000 of them bound for Baghdad. US soldiers will be distributed to police stations the city's nine districts, working side by side with Iraqi soldiers and police, rather than being billeted in the large Forward Operating Bases (FOBs).
Petraeus is looking at past counterinsurgency efforts in places as diverse as Algeria, Vietnam, and Malaysia in making the bet that abandoning the Army's heavy emphasis on "force protection," keeping soldiers out of harm's way as much as possible when on their bases, will actually lead to more safety and success.
The manual he co-authored, calls it one of the "paradoxes of counterinsurgency" and sums it up under a heading declaring: "The more you protect your force, the less secure you may be."
It argues: "If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared and cede initiative to the insurgents."
David Kilcullen, a former Australian lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq and has a PhD for his work on Indonesia's successful destruction of the separatist Islamist Darul Islam movement in the 1950s, is now Petraeus's principal counterinsurgency adviser. He summed up the new approach in Iraq in a January article in the online Small Wars Journal entitled, "Don't confuse the surge with the strategy."
"The key element of the plan ... is to concentrate security forces within Baghdad to secure the local people where they live,'' he wrote. "Troops will operate in small, local groups closely partnered with the Iraqi military and police ... this is less like conventional warfare, and more like a cop patrolling a beat."
But Hammes points to the past success of key Petraeus aide Col. H.R. McMaster, who led a highly lauded operation to root out Sunni Arab extremists from the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, as actually emphasizing the need for more troops.
Colonel McMaster built a huge sand berm around the city to control its citizens' movements, aggressively targeted local insurgents, then quickly shifted focus to providing a security presence on the streets and rapidly repairing damaged infrastructure in what was called a "clear, hold and build" strategy. This largely pacified the city, allowing families that had fled to return.
But, Hammes says, "McMaster had a troop ratio of 20 per 1,000, and that was the only place in Iraq that has had that, and he did a masterful job. A lesser commander would have failed even with that, but without that, I don't care how competent a commander you are, you can't get the job done."
Hammes argues that the job might be achievable with more time, given the limited number of boots on the ground, but warns that US politicians appear too fixated on quick results. "If we were saying we hoped to pacify Baghdad in two and a half years' time and then move out and do the same in the rest of the country, OK, that's possible."
In his career, Petraeus has proven an exceptional student of both military history and international affairs. He was first in his class at the US Army's Command and General Staff College, and earned his PhD for a dissertation on the lessons of the Vietnam War.
Much of his recent reputation was built on success in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in 2004. The diverse city – with Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni populations – would have seemed a likely candidate for the sectarian violence that was already starting to sweep Iraq further south, but was largely peaceful while he commanded the 101st Airborne division there.
In Mosul, he emphasized cultural sensitivity and outreach to locals, both in the conventional settings where his junior officers sat down to hear the grievances of sheikhs, as well as more off-beat approaches, like a talent competition for would-be Iraqi crooners paid for by the US military.
But the relative success in Mosul didn't hold after the 101st's departure, whose 20,000 soldiers were replaced by a force of just 6,000, a Stryker Brigade that relied on high-tech armored vehicles, rather than the intensive foot patrols of its predecessor.