New commander, new plan in Iraq
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.