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New commander, new plan in Iraq

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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).

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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."

Unconventional successes

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.