BOSTON AND WASHINGTON — Gen. David Petraeus assessed Thursday what he needs to succeed, in his first press conference after almost a month on the job as commander of US forces in Iraq.
The core of his assessment: He needs 2,200 more soldiers and more time. But the general also warned that those things alone won't be enough to bring success.
Instead, he said, the "critical" issue for Iraq was whether a spirit of compromise – elusive during four years of war – will emerge among Iraq's politicians. He said the US job is to provide security that could help calm sectarian passions and create space for politics to work.
"Any student of history recognizes there is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq,'' General Petraeus, who helped pen America's new counterinsurgency manual before taking up his new post, told reporters. Instead, what's needed is political "reconciliation ... for people who felt that Iraq did not have a place for them."
He also said that it will be "critical" to work with some of the militants who have been fighting to undermine the government. This seemed to indicate support for reaching out to the Sunni insurgents behind the vast majority of US casualties.
But he and his aides are seeking to extend the size and duration of the "surge." That's in line with the counterinsurgency manual, which calls for a sustained large ground presence in conflicts like Iraq.
The surge was originally advertised as topping out at 21,500 additional troops. But on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that Petraeus had requested 2,200 more military police – to serve as jailors for an expected increase in detainees – and that an additional 2,400 support troops would be needed, bringing the total surge to 27,100, a 21-percent increase over original expectations.
Frederick Kagan, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute and an advocate of adding troops, blames the White House for the impression that the surge is growing. He says support troops were always going to be needed, but the Bush adminstration failed to make that clear. But he adds that Petraeus will ask for even more troops if he thinks they're needed. "Of course the enemy has a vote and the situation can change."
US officials had projected that troop levels would start to fall again by August. Petraeus said the troops will have to stay until "some time well beyond the summer." The New York Times reported that a recent confidential memo by Petraeus's principal deputy, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, called for the additional troops to stay through February 2008.
Petraeus supporters say he's being honest in pitching for a long timeline, but that he's also politically savvy enough not to ask for everything he wants all at once.
"I am positive he will be truthful to himself and inside the command, and he will be blunt with the administration because he's been given a losing hand and he's going to try to make this thing come out the right way,'' says Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star general. Petraeus won't "delude himself and others when he knows he has 24 months to turn this around."
The US won't be at full strength in Iraq until June. But even then, General McCaffrey warns, lasting gains won't be made quickly. "Can you, by continuous levels of combat presence, change the underlying nature of a civil war? Or course not, and Petraeus knows that,'' he says. What Petraeus can do, McCaffrey argues, is to create conditions in which the Shiite-backed government and allied militias and Sunni Arab insurgents decide it's in neither's interest to keep fighting.
Petraeus said Thursday that Sunni insurgents appear to be moving out of the way of heightened US combat patrols, and said he may soon dispatch more forces to Diyala Province, just north of Baghdad. Sunni insurgents appear to be regrouping there, he said. Petraeus did strike some upbeat notes, saying that Sunni Arab Anbar Province – home to Fallujah and locale of the most US combat deaths – has been calmer, and attributed that to local leaders saying "enough" to the conflict.