David Petraeus, a general who won't sugarcoat

Posted in Iraq | 14-Aug-07 | Author: John Burns| Source: International Herald Tribune

General David Petraeus, middle, commander of the Multinational Force - Iraq, on a visit to Taji and surrounding areas.

BAGHDAD: General David Petraeus looked out from the Black Hawk helicopter at the early evening vistas of Baghdad rushing by 150 feet below, pointing at bustling markets, amusement parks and soccer fields, scattered through neighborhoods where miles of concrete barriers stand like sentinels against the threat of suicide bombers.

Pressing the "talk" button on his headset, the slightly built 54-year-old general, the top American commander in Iraq, said glimpses of the normal life that have survived the war's horrors helped boost his own flagging spirits, especially on days when signs of battlefront progress are offset by new bombings with mass casualties, the starkest measure of continuing insurgent power across Iraq.

Then, he said ruefully, he wondered whether he "should have taken that civilian job" before accepting what many see as the most unpromising command since General Creighton Abrams Jr. in Vietnam. Abrams took charge, in 1968, when that war was going badly, and American opinion was running strongly in favor of a pullout.

Petraeus's task may be tougher still. When he was appointed to his job six months ago and promoted to full general, President George W. Bush cast him as a man known for aggressive, innovative thinking on counterinsurgency warfare who could take the nearly 30,000 extra troops Bush ordered deployed to Iraq in January and turn the war's tide with a "surge" aimed at securing Baghdad and its surrounding "belts."

At the time, Bush compared Petraeus to an audacious, offense-minded football coach with a record of turning losing games around.

The general echoed that mood.

"Hard is not hopeless," he said in a message to American troops on arrival in Baghdad.

Since then, Bush has often sounded as though his Iraq commander offers a fount of credibility on the war that can compensate for Bush's poor poll ratings. In war speeches, he cites Petraeus like a talisman. At a recent news conference at Camp David, the presidential retreat outside Washington, he used the general's first name three times. "I look forward to what David's going to say," he said, referring to the Sept. 15 deadline for Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador, to give a comprehensive status report to the White House and Congress.

The date, for Bush, has become a kind of firebreak - the right moment, he says, for lawmakers locked in a showdown over the war to decide whether to support continuation of the American military effort here.

But for Petraeus, being cast as the president's white knight has been a mixed blessing. While he talks directly with Bush once or twice a week, in interviews he depicts himself as owing loyalty as much to Congress as the White House and stresses the downside, as well as the upside, of the American military effort here.

His view, he says, is that he is "on a very important mission that derives from a policy" made by Congress, "with the advice and consent and resources provided by folks at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue," the White House.

"And in September," he said, "that's how I'm going to approach it." Whether to fight on here, he says, is a "big, big decision - a national decision," one that belongs to elected officials, not a field general.

The importance of sober assessments - and, by implication, of shedding the rose-tinted view of the war that has strained Congress's patience with Iraq commanders in the past - has been one of his insistent themes. Talking to American officers during a weeklong counterinsurgency course at Taji, just north of Baghdad, he put it squarely. "We need forthright reports," he said. "We're not trying to sugarcoat things, or put lipstick on a pig, or anything like that."

American officials say he has carried his unvarnished approach into his dealings with the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

The two men have differed over a range of issues, particularly the American command's push to recruit former Sunni insurgents into the Iraqi security forces or tribal auxiliaries. It is a move Petraeus sees as having the potential for dealing a decisive blow to Islamic militant groups linked to Al Qaeda, but which Maliki, a Shiite, fears will empower Sunnis for an eventual civil war with the ruling Shiite majority.

Petraeus, in an e-mail, played down reports that the relationship had been stormy, with Maliki threatening on one occasion to ask Bush to appoint a new American commander. "Actually, I have a very good relationship with the PM, and I think he'd echo that assessment," he said. "In fact, only on one occasion - several months back - have I ever been anything other than my normal easygoing self with the PM. And that was while both of us were seated."

More than 30 years ago at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, Petraeus was cited in his class yearbook as "always going for it in sports, academics, leadership and even his social life." Since then, he has won a broad army following that helped him assemble a star cast of officers who accompanied him to Baghdad, including one, Colonel H. R. McMaster, who wrote a widely acclaimed book about the failures of the army's highest-ranking officers to give an honest accounting of the state of the war in Vietnam.

But Petraeus has been dogged, too, by detractors within the army who say he is prone to overstate his accomplishments. His two previous Iraq tours, one as a major general commanding the 101st Airborne Division in the northern city of Mosul, another as a lieutenant general in Baghdad leading the effort to rebuild Iraq's security forces, drew praise at the time.

But his pacification of Mosul proved short-lived, and the rapid, $19 billion Iraqi force build-up produced, on his watch, battalions impressive for the numbers trained and the huge arsenal of weapons handed over by the Americans. But the Iraqi soldiers were often unreliable, and their units prone to infiltration by militias, when deployed.

Now, in the face of a stubbornly brutal conflict and declining war support at home, Petraeus has pulled back from the pulsating sense of self-confidence that fellow officers say has been his hallmark that he can prevail against any odds.

He has become strikingly cautious, avoiding on-the-record comments on many politically contentious issues. Shunning generalizations on the war in interviews, he lays out colored charts and graphs that show falling numbers of suicide attacks, other bombings and civilian casualties, when comparing January's figures to those in June and July. But he eludes anything that might signal what broader conclusions he will be carrying to Washington in September.

His caution extends to the most fundamental question, whether the war can still be won. "Obviously, what we're going to try and do is win it," he said.

A campaign plan the general and Crocker, the ambassador, recently sent to Washington envisages an American troop presence of some size here at least through 2009.

In Baghdad, he goes for regular runs of five miles, or eight kilometers, in the heat of 49 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit), and thrives on outpacing younger officers. His do-or-die is competitiveness is a legend in the army. Fifteen years ago, he carried on during army maneuvers after being struck by a rifle bullet in the chest, until a commander ordered him taken off on a stretcher. Laughing about it now, he says he would have died if the bullet had hit the "a" in army, over his heart, instead of the "'a" in Petraeus on his battle fatigue name tag, on the right side of his chest.

He attributes some of his doggedness to his father, Sixtus, now in his early 90s. A Dutch merchant marine officer who was at sea when the Nazis overran Holland in 1940, he landed with the ship in New York harbor instead of Rotterdam, and later served as an American Liberty ship captain on convoys to the Russian port of Murmansk. After the war, he settled with his American wife near West Point, and worked as a power plant engineer.

One issue on which the general, like Crocker, appears likely to part with proponents of an early American withdrawal is on the risk of much higher levels of violence if the troops are brought home quickly. In an interview last month, Crocker spoke as starkly on the issue as any senior American official, comparing the killing to a five-reel movie, and saying that "as ugly as the first reel has been the other four-and-a-half are going to be way, way worse."

Speaking to the officers at Taji, Petraeus put the matter just as bluntly. "If you didn't like Darfur, you're going to hate Baghdad," he said.