Tuesday, September 16, 2008
By Stephen McGinty DURING the darkest days of his command, General David Petraeus, the US military commander in Iraq, would ponder the words of Ulysses S Grant. The Union Army general who won the American Civil War was approached by a fellow officer after the disastrous battle of Shiloh and told: "Well, we had a tough day, today." Grant, chewing on his ubiquitous cigar replied: "Yup. Lick 'em tomo ADVERTISEMENT rrow, though." When Gen Petraeus was appointed commanding general of United States and international forces in Iraq in 2007, Iraq was on the brink of civil war. But as a result of his controversial "surge" strategy, he will tomorrow leave the nation, though far from stable, with violence reduced to its lowest levels since early 2004. Next month, the general – whose passion for history has seen him dubbed the warrior-scholar – will take over US Central Command, the headquarters overseeing operations in a swathe of countries across the Middle East and beyond, including Afghanistan. He will arrive as the most feted American military leader in modern times, with John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, describing him as "one of the great military leaders in American history". When he testified before Congress on 10 September 2007, a full page advert appeared in the New York Times, paid for by MoveOn, a liberal activist group that carried his photograph and the headline: "General Petraeus or General Betray Us." He was accused of "cooking the books" for George Bush and defending an "unwinnable" war. Yet today, the consensus is that his decision to draw in 30,000 extra troops to implement a new counter-insurgency strategy has – when combined with other factors – been a success which has helped drag Iraq back from the abyss. The nation is far from stable, with two million refugees outside the borders, three million more displaced inside the country and car bombs still killing and maiming civilians. However, it is less violent than last summer. According to US figures, the number of daily attacks has fallen from a peak of 180 in June last year, to around 20 last month. Violent deaths of Iraqi civilians, although difficult to measure, have also dropped steeply, but still account for around 500 per month, at a conservative estimate. Fatalities among the US military have fallen from 126 in May, 2007, to just 13 in July, 2008, the lowest of any month since the war began in March, 2003. Gen Petraeus has commanded the war from a lakeside palace built by Saddam Hussein in 1992. Tomorrow, he will hand over his office to his former deputy, Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno. At 55, Petraeus, who holds a doctoral degree from Princeton University (his dissertation was The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam), is exceptionally fit. He is a competitive runner and advocate of one-armed press-ups. In July, however, he explained that he harboured dark thoughts at times during his command. "Certainly, you do have moments where, if you are honest with yourself in something as difficult as this has been, you occasionally wonder if it will be achievable. But we are in a very different place now than we were a year, a year-and-a-half ago." While some critics question whether the security gains in Iraq are sustainable and have been matched by enough political progress, Gen Petraeus was pivotal in getting violence down. He moved troops off their big, fortified bases into population centres in Baghdad where al-Qaeda was wreaking havoc with car bombs, and sectarian death squads were roaming the streets at will. This meant setting up small combat outposts in Baghdad and other places, where US soldiers lived and fought with Iraqi troops. Gen Petraeus also ordered a wave of aggressive operations against insurgents of all stripes. The initial stages were costly – during the months of April-June 2007 more than 330 US troops were killed, making it the deadliest quarter of the war. But then troop deaths began to fall rapidly as all "surge" forces deployed, increasing numbers of Sunni Arab tribal groups joined the fight against al-Qaeda and the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr imposed a ceasefire on his Mahdi Army militia. The battle plan that Gen Petraeus implemented was a classified document called the Joint Campaign Plan, which was divided into four main "lines of operation" – security, politics, diplomacy and economics. The emphasis was on keeping civilians safe in order to isolate violent groups and so create the conditions that would allow the government services to operate. Gen Petraeus has kept up a gruelling schedule seven days a week, from before dawn until midnight. He made regular visits to the battlefield to speak to troops and to seek feedback on how the war was being fought. Arriving at a military base in volatile Diyala province last October he went straight into a meeting with junior officers. He wanted their views without the base commander present. That was part of Gen Petraeus's approach, say aides: encourage the lieutenants and captains who were in the field every day to talk freely, without their immediate superiors around. Gen Petraeus also showed media savvy in Baghdad and Washington, never getting drawn into over- optimistic predictions about Iraq when statistics showed violence dropping sharply. Even now, he repeatedly says there will be no Iraq "victory dance". Richard Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina, says Gen Petraeus has the highest public profile and popularity of any US general in years, but cautions that could all change if Iraq unravels or he does not impress in his next job. The general will face even more difficult challenges, such as the war in Afghanistan and militancy in Pakistan, when he takes on the Central Command job, Mr Kohn says. "He's got an even more complex situation on his hands." Profile: The man who will take over LIEUTENANT General Raymond T Odierno, 55, grew up in Rockaway, New Jersey. He graduated from West Point military academy in June 1976 with a BSc. He later attended North Carolina State University and the Naval War College, receiving Masters degrees in nuclear effects engineering and National Security and Strategy, respectively. Lt-Gen Odierno was also a senior adviser to the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. He commanded the US Army's 4th Infantry Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He returned to Iraq in December 2006 and served for more than a year as the number two US commander for all US-led forces. During his first tour, he was criticised by some analysts and military officers for harsh tactics in his sector, which included Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. Lt-Gen Odierno said the area was a hotbed for insurgents which needed robust measures. In his second tour, he showed a more measured approach, stressing the importance of reconciliation among Iraqi factions and of the Iraqi government providing basic services to the population to reduce the appeal of insurgent groups.