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A Chat with David Petraeus

by Richard S. Lowry
[author] 4/4/07

There has been a dramatic change in America’s strategy in Iraq. The new priority has become security of the people of Baghdad. America’s fortress mentality is gone and there is a whole new feeling of partnership in the Multi-National Force-Iraq.

While the situation in Iraq remains dire, we have finally adopted a strategy that has a chance of returning sanity to the people of Baghdad. It is still too early to determine if Fardh al-Qanoon (enforcing the law) will work. All the odds are against General David Petraeus, but if anyone can bring peace and stability to Iraq, it is he.

Richard S.

Richard S. Lowry is the award winning author of the best selling book, Marines in the Garden of Eden, Berkley, New York, 2006. He is an internationally recognized military historian and author. Richard served in the U.S. Navy Submarine Service from 1967-1975 and spent the time from 1975 to 2002 designing sophisticated integrated circuits for everything from aircraft avionics to home computers. Richard turned to serious writing after 9/11 and published The Gulf War Chronicles, iUniverse, New York, in 2002. He is currently working on his next book project. “The Surge” will tell of General Petraeus’ attempt to win the peace in Iraq.  [go to Lowry index]

The Gulf War Chronicles

Marines in the Garden of Eden

We are involved in a worldwide conflict and the front lines are in Iraq. We are involved in a conflict our military was not prepared to fight in 2003. We are involved in a modern-day counterinsurgent war – a netwar. General Petraeus knows the seriousness of this assault on the free world and he knows how to win against these 21st Century insurgents. Before taking command of the Multi-National Force, he was the Commanding General of the 101st Airborne Division; the commander of the Multi-National Security Transition command where he helped build the new Iraqi Army; and most recently the commanding general at the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, where he oversaw the revamping of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual FM3-24.

Last Thursday, I had the privilege of speaking with him on the telephone. We started by talking about the Iraqi people. The General spent several minutes talking of the sheer horror Iraqis have suffered most of their lives.  They have lived through the Iran-Iraq war, Desert Storm, a decade of sanctions and the Invasion of 2003. Then, instead of freedom, they have suffered through the chaos of the last several years.

He said, that they have endured “serious, brutal, horrific, barbaric terrorism carried out by Al-Qaeda” only to be followed by senseless sectarian violence. The general went on to say that the, “various sectarian militia, shia militia, got way out of control. [They] hijacked governmental ministries and certain security force elements…particular[ly] in the wake of the violence following the Askari Mosque bombing in late Feb of 2006.” The bombing stoked sectarian violence on both sides. General Petraeus voiced empathy for the people. He said, “They have endured a lot. They are a resilient people; it’s a nation of survivors.  It’s a nation of people that in many respects have endured enormous oppression.” The combination of oppression and sectarian violence has taken a toll on the Iraqi society.

Petraeus continued. “With a lot of those that had an option overseas leaving, Iraq has suffered a brain drain of varying proportions. A lot of the Technocrats just couldn’t hang in there.” With the people who administered Iraq on a day-to-day basis no longer sitting behind the desks in government, “You have people governing who, by in large, have had little experience in running large organizations [or] strategic level institutions.”

“There are just an awful lot of challenges.” Petraeus said.


Petraeus continued with his assessment. “You have to then say that every place in the country is different and that there are certainly nine provinces in the south that are relatively calm. Certainly there are challenges in various places at various times but they are ones that the Iraqis generally can solve if they have too. And, then of course there are the three Kurdish provinces that are very calm [and are] relatively progressive in the sense of free market economics within a still somewhat central governmentally run economy, but there is a lot of private investment.”

I interrupted with the comment that there seemed to be a large number of disparate groups all competing for their own piece of the pie. General Petraeus agreed. “It’s a big competition right now among a variety of groups; and, again in an environment, in Baghdad in particular, [that is] very heavily colored by an influence of the sectarian violence.” Neighborhoods have been depopulated and General Petraeus believes that “hundreds of thousands, maybe millions” of Iraqis have been displaced.

“Most damaging of all,” General Petraeus contends that the situation “has reinforced suspicions or created suspicions where there weren’t any between Sunni and Shia in a country in which there is a fair amount intermarriage between the sects in the past and where sectarian violence was not a huge issue, perhaps partly because Saddam ruled with an iron hand and put down the Shia all the time.”

I moved on to ask him about the current plan to secure Baghdad and he proudly pointed out that the “Clear and Hold” strategy has already been used with good effect in Mosul in 2004 and Tal’Afar in 2005. What General Petraeus modestly forgot to mention was that it was he who adopted the counterinsurgent strategy in Mosul when he was commanding the 101st Airborne and Colonel H.R. McMaster who architected the Tal’Afar success. (Colonel McMaster is now a trusted advisor to General Petraeus.)  The general was quick to point out that “If you’re going to secure the population, if that’s job one, then you have to live with the population you are going to secure.”
He then reflected on the past strategy. “For a variety of reasons, some pretty good reasons, we were gradually consolidating in larger bases and handing off to the Iraqis. The transition to Iraqi Security Forces, Iraqi control and local control was emphasized heavily. That was sort of moving along reasonably well until it was really undone by the bombing of that mosque and the resulting sectarian violence.

Al Qaeda in Iraq had been dealt a crushing defeat in the second battle of Fallujah. Without a dramatic event to ignite sectarian violence, the insurgency could have failed. Abu Musab al-Sargawi and his henchmen plotted an attack so heinous that every Shia in Iraq would be rallied to violence against the Sunni minority who had dominated the country for generations. The bombing ignited sectarian violence and derailed American plans for transition to Iraqi control.


Then there is Al Anbar province, an area which not long ago a Marine Colonel described as a cross between the Wild West and Mad Max. But, now the people of Anbar Province have finally had enough of Al-Qaeda and the violence and chaos they have brought to their homes. Tribal leaders are working with the Multi-National Forces to rid the area of these foreign fighters and military-age men are swarming into towns to join the Iraqi Police force. General Petraeus agrees that for the moment, things are going well in Al Anbar. “In Anbar Province an encouraging development is the rise of Sheiks and tribes who want to fight against Al-Qaeda and to secure their own areas to contribute to the Iraqi Security Forces, in particular in there own areas.”

I commented to the general that I thought that Nouri al-Maliki’s visit to Ramadi was very significant. He agreed. “That was a very important visit. That was of strategic significance. [That was] the first time he had been in Ramadi since the 1970s. BIG DEAL! That area continues to progress. Interesting, what you don’t have there is sectarian violence. What you have there is Al-Qaeda and other insurgent elements that want to return Saddam, create a caliphate [or] do any number of different things.”


Then there is Baghdad. Baghdad has become the primary battleground in Iraq. “Baghdad, a city the size of Los Angeles, is spread out and very diverse. What you have there is almost a tale of two cities to some degree. It is a tale of one city that is predominantly Shia, those areas in which security is pretty good. Al–Qaeda is trying to get in and blow them up periodically but the checkpoints are stopping a good bit of that. Where commerce has returned, the markets have reopened. We have hardened all the markets. And I’m talking about enormous markets that have tens of thousands of people. Those areas have bounced back very, very well.”

“Then you have the mixed areas though that are still in the sense battlegrounds…All it takes is one death squad just to really literally ruin the neighborhood.  They are fault line neighborhoods or they are Sunni Arab neighborhoods that are under threat from both Al-Qaeda, who’s trying to retain them as logistical routes or safe havens, and by, in some cases, Shia extremists who are trying to expand into those areas or to push into another block or another neighborhood.”

“Those are challenging places and they are challenging for the people that live in them as well… In fact we were in one of them just yesterday – the Amariyah area of Baghdad which is just east of the Baghdad International Airport; between that and the wealthy Mansur area, where all the diplomats used to live. And we were out talking to folks in the market and on the street and all that stuff. They are surviving, they are enduring. But you know it’s a pretty tough existence for them, frankly.”  


We are only a few weeks into the Baghdad Security plan. Only two of the five surge Brigades have been inserted into the city, yet General Petraeus is cautiously optimistic. He knows what it will take to win. “The truth is, the key to all of this is the Iraqi leadership and we should make no mistake about it. The Iraqi Army will do well if it has good national leadership, like any Army. If the national leadership cannot hang together as a national body, then how can you expect the national army to remain together?”

“You have to have a national government. You have to have national direction. I think the army is one of the better stories. It is a mixed bag in some cases but, by in large, the army has some quite good units, quite heartening units. I was just up in Ninewa Province for example and there are two pretty good Iraqi Army Divisions up there. In fact, we have only a single battalion contributing to the security in Mosul, in large measure because there is a pretty good Iraqi Army Division, pretty good police chief and police force. It is not perfect. It’s under threat. Al-Qaeda is trying to open a new front there. They did manage to break guys out of a prison. There are all kinds of pressures and challenges. But that’s actually a place where you can see the future of a smaller coalition presence and Iraqis stepping up to the plate and taking over. I wouldn’t say its easy there because you have some real ethnic challenges between Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds.”

Iraq is rife with problems and challenges. Each area seems to have its own set of unique issues. This is what makes ‘victory’ in Iraq so difficult. But when asked, General Petraeus said this: “The real challenge is to create something that is sustainable. We could cut a deal with the Mahdi Army, for example. We could bargain for six or nine months of peace with them but that serves no purpose.”  


“Hopefully, we can create a window of opportunity for the Iraqi leaders so that they can bridge some of the differences [and] achieve true national reconciliation and if they can’t then we gotta look each other in the eye and say it’s not gonna happen and say we need a Plan B.”

When I asked the general about the current political situation in America, he made it quite clear that his job was to remain focused on the mission in Iraq. Then he went on to say: “I think that a soldier should understand the mission he has been given and make sure he and his boss have discussed it and they are both clear on it and then ask for what he needs and then do the best he can with what he gets. And, inform people of the risk if he doesn’t get what he asks for. And, if it’s sufficiently less than what is judged to be needed, then he has to go back and say I can’t accomplish the mission, lets change the mission. That’s the approach you have to take.  

“I cannot make my recommendations based on what I think the pain is back there for the military services or the White House or Capitol Hill or anything else. All we can do is do our mission to the best of our ability and retain integrity as we do that. And, be willing to note that if it’s not going to happen,  I’ve gotta say that. I owe that to 150,000 young Americans and another 10,000 coalition partners.

General Petraeus believes that the mission is doable, but he cautioned, “It is by no means a done deal.” “There are no guarantees.” “My job is to help the Iraqis establish a better level of security in Iraq – that is job one." CRO

copyright 2007 Richard S. Lowry




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