General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Iraq, has always shown exceptional skill in impressing American politicians and journalists with his military abilities. Today he will be listened to with immense respect in Congress as he reports on how far the “surge” – the increase in the number of US troops in Iraq by 30,000 – has positively affected the war in Iraq.
It is a measure of Petraeus’s political skills that he was promoted to his present position despite being responsible in part for two of the greatest debacles of the Iraq war. In 2003/4 it was Petraeus who was in charge of securing Mosul, the third largest Iraqi city, from the insurgents, and his strategy of conciliating the Sunni and former Baath party members was lauded by the US media. But nine months after he left, the insurgents captured Mosul; the police appointed by Petraeus fled or changed sides, and $41m worth of weapons were lost.
In the same year Petraeus was given the crucial job of overseeing the training and expansion of Iraq’s new army, and again he produced glowing reports of progress. But three years later the army he was charged with turning into an effective fighting force is notoriously incapable and corrupt. In addition, Petraeus failed to observe that almost the entire Iraqi procurement budget of $1.2bn was being embezzled, and Iraqi soldiers were forced to rely on obsolete and inadequate weaponry.
It is the discrepancy between General Petraeus’s performance as a general in Iraq (he had seen no combat before 2003) and his rapid elevation to overall US commander that has led his critics to portray him as a courtier-soldier whose victories are won in TV interviews or in Washington.
Supporters of General Petraeus say that these accusations are unfair: the collapse of the Iraqi police and army in Mosul was not his fault, and he did not observe the theft of the Iraqi procurement budget because he was trying to give the Iraqi government as much authority as possible. He deliberately kept his distance from the ways in which it was spending its money.
Petraeus is an articulate, intelligent, well-educated and charming man. He gives an impression of restless energy, his body never staying still for long. It is easy to detect a current of relentless ambition that seems to inspire him, but is hardly unique in the son of first-generation immigrants.
He is a highly political general but this is always inevitable in the US and particularly so under President Bush, whose decisions on Iraq have usually been set by his political needs in America. It may be that Petraeus has been set impossible tasks on Iraq and that any US strategy aimed at winning a decisive victory is bound to fail.
David Petraeus was born in 1952, the son of a Dutch sea captain who emigrated from the Netherlands to the US after the Second World War. He grew up in New York state before going to West Point, after which he spent most of his career in the light infantry. He displayed an intellectual bent writing his PhD on The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era.
Petraeus had a varied military career, but until the invasion of Iraq had not been involved in real combat. He was, however, accidentally shot in the chest by one of his soldiers in a live-fire exercise in 1991. He got the hospital to release him after a few days by doing 50 press-ups.
In 2003 he commanded the 101st Airborne Division in the advance on Baghdad but it saw little fighting because of the swift collapse of the Iraqi armed forces. The 101st then moved to Mosul, where Petraeus won a reputation for being politically more astute than other US generals. What he did or did not do in the city is important because his tactics during “the surge” are somewhat similar.
Mosul is largely a Sunni Arab city of about 1.7 million people with a large Kurdish minority. In the rest of the province, the proportion of Kurds is a little higher. The city traditionally had been the home of much of the Iraqi officer corps. Even under Saddam Hussein, it was usual for the defence minister to come from Mosul. The decision by the US envoy Paul Bremer to dissolve the Iraqi army and security forces had a particularly devastating impact on the city.
Petraeus was the only US general I met at this time who had a grasp of Iraqi politics and saw that what Iraqis thought was happening would be very important. He kept the Iraqi exiles, the opposition during Saddam Hussein’s time, out of Mosul where they were deeply unpopular. He sent the Kurdish units which had captured the city, thanks to US air cover in April 2003, back to Kurdistan, a popular move among the Arabs. When he was leaving in early 2004, I asked him what was his single most important piece of advice for his successor. He said, after reflection, that it was “not to align too closely with one ethnic group, political party, tribe, religious group or social element”.
This sounded good, but it was never going to work as a policy because if the US was wholly neutral in the sectarian politics in Iraq it would end up with no friends. The Kurds were the main allies of the US in northern Iraq and were furious when their military forces were pushed out of the city.
Petraeus tried hard. Based in an old palace of Saddam Hussein’s, he tried to keep economic life going and ensure adequate food and fuel supplies. To evade the self-destructive decree by Paul Bremer against employing Baathists, he arranged for former Baathist security officers to renounce the Baath Party and all its works. When the 20,000 men of the 101st withdrew, they had lost only 60 men from hostile fire and accidents over 10 months.
Nothing of what Petraeus appeared to have achieved lasted until the end of the year. It turned out that his attempt to conciliate the Sunni in Mosul had failed. In November 2004 the US Marines attacked Fallujah, an event that absorbed the attention of the US media. They scarcely noticed the insurgent counterstroke on 11 November when Mosul was overrun.
The police and Iraqi army abandoned their barracks and the police commander chosen by Petraeus fled. The resistance seized arms and equipment including 11,000 assault rifles. The US had to call desperately for Kurdish support to recapture the city.
The long-term failure of Petraeus’s efforts in Mosul would not have been quite so glaring if the media had not trumpeted his virtues and successes a year earlier. Even, so it was noted more by Iraqis than Americans. Petraeus had moved on to another job and was in charge of the training and recruitment of a new Iraqi army, heading an organisation called the Security Transition Command. He wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post in September 2004 saying: “Training is on track and increasing in capacity. Infrastructure is being repaired. Command and control structures and institutions are being re-established.” To say the least, this was misleading.
A problem for the US army is that its commanding officers change jobs so often that they have no sooner gained experience than they take up another assignment. It is this that makes it difficult to assess the real abilities of US commanders including Petraeus. He handed over responsibility for training in September 2005 and became commander at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, overseeing US army training, and co-authored a manual on the army’s new counter-insurgency doctrine with a notable emphasis on protecting the civilian population.
In January 2007 Petraeus testified before the Senate and supported the “surge strategy” though the original concept had not been his. He was unanimously confirmed as the new US commander and is one who probably has more leeway than his predecessors because of the political weakness of the administration in Washington. He would be difficult to sack.
The “surge” was always more of a collection of tactics than a new strategy. Petraeus returned to Baghdad accompanied by some of the abler officers in the US army. But his achievement has been mixed. The biggest US success has been in Anbar province because of the split between al-Qa’ida in Iraq and the more nationalist insurgent groups. This is a cheering development for Washington but has nothing to do with “the surge”.
There has been some improvement in security in central Baghdad but it is still an extraordinarily dangerous place. A true measure of security or lack of it is that the number of Iraqis fleeing their homes has risen from 50,000 to 60,000 a month. None are returning to where they once lived. Baghdad has largely become a Shia city and sectarian killings may be down because in many areas there is no longer anybody from the other community to kill. Despite the supposed new emphasis on the safety of ordinary Iraqis, the US had increased its use of air power in the close-packed slums of Baghdad. The US military routinely claims that all the dead are insurgents even when the Iraqi police and doctors assert that they are seeing the bodies of women and children.
The high reputation of Petraeus in the US is a little difficult to explain. He is certainly an able man but his achievements in Iraq since 2003 have been limited, though his defenders might argue that he is involved in a war which the US could never have won because outside Kurdistan it has no reliable allies. “The surge” is feared by the Shia-Kurdish government as a lurch towards the Sunni, the same tactic that Petraeus pursued in Mosul with disastrous effect.
The long-awaited report by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker is a report on their own performance and is therefore unlikely to be entirely negative. At the same time, both men are too smart to produce the sort of propagandistic good news, instantly contradicted by events, which the White House might like to hear. But the real abilities of the man are still elusive.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.