Connect to share and comment
Opinion: It's all about the troops in the field.
I first met Petraeus in the spring of 2003 when he was commanding the 101st Airborne Division just after he had executed a massive and successful air assault on northern Iraq. It put him on the map, and soon he would obtain a kind of rock star status, eventually landing on the cover of Newsweek. The rest, as they say, is history.
When Petraeus briefly fainted at hearings in Washington earlier this month it was a scary and out-of-character moment for those who have gotten to know him. He has incredible stamina and the episode may indeed have occurred because, as he claimed, he was simply dehydrated. But Petraeus is also a survivor of prostate cancer and his health and his ability to take on the grueling task of running the war in Afghanistan is indeed an “extraordinary sacrifice,” as President Obama noted, for the man and his family. Still his health and ability to carry out this task will no doubt be raised in the hearings.
But the more important matter will be what changes, if any, Petraeus will want to bring to the table in Afghanistan.
Even if Petraeus is known for quiet diplomacy, it should be remembered that Petraeus also had profound disagreements with the George W. Bush White House and with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in particular. The disagreements were never visible to reporters when they happened, but they have since come to the surface, according to insiders who were there.
In a nutshell, Petraeus believed Rumsfeld was wrong about troop levels in Iraq and asserted that they were insufficient and he also quietly criticized the wisdom — or lack of it, as he saw it — of the so-called “de-Baathification” of the Iraqi military. In the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party regime, “de-Baathification” was the process of going after and jailing the Iraqi military leadership rather than seeking to bring them into the process of building a future Iraq.
That policy and the delay in calling for a troop surge are both viewed as significant and costly mistakes in the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Petraeus never voiced them publicly, instead he quietly retreated to a command at Fort Leavenworth and took to gathering the military’s best minds on counter-insurgency (COIN) and started writing a new COIN field manual for the troops.
That document became the blueprint for what is now looked back on by most military analysts as a successful surge. That strategy created the stability that allowed Iraq to hold elections and move forward in taking control of its own destiny, a process that's still unfolding.
As the 30,000-U.S. troop surge takes place in Afghanistan and the U.S. braces for a stepped up military campaign in Kandahar this summer, Petraeus might try to redirect that campaign. There are many elements of the design of the counter-insurgency in Kandahar that seem to defy the very COIN manual that Petraeus authored.
What is clear is that Petraeus has a chance to once again write history in the parched, dusty, windblown plains of yet another conflict that is faltering badly as he enters the helm.