LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan | Army Gen. David H. Petraeus trudges across a gravel helicopter-landing area with his aides, looking purposeful but a bit grim, as he reaches a village outpost in the violent Afghan province of Helmand.
He’s here to chart progress, or lack thereof, in a war that’s running at the pace of a horse cart, in a world that runs at the speed of a text message.
The only time the 57-year-old commander’s smile reaches his eyes are a couple of brief moments when he stops and chats with troops. He poses for snapshots that memorialize his first months in command here, fighting a long war that he knows the American public, not to mention the White House, wants done yesterday.
Gen. Petraeus does not snap when a reporter asks him a question he has answered 50 times before, and will at least another 50 this year: Do you see progress?
When he replies, the pressure weighing on him shows in his voice — quieter than when he was in charge at U.S. Central Command in Florida, or earlier in Baghdad and Mosul, Iraq — and it shows as well in the slightly hunched set of his shoulders, leaning on one arm of the chair.
There is none of the showmanship described in magazine profiles that sketched a megawatt four-star commander who outmaneuvers his adversaries with political and media savvy.
Instead, there is a solemn professor, patiently getting through the next order of business in a day scheduled down to the minute. To answer that “progress” question, he asks his aide for a stack of charts, leafs through to the chosen page, and then walks the reporter through his vision of the war, like a tough calculus problem he keeps having to explain over and over.
Yes, there is some progress, but only some, Gen. Petraeus says. No, he will not be drawn out on whether it’s a trend. Yes, things are going according to plan. But no, he won’t give the plan a timeline, because yes, he knows NATO overpromised before.
His favorite expression is “only now do we have all the right inputs in place,” as in only now do the United States and NATO have all the tools, from manpower to surveillance platforms to all the logistics and air support needed to fight the military side of a counterinsurgency conflict. That encompasses “stressing” the enemy through capturing and killing, and moving Army units into contested Afghan neighborhoods, to win them back from the Taliban.
He’s got a chart showing those “inputs,” too, including one called “People,” which lists Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal — the man dismissed from the post Gen. Petraeus now occupies, after quotes embarrassing to the White House appeared in a Rolling Stone article.
If you ask an aide why the chart hasn’t been updated to say “General Petraeus,” instead of “General McChrystal,” the aide says: “McChrystal’s name is there because the boss wants it there.” Gen. McChrystal put everything into place, he explains.
True to that, Gen. Petraeus brings up Gen. McChrystal’s name in nearly every conversation, mentioning how everything that’s happening now was jointly planned by him and Gen. McChrystal last fall.
Yet when pressed about the dour headlines of diving public opinion polls back home, he turns to his computer and digs out the latest statistics on violence in Iraq — only six incidents thus far that day, compared to roughly “220 a day back in 2007,” which is proof, he says, that his counterinsurgency strategy worked once and will again.
You get the sense the tired general keeps an eye on that rearview mirror as a touchstone, to remind himself as much as the journalist sitting before him that no one thought he would turn around that war, either.