In less than three years, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus has risen from the brunt of ridicule by Democrats to President Obama’s most valuable field general.
Mr. Obama, who as a U.S. senator in 2007 skeptically grilled Gen. Petraeus on the Iraq war, has turned to the four-star general as perhaps his last chance to win in Afghanistan — the one war the commander in chief views as vital to U.S. security.
Mr. Obama, as a U.S. senator, lectured Gen. Petraeus in the fall of 2007, when the military commander testified that his Iraq troop surge was working. Mr. Obama said it was not.
“We have now set the bar so low that modest improvement — in what was a completely chaotic situation to the point where now we just have the levels of intolerable violence that existed in June of 2006 — is considered success. And it’s not. This continues to be a disastrous foreign-policy mistake,” Mr. Obama told Gen. Petraeus.
Last month, the president stood shoulder to shoulder with Gen. Petraeus in the White House Rose Garden as he announced that the general would replace Afghanistan war commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who resigned after making indiscreet remarks to Rolling Stone magazine.
“Gen. Petraeus and I were able to spend some time this morning discussing the way forward,” the president said. “I’m extraordinarily grateful that he has agreed to serve in this new capacity.”
The four-star Army officer’s emergence as General Indispensable can be attributed, in part, to how Washington works: In 2007, he served as George W. Bush’s general; he is now Mr. Obama’s.
As the 2008 presidential election neared, Democrats were not eager to hear anything positive about progress in Iraq. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, had declared the war “lost.”
And another thing happened. The troop surge, many analysts later concluded, worked, which is what Gen. Petraeus had said.
“It’s become apparent even to the casual observers in the political world that the surge worked,” said retired Army Col. Pete Mansoor, who served as Gen. Petraeus’ executive officer in Iraq. “They may not say so publicly. They may not say so openly. But I think, in private, they realize the strategy worked.
“Gen. Petraeus was able to turn around a war that was nearly lost in 2006,” he said. “Having seen this turnaround in the war in Iraq, I think a lot of people are hopeful that he can do the same thing in Afghanistan.”
Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Democrats were out of power back then, but now realize they need Gen. Petraeus.
“It’s like night and day,” said Mr. Hoekstra, comparing Democrats’ criticism of the general in 2007 with their praise today. “What’s the difference? Democrats have now got to govern. They felt they could do anything for political reasons and political purposes back then. Now they’ve got to actually govern, and they have to be responsible, so they actually have to act responsibly. They actually have to take a look at Petraeus’ record. Before, it was purely ridicule of the guy.”
Col. Steven Boylan, who was Gen. Petraeus’ spokesman in Iraq and now teaches at Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College in Kansas, recalls a tense, politically charged Washington.
“I don’t think it would be unfair to say the issues of ‘07 were very divisive, and there was a lot of controversy and a lot of doubt with the strategy, and that doubt came through as we saw in the September ‘07 testimony,” he said.
Col. Boylan and Mr. Mansoor sat behind the witness table as prominent Democrats gave Gen. Petraeus a thorough interrogation. The general had been greeted in Washington by a Moveon.org ad in the New York Times that accused him of betraying his country.
“In continuing the surge of forces for another six months, is that likely to change that reality?” Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., now vice president, asked Gen. Petraeus. “The conclusion I’ve reached is: No.”
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, now secretary of state, told the general: “Despite what I view as your rather extraordinary efforts in your testimony both yesterday and today, I think that the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief.”
Mr. Mansoor, a professor of history at Ohio State University, said Mr. Obama did not put Gen. Petraeus in such a prominent role when he led U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. That has helped to keep the general out of the line of fire as he now moves to Kabul.
“President Bush used Gen. Petraeus as the public face of the war in Iraq,” Mr. Mansoor said. “And deliberately so, given that the president’s approval ratings were quite low and Gen. Petraeus’ approval ratings were quite high. He put Gen. Petraeus into a fairly unique position for a general officer, and that is to be the public media face of the conflict. As a result, Gen. Petraeus bore a lot of the brunt of the political criticism. That’s not the case in Afghanistan. President Obama has not used Petraeus in that role.”
It was at Fort Leavenworth where Gen. Petraeus brainstormed with Army and Marine Corps officers to rewrite the military’s counterinsurgency doctrine, issued as Field Manual 3-24 in December 2006. It put great weight on winning over the population by reducing insurgent violence. He sent American and Iraqi troops out of isolated base camps and into neighborhoods to mix with, and defend, the people.
“He came to Iraq with a new strategy,” said Col. Boylan. “He provided the big ideas and he provided the direction and guidance with those big ideas, painting, if you will, the white lines on the road, the left and right limits, and allowed his commanders, and encouraged his commanders, to execute the missions that they’ve been given within those bounds. One of them was, we had to get out of the bases and protect the population.”
How Gen. Petraeus operated in Iraq gives clues to how he will try to win in Afghanistan.
Mr. Mansoor expects him to bring together the military, embassy and Afghan leadership as one team with the same objectives. U.S. lawmakers back from Afghanistan this year reported lousy relations between Gen. McChrystal’s staff and U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, a former top commander in Afghanistan.
“He works very hard to ensure that he is on good relations with all the key players in governments, both host-nation government and in Washington,” said Mr. Mansoor. “He has a three-star commander in Afghanistan who fights the fight on the ground. He doesn’t need to do that.”
In Iraq, Gen. Petraeus’ typical day had him up before 6 a.m. in his Green Zone quarters. He read and returned e-mails and checked press reports over breakfast. He would arrive at headquarters for perhaps his most important two hours — the battlefield update assessment. It became his main management tool to digest events and give orders. Next was a series of meetings with key Iraqi and allied players, and sometimes trips to see field commanders and visit communities. After 7 p.m., he would be back in quarters, having dinner and e-mailing again before retiring around 10.
One of Gen. Petraeus’ first challenges in Afghanistan is the same one he faced in Iraq in 2006: the rules of engagement.
Troops in Afghanistan complained that Gen. McChrystal hampered their ability to defeat the Taliban by putting restrictions into place to protect civilians — such as not attacking individual houses.
“I think you’ll see a difference in style rather than substance,” Mr. Mansoor said. “He’ll be ensuring that lower-level commanders aren’t becoming so risk-averse that the troops aren’t able to fight effectively, which is what we found in Iraq in 2007 when we did [a rules of engagement] scrub back then.
“The ROE was actually OK, but it was just applied very strictly by risk-averse commanders, and as a result, the same sorts of arguments were being made by the troops, that their hands were being tied.”
After quick Senate confirmation, Gen. Petraeus was officially handed command Sunday at a NATO ceremony in Kabul. “We are in this to win,” he told the audience, using a word generally avoided by the White House, as the war approaches the nine-year mark in October.