General David H. Petraeus (WDCpix)
Reaffirming his status as his generation’s most respected general officer, David H. Petraeus was nominated today to head U.S. Central Command (Centcom), the command responsible for all U.S. military operations in the Middle East. The move puts the U.S. military’s premier advocate, theorist and practitioner of counterinsurgency operations — once shunned by a Vietnam-stung military — at the helm of the military’s most important regional command.
But many military analysts — even those closely associated with the counterinsurgency theories that Petraeus has long championed — viewed the move as a mixed blessing.
In defense circles, the identity of the next Central Command commander has been the subject of much speculation. Last month, Adm. William Fallon abruptly resigned from the post after a magazine article portrayed him as an opponent of the Bush administration’s continued bellicosity against Iran, a country within the Centcom area of responsibility.
Explaining Petraeus’ elevation, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “I recommended him to the president because I am absolutely confident he is the best man for the job. … The kinds of conflicts we are dealing with not just in Iraq, but in Afghanistan and some of the challenges that we face elsewhere in the region in the CentCom area, are very much characterized by asymmetric warfare. And I don’t know anybody in the United States military better qualified to lead that effort.”
Gates’ statement reflects something more than Petraeus’ well-regarded stint as commander in Iraq. Petraeus’s name is synonymous with counterinsurgency. These are methods of warfare used to draw a civilian population’s political and personal allegiance away from a guerrilla force. Before becoming the U.S. commander in Iraq, Petraeus led the Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., where he implemented a course in counterinsurgency for mid-career Army officers and co-wrote the joint Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual, a touchstone text for counterinsurgency theorists.
But it was in Iraq during 2007 that Petraeus went from being a potent force within the Army to a household name — and important U.S. political player. Petraeus’s shift to a “population protection” strategy, centered largely on Baghdad, where 21,500 additional U.S. Army troops operated, succeeded during the second half of 2007 in reducing violence to levels not seen since 2005. “Population protection” was the term Petraeus used to denote sending U.S. forces, embedded with Iraqi army and police units, out from large, concentrated fortifications and into Baghdad neighborhoods. More U.S. troops’ presence on the streets could help deter and defeat agents of terrorism and fratricidal Iraqi violence.
But the reduced violence did not, however, yield commensurate political or sectarian reconciliation — the strategic objective of the troop surge as defined by President George W. Bush on Jan. 10, 2007. In fact, as Petraeus conceded to Congress earlier this month, violence began to rise again during early 2008. Republicans, eager to find a way to salvage their support for the war, have embraced Petraeus unreservedly; Democrats, eager to demonstrate their opposition to the war, have been more circumspect.
Several military analysts who respect Petraeus expressed concern that his promotion to Central Command will end up placing the needs of the Iraq war above the broader U.S. interests in the Middle East — including the Afghanistan war, and the reemergence of Al Qaeda in Pakistan. They also sound worried that the new Iraq commander Bush nominated, U.S. Army Gen. Raymond Odierno — Petraeus’ corps commander in Iraq — is not up to the task.
Petraeus’s name is synonymous with counterinsurgency.
“Both Petraeus and Odierno are, for understandable reasons, very invested in Iraq,” said Colin Kahl, a counterinsurgency expert at Georgetown University and the Center for a New American Security. “Putting an ‘Iraq guy’ in charge of Centcom and pairing him with a field commander that, historically, has endorsed maxing out our presence in Iraq may make it more difficult to shift needed resources to Afghanistan. This could create friction with an incoming administration if the new president chooses to make Afghanistan a higher priority.”
Justin Logan, a foreign-policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, agreed on this. “It may be time to change Centcom’s name to ‘Iraq Command,’” Logan said. “The move also raises concerns whether the White House expects Petraeus to mount a propaganda offensive against Iran.” Fallon fell out of favor with the Bush White House over Iran, while Petraeus has cited Iran as a major source of concern during his two rounds of congressional testimony.
On one of the counterinsurgency community’s premiere blogs, Abu Muqawama, a measure of anxiety rose over Petraeus’ inclination and ability to see beyond the Iraq war. “Just how much attention will King David pay to Afghanistan?,” wrote the pseudonymous “Charlie.” “(Can you put a decimal point on “slim to none”?)”
A similar note was struck by her co-blogger, the blog founder “Abu Muqawama.” “Is a commander who has seen the region solely through the prism of Iraq for this long going to be able to take a step back and examine America’s interests dispassionately?” he blogged. “And when the commander in Iraq demands more soldiers and material for the war effort that might be more needed in Afghanistan, is David really going to be the kind of man who can say no?”
A potential responsibility of the next Central Command chief — if either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes president — will be to plan for an orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. But at his congressional testimony earlier this month, Petraeus conspicuously declined to say whether he would, as Iraq commander, plan for withdrawal.
Terrence Daly, a retired Army officer and long-time mentor to many counterinsurgency theorists, considered the appointment auspicious for both the course of both ground wars — though not necessarily for the rise of counterinsurgency within a military often reluctant to embrace it. “This moves Petraeus into an important post from where he will be able to oversee the prosecution of both of our major counterinsurgencies, Afghanistan and Iraq,” Daly said. “It moves him away from the Army, however, where he was regarded as a possible successor to Gen. George Casey as chief of staff of the Army; and, unlike Casey who wants to take the Army back to the emphasis on conventional fire and maneuver warfare, one who would carry out far-reaching reforms to enable it to deal with COIN [counterinsurgency] more effectively.”
Like many others interviewed, Daly expressed more concern about Odierno’s move to Iraq commander than Petraeus’s move to Central Command. “The big question,” Daly continued, “is did Odierno, who was reported in Tom Ricks’s classic [book] ‘Fiasco‘ to be totally lacking in any understanding of COIN when he was in Iraq as commander of the 4th Infantry Division in 2003, really change his thinking?”
Brandon Friedman, an Iraq veteran and blogger for the veterans-advocacy group VoteVets, called the shift “wrong, wrong, wrong.” “I’m less concerned with the fact that Petraeus is moving to CENTCOM than I am with the fact that Odierno is taking over for him in Iraq,” Friedman wrote in an email. “He’s already been there for well over a year. He’s not supposed to stay in theater this long without a break. They’re supposed to alternate between command jobs and staff-type jobs. By keeping a commander in theater like this, he runs the very real risk of ‘going native,’ as we say in the Army. The Army is supposed to get fresh eyes on the situation with every new rotation — and that’s for a reason. Keeping this one guy there to do Bush’s job tells me that the Bush administration doesn’t trust any other generals — out of the dozens qualified.”
On Abu Muqawama, Charlie called Odierno’s appointment “the real story,” and disapproved. “This is a bad idea,” she said. “Who would want to be the new Iraq commander while working for the old Iraq commander?”
“In terms of counterinsurgency, the biggest impact might not be Petraeus’ promotion, but Chiarelli’s,” said Erin M. Simpson, a counterinsurgency expert and professor at the Marine Command and Staff College at Quantico, in an e-mail. “Gen. Petraeus can’t do much to change the Big Green Army from CENTCOM. As [vice chief of staff of the Army], however, Chiarelli is perfectly positioned. If Iraq and Afghanistan are just the first campaigns in the ‘Long War,’ then changes to the institutional army are at least as important as the battlefield victories Petraeus will now be overseeing.”
*This is the third in a series: The Rise of the Counterinsurgents. *
Part One: The Colonels and ‘The Matrix’
Part Two: A Famous Enigma