Military history





(Spring 2007)

In early January 2007, David Petraeus was north of Los Angeles, riding in a rental car on Interstate 5 to see his aged father, Sixtus, a one-time Dutch sea captain who took refuge in New York when World War II broke out. Petraeus’s wife, Holly, was driving while the general answered his e-mail, using an air card on his laptop. His son was in the backseat. As if on signal, every cell phone people in the car were carrying began to ring. An aide to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs got through to Petraeus’s son with the message that Defense Secretary Gates was looking for Petraeus. One of Petraeus’s own subordinates called Holly with the same message. Petraeus looked down at his laptop screen and saw that the e-mail inbox was filling up with notes from colleagues who were hearing the same rumor: He was about to be offered command of the war in Iraq.

Gates came on the line on one of the phones. Holly exited off the freeway and drove into a parking lot in a rundown neighborhood to ensure that the cell signal wasn’t lost. “I just want to confirm that you’re willing to take this one,” the defense secretary said to Petraeus.

Petraeus assured Gates that he was. But in return he wanted some clarity from Gates. “Sir, with respect, I just want to talk a bit about my thoughts on what a commander in that position should do,” he said. “That is, that he should have a very clear understanding with you of what the mission is.” For years the mission had been conflicted between creating a stable Iraq and getting out of the country quickly, and trying to do both at the same time wasn’t working. Petraeus thought that the policy of “standing down as they stand up” wasn’t realistic then because “the situation had reached the point where they couldn’t stand up—in fact, some of them were flat on their face, if not helping the enemy.”

The top priority in the mission should be to secure the Iraqi people, Petraeus said. Turning control over to Iraqi security forces would have to take a backseat. “Transition is a task we all want to perform but it is a task that can only come when the conditions exist to make that possible, and those conditions are of course a level of violence that Iraqi forces can handle.”

Petraeus also wanted his direct line to Gates to stay open, in order to maintain clarity in policy. “That dialogue should be fairly continuous; it should be based on updates of the situation. This should be a very forthright, brutally honest discussion.” Gates agreed.

Gates also was looking for someone to take over Central Command. What did Petraeus think of “Fox” Fallon, the crusty chief of the Pacific Command? In his heart, Petraeus would have liked to have seen Gen. Keane picked for the job. He didn’t say that, but instead said he didn’t know Fallon but said he had heard Jack Keane speak highly of him. It was an exchange that he later would remember a bit ruefully.

On January 5, the White House announced that Petraeus would take command in Iraq. With that selection, the Bush administration was turning the war over to the opposition inside the U.S. military. Casey was kicked upstairs; Abizaid would follow Rumsfeld out the door. In their place, the president and his aides selected pragmatists and skeptics, especially the experts whose advice had been disregarded and even denounced during the run-up to the war. Some had been opponents of the war. Most were critics of current policy, and disillusioned, in the best sense of that word, that they had been stripped of the false assumptions that had hamstrung the U.S. war effort for years. What they all tended to have in common was an eagerness, even an insistence, that the war should be approached in new and different ways, from how troops would be used to how the Iraqi government would be handled to how prisoners would be treated.


The long journeys on aging chartered airliners from the United States to Iraq are frequently a time of reflection for soldiers, especially those going back for a second or third or fourth tour. As Petraeus was flying into Iraq in February 2007, Col. Pete Mansoor, his new executive officer, knelt alongside his seat. “You know, sir, the hardest thing for you, if it comes to it, will be to tell the American people and the president that this isn’t working.”

Petraeus didn’t say anything. “But he heard it,” Mansoor said. And he nodded.

They were stunned at just how bad the situation was. The first thing that struck them was the extent of damage inflicted on Baghdad during the municipal civil war of 2006. Then, in briefings, Petraeus learned how widespread Iranian operations were inside Iraq—and how effective, with the sophisticated bombs they provided becoming a major killer of American troops. A few days after landing, he took a tour of two Baghdad neighborhoods, Gaziliyah and Doura. “That was an ‘Oh my God’ moment—the damage done by sectarian violence,” he said. “I mean, they were just ghost towns. When I left in ’05, these were prosperous, fairly high-rent areas. Now there were no shops open. There were weeds and trash and bombed-out hulks.” Amiriyah was arguably worse, he remembered: “We reached a point where you were not allowed to drive in Amiriyah unless you were in a tracked vehicle—a tank or a Bradley.”

Mansoor, who accompanied him on the grim tour, simply described Doura as “lifeless.” As they drove in convoys of Humvees, the two men talked. “We remarked how these neighborhoods, which seemed largely depopulated, had a tense, frightened feel to them,” Mansoor said. “It was clear to us that the AQI terrorists and Shia militias had intimidated the population into submission. We had a lot of work to do to reverse this downward spiral, and time was not on our side.”


“There are three enormous tasks that strategic leaders have to get right,” Petraeus said one day in Baghdad. “The first is to get the big ideas right. The second is to communicate the big ideas throughout the organization. The third is ensure proper execution of the big ideas.”

The accuracy of that view is borne out by a comment by Maj. Roy Myers, a chaplain in the detention operation. All chaplains are especially sensitive to morale issues, but one ministering to soldiers handling detainees must be especially so, because low morale can quickly lead to abuses. “We have to be able to develop a sense of identity and a sense of purpose, even in an environment where the people above us are just baffled,” Myers commented later. “That’s probably why General Petraeus comes off as such a breath of fresh air. . . . [H]e has brought a sense of purpose: ‘What are we going to do in Iraq?’ Otherwise, the tactics overwhelm it: ‘Well, we’re going to go kill bad guys.’ At least now there’s a larger operational /strategic sense of purpose.”

On his first day in command, Petraeus issued a one-page letter to his troops, letting them know he understood how tough a road they were on. “The truth is, at the strategic level, all you can do is convey a handful of ideas—a handful,” he said later. “Then you do oversight, take the organizational actions that institutionalize the ideas.” That was the point of this letter, which set the scene for following ones. “We serve in Iraq at a critical time,” he began. “A decisive moment approaches.” The enemy, he said, included mass murderers. It wouldn’t be easy taking them on, he said, “but hard is not hopeless.”

The first question facing Petraeus was how well he would mesh with his new deputy, Odierno, who would oversee day-to-day operations, managing downward, while Petraeus focused upward on the Iraqi and American governments. The two made an odd physical pair: Odierno, at 6 foot 5 inches, and 245 pounds, is 8 inches taller and 90 pounds heavier than Petraeus. Odierno’s most noticeable physical trait is his bulk topped by his hairless, bulletlike head. Petraeus is both small and slightly buck-toothed, sometimes giving him, as he hunches over intently to make a point, a bit of a chipmunklike aspect. The small, nimble Petraeus is as much a diplomat as a soldier, while the hulking Odierno always seemed inclined to use firepower. But Odierno knew that in 2007 he would always do so with Petraeus, the Army’s counterinsurgency expert, looking over his shoulder.

Odierno is big and emotional, the type of general who will bear-hug a colonel having a hard day. Petraeus generally is cool to the point of being remote. Brig. Gen. “Smokin’ Joe” Anderson—he earned the nickname as a welterweight boxer at West Point—knew both men well, having been a brigade commander for Petraeus in combat in northern Iraq and then becoming Odierno’s chief of staff in 2007. “Odierno is more loyal to his people,” he concluded. “Sometimes if you move on from Petraeus, he will forget you. . . . It’s a little bit more about Dave than it is about Ray.” He also thought Odierno better suited for combat. “Odierno is a better war fighter than Petraeus. Petraeus is more the statesman. Odierno understands the big picture, but his default mode is make sure the enemy knows he can shwack them.”

Odierno and Petraeus were peers during their first tours, in 2003-4. They had commanded divisions in adjacent areas—Odierno with the 4th Infantry Division headquartered in Tikrit, and Petraeus with the 101st Airborne north of him in Mosul. They had been two of the hottest generals in the Army, quiet allies against the blustery incompetence of their commander, Lt. Gen. Sanchez, and also against the clumsy micromanagement of L. Paul Bremer III, the civilian overseer of the occupation authority. At meetings with top officials, the two tended to support each other. On November 4, 2003, Petraeus complained that he was “astonished” that Bremer and his staff were developing plans without talking to affected U.S. commanders, according to verbatim notes taken by one of Bremer’s subordinates. “It’s a mistake to have planning isolated in Baghdad,” he added.

Odierno backed him up. “Yes, the campaign plan has to be worked out at all levels,” he said. “Frankly, my sense is you want to cut us out.”

But they had run their divisions very differently, with Odierno inclined to use the closed fist and Petraeus the open hand. “I see Petraeus up in Mosul,” recalled one general who visited both commanders in the summer of 2003. “He completely understands that he has an urban insurgency on his hands. Therefore, he is spending a considerable amount of time on political and social development. He doesn’t permit indiscriminate major sweeps.” Odierno’s 4th Infantry Division felt unnecessarily aggressive to this general, as if it came in looking for a fight, finally found one, and began overreacting. “He’s conducting one operation after another. They are going through neighborhoods, kicking in doors at two in the morning, without actionable intelligence. That’s how you create new insurgents.”

The two generals also experienced a bit of friction during Petraeus’s second tour, when he was overseeing the training of Iraqi army and police forces from June 2004 to September 2005. Odierno was part of a small Pentagon delegation sent to Iraq to look at ways to improve Washington’s support of the operation—but perhaps also to assess who was slowing things down in Baghdad. When the group met with Petraeus, he seemed defensive. “There is enormous impatience” back home, Odierno warned him. “You’ve got to get on with this.”

Petraeus didn’t have a lot of time for pressure from Bush administration officials who had rushed into invading Iraq. “If folks were so impatient,” he snapped, “they might have thought about that before they kicked this whole thing off.”

Some members of the group found Petraeus guarded to the point of being opaque. One of them was Odierno, who finally asked, “Are you telling me you have everything you need, there’s nothing you want from us in D.C.?”

Now Petraeus outranked Odierno, and the larger man would have to follow the lead of the smaller, less conventional one. “Everyone knows that Petraeus and Odierno really didn’t get along before,” said Kilcullen, the Australian infantryman and anthropologist who became Petraeus’s adviser on counterinsurgency. But as they worked together in Baghdad in 2007, he noted, there was almost no discernible friction.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who saw them together often, said, “I have noticed when we are doing a campaign review or something like that the quality relationship between the two is such that Ray has no hesitation saying, ‘Let me give you a different take on that,’ and Dave has no problem saying, ‘Good point.’ ”

This time, subordinates were struck by how well they worked together. “That dynamic has been like hand in glove,” said one senior intelligence official, who had been unsure about how the two would mesh. “Odierno is extremely good at using the force to execute what Petraeus wants to do. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.” Odierno, this officer said, “understood intelligence, and the geometry of the battlespace—how does what I do here affect what I do there, and what I’ll do next. That’s an art. It’s seeing things multidimensionally, in terms of time, space, and human terrain.”

For all their differences, Petraeus and Odierno brought a key similarity to Iraq in 2007. Col. H. R. McMaster, analyzing American errors in Iraq in the first years of the war, commented that “flexibility as applied to military leadership might be defined as being open to change as an opportunity and having a tolerance for ambiguity; adjusting rapidly to new or evolving situations; applying different methods to meet changing priorities.” That captures well the approach the two generals would take in Iraq as they mounted the counteroffensive of 2007.

Almost the first thing Odierno did after Petraeus arrived in Baghdad on February 7 was lay out his plans for the surge, which he called “Security Now.” (This briefing is the third document in the appendix.) One new brigade, from the 82nd Airborne, had come in, and a second one, from the 1st Infantry Division, was arriving. Three more would land in the following months. The plan was to use U.S. forces in a radically different way, moving them off the big bases and into small outposts among the population. While the top priority of U.S. forces for years had been handing off to Iraqi forces, the mission was changed to protecting the Iraqi population. “I think he bought it whole,” Odierno recalled.

The top priority Odierno listed in this first brief to Petraeus was to “secure the Iraqi people, with a focus on Baghdad.” By contrast, making the transition to Iraqi security forces, formerly the top goal of the U.S. mission for years, had been downgraded to the seventh priority on Odierno’s list. Raising the ante a bit, he also warned Petraeus, “Time is not on our side.”

Early on, Petraeus made what Lt. Gen. James Dubik, another Army three-star general in the country, called “the blood pact” with his top generals. “It was, we’re gonna do this, or we’re gonna go down trying,” Dubik recalled. “But we’re not going to operate so that the next generation of Americans are going to have to go to war to finish this thing. And we’re going to have our integrity when we’re done.” The message: Act like this is your last tour of duty, and don’t worry about what comes next for you.

Petraeus also sought to make his commanders more flexible and open in dealing with the media. On his fourth day in Iraq, February 10, Petraeus took command and sat down with his generals. “We are in an information war,” he told them. “Sixty percent of this thing is information.” He told them he wanted them to talk more with reporters. “Don’t worry about getting out there too much—I will tell you if you are.” That order reversed the standard approach of Army officers of dealing with the media only as much as was absolutely necessary, in the correct belief that little credit could be gained but that a mistake could damage one’s career. “It was culture shock,” recalled his adviser on communications, Col. Steve Boylan. “They hadn’t been taught to engage.” Boylan, a veteran Apache attack helicopter pilot, argued that the American effort had lost so much credibility that official pronouncements of progress had become meaningless. “We couldn’t tell the American people anything anymore. We had to show them. They had heard enough.”


Two anomalies characterized the team Petraeus brought together in Baghdad. First, it was one of the most selective clubs in the world, dominated by military officers who possessed doctorates from top-flight universities as well as combat experience in Iraq. “I cannot think of another case of so many highly educated officers advising a general,” said Carter Malkasian, who has advised Marine Corps commanders in Iraq on counterinsurgency and himself holds an Oxford doctorate in the history of war. Second, to a surprising degree, it was a minority organization, in the sense that the surge had been supported by only a small group inside the military and would be implemented by a group of dissidents, skeptics, and outsiders, some of them foreigners. “Their role is crucial if we are to reverse the effects of four years of conventional mind-set fighting an unconventional war,” said a Special Forces colonel who knew some of the officers.

Foremost among the doubters was Petraeus, who during the 2003 invasion of Iraq had skeptically said several times to a reporter, “Tell me how this ends.” It was clear back then that he hadn’t joined Gen. Tommy Franks and other top commanders in believing that toppling a statue or two in Baghdad was the answer.

After years of inclining toward anodyne pronouncements about steady progress, which always begged the question of whether there was enough progress, or whether the speaker actually knew what was happening, the new team could be refreshingly blunt. “We have done some stupid shit,” Maj. Gen. Dave Fastabend, who moved out to become Petraeus’s chief of strategy, said at the beginning of one interview about the conduct of the war, as he put his feet on the table behind his desk and stared eastward out the window, toward the part of Baghdad where rockets and mortars are launched into the Green Zone.

There also surfaced occasionally a tone of resentment, of being sent out to clean up a mess created by Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Franks, and others, and who resented the criticisms being leveled by the new crew. “People were like, ‘Fuck you, you think you’re smarter than us,’ ” recalled David Kilcullen, whom Petraeus recruited to be a kind of counterinsurgency coach for his commanders. “A lot of them were waiting for us to fail.”

Interestingly, that antipathy didn’t extend to the ringleader of the mess, President Bush, even in private conversations. Lt. Col. Charlie Miller, who prepared Petraeus for his weekly video-teleconference with Bush, and sometimes sat in on them, said the president actually surprised him in the first meeting. “He was very different from the president you see on TV, that sideways smile of his. He was very informed, questioning, engaged.” But Miller was peeved by the Pentagon officials who launched the war and then left the government: “What bothers me is Martha Stewart went to jail for the little stuff, but people who fundamentally misunderstood the situation are teaching at Georgetown,” he said over dinner one day at Camp Victory, referring to Douglas Feith, who was under secretary of defense for policy during the invasion and occupation of Iraq and went on to become a professor at Georgetown University and publish a soporific memoir.

Lt. Col. Suzanne Nielsen, a Harvard Ph.D. who was a strategist for Petraeus, said that five years after the event, “I still find it kind of unforgivable” how the war was commenced in 2003.

At a planning office at Central Command, the headquarters to which Petraeus officially reported, someone pinned up a photo of Gen. Anthony Zinni, the Marine who preceded Tommy Franks at the command. He had gone into opposition against the Bush administration during the run-up to the invasion and had been something of an outcast since then. Posting his photo spoke volumes. This wasn’t Franks’s headquarters anymore, where Zinni’s “Desert Crossing” plan for invading Iraq if it collapsed, drawn up in 1999 after some new intelligence on the shakiness of Saddam’s regime, had been neglected and even disparaged as outmoded.

The team Petraeus assembled included Col. Michael Meese, son of the former attorney general, and himself a Princeton Ph.D. in economics; Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, a veteran of battles in Najaf and Fallujah, who did a Ph.D. dissertation on Thomas Jefferson’s political theories; Lt. Col Miller, a Columbia University Ph.D. in political science; and Col. H. R. McMaster, former commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

The last officer on that list, McMaster, seems to pop up repeatedly at key points in the Iraq war, like the military equivalent of Eliot Cohen, the ubiquitous bow-tied academic. McMaster was well known in the Army from his leading role in a key tank attack in the 1991 Gulf War. The Army’s official history of that war, Certain Victory, opens with him as a cavalry captain leading a charge of nine tanks. He became even better known for his nervy doctoral dissertation in history, written at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about the failures of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War. Published in book form as Dereliction of Duty, it was widely read in the military in the 1990s, and in 1998 even made required reading for four-star commanders by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Hugh Shelton. Early in the Iraq war he was a skeptical adviser to Abizaid at Central Command. Then, after taking command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, he posted what was arguably the first genuine success in the postinvasion war, his counterinsurgency campaign in the city of Tall Afar, in 2005-6. Later he was an influential member of the council of colonels at the Pentagon that informed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs that the U.S. military was on a path to defeat in Iraq. He arrived to advise Petraeus in Iraq just after finishing a paper sharply critical of how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had been fought. “A short-term approach to long-term problems generated multiple short-term plans that often confused activity with progress,” he charged.

For his intelligence adviser, Petraeus tapped Derek Harvey, a retired Army colonel who had become a dissident inside the Pentagon, going to top officials in 2004 and telling them the situation in Iraq was more dangerous than they understood. Gen. Keane took him under his wing and insisted that Rumsfeld give him a hearing. He did, and then was sent to do the same with Bush—but was never invited back to give an update on his darkly pessimistic view of the war.

Even the junior officers around Petraeus seemed to have a maverick streak to them. One of his aides, Capt. Elizabeth McNally, looked like a future general, having been first in her class at West Point and then a Rhodes Scholar. But in 2007 she decided to quit the Army when she got home from Iraq, partly to become a mother, but also, she said, because “I’m kind of disillusioned with the government now.” One of her successors would be Capt. Erica Watson Borggren, who had used her own Rhodes scholarship to study social policy and theology at Oxford, the latter subject because she was contemplating eventually leaving the military to become a missionary, perhaps in India. Her best friend at Oxford displayed on the wall of her room a photograph of a burning American flag.

Stephen Biddle, the Council of Foreign Relations defense expert who had participated in the crucial White House meeting with Bush in December 2006, was surprised to be asked to join Petraeus in Baghdad because he had published an analysis of the Iraq war and had been told that Petraeus “disagreed heartily” with it. Another invitee was Toby Dodge, a British academic who “was fundamentally against the decision to invade. I thought it was badly planned and badly executed, and led Iraq into a civil war.” Nonetheless, he accepted the invitation because he also opposed the idea of the United States simply leaving as fast as possible.

Petraeus also handpicked Lt. Gen. Dubik to take over the effort to train and advise Iraqi forces. It was known as MNSTC-I, which the military, in a Freudian moment, began pronouncing “min-sticky,” as if it were the ministry of intractable problems, which it effectively was. It wasn’t known publicly, but Dubik had long been an internal critic of the handling of the war, sending three memos to the leaders of Army from 2004 to early 2007, warning them that the United States was losing it. Dubik saw the entrance of Petraeus also as a cultural shift for the Army in Iraq, the ascendancy of the light Army, comprised nowadays of three divisions, the 82nd Airborne, the 101st Airborne, and the 10th Mountain. Those light-infantry units, lacking tanks and much other armor, had been easier to deploy, and so were assigned the odd jobs of the Cold War, from peacekeeping in the Sinai and Somalia to hurricane relief in Florida. The heavy Army, with its tanks, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery pieces, and thousands of other pieces of gear, remained focused on the plains of Central Europe, where its mission was to be prepared to blunt the onslaught of a Red Army. “We were the window-doers throughout the Cold War,” said Dubik, smiling with both his mouth and his warm brown eyes. “The ‘real Army’ didn’t do windows,” he said, until forced to do so in Bosnia in 1995. The heavy Army also led the invasion of Iraq in 2003, perhaps feeling it was its turn, after the Special Operators and light infantry had invaded Afghanistan two years earlier. The initial headquarters for the occupation was V Corps, which was based in Europe. In 2007 Petraeus led the light Army into Iraq.

The two most important advisers to Petraeus were two colonels, Bill Rapp and Pete Mansoor.

Col. Rapp became the head of Petraeus’s unusual internal think tank, the Commander’s Initiatives Group, which the general established to ask the hard questions and push the envelope. It was intended to keep him one step ahead of events, escaping the traps that had snared earlier American commanders in Iraq of being reactive, or of acting on assumptions unthinkingly inherited from the Army’s culture, or of trying to follow White House rhetoric. That is, the president may call the insurgents evildoers—but why not cut deals with the enemy? And what about amnesties? Where did the French go wrong in Algeria as they thought they had won in the late 1950s, and how can we avoid repeating their errors? Is the task of the Army to destroy the nation’s enemies or to bring the war to a successful conclusion? It was not an office present in most U.S. military headquarters. Rapp, a big, slim, intense, earnest man, with close-cropped hair, graying at the temples, tends to look angry while thinking but is really just deep in thought. He had written a Ph.D. at Stanford on the reliability of democracies in war-fighting alliances.

Rapp had arrived home from his previous tour in Iraq in October 2006, only to receive a call three months later from Petraeus, who wanted him to come to Baghdad.

“Sir, I just left,” Rapp said, at a loss for words.

“Yeah,” Petraeus replied. Rapp knew that meant: So what?

“Sir, I’m still in command of my brigade,” Rapp added.

“Let me make a phone call,” Petraeus said. Rapp knew what that meant as well: That obstacle soon would be gone.

Two days later the Army chief of staff ’s office notified Rapp that his command had been curtailed. “Give it up and go to Baghdad,” Rapp told himself. He arrived in Iraq in mid-February. He would become an extra set of eyes and ears for Petraeus, accompanying him to almost every meeting, observing, taking notes, offering the general another view on what he was hearing and seeing, and what the next steps might be.

Mansoor, who commanded a brigade of the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad in 2003-4, received a Ph.D. at Ohio State for a dissertation on how U.S. Army infantry divisions were developed during World War II. He became Petraeus’s executive officer in Baghdad, a key figure in implementing the general’s decisions. Unusually in the U.S. Army, Mansoor was of Palestinian background. His father, born in Ramallah, emigrated to New Ulm, Minnesota, in 1938. “It was ten thousand people of German descent and one Arab family,” Mansoor recalled. They moved to Sacramento, where he proudly remembers that his mother, a schoolteacher, won awards for designing an “open classroom” approach. His father was a traveling salesman. In high school, Mansoor was valedictorian, student body president, and head of the math club. He also would graduate first in his class at West Point in 1982.

In late March, Ryan Crocker flew to Baghdad to become the U.S. ambassador, succeeding Zalmay Khalilzad. His arrival completed the most sweeping personnel turnover of the entire war, surpassing even the changes that came after the invasion when Franks and the chief of the Army, Gen. Eric Shinseki, stepped down. Now, as then, there was a new U.S. commander, who was working with a new deputy and a new ambassador, and, like then, they would have above them a new Army chief of staff and a new chief of the Central Command. But surpassing the changes of 2004, there also was in place a new Iraq director on the staff of the National Security Council and, most important, a new defense secretary. Also, they would be overseen by a new, Democrat-controlled Congress.

Crocker and Petraeus would become close partners in 2007, creating almost the reverse of the dysfunctional relationship that had existed between the first permanent postinvasion U.S. envoy, Ambassador Bremer, and his military counterpart, Gen. Sanchez. They were determined to get along, to achieve the “unity of effort” whose lack had so plagued the American effort. Where Bremer had been a control freak, Crocker could be self-effacing. Where Sanchez dove into minutiae, Petraeus strove constantly to keep his head above water, to focus on the big picture. Neither Crocker nor Petraeus seemed to think invading Iraq had been a wise choice. On election night in November 2002, as the Bush administration was running up toward invading Iraq, Crocker had worked late in his Washington office and then gone home with a sinking feeling. “It was clear where it was going,” he recalled. “I told my wife, ‘We have just voted to have us a big old war.’ ”

He hadn’t opposed the invasion wholeheartedly, he said one day in his Baghdad office, a few steps from Petraeus’s. “I was against it, but not happily,” he said. “This was a truly evil regime. I had spent two years here. I had seen it firsthand, just truly evil, and we are supposed to stand for something as the United States. It was a truly evil and active regime that was wearing us down.” So, he thought to himself, if you are against the invasion, what do you do, especially if you believe, as he did, that “sanctions weren’t going to last—they were already falling away.” Plus, he recalled, “I had to take seriously the WMD thing. So if you’ve got a guy who is as evil as he is, as violent as he is, armed as he was said to be—and I had no reason to doubt it—and we are losing our international containment, what are you going to do?” At the same time, “What kept me up at night wasn’t what I knew but what I didn’t know. And I knew full well we weren’t prepared to handle it. As a regionalist, my feeling was, Don’t do it.”

Crocker would oversee an embassy stocked with similar skeptics. Retired ambassador Timothy Carney, for example, had served under Bremer early in the occupation, only to quit after two months, angry and frustrated with the sloppiness of American planning and its even worse implementation. In January 2007 he was asked to go back to oversee reconstruction efforts. Talking to State Department officials, he picked up a new “sense of reality,” and added, “It’s been a long time coming.” He accepted.


Underscoring how much the U.S. Army had been changed by Iraq, three of the most influential advisers added to the U.S. effort in Iraq were foreigners. One was David Kilcullen, the Australian counterinsurgency specialist. Another was Sadi Othman, the lanky, pacifistic Arab turned New Yorker. The third was Emma Sky, a small, fiercely anti-war British expert on the Middle East. None of them were particular supporters of President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq or of the way the occupation had been handled.

Kilcullen was perhaps the most outspoken and articulate of Petraeus’s advisers. Sandy-haired, apple-cheeked, and boyish, he enjoyed semimythical status as the man that Petraeus, the Army’s new king of counterinsurgency, had asked to be his counterinsurgency adviser. Also, as an Australian far from his own chain of command, Kilcullen, who had opposed the invasion of Iraq, could say in his Crocodile Dundee accent what American officials only thought privately. “In ’03, we confused entry with victory,” he said. “What we have to do now is not confuse departure with defeat.”

He loathed his time in the cocoon of the Green Zone, where he felt he was just a sitting duck for incoming mortars. It was better to be out and about, embedding with brigade and battalion commanders, helping them seize the initiative whenever possible. Sitting in his closet-sized office in the old presidential palace, just around the corner from Petraeus’s, Kilcullen, the son of an Australian medievalist, exclaimed one day, “There’s a line in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness about the smell of defeat seeping out of the walls. I feel that being in this palace—the bureaucratic inertia, the feel of defeat, seeping out of the walls.” He came to hate the insularity of the place: “The system in the Green Zone is built to protect you from realizing there’s a war on.”

His job was to help change the way American officers in Iraq thought about how to fight the war. Kilcullen briefed each group of incoming commanders how to operate. His prescriptions were almost the complete reverse of how most U.S. forces had operated in the first years of the war. Among his top ten rules were:

• “Secure the people where they sleep.”

• “Never leave home without an Iraqi.”

• “Look beyond the IED: get the network that placed it.”

• “Give the people justice and honor. . . . We talk about democracy and human rights. Iraqis talk about justice and honor.”

• “Get out and walk”—that is, “patrol on foot.”

Kilcullen found that last dictum, about literally putting boots on the ground, to be one of the hardest to get some units to adopt, especially those who were already in Iraq as command shifted from Casey to Petraeus. He concluded that American soldiers simply had grown accustomed to driving around Iraq, three or four to a Humvee. But that separated them from the Iraqi people, he argued. “In the eyes of the population, we ceased to be human beings,” he told commanders on his trips around Iraq to advise them on counterinsurgency techniques. “We were just big moving metal boxes from which Imperial Storm Troopers would occasionally emerge. When an IED blew off, it didn’t kill anyone they’d ever seen before.”

He also told commanders that these “dismounted” operations ultimately would reduce casualties, because the insurgents wouldn’t waste a bomb just to kill one or two soldiers in a spread-out patrol. This promise came back to haunt him on one of the first days of major foot patrols, when four soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division were blown up while walking. He found himself unable to sleep and paced the marbled hallways near Petraeus’s office, mournfully wondering whether to recommend dropping the idea. He decided to helicopter down to observe the operations of that 10th Mountain unit. “It turned out they were so used to working in Humvees that they patrolled in clumps of four,” he said. He gave them a talk.

A few months later, he was pleasantly surprised in an observation of the patrolling methods of another unit. “No one is doing ‘pure’ vehicle patrols anymore,” he reported. Some units were running foot patrols on one block, with Humvees operating in parallel a block away, available to move quickly to help them. Others left behind their vehicles altogether and conducted double patrols, with one squad on the street and another moving in tandem with it across the rooftops. “There’s a lot of night work happening too,” he said. This wasn’t just raids but also meeting people. “The locals are much more willing to talk freely at night.”

Show Iraqis respect, he admonished commanders, but also hold your counterparts to standard. For example, he said, he was with an American patrol commander who approached an Iraqi checkpoint. The Iraqi soldiers had been instructed to stop and inspect every vehicle. “The Iraqi officer was urgently waving us to stop, but our patrol rolled through it at ten miles per hour. The company commander said, ‘We don’t stop for you people.’ I thought, ‘You’ve just lost that guy.’”

One American battalion commander told Kilcullen that he planned to sever relations with a Shiite-dominated Iraqi army unit in his area that, he had learned, was detaining any Sunni it deemed capable of paying a ransom. Kilcullen recommended a different method: Hold the Iraqi commander to standard. Ask him to show you the evidence behind the detentions. If he fails to do so, require that he release the Sunnis, pay them compensation, and formally apologize. “If he doesn’t do that, you withdraw support,” Kilcullen said.

“Can I do that?” the American officer asked.

“Fuck yeah,” Kilcullen said. “That’s what you’re here for.”

He also argued at high levels that the Americans had been putting the cart before the horse in terms of communications. “We use information to explain what we’re doing on the ground.” The enemy, he said, “does the opposite—they decide what message they want to send, and then design an operation to send that message.” He called that more effective approach “armed propaganda.” The American equivalent would be putting American troops out into the neighborhoods to protect the population: Don’t say it, do it.

Most controversially of all, Kilcullen and some others were thinking about how to “target” their allies in the Baghdad government—not to kill them, but to alter their behavior. Petraeus recalled that his initial set of talks with Maliki in February and March were “really tough,” with “voices raised.” One of the issues was that Maliki “had made Casey take the checkpoints off Sadr City.” Petraeus said he would accede if absolutely necessary—but made it clear that he would have to be pushed hard to do so.

“The weaker partner is always dominant, because we are always trying to prevent them from tipping over, while they can pretty much do what they want,” advised Kilcullen. For example, the Finance Ministry, he said, was quietly contributing to “soft ethnic cleansing” by refusing to allow banks to operate in Sunni areas. That meant Sunnis either needed to keep a lot of cash in their homes, where it might be stolen, or drive it to a bank through Shiite checkpoints, where it might well be taken from them. This Hobson’s choice forced many Sunnis simply to leave Baghdad, which of course achieved the aim of the Shiite death squads. Likewise, he said, the government was supplying electricity twenty-two hours a day to Shia areas, but just one or two to Sunni neighborhoods. “You have no refrigeration, so you have to go to market every day, and the big food markets are in mixed or Shia neighborhoods.” In both cases, he said, “the purpose is to encourage people to leave.”

Not everyone was a Kilcullen fan. “He didn’t know a thing about Iraq,” sneered a senior U.S. intelligence officer, who also noted that Kilcullen was only in Iraq for a few months early in 2007, as Petraeus settled in. “He took just enough pictures so he has a great slide show.”

That said, Kilcullen’s influence on how the U.S. military thought about counterinsurgency campaigning cannot be overstated. “For a staff guy, he had an extraordinary feel for what was happening,” said Col. Michael Galloucis, who commanded a military police brigade in Baghdad in 2007.


Of the three foreigners who became key advisers to new American commanders, the most unusual was also the one closest to Petraeus. Of them, Sadi Othman probably also had taken the longest journey, both physical and psychological, to becoming part of the American war effort.

Othman was a Palestinian born in Brazil but raised in Jordan, where he attended a boarding school run by Mennonites, the pacifist Protestant sect related to the Amish. While he is ethnically Sunni, he said that decades later, he feels “more Mennonite than anything else.” How does he reconcile that with being the political and cultural adviser to the top U.S. general in a war? “I am here for peace, not for war.”

At the University of Amman, he grew to 6 foot 7 inches, and soon achieved a bit of local celebrity as the first Jordanian ever to dunk a basketball. Even today, he seems all legs and arms, with the fingers of a pianist, which tend to always be holding a cigarette. Sitting in the bright winter sunlight by the pool behind the U.S. embassy, he seemed almost haloed by his thin white hair and the curling smoke of his Marlboro Lights. He carried two cell phones, which rang every few minutes. On this day he was answering them with a visible sag—he was fatigued from nonstop telephone calls he had been making to help free eight Turkish soldiers being held hostage in the north by Kurdish guerrillas. Othman also became Petraeus’s envoy to emissaries from Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric who has been a big winner in post-Saddam Iraq. Could Sadr’s people be brought into a working relationship with the Americans? He also was sent frequently to talk to senior members of the Iraqi government.

At age nineteen he transferred to Hesston College, a Mennonite institution in Kansas, and later became an American citizen. On 9/11, he was a taxi driver in New York City. He found the day’s terrorist attacks devastating in three ways. “As an American, I was attacked. As a New Yorker, I was violated. As an Arab American, I was humiliated.” He felt he had to do something, and signed up to be a civilian interpreter for the U.S. military in the Mideast.

Two years later he wound up as Petraeus’s interpreter in Iraq, used for the most crucial and sensitive meetings, not just for the general but for other senior Americans. In January 2007, he interpreted as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Representative John Murtha chewed out Prime Minister Maliki. “The meetings were very tough,” Othman said, banging his fist on the table to illustrate the tone. He recalled that Pelosi told the Iraqi leader, “You have made a lot of promises, but nothing was delivered.”

After Pelosi and Murtha left the room, Othman recalled, Maliki, his face pale, turned to Othman and said, “Now I understand what President Bush is going through.”

He had first met Petraeus at the end of the invasion of Iraq in April 2003, as the general was coming out of a men’s room at the Mosul airport. Othman, not seeing any insignia, assumed that the small, thin, smiling man in a plain brown T-shirt was like him, a civilian. Petraeus is always searching for new insights, especially from people with different perspectives. They began to talk about Iraq. Othman soon found himself assigned to be Petraeus’s interpreter. He also came to admire this unusual general. One day he and Petraeus were in Mosul and encountered a man and a woman carrying a baby, with a daughter walking alongside. They looked hungry. Petraeus took out $3 in cash. The woman hesitated, and Othman urged her, “Take it—for the children.” A week later the woman saw Othman again and approached him to say, “We ate meat for the first time in two years.”

Petraeus and Othman stayed in touch while the general was at Leavenworth developing the counterinsurgency manual. After Petraeus was picked to be the top commander in Iraq, he asked Othman to work with him again. A member of Casey’s staff called Mansoor, Petraeus’s executive officer, to try to block the move. “We recommend highly you don’t take him,” the Casey man said. Asked about this in an interview, Othman said there had been some bad blood between him and the staffer. Mansoor, knowing how close Othman was to Petraeus, politely thanked them for their interest. In 2007-8, Othman’s most important task was to be Petraeus’s personal liaison with the Iraqi government. “We use Sadi a great deal,” Petraeus said, “to talk to the prime minister, the minister of finance, to talk to a number of different ministers with whom he has very close personal relationships at this point.” There was one major difference beween the two men: Petraeus was no schmoozer while Othman reveled in the endless hours of chatting with Iraqi officials. “When we talk to Sadi Othman and General Petraeus, we are talking to twins,” said Rafi al-Assawi, a Sunni who became a deputy prime minister in 2008. “Talking to one, the message would always get to the other.”


As close at Othman was to Petraeus, Emma Sky grew even closer to Odierno, becoming a kind of physical shadow to him. The birdlike British woman made a dramatic contrast to the hulking American general, both physically and intellectually. “People always thought we were funny, this huge man and this tiny British woman who went everywhere with him,” she recalled.

It was a sign of how much Odierno had changed that he sensed he needed someone like Sky to second-guess him in Iraq. He had seen her in action in Iraq in 2003-4, when he was commanding the 4th Infantry Division, and she was advising the Americans on Kurdish issues in the north. Odierno asked her to come back to Iraq to be his political adviser, but she resisted. She had opposed the war, and she didn’t have a lot of time for armies, especially the American one. “From my perspective, the military were the bad guys,” she said one still, oven-hot summer evening, sitting on the balcony of a palace and gazing out over the darkness of one of Saddam’s shallow artificial lakes. “I was about human security, not state security.” A specialist in third world economics who speaks Arabic and Hebrew, she found the military approach jarring. “I come from a world where it is, first, do no harm. When you work in development, you are very conscious of that.” By contrast, she said, “The military comes in like a great crashing beast.” (One well-connected U.S. Army officer said he believes that Sky works for British intelligence. Upon being asked about this, she laughed.)

She surprised herself by taking the job. “Odierno, by bringing me in, has probably brought in the most opposite person he could find.” She did it because she thought it was time to get the United States out of Iraq and wanted to see it happen in the least damaging way possible. “Can we exit with some dignity? Can we have relations with Iraq for a generation to come? All this is still to be decided. There is still a lot we can get from this.”

Aware of the reputation Odierno carried from his time in command of the 4th Infantry Division, she agreed to join his staff on one condition, that if she ever witnessed him condoning a human rights violation, she would report him to the Hague—where the International Criminal Court prosecutes war crimes. Odierno agreed, probably a bit amused. She only learned later that the United States isn’t a signatory to the statute creating the court, which it maintains doesn’t have jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers or other U.S. citizens.

To her surprise, she would become one of Odierno’s biggest fans. “He is the only person I would come back to Iraq for,” she maintained. “I’d follow him to the end of the world. Usually when you work closely with people, you see the warts and all, and your opinion goes down. My opinion of him has gone way up.”

She may have been soft on Odierno, but she retained her sharpness about the rest of the world. Asked in an interview early in 2007 about Iraqi politics, she interrupted to redefine the question. “It’s not a government, it’s a failing state.”

She still could blow the whistle on the U.S. military, but now she did so from inside the tent. In the spring of 2007, she was in a “battle update assessment” as an officer showed gun camera footage of an attack helicopter surprising insurgents emplacing a bomb and blowing them to bits. This was red meat for officers who had spent years being attacked by anonymous roadside bombers. “They all loved it,” she recalled, so much so that the officers at the briefing began talking about taking the declassification steps necessary to release the imagery to the media. “We should get this out, get it on TV,” they commented.

Sky was shocked. “These are American versions of jihadi videos,” she interrupted angrily, knowing they would be taken aback by the comparison to decapitation photographs and videos posted on the Internet. “Is this the image you want to present to the world? This is America killing people. Yes, it has to happen. But let’s not glorify it.” Furious, she stood up and strode out of the conference room.

After she left, Odierno discussed her comments with his corps sergeant major, the highest-ranking enlisted man for tens of thousands of troops. Half an hour later, the sergeant major walked into her office. “Ma’am, you’re right,” he said, and then hugged her.

Yet the two still had their differences. At one point in 2007, Odierno called Sky into his office and told her she was being overly pessimistic. “I need you on this!” he said, half arguing and half imploring.

“I never liked the idea of this war anyway,” Sky muttered.

At another point, she recalled, she was so tense and frustrated by one issue—she said she couldn’t remember what it was—that she decided to quit. Like Odierno, but unlike Petraeus, she tended to show emotion and then get over it. She stayed.

Once, when Petraeus pointed out in a meeting to Odierno that Sky, Odierno’s political adviser, made a certain argument, Odierno responded, “She’s not my adviser, she’s my insurgent.”

To her astonishment, in the course of 2007 she would also become an admirer of the U.S. military. “I love them,” she said. She added provocatively that she thinks the military is better than the country it protects. “That’s the way I feel about it—America doesn’t deserve its military.”

The willingness of American commanders to ask for her advice consistently surprised her. “The Brits came in with more experience in this sort of operation, but over the years I think the American Army has learned a lot more. I mean, there’s no way the British army would ask someone like me to come along.” She also came to appreciate the meritocracy of American culture: “What I found with the Americans is they always gave me a place at the table. Once there, it was up to me to prove myself. With the British military, it’s always a fight to get a seat at the table—I’m female, I’m not military, I’m a tree-hugger.”


Looming over this new American team and its revamped approach was the nagging question: Was it simply too late? “The one resource that Petraeus needs, and lacks, is time,” Col. Holshek, the civil affairs veteran of Iraq, said as the surge began in the spring of 2007.

Fastabend agreed. “The first thing you need,” he told Petraeus, “is more time on the clock.” And he would get that, Fastabend continued, only if when he went before Congress later that year he was able to show clearly understandable successes, like sharply lower violence in some parts of the country. “It can’t be a 1.5 percent improvement in ministerial capacity and blah blah blah.” In another Army connection, Fastabend years earlier had served as Jack Keane’s executive officer.

There were many expert observers who thought the U.S. effort already was out of time. After all, this argument went, the American people had voted against the war in November 2006, and the task now was to wind it up. “It’s too late to make a difference in Iraq,” said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University expert on terrorism who had advised the U.S. government on the war effort.

Petraeus recognized the pressing need for more time. “The Washington clock is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock,” he said. “So we’re obviously trying to speed up the Baghdad clock a bit and to produce some progress on the ground that can, perhaps . . . put a little more time on the Washington clock.” But many of Petraeus’s critics didn’t seem to recognize what he needed that time for: not to bring the war to a close, which everyone involved thought would take years, but simply to show enough genuine progress that the American people would be willing to stick with it. That would be the real war goal for 2007.

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