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Petraeus Faces Wider Array Of Challenges

Gen. David Petraeus will hand over control of the Multinational Forces in Iraq on Sept. 16 and become chief of the U.S. military's Central Command.
Brent Stirton
Getty Images
Gen. David Petraeus will hand over control of the Multinational Forces in Iraq on Sept. 16 and become chief of the U.S. military's Central Command.

The soldier credited with turning around the war in Iraq will soon be working in a wider sphere. When he becomes chief of CENTCOM, the U.S. military's Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus will find himself overseeing two wars and some of the most volatile areas on the planet.

Retired commanders and defense analysts generally laud Petraeus as a leader and strategist, but they warn that he'll have far bigger and more complex responsibilities in the new job, which he takes over on Sept. 16. He will hold sway over American military operations from Kenya to Kazakhstan.

Petraeus' predecessor and former boss, Adm. William Fallon, notes that while Petraeus has thorough experience in a key theater, Iraq, he will have to get up to speed on new areas, including the rest of the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa.


"If you had the luxury of a peacetime environment," Fallon says, "you could focus on long-term strategies and have a reasonable time to phase them in. But CENTCOM is pretty hot. You become in many ways a hostage to current events."

Fallon himself ran afoul of the political pressures of the job. He resigned in March, after a profile in Esquire magazine portrayed him as resisting administration pressures to take military action against Iran. He said he had had no differences with President Bush over the objectives of U.S. policy in the area, but that the perception of a conflict made it difficult for him to be effective in the job.

Jeffrey White, a defense analyst at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says "the warp and weft of CENTCOM is political and military; it's not just fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it's how do you contain Iran? How do you deal with Egypt and the Saudis?"

White says Petraeus comes to the job from a position of strength as commander of all U.S. troops in Iraq, where he is widely regarded as the man who turned "what looked like a not-success for the Army into a success."

High Profile Creates A Backlash


Petraeus first came to widespread public attention as the commander of the Army's 101st Airborne Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The division was given responsibility for the area of northern Iraq around Mosul, and Petraeus was credited with running a successful counterinsurgency campaign that combined aggressive military action with reconstruction, economic development and promotion of local elections.

He also displayed some of the traits that have made him unpopular among some fellow officers, including intense ambition and competitiveness, qualities that have earned him the nickname "King David."

Ret. Gen. Barry McCaffrey says Petraeus' prominence triggered a backlash at the highest levels of the Army and raised the ire of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when Petraeus was pictured on the July 5, 2004, cover of Newsweek magazine over the headline "Can This Man Save Iraq?"

McCaffrey says that high profile went against the culture of the Army, in his words "the crunchiest of all the services." He says Petraeus, then a three-star lieutenant general, was sent off to cool his heels as commander of the U.S. Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Even then, says McCaffrey, Petraeus made the most of the opportunity. "He worked with [Marine Lt. Gen. James] Mattis to put together the field manual on counterinsurgency," he says.

McCaffrey says he intervened with President Bush and top administration officials, "telling them why it was crucial to get Petraeus in command in Iraq." The president gave the job to Petraeus, now a four-star general, in February 2007. He succeeded Gen. George Casey, who had opposed the troop buildup in Iraq that was to become known as the "surge."

Bucking The Chain Of Command

Petraeus went against the chain of command above him, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Adm. Fallon, by pushing for more troops. According to The War Within by Washington Post writer Bob Woodward, Petraeus communicated directly to the president and Vice President Dick Cheney through a back-channel established by his mentor, retired Gen. Jack Keane. Keane did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.

Defense analyst White says Petraeus proved himself as a commander and strategist.

"He had some advantages in the sense that by the time he took over we'd learned a lot, and the administration was willing to support him fully. He also benefited from changes in Iraq," including the decision by Sunni tribes to turn against al-Qaida and the decision by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to take his Mahdi Army out of the conflict.

Adm. Fallon says those factors were helpful but don't explain Petraeus' success.

"That," he says, "has to do with the way those troops were used, and that's the responsibility of Petraeus. Dave was instrumental in organizing the conventional forces on the ground to be much more effective."

A key part of the strategy was to disperse troops among the population in small combat outposts, a plan that exposed them to greater danger but also brought them into closer contact with Iraqis in their communities.

Iran Likely A Challenge For CENTCOM

As he moves into the larger arena of CENTCOM, Petraeus will face a wider set of challenges. White says in addition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a key challenge will be Iran.

"So far, the last two guys at CENTCOM, [Gen. John] Abizaid and Fallon, were both very careful and circumspect in their dealings with Iran. My sense is that Petraeus will not be an advocate for unnecessary provocation," White says.

Adm. Fallon says nothing happens quickly or easily in CENTCOM, but he's seen a dramatic change since he took over there. And, he says, Petraeus' success in reducing the violence in Iraq is part of the change.

"It's going in the right direction, but it's not going to be in a straight line. The time may not be far off when Iraq becomes part of the security solution in the region," Fallon says.

Gen. McCaffrey is even more sanguine. "There couldn't be anybody better positioned than Petraeus," he says. "He understands the situation, and he has the confidence of the commander in chief and the secretary of defense."

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