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The Petraeus doctrine

General David Petraeus rewrote the book on counterinsurgency. But will he have the troops -- and the time -- to complete the mission he's spent his career preparing for?

IT WAS A different war back in November 2003, when David H. Petraeus, then a major general, was commanding the 101st Airborne Division based in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Back then, I was a reporter on the ground for The Boston Globe and was invited into the 101st A.D. headquarters, which was housed in a captured palace that once belonged to one of Saddam Hussein's henchmen. With its marble hallways, crystal chandeliers, and gold-gilded furniture, it was classic Baathist kitsch. But Petraeus's office was 100 percent USA, with its military issue desk, topography maps, and his battle gear -- a vest, helmet, and boots -- mounted on a wooden cross and standing at the ready. His running shoes -- Petraeus is a marathon runner -- were neatly placed in a corner.

During the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Petraeus had led the 101st A.D. in one of the largest and longest air assaults in military history, and its execution was text book. And in the months that followed the invasion, Petraeus, armed with his Princeton doctorate and his reputation as a "warrior scholar," was credited with finding perhaps the best balance of hard and soft power in Iraq.

"We want to be seen as an army of liberation and not an army of occupation," Petraeus told me.

His troops carried out relentless searches of the homes of ex-Baathists but complemented the tough tactics with sit-downs with tribal chiefs and community work projects like rebuilding schools and painting over old murals of Saddam Hussein in what the 101st dubbed "Taskforce Tom Sawyer." This balanced approach helped produce the solid intelligence that led to the 101st cornering and killing Saddam Hussein's two sons in a wild shootout.

"There is a half-life on our role here, you wear out your welcome at some point. It doesn't matter how helpful you are," Petraeus said. "We aren't here to stay."

Those words now echo with history as Petraeus prepares to return to Iraq, this time to take lead command of US forces as a four-star general. As he prepares to carry out a shift in strategy called for by the Bush administration, Petraeus stands at the turning point of this war, and what may indeed be the "half-life," as he put in 2003, of what has become a brutal and bloody occupation-cum-counterinsurgency.

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Last week, Petraeus appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee and sailed through confirmation hearings. He is expected to take command in Iraq within the next few weeks.

Petraeus went to Capitol Hill with a specific mission, one that may be more important right now than troop numbers and more valuable than high ground. That is, to buy time. Already the political clock is ticking on President Bush's latest plan for success in Iraq, as a deeply divided Washington debates the merits of a troop surge and the primary campaign season gets off to an early start. But Petraeus knows that when he lands in the field next month, he will need to operate on a tactical clock that ticks a good bit slower than the political one.

"The way ahead will be neither quick nor easy, and undoubtedly there will be tough days. We face a determined, adaptable, barbaric enemy. He will try to wait us out," Petraeus told the Senate committee. "Any such endeavor is a test of wills, and there are no guarantees," he added.

Such candor may help Petraeus manage expectations, but how much time it will gain him to deliver tangible results in Baghdad remains to be seen.

"The political clock and the operational clock are wildly out of synch," said Andrew Bacevich, director of Boston University's Center for International Relations and a West Point graduate who served in Vietnam. "What he is setting out to do requires lots of time and, frankly, he doesn't have lots of time."

Taking command in Iraq at this critical juncture in the war is a daunting task, one that many military analysts see as the most difficult mission thrust upon an American general since 1968, after the Tet offensive destroyed any illusions that the US was winning the Vietnam War.

Barry Posen, a professor at MIT's security studies program, taught Petraeus at Princeton in the mid-1980s and has stayed in touch with him through the years. He says that Petraeus -- who spent the last year and a half rewriting the US military's counterinsurgency doctrine for the first time in more than 20 years -- is uniquely qualified for this command.

But Posen also points to the minefield that Petraeus finds himself in as he assumes a command and embraces a strategy that may be inherently flawed -- and inherently contradictory to his own sense of doctrine.

"Imagine the commander in chief comes to you and says, 'The good news is I want you to do the thing you have talked about your whole life...The bad news is that it is already a mess,'" explained Posen. "So what do you imagine a good soldier is going to do at that point? Say, 'No sir, I don't think I can help you, it is too far gone'? No, he is going to do the best he can.

"He has to say it is a mess to buy time," Posen said, "but he has to say it is a redeemable mess. And that is what we heard from David Petraeus in Washington."

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In some ways this is the role that Petraeus has been preparing for his whole life -- the culmination of a carefully plotted career that has led him to this crossroads for Iraq, for the US military, and for him personally.

Petraeus, who graduated from West Point in 1974, was too young to serve in the Vietnam War. He went on to Princeton, where he earned a PhD in international relations, writing his doctoral thesis on the lessons learned in Vietnam.

They were lessons he brought with him to the command of the 101st Airborne Division in 2003. But a year later, Petraeus returned to Iraq as head of the Multinational Security Transition Command, whose job was to train Iraqi military forces. Here he had far more limited success, and some would say no success at all. During his second tour, Petraeus began to voice concerns about the direction of the war and what he saw as a failure to implement an effective counterinsurgency strategy, according to senior military officials who are close to him.

After his second tour in Iraq, Petraeus was promptly shuffled off to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., a posting that many saw as a form of exile, far from the corridors of political power in Washington.

But at Fort Leavenworth's Combined Arms Center, Petraeus found a way to use his new assignment -- and his intellect -- to influence events on the ground despite being stationed in Kansas. He took up the task of rewriting the military's counterinsurgency manual. The new manual, which was published last month, presents a thoroughly researched and innovative rethinking of counterinsurgency in the post-Sept. 11 world -- a reassessment of strategy based on the history of counterinsurgency stretching from ancient Rome to the French debacle in Algeria to America's experience in Vietnam.

The question Petraeus now faces is how he will balance the reality of Iraq with the game plan he has thoughtfully presented in his counterinsurgency manual.

The first chapter of Petraeus's manual calls for a "force ratio" of 25 counterinsurgents (here meaning US, allied, and Iraqi soldiers and police) per 1,000 residents. In Baghdad that would require a total force of 120,000. But even with the additional 17,500 US troops President Bush has called for, and a reallocation of Iraqi troops from the North to Baghdad, the total force will be approximately 80,000, a full third less than what the manual prescribes.

Conrad Crane, director of the US Army Military History Institute who assisted Petraeus in authoring the doctrine, said, "We never wanted people to think of this as a cookie cutter template. There are two very important components to determining ratio and that is intelligence analysis and campaign design."

"Campaign design" is precisely what Petraeus will be doing on the ground in Iraq in his first weeks. In other words, gathering intelligence and listening to US and Iraqi soldiers who know the neighborhoods of Baghdad to determine the best strategy for providing security to its residents.

Then there is the question of "unity of command." Classic doctrine would suggest all forces should be under one command, but in Iraq there are several parallel structures among US, allied, and Iraqi forces, which analysts say have caused confusion.

Crane pointed out that the manual calls for the principle of "unity of effort" where the reality of "unity of command" is not possible. "We have to try to get everyone going in the same direction and that is going to be a challenge. It will take a lot of political skills and a lot of persuasion and I think this is General Petraeus's strength. He knows the challenge and he is going to enter the fray and I don't know anyone better suited to do it," said Crane.

But Kevin Ryan, retired brigadier general and a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said that even if Petraeus can design a campaign that will be effective in securing Baghdad, it does not mean that the wider goal of stabilizing Iraq through a political solution can be achieved.

"Everyone agrees the most important long-term part of this is the political aspect of it. And that is where we have the least leverage. It is almost entirely up to the Iraqis, and in that respect this is a very risky strategy," he added.

Back in 2003, in the first weeks after the US invasion of Iraq, as an organized insurgency began its furtive contact with troops by cutting off supply lines, Petraeus famously asked a Washington Post reporter embedded with him in Mosul: "Tell me how does this end?"

Now nearly four years later, it is still the question of this war. And, as history would have it, it is David Petraeus himself who is ending up shouldering the burden of providing an answer.

Charles M. Sennott is a member of the Globe staff.