The doors have been taken off our Blackhawk helicopter to accommodate heavy machine guns, so there's a blast of 100-degree heat blowing in everyone's face at 100 miles an hour. The view below is not inspiring: dreary streets, concrete buildings, uncollected trash everywhere. Block after block of Baghdad slips by, rooftop laundry flapping wildly in the backwash of the chopper's rotor blades. Only a fool wouldn't consider the possibility of an Iraqi insurgent down there, armed with a surface-to-air missile or a rocket-propelled grenade.
That's why the Blackhawk flies fast and low, says Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, shouting over the roar of the engine. By painful experience, pilots have learned the insurgents won't have time to fire if the helicopter skims the tops of buildings, appearing and disappearing quickly. Although 22 helicopters have gone down in this war, only two have been lost in the past couple of months. (As Petraeus explains this, he looks around for a piece of wood to tap, but there's only metal and nylon.) "Look at all the satellite dishes down there," he says hopefully. It's true: even though electricity comes on only for about six hours a day, hardly a building is without a cluster of dishes, which were banned during Saddam's time.
Petraeus is on his way to visit a military training program, where Iraqi officers like Col. Shaker Faris are trying to create effective fighting units from scratch. Colonel Faris's men are among the soldiers who eventually are supposed to take over from U.S. forces in Iraq, and it's General Petraeus's job to make that happen. President George W. Bush himself has made the training and arming of Iraqi national forces a top priority, and every American official from the president on down has adopted the same mantra: soon, Iraqis themselves are going to handle the insurgency and take responsibility for the security and safety of their own country. The process officially begins this week, with the handover of sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government. Then, "every day the Iraqis get better at securing their nation is a day sooner that our troops can come home," says National Security Council spokesman James Wilkinson. General Petraeus, in short, is the closest thing to an exit strategy the United States now has.
From Baghdad, our Blackhawk flies north into the Sunni Triangle. The door gunners keep their guns pointed down, eyes on anyone who moves. Stomachs jerk as the chopper lifts abruptly to clear high-tension wires; several times the pilot makes sudden, sickening turns to confuse potential enemies. We cross and recross the Tigris River before dropping down in front of Saddam's biggest palace, now headquarters for the U.S. Army's First Infantry Division. As Petraeus steps out onto the helipad, every hair is in place, his uniform neat and tidy. Not a bead of sweat shows. The civilians accompanying him look like rag dolls run over by a truck.
"So, Shaker, how many of these thousand can you really count on?" Petraeus asks Colonel Faris, referring to his 1,000-man battalion. Shaker is earnest and cheerful, but he's reluctant to put too much of a gloss on a grim situation. "There are about 20 guys I would call special, General," he says. "If there were really bad terrorists, they still couldn't get through these 20." "Well, we'll have to see what we're going to do about the rest of them," Petraeus replies, unfazed--at least as far as anyone can tell.
Leadership is always a bit of a confidence game. Project authority, display ability and power, and others will follow. Few do this as well as Petraeus. When a fellow Army Ranger, a twentysomething, recently asked the 51-year-old Petraeus how many push-ups he could do, the general offered a contest, dropped to the ground and won after doing 75 in a minute. He's got legs and lungs to match: just before the war, he finished the Army 10-miler in 63 minutes, a time only the fittest of young men could equal. ("And that was after I hurt my pelvis," he says.)
But Petraeus's most important asset may be his intellect, and his knack for politics. He graduated in the top 5 percent of his class at West Point, which means he's just what the Army likes (smart, but please God, not brilliant). He also married the daughter of the West Point superintendent. Graduating in 1974, he was too late for Vietnam, and he spent the gulf war serving as aide to the Army chief of staff. In 1991, Petraeus nearly died in a training exercise, when an infantryman tripped and discharged his M-16, firing a bullet into Petraeus's chest. The wounded Petraeus was medevaced to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., where a young surgeon rushed off the golf course to operate on him. The surgeon, Dr. Bill Frist, is now the Senate majority leader. The two men are firm friends.
Oddly, Petraeus saw combat for the first time only in March last year, and that's where the whispered questions arise. Everyone agrees that Petraeus is ambitious, intense, competitive to the point of obsession and a driven leader of soldiers. No one doubts that he's smart: he got a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1987, with a provocative dissertation on lessons the Army drew from Vietnam. (One of his conclusions: "American involvement in low-intensity conflict is inevitable," and the military had better prepare for it.) But what, exactly, does that add up to on the battlefield?
Nobody seems neutral. His fans believe he's a new-style officer for a new type of warfare, where battles can be won with superior technology and firepower, but true victories can be secured only by good peacemaking and politics. They say he proved himself--and his methods--in the aftermath of the war last year. (It's widely accepted that no force worked harder to win Iraqi hearts and minds than the 101st Air Assault Division led by Petraeus.) These boosters include many in the White House. "People's body language shifts" when they talk about Petraeus there, says one official. Yet critics regard Petraeus as one of a type they call "perfumed princes," a derisive term for officers who have advanced from one staff job to another, essentially working as efficient courtiers to the four-stars. They say he won a short-term peace in Mosul at the expense of allowing insurgents to organize themselves mostly unmolested. They rankle at Petraeus's penchant for self-promotion and PR.
Such voices are mostly muted now, if only because so much is riding on his mission. Petraeus rarely fails to tell Iraqis that it was the president who appointed him: "When the president personally tells you something is important--and I was still a two-star at the time--you know he's serious about it and we're serious about it." Both the president and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz met with Petraeus before he was sent back to Iraq with his third star. "They told me, 'Whatever you need, you've got it'."
The last guy on the job didn't have that kind of backing. "I would just love it if we could get our troops out of the cities and just worry about the external security," says Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, the man Petraeus is replacing. "I would just love that." And so would most Iraqis. The latest American-commissioned poll shows that a large majority want American troops to leave the country immediately. If only Iraqi security forces could become more visible and effective, it would be easier for the new government to convince a skeptical public that sovereignty is real. But as Eaton wryly notes (quoting an old Army maxim), "Hope is not a method."
Iraqi police have turned and run in most places where they've been challenged by insurgents. They're backed up by a numerous and more heavily armed group, the Iraqi National Guard (until last week, called the Civil Defense Corps), but its record has been little better. In Samarra two months ago, entire units switched sides to the insurgents. The nascent army, so far only 9,000 strong, has been sent into combat once, in Fallujah--and it mutinied. (It was General Eaton who dispatched the Iraqi battalion. "I really screwed up," he says. "A Marine major, faced with disgusted Iraqis, decided to stand the unit down, and God bless him for it.") Whether police or soldiers, the Iraqis have been under-equipped, poorly paid and demoralized. Whenever pressed, they have called for American troops to rescue them. Yet their reticence to engage the enemy hasn't protected them: suicide bombers and other insurgents have targeted Iraqi police and recruits, killing more than 800.
Petraeus's strategy now is to rebuild the Iraqi forces from the top down--"to support, assist and enable good Iraqi leaders." Instead of rushing to build up the numbers of foot soldiers, training programs have been changed to concentrate on officers and noncoms. Separately, Petraeus is pushing to get body armor and good weapons to the Iraqis. Money is not an issue: a billion dollars has already been spent on Iraqi forces, and an additional $2.4 billion is in the pipeline for the rest of the year. In just the last week, 13,500 Gluck pistols, 850,000 rounds of ammunition, 900 vehicles, 50,000 flak vests and 60,000 Kevlar helmets were delivered. "It's really flowing in now," Petraeus said.
Quality--not quantity--is Petraeus's aim when it comes to troops. Some Iraqi units are too large. The police, which are planned to number 90,000, currently total 120,000; the excess will be pensioned off. The Facilities Protection Service, which guards pipelines and key buildings, has 74,000 men, but most of them are poorly trained. They also have a high casualty rate. So the United States has increased their training from two to five days, added danger pay and organized better backup for them. Officers and noncoms in the undependable National Guard will be given special training and better weaponry. And they're now being housed in barracks, where they're less vulnerable to retribution. Finally, the Army itself will be reorganized. New units specializing in counterinsurgency, known collectively as the Iraqi National Task Force, have been undergoing training. Anyone joining them will get $100 monthly bonus pay. The first 660-man battalion will be deployed in Baghdad by June 30.
The Americans, mindful of Saddam's tendency to use the military to stamp out local rebellions, initially wanted to keep the new Iraqi military focused on external threats. The change in emphasis, says Petraeus, was an initiative of the incoming Iraqi government (though the Americans applauded it). Petraeus says he's not worried; he believes that Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and his civilian Defense minister "will ensure there's no chance of a military dictatorship."
On a recent day, Petraeus went to pay a courtesy call on the minister of Defense. To make the two-minute drive from his own headquarters at the Republican Palace to the Defense Ministry, located in another palace in the Green Zone, Petraeus had to travel by armored car, with heavily armed civilian bodyguards. Even on a good day, Defense Ministry offices often seem "rather like an anthill sorting itself out after being stepped on," as one Western adviser puts it. But this wasn't a good day. During the previous 48 hours, two deputy ministers in the interim government had been assassinated in separate attacks; the general in charge of the border police had come under fire and barely escaped; a suicide car bomb had killed five policemen at their station near Baghdad; three hostages had been murdered (a Lebanese and two Iraqis, all contractors), and three rockets had hit the Republican Palace.
The defense minister, Hazim Shaalan, is a former banker who more recently worked as a real-estate agent in London. "After June 30," said Shaalan, "we will hit these people and teach them a good lesson they won't forget. Americans and allied forces have certain restrictions we won't have." He declined to be more specific, except to say, "It's our country, it's our culture, and we have different laws than you do." (A few days later, after yet another suicide bombing, he was more blunt: "We will cut off their hands and behead them.")
In the hallway, where American, British and Iraqi officers and civilians come and go, Petraeus bumped into Lt. Gen. Amar Bakir al-Hashimi, the Iraqi Army's new chief of staff. Amar was a high-ranking general during Saddam's time; he retired in 1997. "The Coalition did a lot of things wrong, but now it'll be our turn. Let the Iraqis do what they want," he said, "and they'll know what to do." But he acknowledged the changes would come slowly, "like turning a supertanker," he told Petraeus, who approvingly repeats the expression to everyone he meets, and then adds his own simile: "Or like building an airplane while you're flying it."
A week later Generals Petraeus and Amar are off in a pair of choppers for quick visits to Taji and Kurkush, where the American military is training Iraqi soldiers. "These are industrial-strength training facilities," Petraeus says; each covers several square miles of former Iraqi military bases. (There are others, as well, in both Jordan and Iraq.) Soldiers get an eight-week boot camp, similar to what the U.S. Army does; officers and noncoms, another two- to six-week refresher course, much less than the U.S. norm. So far only 66 percent of the Iraqi security forces have had any training at all. Police get only eight weeks, compared with a year during Saddam's era.
But Petraeus is pleased when he reviews a battalion of the Iraqi National Task Force, going through the paces of house searches and explosives training. "Be very careful," he tells a soldier hiding beside a doorjamb, rifle downward, "so your muzzle is not shooting your foot." He tells the American officers they need to get these soldiers some live-fire practice. When the recruits are mustered, General Amar gives them a pep talk on Iraqi patriotism. Petraeus follows with his stock speech: "In a few weeks you will be walking point for your nation. The eyes of your countrymen and the world will be on you. The missions you are going to perform are very important, but we will make sure they are doable."
Back in Baghdad, Petraeus breezes into his palace office, and his first question is "What blew up today?" This day it turns out to be a suicide bomber who tore into a crowd of young men waiting to enlist at a recruiting center in the heart of the capital; 35 were killed, and the center shut down. There's more bad news: six Civil Defense Corps soldiers have been arrested in Ar Ramadi, suspected of helping insurgents set a bomb that blew up as a Marine Corps convoy passed by.
Petraeus is worried that once the Iraqis get sovereignty, they will be under extraordinary pressure to do too much, too soon. "One of the lessons learned in the early-April period was the sense of doable missions--set these units up for success. You want to accelerate, but not so that you risk failure. You don't just flip a light switch. You don't build an army or police in a matter of months. This is a perilous mission." Like building an airplane in flight.
It's hard to talk to general Petraeus for more than five minutes before he veers back to his experience in Mosul, where as the 101st Air Assault Division commander he was, in effect, the viceroy of the north (or, as some Iraqis jokingly called him, "King David"). Virtually everyone agrees his command there was a textbook case of doing counterinsurgency the right way. When troops went on cordon-and-search operations, they took care to tell each homeowner, "Thank you for allowing us to search your home." Civil-military-affairs teams returned to the neighborhood afterward to explain why they had been there. Posters were displayed in the 101st's barracks, saying, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO WIN IRAQI HEARTS AND MINDS TODAY?
"I go back there and it's like the return of the prodigal son," Petraeus says. "There's even a street sign in Mosul named for the 101st Airborne, and you know it's authentic because there are two misspellings in it." In the cause of nation-building, he was never short of ideas. He launched a television program called "Nineveh Talent Search," a sort of Iraqi Idol, that was popular enough to go into a second season. (Another program, "Iraqi Blues," a sort of homegrown "Cops," was less successful.) He hosted a call-in radio show with his favorite translator, a former New York cabby named Sadi Othman, who is still with him. And he wrangled so much money out of a program called CERP, which gives discretionary funds to U.S. commanders to finance local reconstruction projects, that he nicknamed the captain running his accounts Miss Moneypenny. When the CERP money ran dry, he enlisted his best friend in Congress--Majority Leader Frist--to goose the Pentagon for more. "This guy," says General Eaton, "he has a capacity to blow through bureaucracy that not many guys do. He doesn't understand the nature of a wall; he'll either go through it or over it or around it."
Petraeus also vividly remembers his worst day in Mosul. "We lost 17 men in one night, and that was hard. I often wonder how those division commanders in World War II handled the casualty numbers they had," he says, and just as quickly brightens. "But hey, that's 17 reasons to get that thing right." He's painfully aware that for all the smart soldiering, and the hard sacrifices, Mosul today is one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. Foreigners don't dare use the hotels there. Last Thursday, suicide bombers and attackers with AK-47s and RPGs killed 62 people in the city, and earlier in the week a dean at Mosul University and her husband were assassinated. The sort of foot patrols Petraeus delighted in taking around Mosul a year ago are no longer remotely feasible. "Any army of liberation has a certain half-life before it becomes an army of occupation," he says, and shrugs.
The game now is to get foreign soldiers out of Iraqi lives. "Completing these tasks allows us to reduce the size of our forces and helps us to go home," Petraeus says. But will Iraqi forces with far less training and weaponry be able to achieve what 138,000 Americans have not? In the 15 months of war in Iraq, nearly a thousand Coalition soldiers have been killed--more than died in all of America's wars since Vietnam put together. And fully a fourth of those perished in just the past three months, as the insurgency exploded, backed by popular outrage in Iraq over attacks on Fallujah and Najaf and revelations of torture and abuse in Abu Ghraib.
Even in the most optimistic scenario, the Iraqi military will number only half the current American force by the end of this year. And Iraq is a perfect place for asymmetric warfare. "Awash with weapons... AK-47 assault rifles in every home," says Petraeus, ticking off the challenges. "Open borders. Elements in neighboring countries who want to make trouble. Criminal element let out of jail by Saddam. The enemy gets a vote in this thing, too." He muses on that for a while. "There are limits to what you can do." An uncharacteristic moment of self-doubt? Perhaps, but it passes quickly. "There are limits, but actually, damn few." To accomplish his mission, he'll have to test every damn one.