How the Iraq War Changes U.S. Officers

A doctor's son, Tim Wright was a Latin scholar with a 3.8 average in high school. Admitted to Princeton, he chose to go to West Point instead. "People looked at me like I had a third eye," Wright says, but he was drawn to the discipline of the U.S. Military Academy. He became a squared-away soldier, demanding of his troops yet sleeping and eating with them, and sharing their privations and dangers. His gung-ho attitude earned him the nickname "Captain America" from some of his grunts, half in jest, half out of respect.

But Wright is not the warrior he expected to be or that he was first trained to be. When he became a young infantry officer out of West Point in 2000, he entered an Army whose mission was to win wars by overwhelming force. This was the Army that blasted its way into Baghdad in less than three weeks in the spring of 2003. It is also the Army whose guns-blazing tactics helped fuel an angry insurgency, and that quickly became bogged down—worn, bloodied and baffled—by IEDs and street fighting in Iraq.

Wright, 30, was a captain in Baghdad last spring when the situation seemed bleakest. Walking down a street in the tormented neighborhood of Bayaa, chatting with a private named Oscar Sauceda,

Wright watched as Sauceda was hit in the head by a sniper's bullet. "He was dead before he hit the ground," Wright says, choking up at the memory. The captain wondered if he had failed his soldier by not clearing a nearby building. "That's the tough thing about this job," says Wright, blinking back tears. "If you f––– up, sometimes people die." Less than three weeks later, one of his company's Humvees was hit by a roadside bomb. Wright's staff sergeant, Matt Lammers, lost both legs and his left arm. Wright was crestfallen when he saw Lammers in the hospital. Baghdad seemed hopeless then. "It makes you think," Wright says, recalling his feelings at the time. "Is this place too far gone?"

Many Americans were asking that question last spring and summer. While it's too soon to say Iraq has turned the corner, the violence in Baghdad and most of the country has since declined precipitously. Much of the credit has gone to Gen. David Petraeus, the commander who has changed the way the U.S. Army fights. "You can't kill your way out of an insurgency," Petraeus told NEWSWEEK, in an interview in his Baghdad headquarters last month. He has moved soldiers out of their secure megabases and into small outposts deep inside once alien and hostile neighborhoods, and he has ordered his men out of their armored convoys. "Walk … Stop by, don't drive by," says Petraeus, reading from a "guidance" he is drafting for his soldiers. The objective, he repeats over and over, is no longer to take a hill or storm a citadel, but to win over the people.

But this new way of war needs a new kind of warrior, and it needs tens of thousands of them. Five years into the longest conflict the U.S. military has fought since Vietnam, young officers like Tim Wright have been blooded by multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. They've learned, often on their own, operating with unprecedented independence, the intricacies of Muslim cultures. Faced with ineffective central governments, they have acted as mayors, mediators, cops, civil engineers, usually in appalling surroundings. Most recently, and hardest of all, they've had to reach out and ally themselves with men who have tried and often succeeded in killing their own soldiers. Brought up in rigid, flag-waving warrior cultures that taught right from wrong, black from white, they've had to learn to operate amid moral ambiguity, to acknowledge the legitimate aspirations of their enemies.

It is hard to overstate the achievement of this Petraeus Generation of officers, but their success is terribly fragile. Their newest allies—some of them former outlaws, insurgents, terrorists—may yet betray their trust. Living among them, walking the streets every day, is critical to maintaining their loyalty, yet with each passing month the pressure to draw down troops is likely to grow. And while the skills these American officers have gained are crucial in murky conflicts like Iraq, they are not universally valued or trusted within the Pentagon. Petraeus has fought many battles with his bosses—including CENTCOM commander Adm. William Fallon, who resigned last week—over getting the resources needed to make his counterinsurgency strategy work. As his heirs move up the ranks, they will face similar struggles over which wars America chooses to wage in the future—and the way the Army fights them.

Many have already had to do battle with superiors who have been slow learners, if not clueless. Wright, a tall, square-jawed athlete who looks a little like Jack Kerouac, is nothing if not a thoughtful warrior. He grew up in a nonmilitary family in Maine; his older brother now works for an NGO resettling African refugees, his sister for the NBA. At West Point, he majored in American history and focused part of his research on Margaret Chase Smith, a Maine senator who spoke out against McCarthyism. There at the Academy, as well as at the Infantry Officer Basic Course and the more advanced Ranger School, Wright was trained to pursue and defeat an enemy using technology and superior firepower. But he learned the limits of that training in Afghanistan in 2004.

For three months, Wright and his fellow soldiers fruitlessly searched an area the size of Vermont for Taliban insurgents. "Chasing guys through the mountains of Afghanistan at 10,000 feet didn't [work]. The intel people always talk about 'ratlines'," Wright says, wriggling his fingers. "The 'ratlines' are bulls––t. Why would a guy hike over a snowy mountain with a bag of IEDs when they can drive it in a truck?" Wright realized that what he needed was an ally who could identify the jihadists who were right in front of him.

For weeks, Wright and his fellow soldiers had been hunting for a militant leader named Jan Baz. Finally Wright's boss, Lt. Col. Walter Piatt, decided that if they couldn't kill or capture the fugitive, they'd co-opt him. Piatt asked the local Afghan governor to set up a face-to-face meeting, where the American colonel offered Jan Baz the job of local police chief. The militant, eager to cement his authority in the area, accepted. "Was there some shadiness going on there?" Wright asks. "Yes. But it worked." After Jan Baz was put on the American payroll, attacks dropped.

When Wright wrapped up his tour in 2005, he wrote an article in Infantry Magazine, an Army publication, criticizing the traditional "light infantry" tactics that had flopped in Afghanistan. He recommended more-flexible approaches, like mixing with the locals and (more implied than directly stated) buying off the enemy. When Petraeus drafted his counterinsurgency doctrine in 2006, he was able to draw on the experiences of resourceful frontline officers like Piatt and Wright. "All the stuff in the Petraeus manual, we had kind of figured it out there [in Afghanistan]," says Wright. "It was all the stuff we had seen work on the ground."

American officers learned very similar lessons in battling the Viet Cong. But much of that knowledge was simply lost. "It's said we fought that war nine times, a year at a time," says Petraeus, noting that because they had been drafted rather than volunteered, many combat-hardened troops left the Army as soon as their yearlong tours in Vietnam were up. By contrast, with the Army stretched thin and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragging on, soldiers like Wright find themselves heading back into the fight for a second (or third or fourth) tour. "They have a level of experience that I don't think our Army has had at that rank certainly since Vietnam, and maybe not even then," says Petraeus.

Petraeus has institutionalized that knowledge. Herding a team of researchers at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, he was able to get his manual written and approved about three years after the invasion of Iraq, lightning speed in Pentagon time. But even Petraeus says that the much-lauded document can provide only principles to follow. The hard work is still being done in the streets of Baghdad. "What they're dealing with is much more complex and much more nuanced than what we were trained to do when I was a captain," he says. "You have to understand not just what we call the military terrain ... the high ground and low ground. It's about understanding the human terrain, really understanding it."

In February, three weeks after getting married (at a house on base that once belonged to General Custer, he notes wryly), Wright deployed to Baghdad with the First Infantry Division's First Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment—the Black Lions. He did not know whom, if anyone, he could trust. His company was sent into a battle-scarred neighborhood, Bayaa, where Sunnis and Shiites were killing each other. The Sunni insurgents sent in car bombs and the Shiite Mahdi Army was spearheading an organized campaign of ethnic cleansing, sometimes aided by the National Police, the Iraqi government's supposed peacekeepers. A bullet wrapped in paper would be dropped off at the homes of Sunnis, signaling them that they would be gunned down in their homes if they didn't leave. Sometimes as they left they would be gunned down anyway. The local Shiite militia blew up a treasured Sunni mosque. "The NP [National Police] watched it happen," says Wright. "Probably to make sure it was done right."

Wright's Delta company was caught in the middle of Sunni-Shiite fire fights. His soldiers learned to do the "dance," shifting positions and moving in zigzags in the street to throw off snipers. Within the first three months the company lost 10 of its 102 men; three were killed. Wright's only reliable friend in town was his interpreter, Ali (not his real name). Speaking his own kind of English, sprinkled with profanity and hip-hop slang, Ali was a marked man. At one time he was kidnapped by insurgents, hanged upside down and shocked with electric cables. Wright likes to joke that Ali could go over to the other side at any time. "He's one step away from shooting at us," Wright says, with a wry smile. But Ali was able to begin to recruit informants, who were given cell phones and SIM cards to help them stay in touch.

All across Baghdad, company commanders have become their own intelligence officers, running networks of informants and drawing directly upon surveillance imagery and other intel sources. They can "employ intelligence that previously was seldom available as low as battalion commander," Petraeus says. By necessity, these officers have also been given greater leeway to make decisions than their predecessors. Under his command, Petraeus says, "there is not only a tolerance for initiative and independent action, there is encouragement."

Implicit within that, he says, is "the empowerment of commanders at local levels … to make deals." By last summer, a deal struck with Sunni tribal sheiks—many of whose followers had joined the insurgency—had drastically reduced violence in once deadly Anbar province. American commanders began to try similar compromises in other areas, including several neighborhoods near Bayaa. Local fighters were put on the U.S. payroll and allowed to patrol their own neighborhoods, as long as they helped in the fight against radicals from Al Qaeda in Iraq and Shiite splinter groups. Nearly 80,000 of these militiamen—variously called "Concerned Local Citizens" or "Sons of Iraq" or Sahwa, "the Awakening"—are now paid by the Americans, at a cost of roughly $24 million a month. Some are Shiite but the vast majority are Sunni.

In Bayaa, the Shiite Mahdi Army, loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, was ascendant. Distinguishing between "reconcilables and irreconcilables," as Petraeus puts it, wasn't easy. In one case Wright was urged by residents to cooperate with a local Sadrist who had a reputation for violence. (Indeed, Wright had personally chased the man down a street after he fired an RPG at one of Wright's vehicles.) But Wright decided the man had too much blood on his hands and kept him in detention after he was arrested. Other calls were closer. The most important involved a Sadrist leader Wright refers to as "Mr. X."

Mr. X began as a target of the Americans. In Bayaa, he was the local leader who seemed to command the most respect among the militiamen, a kind of Shiite Godfather. Delta Company soldiers raided Mr. X's house three times last July, and each time he was gone. But Delta did pick up Abdullah (not his real name), X's brother. Abdullah was sent off to cool his heels in jail for a while. Meanwhile, Sadr seemed to have a change of heart. After his Mahdi Army got into a fire fight with rival Shiites in the holy city of Najaf, the cleric ordered his militia to cease all military activities. He may have worried that he was being increasingly isolated, as the Americans made friends with his Sunni enemies. He certainly feared the bad publicity he was getting among ordinary Shiites. And in neighborhoods like Bayaa, so many Sunnis had been pushed out that there was less and less to fight over anyway. Wright then made a shrewd decision that was to have a big payoff.

The scene was carefully staged. Last October, Abdullah was brought, bound and blindfolded, into a quiet corner of Forward Operating Base Falcon, not far from the tent where Wright slept. There were no harsh lights or guards, just a couple of folding chairs outside. Wright wanted the session to come across not as an interrogation but as a meeting between equals. He told Abdullah to stand and carefully cut away his plastic handcuffs with scissors and lifted the blindfold. He could tell that Abdullah recognized him as the American officer who had arrested him three months before. The moment "very easily could have gone sour," Wright recalls. But the American captain did the unexpected: he apologized. He explained that detaining Abdullah had been a mistake. He said he wanted to work with him to calm Bayaa. Abdullah smiled. Wright allowed himself a small hope.

Sure enough, three days after Abdullah's release, Mr. X himself called Wright. The two leaders began to talk on the phone. Wright would listen to X's grievances, but he didn't ask for any information, at least at first. Then, a week after Wright began talking to X, the American was out on patrol when a covey of pigeons suddenly burst from a nearby building.

Mahdi Army fighters were suspected of using pigeons to secretly communicate about U.S. troop movements. During the edgy, early days of the American occupation, a commander might have just assumed that the house was a militia holdout. Troops would have poured through the door, weapons out, shouting orders, as women shrieked and the men scurried for cover. Anyone with a beard would have been pegged as a jihadi and rounded up, handcuffed, led off for questioning.

Wright moved more gingerly. He did stop the convoy and sent troops in to investigate. But he did not round up prisoners or make a show of force. As he was talking to the teenager who owned the pigeons, Wright got a call from Mr. X, demanding to know why the Americans were raiding the house. After a brief, tense exchange, Wright was able to explain the situation to X, who calmed down. The incident proved to Wright just how well- connected X was. "That's when I knew," says Wright. "When he called me when we were right there, still on the objective. He's kind of the Tony Soprano in this area."

X refused to meet Wright face to face. He couldn't let his relationship with the Americans be exposed. But, working through the ubiquitous translator Ali, X began to communicate with Wright every day, building trust. On one recent evening, Wright called up X to ask about reports that armed men were roaming through a prominent market in Bayaa. X made some calls and reported back that the tip was bogus. The next day X called Wright to let him know that a prayer tent for a Shiite religious ceremony had been set up on 20th Street in Bayaa. It would be best, suggested X, if U.S. patrols could avoid the area.

Before too long, IED attacks were dropping sharply. There were far fewer exchanges of small-arms fire between the Americans and locals. More shops opened up in central Bayaa, and new orange metal trash bins were installed in the market area with U.S. funds. Throughout Iraq U.S. commanders are doling out money to help revive neighborhoods, especially Sunni areas that have been ignored by the central government. Some $767 million has already been allocated for the purpose this year, and the Pentagon plans to ask Congress for $450 million more.

Wright's dealings with the enemy made some of his soldiers uncomfortable. "It's hard," says Lt. Andrew Goehring, 24. "There are guys who condoned or supported attacks that affected our guys." (Goehring's own Humvee was blown up by an IED.) First Sgt. Darrell Snell, 38, a career soldier, tries not to think about his captain's shadowy contacts with the likes of Mr. X. Instead, he focuses on the children in the street when he goes on patrol. "I just put it in my head that the kids didn't do it," he says. "That's how I deal with it."

Petraeus himself now speaks regularly to Sadrist political reps. But he is mindful of how hard it is for soldiers in the field to reach out to fighters who have killed Americans: "That's a pretty big adjustment and has taken some, ah, a bit of intellectual discussion." Wright has a more emotional response. He notes that when Delta Company first arrived, its ability to shoot back was restrained by strict rules of engagement (ROE) designed to protect innocent civilians from getting caught in a fire fight. "Especially when we were getting hit a lot, there was a feeling of frustration of how 'tied' our hands were by ROE, that if anyone shot at us from a house that we should respond with overwhelming force, call in the artillery and rubble the place," he says. "When you had just had one of your friends shot in the head in front of you, who wouldn't feel that way?"

Officers all across Iraq are coming to grips with Wright's dilemma. And the challenge they face—how to reconcile with your enemies—is exactly that confronted by the Iraqis, too. The drop in violence since Petraeus took command in Iraq is dramatic and irrefutable. But as he would be the first to admit, it's been won by cutting all these side deals, buying off former and potential fighters with temporary salaries and the promise of jobs in the Army and police. Already there are frictions. Sahwa fighters complain about low pay ($10 a day) and resistance from the central government to hiring them. Some have abandoned their checkpoints. Most have tense relations with the Shiite-dominated security forces. In some neighborhoods local fighters will not allow the National Police in. At one hospital in the Baghdad district of Adhamiya, the Iraqi Army guards the gates, Sunni fighters guard the doors, and there is little communication between them. The Americans are the glue that holds it all together.

Wright knows that violence could erupt again unless the strongmen he deals with embrace the central government and vice versa. The Americans have to stand up the Iraqi Army and police until they can "run the show," says Wright. At the same time, they have to "push, pull, drag, cajole and influence the leadership of the community to take an ever-increasing role in determining the future of Bayaa."

To that end, Wright has been gently but firmly pushing for an ambitious goal: the return of Sunnis driven from Bayaa by Shiite militias. On Feb. 4, about 20 tribal sheiks, councilmen, religious figures and other community leaders gathered at a local council building for talks. One of the guests was Abdullah, representing the shadowy Mr. X.

A local moderator started off promisingly: "I hope to God the black days don't come back. We are all Muslims and we believe in the same God." Wright leaned forward in his seat, nervously cracking his knuckles and telling Ali, his translator, to pay attention and translate precisely.

Wright would like Shiite leaders to allow the Sunnis to return to the homes. But he is not naive. He knows that the Americans "cannot shoehorn the Sunni population back in." In neighboring Saydiya, families had been pressured to return to their homes too quickly, and another round of violence had erupted. Wright wanted to propose that at least the Shiite families that had moved into the Sunni homes pay rent to their original owners. But he also knew not to interject himself too quickly. He was well aware that the most important voice was missing from the room. "The key is Mr. X," Wright said later. "If he says no Shia pays rent, then it won't work."

Wright is not declaring victory. The reintegration project is "on standby," he says, "until the right conditions are set." He acknowledges that many Sunnis were driven from their homes under his watch. Bayaa, a neighborhood of something more than 15,000 people, was once 30 percent Sunni. Now it is maybe 5 percent. At least 4,000 Sunnis have been driven out. Asked if Delta Company could have done more, Wright sighs and looks at a map of the city. "I don't know what that would be. They blew up a mosque when we were only six blocks away. I think we did the best we could with the force we had," he says. His constant push to get community leaders to talk may be the best way to make amends. Just don't call it reconciliation. "I hate that word 'reconciliation'," he says. "Makes them sound like buddies. They're not f–––ing buddies. What I'm trying to do is to get the wrongs that happened to them earlier in the year addressed." He won't make any predictions. "People at home ask, can we win?" he says. "I tell them we made a lot of progress since we've been here. Can we win? I don't know."

Wright is a good student, a literate, humane man who proudly points out that West Point is a great liberal-arts school as well as a military academy. He has not been debased or degraded by war; he does not live only to survive for the moment. But the lessons of war and conquest change, and Wright, like the good student he is, has learned to change with them. He tried to read "The Best and the Brightest," David Halberstam's epic of the tragedy of American involvement in Vietnam, but "it was too painful, too close to what we went through." Stacked in the corner of Wright's room are DVDs of the HBO series "Rome." Iraq, like ancient Rome or modern Sicily (or parts of northern New Jersey), is a murderous place, and Wright knows he must deal with some shady characters if he wants to bring peace to his little patch of it. General Petraeus says he instructs his young officers, "Go watch 'The Sopranos'," in order to understand the power dynamics at work in Iraq. Wright doesn't need to watch Tony Soprano. He has Mr. X.