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Mentoring Iraq

A look at Major General David Petraeus, the man in charge of teaching Iraqis how to defend and protect themselves.

12:00 AM, Apr 26, 2004 • By DAVID KENNER
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THE MAN BEING SENT to direct the organization and training of local police and security forces in Iraq is Major General David Petraeus. His duties, the Washington Post recently reported, will include overseeing the demobilization of the various Kurdish and Shiite armed militias, and their integration into the Iraqi security forces. With this task, Petraeus has been entrusted with a major component of the Coalition's exit strategy. He aims to nurture the strength of Iraqi forces, allowing for the withdrawal of Coalition troops. And he sounds like the right man for the job.

MANY YEARS AGO, Battalion Commander David Petraeus found himself lying on a field in Fort Campbell, Kentucky--dying. A rifleman had tripped during a training exercise, accidentally firing an M-16 round which had blown through the right side of Petraeus's chest and ripped out of his back. It wasn't supposed to end like this. Petraeus was supposed to jump to the world's hotspots, bravely commanding his soldiers in wartime or the uneasy peace that followed. He was meant to be among that small brotherhood of Army officers who had joined the battered United States Army in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War. He aimed to redesign the Army with the lessons of Vietnam in mind, to force it to recognize the importance of winning the "hearts and minds" of local citizens, and the necessity of being able to rebuild war zones as well as destroy them. A fiercely driven man, Petraeus willed himself to survive until surgeons were able to reach him. A decade later, Petraeus's physical and mental toughness would be one of his most important qualities as he embarked on the biggest challenge of his career: the reconstruction of Northern Iraq.

By 2003, Petraeus had risen to the rank to Major General in command of the 101st Airborne Division. In the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War, he was placed in charge of the ethnically diverse and potentially explosive area of Northern Iraq. Petraeus was uniquely qualified for the job--he had toiled as an American nation-builder in Haiti and Bosnia, developing hands-on skills unparalleled among other officers. Retired four-star General Barry McCaffrey describes Petraeus as "Probably the most talented person I have ever met in the Army. . . . This guy has sparks jumping off him." Through a combination of groundbreaking methods and sheer determination, Petraeus has transformed Northern Iraq into a showcase for successful Coalition reconstruction efforts.

TODAY, THE ARMY has developed a soldier corps that is better educated and trained in urban peacekeeping than they were during Vietnam. Soldiers are trained to act autonomously from their commander and to think for themselves in a fluid environment. "The one overriding lesson out of all of this is that our flexible, adaptable soldiers are the key to everything our division and our Army did in Iraq," Petraeus said.

Petraeus also gave his soldiers great authority--and the funding--to initiate civil works projects. Many of these were the basic tasks normally performed by local government. Petraeus said, "Some of our guys had studied politics 101; they reminded us that all politics is local." At a recent talk at Georgetown University, Petraeus clicked through slides showing the programs his soldiers had created, such as Operation Easy Rider, which painted lines down the center of roads, and Operation Pit Stop, which repaired gas stations. Soldiers went out to repair potholes and clean up trash in neighborhoods, working with Iraqis on a daily basis. Petraeus ordered posters hung in every barracks asking, "What Have You Done To Win Iraqi Hearts and Minds Today?"

However the real goal of the 101st was to get to a point where they would provide only the funding and security for civil works projects, since employing locals for reconstruction projects gives Iraqis a stake in the Coalition's success. "Eventually," Petraeus said, "we facilitated over 5,000 projects. . . . We didn't do it. The Iraqis did it, we just enabled it."

The 101st eventually facilitated bigger projects: For instance, soldiers, working with Iraqi engineers, irrigated 220,000 acres of land and dug wells for water. Petraeus dispensed $57 million from the Commander's Emergency Reconstruction Program (CERP) for this and other programs. The CERP money was taken from Saddam Hussein's government during the war and authorized by Congress to be used as discretionary funds for military commanders.