Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in the Middle East, comes to BYU

Published: Thursday, March 25 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Barack Obama talks with Gen. David Petraeus, in July 2008 on a runway at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq. (Ssg Lorie Jewell, Associated Press) Barack Obama talks with Gen. David Petraeus, in July 2008 on a runway at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq. (Ssg Lorie Jewell, Associated Press)

PROVO — As the commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus used to ask his soldiers a question before they did anything.

"Will this operation take more bad guys off the street than it creates by the way it is conducted?"

If the answer was no, it was time to re-evaluate.

Now a four-star general and leader of U.S. Central Command with its 20 countries and 4.6 million square miles of terrain, Petraeus is responsible for a lot more streets — and tracking down a lot more bad guys.

But his troops aren't just keeping peace on the streets; they're working to keep those streets in one piece.

Since blazing his way into Iraq in 2003 as the leader of the 101st Airborne Division, Petraeus has changed the way the United States fights.

His soldiers are still scouring the desert for insurgents, but they're also rebuilding schools, irrigation systems, oil refineries and youth soccer fields.

Gen. David Patraeus greets fans before the start of the 2009 NFL Super Bowl football game in Tampa, Fla. (Gary W. Green, Associated Press) Gen. David Patraeus greets fans before the start of the 2009 NFL Super Bowl football game in Tampa, Fla. (Gary W. Green, Associated Press)

They're breaking down enemies while building up countries, brick by brick and ballot by ballot.

And with two successful elections completed and a decrease in violent attacks, it appears to be working in Iraq.

Some observers have already painted Petraeus as a Kevlar-clad hero who salvaged a failed attempt to find weapons of mass destruction and liberated a nation from a despotic ruler.

But others wonder if such praise is premature.

What happens when the last soldier leaves and the tanks roll out?

Gen. David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 8, 2008, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the status of the war in Iraq.  (Susan Walsh, AP) Gen. David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 8, 2008, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the status of the war in Iraq. (Susan Walsh, AP)

As the face of the war in Iraq, Petraeus can't go anywhere without being commended or criticized, whether it's to Congress or to Brigham Young University, where he is slated to speak tonight.

He plans to give an update of Central Command activities and the situations throughout the Middle East, but it's unlikely he'll use the word "victory."

Because no one, not even Petraeus, knows how long Iraq can stand on its own.

Push-ups and Ph.D.s

"Petraeus is an anomaly among Army generals," said Tom Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and contributing editor for Foreign Policy magazine. "Indeed, I would say he has three strikes against him: He likes journalists and politicians, he has a Ph.D. from Princeton, and he had a successful first tour of duty in Iraq. That sets him apart from almost all other Army generals."

But for some, it's the push-ups, not the Ph.D., that impress them.

"Most of us tend to believe that we're in good physical shape, and you have to be if you're a soldier," said Col. Bjarne Michael Iverson, former executive officer to Petraeus. "If you're not, you need to fix yourself or get out of the business."

But Petraeus, 57, is in such good shape that he has been reported to handily win races against younger soldiers and even answer the question of "How many push-ups can you do?" with "One more than you," and then prove it.

Petraeus, a marathoner with a fierce competitive drive, has survived a parachute crash that left him with a metal plate in his pelvis, as well as a training exercise where he was shot in the chest when a soldier carrying a loaded rifle tripped.

When the doctors were hesitant to sign Petraeus' discharge papers after surgery, he dropped and did 50 push-ups before they made him stop and then let him go.

Even a recent battle with prostate cancer couldn't slow him down, Iverson said.

Treatment was just another item for Petraeus' already packed calendar with its nonstop weeks of 17- to 18-hour days.

In fact, by the time news of his cancer broke in October 2009, Petraeus had already been through two months of radiation treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and had the medical all-clear from his doctor, Iverson said.

"This guy is incredible," he said. "He just won't allow things like that to slow him down. He's focused on one thing: the mission and knowing all along that soldiers' lives depend on him being personally engaged and personally focused at every level, every day."

The son of a sea captain who emigrated from the Netherlands to America during World War II, Petraeus was raised in New York and graduated in 1974 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the top 5 percent of his class.

Soon after, he married the daughter of the superintendent of West Point. They have a son and a daughter.

Petraeus returned to West Point in 1985 and taught for two years in the social sciences department.

Retired Brigadier Gen. Amos Jordan, a senior fellow at BYU's Wheatley Institution, headed that department for 17 years, retiring two years before Petraeus graduated.

Jordan, who lives in Bountiful, also headed the Center for Strategic and International Studies for five years and has used his beefy Rolodex and personal relationships to secure several influential speakers for the BYU institution.

Although Jordan never taught Petraeus in a class at West Point, Petraeus attended several of Jordan's lectures.

When Jordan e-mailed Petraeus last summer about speaking, Petraeus promptly called him and was most accommodating. Since that time, they've had several chats, Jordan said.

"Petraeus is a very warm and outgoing, likeable person," Jordan said. "When you think of hard-charging military men, they're not normally associated with those qualities."

Jordan said Petraeus is both a successful combat commander and a people person because he is exceptionally intelligent, focused and hard working.

Petraeus has served in Haiti, Kuwait and Bosnia, but the bulk of his military experience comes from Iraq, where he served with the 101st Airborne Division, then as the commanding general of the Multi-National Force - Iraq for 19 months before being tapped to head U.S. Central Command in October 2008.

To ensure he stays sharp and focused, he fills his Commander's Initiative Group with intellectuals who think beyond the military sphere — people who, although handpicked, are not "yes-men," said Stephanie Sanok, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"He surrounds himself with really smart people who are not afraid to disagree with him," she said. "The fact that he's welcoming different thoughts into his process has really done him well. That's why you're seeing the success."

Warriors and builders

As the leader of the "Screaming Eagles," Petraeus and his men in the 101st Airborne Division were some of the first soldiers to push through to Mosul and take the power and palaces from Saddam Hussein in March 2003.

Standing amid the rubble, Petraeus knew time was short before their army of liberation would be seen as an army of occupation.

He stressed to his soldiers over and over the importance of building relationships with the Iraqi people, who he called the "decisive terrain."

He wanted his troops to understand Iraqi culture and conduct military affairs with as much common courtesy as possible — knock on doors before searching a home and afterward thank the Iraqi family for allowing the search.

Petraeus didn't invent the idea of nation building, but he has expanded and improved on what was introduced in Korea and Vietnam, Jordan said.

In Vietnam, Gen. Creighton Abrams understood the importance of fighting insurgencies and rebuilding the society, but he wasn't given enough time to implement counterinsurgency techniques before the American public and Congress grew sick of the war and "pulled the plug," Jordan said.

After that, counterinsurgency was pushed aside and almost forgotten, Jordan said. And then came Petraeus, who had dissected the Vietnam War in his dissertation and co-authored a new Army field manual on counterinsurgency, referred to as the "Petraeus Doctrine," released in late 2006.

Petraeus also introduced the "Anaconda Strategy," blending political reconciliation and conventional force operations with religious engagement and jobs programs to squeeze the life out of the enemy.

"He was a major figure in the change from focusing on killing and capturing the enemy, the dominant approach from 2003 to late 2006," Ricks told the Deseret News, "to focusing on protecting the people and so making the enemy irrelevant."

But not everyone loves the grassroots approach.

Some observers are concerned about the money that nation building takes away from conventional fighting, and others worry about promoting tribalism over a cohesive central government.

For some, the more general concern is the conflicts themselves.

March 19, 2010, marked the seventh anniversary of the start of the war, declared in an attempt to find and destroy "weapons of mass destruction."

Such weapons were never found, and many people have criticized the government and the military for the troops' continued presence in the region.

Some have even attacked Petraeus personally, alleging he inflated progress made in Iraq to appease the government.

But the numbers speak for themselves, with violence dropping since the troop surge in 2007, a year that saw nearly 21 violent Iraqi deaths each day due to car bombs or suicide bombers, according to IraqBodyCount.org, a human security project dedicated to recording each violent civilian death since the war began.

By 2008, that number had fallen to 10, and by 2010, it was just below six.

In 2007, American troops lost 904 soldiers. The next year, the number had dropped sharply to 314, and it fell even more in 2009, to 149, according to icasualties.org, which compiles data from the Department of Defense, CENTCOM and the British Ministry of Defense.

This year, 16 soldiers have died in Iraq.

Sanok has seen that decrease in violence firsthand, having spent a year in Iraq working for the State Department on strategic planning and civil-military cooperation.

She remembers walking the streets with people who were once again shopping and visiting restaurants and clubs, rather than huddling terrified in their homes.

For two days in October 2009, companies filled the Gulf Hotel in the Kingdom of Bahrain for an oil industry conference. In December 2008, thousands of visitors attended the first ever Iraq Energy Expo and Conference.

"That's a good indicator," she said. "Businesses have their bottom line in mind; they're not going to invest in a country if they think something bad is going to happen there."

But the most compelling pictures of hope are the purple fingers: ink stains that represented the chance to vote.

Iraqis flocked to the polls just a few weeks ago to vote in their second election.

Although they used paper ballots and will most likely deal with some corruption somewhere, Sanok said, the election is still the fruit of a fledgling democracy.

Americans must understand that "not all democracies look the same," she said, adding that just because Iraq's looks different than America's, it "doesn't make theirs less valid."

The future of our conflicts

"We have observed the going is likely to get harder before it gets easier," Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week in Washington, D.C. "As we seek to expand security for the people and to take from the Taliban control of key areas, the enemy will fight back."

As commander of CENTCOM, Petraeus oversees almost the entire Middle East, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the al-Qaida breeding ground in Yemen, the extremist groups in Pakistan and the piracy boiling off the coast of Somalia.

The region is a geographically small but conflict-large area, with nearly 210,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guard personnel working to secure peace and eliminate terrorism.

In his report to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he explained that although Iraq has seen definite progress, Afghanistan is still a major challenge.

Petraeus said that the additional 30,000 troops President Barack Obama has announced he would send to Afghanistan will be used to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida and its extremist allies."

The troops are also working in conjunction with Afghan Security Forces to create a government that "is seen as legitimate in the eyes of the people," he said.

"2010 will be a difficult year," he said, "a year that will see progress in reversals of Taliban momentum in important areas, but also a year in which there will be tough fighting and periodic setbacks."

That sounds familiar to Lt. Col. Ted Leblow, Petraeus' former aviation adviser for the 101st Airborne Division and professor of military science in BYU's ROTC program.

Leblow was one of the "Screaming Eagles" who pushed into Mosul at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom under Petraeus' command.

He remembers post-combat Iraq, with its lack of electricity and water, non-functioning police force and disbanded garbage services.

When a dictatorial government is overthrown, he said, not only is the leader gone, but so is the garbage man.

"They're used to putting their garbage out on the street and the garbage trucks coming (to get it)," he said of the Iraqi people. "When a government ceases to exist, (they) still put (their) garbage on the street, even though the trucks aren't coming. … So there are piles of garbage on the street. It takes time to restore those things."

When Leblow returned for his second deployment in 2006, he said the progress was astounding.

"You could see now that they have a government in place, they're making decisions," he said. "They had a police force, military force. All the normal day-to-day things a government does were taking place."

"In my mind, it's night and day," he continued. "It doesn't surprise me that now we're approaching the time when we can come home, and they'll be their own successful country, running on their own by themselves."

And that's just what Petraeus wants.

Leblow hasn't seen Petraeus since their days in Iraq but will be at the lecture tonight with all of his 388 cadets.

"This is huge," he said. "Our cadets all go out and will be future Army officers in the military. To be able to hear from a senior leader such as Gen. Petraeus in person here on this campus is an opportunity that the majority of graduating future officers don't have."

The cadets will hear firsthand about life on the battlefield and what they can expect in a few years, but it's doubtful the lecture will include any definitive timeline of success.

"I don't use words like victory or defeat," Petraeus told the New York Times in 2008, just before his commission at CENTCOM. "In fact, I am a realist, not an optimist or a pessimist. And the reality is that there has been significant progress, but there are still serious challenges."

For more information:

To read all of General Petraeus' comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee: www.centcom.mil/en/about-centcom/posture-statement/ .

To learn more about CENTCOM visit: www.centcom.mil/.

To read from the Counterinsurgency manual visit: www.fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-24.pdf.

Broadcast information

Due to limited seating, Gen. David Petraeus' remarks will be broadcast live on KBYU and rebroadcast several times in the coming week.


7 p.m. today (live broadcast)

2 p.m. Sunday


2 p.m. Monday

8 p.m. Wednesday

10 p.m. Thursday, April 1

e-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com

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