Surgin' General

God is unfair to Lieutenant General David Petraeus. There isn't a single general in the Army better prepared to command American forces in Iraq. During his confirmation hearing yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he referred to the "shab el-Iraqi," which is Arabic for "the people of Iraq" -- probably the first time any prospective corps commander decided to refer to Iraqis the way they refer to themselves. In discussions of Iraq's sectarian conflict, Petraeus cautioned that Iraq is more than just Sunni, Shiite and Kurd, and then talked about the Yazidi and Shabak minorities. (I confess I had no clue who the Shabak are, and had to Wikipedia them to make sure I even heard Petraeus correctly.) For four hours, Petraeus showed that his assessment of the troubles Iraq faces possesses a level of subtlety and granularity unrivaled by his colleagues. The problem is he won't be able to capitalize on it.

The job Petraeus is being asked to perform -- implementing the surge -- is, perversely, not up to his level of skill. When he enters Baghdad, he'll be cauterizing a wound. For all of his demonstrated and intellectual expertise in counterinsurgency, Petraeus's mission, as he described it, will be "population protection." It's of course true that population protection is an ineradicable element of a sensible counterinsurgency strategy. But (not to diminish the desirability of keeping Iraqis alive) judging from his explanation to the Senate panel, Petraeus won't be doing much more than keeping American troops as a buffer or prophylactic between warring enemies in the hope that something lovely can develop during a U.S.-enforced ceasefire. This is like hiring Spanish avant-garde chef Ferran Adria to whip up a ham sandwich.

It's a testament to the incompetence of the Bush administration that Petraeus isn't going to Afghanistan, where he would be well positioned to rescue a faltering but not yet hopeless counterinsurgency effort. In Iraq, as Petraeus made clear, his population-protection mission will put him in the position of rescuing the government of Nouri al-Maliki from "insurgents, international terrorists, sectarian militias, regional meddling (and) violent criminals." And that's just in Baghdad, the focus of the surge. (What will occur outside of Baghdad is unclear, but it clearly won't take priority as an effort for the new corps commander, at least not for his first several months.)

The additional five Army brigades on their way to Baghdad will, according to Petraeus, increasingly hold territory across the city, establishing bases to support a constant presence. When senators repeatedly asked why Petraeus intended to contradict the "light footprint" approach advocated in his much-heralded revised counterinsurgency field manual, he calmly explained that unless he did, there would be no chance of any mission succeeding. Essentially, Petraeus the counterinsurgent is going to implement a peacekeeping mission like that in Bosnia. The problem is that, in Iraq, there isn't any peace to keep.

It's up to Maliki to earn the loyalties of the six million or so Baghdadis Petraeus is charged with locking down. Petraeus is, in essence, buying time for Maliki to demonstrate some basic competence and allow the political process breathing room. And therein lies the ultimate problem: Following the lead of Fred Kagan in The Weekly Standard, the surge plan entrusted to Petraeus assumes that Iraq's sectarian and political deadlocks are attributable to the absence of security. But this gets it exactly backward: the chaos is the result of political deadlock.

Relative security in early 2005 existed at the same time that the Shiite and Kurdish-dominated government rammed through a sectarian constitution, prompting overwhelming Sunni fury, then Shiite reprisal; as a result, security evaporated and civil war began. Even if Petraeus locks down Baghdad and separates sectarian combatants, it's directly contrary to nearly four years of bloody experience in Iraq to expect such "central issues as governance, the amount of power devolved to the provinces and possibly regions, the distribution of oil revenues, national reconciliation, and resolution of sectarian differences" to be achieved. To understate matters significantly, Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds have irreconcilable conceptions of what constitutes, say, a fair distribution of oil wealth. (No word on the Shabak position on this and other questions.)

Indeed, what Petraeus is tasked with doing will be increasingly peripheral to the war on terrorism that the Iraq war was, once upon a time, supposed to advance. At the hearing, Petraeus was visibly uncomfortable when hawkish senators prompted him to predict that al-Qaeda would overrun Iraq in the event of failed statehood -- including a disgraceful effort by Senator John Thune to get Petraeus to agree that such a thing would result in terrorist attacks "at home." Instead, Petraeus kept to an honest appraisal: certainly nothing good would come out of failed statehood, and indeed many awful things would occur. The most he was willing to say was that if "some part of Iraq becomes truly a terrorist training camp … obviously, it's a much shorter trip to our friends in the region, some of our western allies, and the U.S. than it is from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border." It's a safe bet that Petraeus won't interfere with the Marine effort at fighting al-Qaeda elements in Anbar province, but the larger part of his efforts are devoted to keeping some kind of a lid on Baghdad, a mission very far removed from the goals of the broader war on terrorism. To put it another way, Petraeus is trying to ensure that the Iraq war doesn't become even more counterproductive to the war on terrorism.

Petraeus referred in his hearing yesterday to shouldering a "heavy rucksack." It may be heavier than even he expects. At worst, he could fail outright. But at best, he could separate combatants in Baghdad and pray that sectarian politics in Iraq magically resolves itself and al-Qaeda decides not to take advantage of the infusion of U.S. forces for its propaganda and murderous training purposes. God, however, seems determined to give one of the greatest generals in the U.S. Army the rawest deal He can concoct.

Spencer Ackerman is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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