The Petraeus Workout

It was a wet and chilly spring morning in Mosul, the sun barely up, and a handful of company commanders from the Fourth Brigade Combat Team of the First Cavalry Division started loosening up. Dressed in heather-gray Army tees and black shorts, the bleary-eyed captains in their early 30s stretched their calves and back muscles and bounced on the balls of their feet into squats, getting ready to go five miles around Forward Operating Base Marez with a legendarily competitive runner.

A black SUV crunched the gravel in front of the gym, and out of its rear door popped a short, cable-taut 50-something in a black t-shirt and immodestly short shorts. "All right," clapped General David Petraeus, his black-gloved hands making a soft thwap. "It'll be a social run." He paused. "Unless someone challenges us here."

His driver had to explain that, "He'll run with these guys, he'll take it easy. But if someone sprints by him, then he'll just go." During the run, the captains hung back a couple steps -- to save their breath for when Petraeus asked them about conditions in Mosul, but also out of general self-preservation. On the side of the road, young soldiers whipped out digital video recorders to capture their commanding general going by. Petraeus threw each a thumbs-up, returned by an excitable "Woo!"

It's not accurate to say that Petraeus enjoys answering questions about Iraq during his morning exercise. But he understands that doing so accrues value to his reputation as both honest and indomitable. Those qualities explain why President Bush, who possesses neither, tapped Petraeus in 2006 to take over the disastrous war and attempt to reenergize a weary public.

As I wheezed and waddled behind Petraeus, the general gave his assessment of Mosul, the city where he made his reputation as commander of the 101st Airborne. "There's a lot of good [Iraqi security forces] out here, a strong police chief, two strong Army divisions. It comes down to leadership, to getting a good mix of ethnic and sectarian leaders here," he said, not breaking his stride. The mixed civilian-military reconstruction effort, known as a Provincial Reconstruction Team, is "very good, one of the best. That's another heartening activity here in Iraq. But there's still a lot of Saddamist and Baathist activity here, and that's why Uday and Qusay were killed here. Also a big al-Qaeda line comes through here." We didn't get half a mile before I collapsed into the SUV tailing the general, unable to keep up.

But the real workout began as soon as the run ended. Petraeus, barely sweating, barreled into the base's spacious gym, his shoulders tucked squarely in, while the captains caught their breath and followed. Catching up again, I asked him how the surge was going as he pitched his mud-caked sneakers into a cubbyhole. "There are some encouraging signs," he said cautiously. "It's still pretty early, but sectarian violence and murders are down [in Baghdad], and that's hugely important. It's about [stopping] sectarian violence." He qualified his statement. "There are still, obviously, huge car bombs, since al-Qaeda is trying to reignite sectarian violence."

Expect Petraeus' long-awaited congressional testimony next week to fit the pattern on display in the Mosul gym. The war he describes is a war of figurative inches, the infinitesimal movement of a thousand intersecting measurements. Each outcome he sees he lards with qualifiers and caveats, both to ground himself in analytic firmament and to reassure a journalist or a congressman or a diplomat that he revels in complexity and detail. Referring to a congested traffic circle in the center of Mosul, he said one "canary in the coal mine" for security is "whether or not people pay attention to the traffic signals," or fear they'll be incinerated by a car bomb if they stop when instructed. But even his qualifiers reinforce the broader message that the United States needs to stay and fight. After all, if it's al-Qaeda that's responsible for Iraq's rampant sectarianism, how responsible would a U.S. withdrawal be?

Politics in the country was moving slowly, he conceded, but he was impressed with the performance of the Iraqi Army in Baghdad. I wasn't exactly sure what the connection was. Could a competent Army really convince Sunnis to accept minority status, or stop Shiites from hoarding power? But nothing is a non sequitur to Petraeus. Instead, the strategy he describes is one where each small contingency exerts an ephemeral but real influence on every seemingly unrelated aspect of the war. Think of the elaborate contraptions Tom hinges together to catch Jerry, all funnels and twists and levers snaking around the room.

The trouble is that interconnectedness is a two-way street. What Petraeus doesn't emphasize is that, for instance, the collapse of meaningful politics consigns his intricate strategy to, at best, a tourniquet. Right now, there's credible talk of a parliamentary coup to depose Nouri al-Maliki, possibly with U.S. backing -- a symptom of the fundamental sectarian instability in the Iraqi political process. Whatever amount of greater security Petraeus has created in Baghdad, the city now accounts for about the same percentage of the war's civilian deaths as it did a year ago, which is progress -- politics has deteriorated rather than improved. That means the rationale for the surge has collapsed. Better, in Congress, to emphasize the discrete achievement instead of the bigger picture.

Petraeus the commander is determined. Even more determined is Petraeus the workout coach. Rallying his captains in a tiny corner of the gym, Petraeus began a program of soldiering lessons disguised as calisthenics. Not a single push-up or bicycle kick went unmodified in that room: he had a critique of each standard approach to exercise. Put your fingertips behind your ears and sit up slightly -- "but not so you're doing a crunch" -- and fly your legs out with your heels touching, elevating both shoulders and legs a half foot off the ground. "We'll do this 49 more times and then you'll get a coin," he joked with the captains. Another torturous routine, which could be called "Shoelaces," involves pulling up slightly on a chin-up bar and swinging your legs up until the tops of your feet ("the shoelaces!" he instructed) touch the bar. He pulled off the maneuver a staggering 15 times, prompting a captain almost half Petraeus' age to moan, "Oh, shit." Above all, Petraeus acted as a motivator, investing his team in feeling like all his instructions were within reach. "This tires you out that day, but it gives you stamina over the long run," he noted. "And this is about stamina. It's absolutely grueling."

That might well be a coda for the end of Petraeus' first act as Iraq commander. This week, in advance of his testimony, Congress will receive reports noting that the war has failed to deliver on almost every indicator of progress, and that the Iraqi police are so thoroughly corrupt, incompetent, and sectarian that the United States might as well start training a whole new force. On the left, people wonder how objective and candid Petraeus will prove, noting that he penned a parliamentary op-ed tacitly supporting Bush weeks before the 2004 election.

Petraeus has two options before him for his testimony, both of which were on display in the gym that March morning. He can point to his discrete, detailed successes as accumulating a greater stability that needs time to gestate, or he can emphasize the need for "stamina," lest the entire project collapse into a regional disaster. Some of those discrete successes will be unintended consequences of his command, most notably the Sunni shift against al-Qaeda in Anbar and Diyala Provinces, the result of al-Qaeda overplaying its hand in Iraq in 2006. What was once "all about [stopping] sectarian violence" is now about any argument that can buy the war effort more time, in the hope that something, anything, resembling stability can materialize.

And as much as Petraeus will clearly never give up -- for reasons both sincere and professional -- when he speaks for himself next week, he'll be describing what amounts to a lost cause. After all, in the end, all his exhortations couldn't yield more than five Shoelaces from any of his charges.