The Insurgent at War

5. The Insurgent at War

With the invasion of Iraq, David Petraeus finally went to war. He was fifty years old, a two-star general, and commander of the 101st Airborne Division. But unlike many of the younger, lower-ranking officers around him, he’d never fought in combat. During Desert Storm, a decade earlier, he was stuck in the Pentagon as the assistant executive officer to the Army chief of staff, General Carl Vuono, who kept saying he’d cut him loose and get him a battle assignment, but never did.

Petraeus, then a major, was frustrated. Soldiers spent their whole careers preparing for war; Desert Storm looked to be the war of his generation, and he was missing it. Petraeus had reason to fear that getting left behind could stall his career more than most. He was aware of his reputation in certain circles as a schemer, a self-promoter, and, worst of all, an intellectual. The Army as an institution tended to scorn officers who stood out or were too bookish, and Petraeus fit both descriptions. Even taking off a few years to get a PhD, followed by a teaching stint at West Point, was seen by some generals as frivolous. That was why Petraeus had rushed through both—and why he now wanted to stay out in the field, deployed with combat units, as much as possible.

At least his Pentagon staff job had involved working with generals. Dan Kaufman, the West Point Sosh department’s director of national-security studies, had urged Petraeus to take an assignment as a junior military assistant in the office of the secretary of defense. Kaufman had gone to some trouble lining up the position for him. But Petraeus refused to take it and launched into a screaming match with Kaufman right in the Sosh department’s main corridor. Spending a year or two as an analyst or speechwriter for civilians would only solidify his egghead stereotype and seriously damage his career.

His saving grace, in a near-tragic sense, came in the fall of 1991. General Vuono finally did get Petraeus a slot as a battalion commander, in the 101st Airborne Division. It was too late to see combat—Desert Storm had ended six months earlier—but he saw action in another way. During a live-fire training exercise, one of Petraeus’s men accidentally pulled the trigger on his machine gun when he took a fall, and one of the high-velocity bullets pierced Petraeus’s chest. Flown to a hospital, he underwent more than five hours of surgery; the bullet had severed an artery and damaged a lung. The doctors said that recovery would take ten weeks of rest, but within a few days, Petraeus was insisting he was fine, at one point dropping to the floor to do fifty push-ups. The doctors let him go. A month later, he was back in the field, leading his battalion in a major training exercise.

The Army had settled into a peacetime mode for several years. With no wars to test a soldier’s valor, the top brass judged—and promoted—officers partly on the basis of their strength and stamina, and Petraeus’s recovery was an impressive display of both. He would later joke that getting shot overcame the stigma of missing Desert Storm, but it was no joke. Petraeus had always stayed fit, running faster and farther and doing more push-ups than any of his fellow officers, partly as a product of his competitive streak but also because he knew that in the eyes of his superiors, speed and strength would compensate for his bookishness.

His brawny side’s reputation received a further boost in 2000, during a yearlong stint as assistant commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. In the course of a routine jump, Petraeus’s parachute collapsed, and he free-fell sixty feet to the ground, breaking his pelvis. That accident was more painful than the bullet wound and led to months of physical therapy. But again he recovered fully; if anything, he seemed to run faster still afterward.

And now here he was, nearly three years and another star later, finally preparing for a big-time war, as the commanding general of the 101st Airborne, the “Screaming Eagles,” heir to the paratroopers who in 1944 had landed at Utah Beach, led the Ardennes offensive in Belgium, and chased the German army through the Ruhr Valley into Bavaria. The 101st was now an “air assault” division: four thousand soldiers, no longer packing parachutes but instead hurtled across the battlefield in 256 helicopters, 72 of them Apaches armed with heavy ammunition and antitank missiles.

The invasion plan called for those Apaches to break up Saddam’s defenses along the southwestern approaches to Baghdad, clearing the way for the 3rd Infantry Division to smash through with its M-1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. But as the offensive bogged down in sandstorms, shortages, and the completely unexpected threat posed by Iraqi militiamen driving around the desert in pickup trucks, ambushing American troops and disrupting supply lines (the first sign, to some, that the war might be followed by an insurgency), Petraeus and his men wound up getting in the fight more deeply than anticipated. They exchanged fire with militias, regular soldiers, and Saddam’s elite Republican Guard—from the air and, as infantry soldiers, on the ground—in Najaf, Hillah, Karbala’, and finally on the outskirts of Baghdad itself.

But it was in the postbattle phase of the war, as the 101st was deployed in northern Iraq to pacify the city of Mosul, that Petraeus drew on the lessons he’d learned, and fulfilled the ambitions he’d harbored, through the previous two decades.

•  •  •

A crucial experience in this preparation had come eight years earlier, in January 1995, when Petraeus was made chief of operations in the US-led multinational peacekeeping mission in Haiti.

This was his first exposure to full-fledged “nation-building,” a term and a concept that most senior Army officers detested. It was, after all, an extreme case of moot-wah, “military operations other than war”—but for the same reason, it was everything that Petraeus had long hoped to get involved in. The soldiers performing the mission were from the few Army units that had a taste, and some training, for these kinds of operations: paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne, light infantry from the 10th Mountain Division, and a fair-sized complement of Special Forces.

The mission, mandated by a UN resolution, was called Operation Uphold Democracy. It had started the previous fall, with a multipronged military assault designed to topple Haiti’s brutal dictatorship, which had taken power in a 1991 military coup, and to return to office the lawfully elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. As it happened, a team of emissaries, sent in advance by President Bill Clinton with an ultimatum to step down or soon face a storm of fire, had its effect. When the American troops landed, they managed to restore Aristide’s regime with no resistance. Then came the twist. The twenty thousand American troops, joined by about five thousand from other nations, pivoted from their original mission—storming the palace and shooting bad guys—to a different set of tasks: setting up security enclaves for the local people, training the police, reforming the judiciary, training the government’s administrative apparatus, and setting up free elections, all with an eye toward handing over control to UN peacekeepers by the end of March.

When the troops landed, Petraeus was in Washington, having just been assigned, with some disgruntlement, to another year in academia, this time as part of the Army Fellows program at Georgetown University’s graduate school in international relations. Intrigued by what was going on in Haiti, he decided to write a research paper on the operation. He traveled around the capital, interviewing officials in the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House, and found himself invited to sit in on a few high-level policy meetings. After one of these sessions, an Army colonel named Bob Killebrew approached him. The two had worked together on General Vuono’s staff and held similar views on modern warfare. Killebrew had come through the ranks in the Army’s airborne branch, dating back to Vietnam, and was now putting together the team to do nation-building in Haiti. He was having a hard time finding good people to take part (this was around the time when General Shalikashvili, the nation’s top general, said, “Real men don’t do moot-wah”) and asked Petraeus if he was interested. In part because he wanted to get out of the classroom, in part because this was the sort of operation that had long riveted his attention, Petraeus signed up without hesitation.

He came on the scene four months into the operation, and he would stay for only six months more, leaving soon after the UN peacekeepers arrived. Meanwhile, he found himself having to improvise just about everything. He arranged for engineers to renovate the operations center, which lacked a floor and a ceiling. The peacekeeping troops would need bases out in the countryside, among the people. So Petraeus and a few aides surveyed the island by helicopter. When they spotted a suitable base site, they’d touch down, find the owner, and negotiate a rental fee. Then, after getting back to headquarters, they lobbied various embassies for the money to build a base, as the operation’s budget had no such funds.

Petraeus also helped coordinate the intelligence effort that tracked down the missing war criminals and mounted the raids on their hideouts. He came to deal routinely with diplomats, aid agencies, local officials, police, soldiers, Special Ops officers, and spies. During his summer nine years earlier at Southern Command with General Galvin, Petraeus had observed these sorts of missions—multinational, interagency operations that were as much about economic aid and government reform as about killing the enemy—but this was the first time he was in the thick of the action as a player.

Six years later, the action and his involvement in it would thicken considerably.

•  •  •

In the summer of 2001, after a series of assignments with the 82nd Airborne and as executive assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Petraeus was posted to NATO’s Stabilization Force in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that was where his future course was charted.

SFOR, as the organization was abbreviated, had been created to enforce the Dayton peace accord, which ended the war between Serbian president Slobodan Miloševic (who had since been ousted and arrested) and the area’s Muslims and Croats. The effort involved thirty-two thousand troops from NATO and eleven other nations outside the alliance. The Dayton accord allowed them to use “robust” force, if necessary, to support political and economic reconstruction, keep ethnic militias separated, and prevent hostilities from resuming—although hostilities did resume, and had to be suppressed, with intense regularity. The US Army refused to regard an assignment with SFOR as “combat duty.” Still, the chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, told Petraeus, upon giving him his orders, that the mission was as close to combat as he’d likely ever get.

Petraeus wore two hats in Sarajevo. One was as NATO’s assistant chief of staff for operations; the other was as deputy commander of a clandestine unit called the Joint Interagency Counterterrorism Task Force. When Petraeus first arrived, the main business of this task force was hunting down Serbian war criminals in a secret mission called Operation Justice Assured, which was carried out almost entirely by US Special Forces.

But a few months into his deployment, the attacks of September 11 occurred, and the mission, like much else, changed drastically. Stepped-up intelligence operations by global agencies and on-the-scene spies uncovered a presence of al Qaeda fighters and other Islamic jihadists inside Bosnia. Some had entered the country years earlier to help their fellow Muslims do battle against the Serbs; others had infiltrated legitimate Muslim charity groups, or set up wholly illegal ones, to funnel money and weapons or to provide safe harbor for extremists, including several from Pakistan and Afghanistan, who, once inside Bosnia, could move freely throughout Europe.

The task force continued the hunt for Serbian war criminals. But it also expanded its mandate—and received more resources from the Pentagon—to capture jihadists and take down the phony charities. Because it was a clandestine unit, the task force set up liaisons with local police chiefs, who would conduct the raids and make the arrests. And it sanitized top-secret intelligence into evidence that Bosnian authorities could submit to the courts or to Western law-enforcement agencies.

In the early stages of both operations—hunting Serbian war criminals and international terrorists—the chain of command was at best inefficient and at times disruptive. NATO soldiers and military police would patrol neighborhoods, trying to earn the trust of local residents, in order to pick up bits of intelligence about where bad guys were hanging out and to help the new government deliver basic services. Then, in the middle of the night, an elite squad of black-hooded Special Ops officers would smash down doors and haul away a few men whom their own intel had identified as bad guys—leaving the grunts to handle the angry wives, or the rioting brothers and cousins, the next morning.

Petraeus and SFOR’s commander, Lieutenant General John Sylvester, proposed integrating the conventional forces with the Special Ops forces—to make it a truly “joint” task force. The Pentagon gave them the green light. In the months that followed, their work led to the arrest of several jihadists, most notably in a highly publicized raid at the fashionable Hotel Hollywood in Sarajevo, and to the takedown of several corrupt charities, including the Benevolence International Foundation, the Saudi High Commission for Relief, the al Haramain Foundation, and the Red Crescent (the Bosnian equivalent of the Red Cross, a thin slice of which was financing terrorists’ travel into Europe).

Petraeus personally came along on some of the less risky raids, most of them involving the delivery of letters to known associates of war criminals. He wouldn’t wear a helmet on these raids, just a baseball cap with the insignia sof (for Special Operations Forces), though he’d be surrounded by a pack of heavily armed soldiers. He’d knock on the door, then do what he and the guys called “the Eddie Murphy routine”: flash a wide, toothy smile, as Murphy had done in the movie Beverly Hills Cop, and say with mock innocence, “Hi! Can I come in?” He’d give the resident the letter, which had been written in a very polite tone, alerting the addressee that he’d been seen consorting with certain war criminals, requesting his cooperation, and suggesting that he please contact the following official. The task force would then covertly monitor what the suspect did afterward—whom he called, where he went—which, a remarkable number of times, led them straight to the criminal they’d been pursuing.

Through all this, Petraeus continued to wear his NATO hat as the operations chief of the thirty-two-thousand-man mission to enforce the Dayton peace accords. And in that capacity, he put in place something close to a classic counterinsurgency plan. He didn’t use the word “counter-insurgency” (which was still, in effect, banned from the Army lexicon), but that’s what it amounted to.

Key to his plan was the idea that the military should not only fight bad guys but also deal with the social, political, and economic sources of conflict. It was no secret why jihadists had flocked to Bosnia as a haven: the government’s legitimacy was shaky, the police force was feeble, the economy was weak, and all authorities—from border guards to judges on up—were easily bribed.

Petraeus was a big believer in PowerPoint briefings. The entire military was shifting into that mode, to the dismay of many officers, who felt that it too often oversimplified the problem at hand. But Petraeus was determined to avoid that pitfall. He would spend hours, days, sometimes weeks preparing his slides, compressing dozens of interrelated ideas into a single geometric diagram; and yet his script, which he’d narrate while flashing the slides, was clear, even simple. His briefings took on legendary status as objects of derision, admiration, puzzlement, or all three.

In December 2001 Petraeus delivered a PowerPoint briefing summarizing his quarterly assessment of the operations in Bosnia. One of his slides displayed two columns, labeled “Conditions That Support Terrorism” and “Conditions That Counter Terrorism.” Under the first, he listed “Extreme ideologies,” “Unemployment,” and “Sanctuaries”; under the second, “Moderate ideologies,” “Employment,” and “Deny sanctuaries.” Other slides stressed the need for NATO to “leverage all assets”—military, economic, diplomatic, and so forth—to make the local government seem more effective and legitimate in the eyes of its people, so that it could plausibly claim credit for successes.

These ideas were the product of Petraeus’s experiences to date in the Army: a mix of what he’d done a few years earlier in Haiti, what he’d observed a decade before then in El Salvador, and what he’d been reading since his days as a young paratrooper in Italy and France. And the ideas in turn inspired his style of operations a year later, when he set up a task force to stabilize northern Iraq.

•  •  •

Another practice that Petraeus picked up in Bosnia and continued for the rest of his military career drew on his still-deeper past, a legacy created by the founder of the West Point Social Sciences Department. It was the idea of the Lincoln Brigade, or, as its newer members sometimes called it, the “Sosh network” or “Sosh mafia.”

Bosnia wasn’t considered a “real war,” after all, so the mission ranked far down on the list for getting money or manpower. Overburdened with work and short on resources, Petraeus did what West Point cadets-turned-generals had done for nearly a half century: he called the chairman of the Sosh department and asked him to send help. The chairman at the time, Colonel Russ Howard, knew just the man: his deputy chair, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Meese, who happened to be on leave the following semester. So, at the start of 2002, Meese went off to Sarajevo to be Petraeus’s executive officer.

In 1999 Meese had spent two weeks in South Africa as a consultant, hired by the Clinton administration to help Nelson Mandela’s postapartheid government integrate the country’s formerly white-led army with what had been the African National Congress’s black militias into a unified National Defence Force. The effort was not going smoothly: the black officers were pushing for faster change; the white officers seemed obstructionist; both sides saw the tension as racial in nature and were, therefore, resistant to a peaceful solution. But after talking with all the generals, black and white, Meese concluded that the real issue was cultural. It wasn’t that the regular army officers were white; it was that they had been trained in an Anglo-American bureaucratic style. And it wasn’t that the ANC officers were black; it was that they’d been guerrilla fighters in the Maoist tradition, trained to appeal to the people and to make decisions in a lean, decentralized manner. Integrating the two wasn’t so different from integrating regular soldiers and Special Operations forces in the American Army—which is what Petraeus was doing in Bosnia when Meese came to help.

Meese proved so helpful that Petraeus would call him again from Iraq and, later still (after Meese himself had been promoted to full colonel and Sosh chairman), in Afghanistan.

•  •  •

At the start of 2003, when war with Iraq seemed all but certain, Petraeus traveled to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, with his 101st Airborne Division’s staff officers and brigade commanders to take part in a high-level refresher course called the Battle Command Training Program. He also needed to recruit a chief of plans, and he’d heard good things about a major named Isaiah Wilson, who was studying at Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College.

Ike Wilson had been one of the Sosh faculty members who, in the late 1990s, spent long hours talking with John Nagl about the future of the Army in the post–Cold War era. The year before Petraeus came to see him, he’d won the George C. Marshall Award for having been the Staff College’s top-scoring student. Now he was in SAMS, the School of Advanced Military Studies, the small enclave within the college that had been created in the mid-eighties to train an elite corps of war planners.

Wilson was in a SAMS seminar one afternoon when a captain wearing a 101st Airborne badge entered the room and called out, “Is there a Major Wilson here?” Wilson raised his hand. The captain, who turned out to be Petraeus’s aide-de-camp, informed him that the general would like to have dinner with him that evening at seven o’clock at the High Noon Saloon & Brewery in downtown Fort Leavenworth. Wilson showed up on time—Petraeus and the aide were already there—and soon realized that the dinner conversation was a job interview, which lasted for nearly two hours.

Early on, Petraeus asked Wilson where he’d earned his PhD. When he replied “Cornell,” Petraeus asked, “Why not Princeton?” Knowing that was where Petraeus had gone to grad school, Wilson allowed, with a self-deprecating grin, that he might have committed “a strategic error” in his selection.

Petraeus asked about his dissertation. Wilson explained that it dealt with the politics and security implications of US foreign arms sales, and then outlined its main conclusions. Petraeus challenged each point, one by one. Wilson was surprised by how much Petraeus seemed to know about arms sales, but he figured that this part of the interview was a test to see whether he’d stand up for his ideas, so he argued back, conceding no quarter.

Petraeus then asked what books Wilson was reading, besides those in the SAMS course curriculum (which, he knew, amounted to nearly 150 books over the school year). Wilson mentioned Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth and The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, and several works about Sitting Bull and the frontier Indian wars. Petraeus seemed impressed.

The next question took Wilson aback: Who are your favorite poets? Wilson, figuring it was best not to fake it, replied, “I do not read poetry.” Petraeus looked shocked, said the answer was “unacceptable,” and launched into a seminar-style lecture on the importance of reading poetry, its insights into the human condition, and its value as a balm for suffering. He proceeded to discuss, in striking directness and detail, how Siegfried Sassoon’s poems from just after the First World War, especially those describing the brutality of the trenches, had eased the process of recovery from his own injuries.

Toward the end of the evening, Petraeus asked Wilson if he was a runner or a weight lifter. Wilson replied without hesitation, “Weight lifter,” knowing that if he picked the other option, he would have been challenged to a legendary “Petraeus Death Run” early the next morning or possibly that very night. (Petraeus often interviewed candidates for jobs while running. “You can learn a lot about someone at the fifth mile,” he often said.)

After dinner, out in the parking lot, Petraeus shook Wilson’s hand and congratulated him for his fine work at SAMS and for having won the Marshall Award the previous year. Wilson knew that Petraeus had won the award in the early 1980s.

Less than a month after his strange dinner-interview, Wilson was informed that he would be graduated early from SAMS to go to Iraq. In May he got a call from Petraeus himself to come join him in Mosul as his division’s chief of plans.

Wilson had spent the three weeks of the invasion as one of the Army historians assigned to chronicle the war from the battle’s front lines. He’d enjoyed access to all the military planning documents and all the field reports submitted by the units involved in the fighting.

His job in Mosul would be to help refine and execute the plan to stabilize Iraq. From his studies of military history at every level, he knew that war plans by nature contained four phases. Phase I: Set the conditions. Phase II: Initial operations. Phase III: Decisive operations. Phase IV: Post-conflict stability operations. This was elementary. By the time President Bush made his May Day victory speech on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, the US military had accomplished Phases I through III, but Phase IV had yet to begin.

Looking over the cache of documents, Wilson realized—at first slowly, because he couldn’t quite believe this was possible—that there was no plan for Phase IV. He and Petraeus would have to devise one on their own.

•  •  •

It was a fluke that Petraeus was sent to Mosul. The war plan had called for the 101st to wind up in southern Baghdad; the 4th Infantry Division, which was to have invaded Iraq from the north through Turkey, would occupy Nineveh Province, of which Mosul was the capital. But on March 1, less than three weeks before the war began, the Turkish parliament voted to bar the United States from using its country as a staging ground for the invasion. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were eager to get the war under way. (One reason was to get it over with by summer, so the troops wouldn’t have to fight in Iraq’s blazing heat. They, of course, ended up fighting in its heat for the next nine summers.) So Bush gave the go order without the 4th Infantry; its troops and equipment were still en route to Kuwait by ship when Saddam fled Baghdad on April 9.

Nine days later, Petraeus was ordered to change plans and redeploy his division—more than 18,000 soldiers, 5,000 vehicles, and 256 helicopters—from Baghdad to Mosul as quickly as possible. Within three days, he assembled the largest air assault in history, his entire 2nd brigade—1,600 soldiers, crammed into every functioning helicopter—making the 250-mile trip in a single lift, while the rest of the division followed on the ground.

The 2nd brigade commander, Colonel Joseph Anderson, was a veteran of joint civil-military operations in Kosovo and Panama. He was also a graduate of West Point, class of 1981, with a concentration in the Sosh department. Petraeus’s brother-in-law, a West Point instructor, had said good things about Anderson. In the mid-1990s, when Petraeus was operations director of the 101st Airborne, he’d tried to recruit Anderson to be one of his battalion commanders, but Anderson was locked into an assignment at the Command and General Staff College. The two had never met until just before they plowed into Iraq.

When Anderson hit the ground in Mosul, he had to make a judgment: would the division have to fight its way in, or could it simply occupy the city in one swoop with little resistance? He and some of his staff drove around on a reconnaissance mission. Unlike in every other town they’d entered in the fight up through Iraq to Baghdad, nobody in Mosul shot at them. At one point, Anderson even stopped at a bakery and bought some bread without incident. So he called Petraeus with the good news: there was probably no need to fight his way in.

Petraeus arrived the next day, amid further reports from Anderson that the city was in shambles, without water, electricity, or sanitation services. The civil administration had crumbled along with the regime, as was the case, it turned out, all across Iraq. To make matters worse, a week earlier, a small unit of US marines, which was called in to Mosul to quell riots and looting, had shot and killed seventeen civilians.

From his experiences and studies over the years, Petraeus knew what had to be done. Right away, he called a meeting of his brigade and battalion commanders and told them, “We’re going to do nation-building.”

He could hear the intake of breath. The n word was still forbidden in military circles, and the idea behind it was unpopular not just in Washington but also among many rank-and-file soldiers, who hadn’t joined the Army to “play social worker.” Petraeus understood the attitude, but there was no choice. The US reconstruction officials in northern Iraq, only a handful in any case, were far away in the relative safety of Kurdistan; they weren’t coming to Mosul and lacked the resources to do much if they did. The dozen or so civil-affairs officers in his division had been trained to set up liaison between the military command and the local government. But there was no local government, so the 101st Airborne would have to create one.

Anderson’s brigade would be situated in Mosul. (The 1st brigade would be based a bit to the south, the 3rd a bit to the west.) On his first full day on the job, Petraeus had him contact local tribal chiefs, ex-military officers, and business leaders who might be cooperative. Three days later, the two officers met with seven citizens who’d agreed to help find suitable candidates to run in elections for district governor and the provincial council. Four days after that, on May Day, Petraeus personally chaired a six-hour meeting with a few dozen emerging leaders to work out an election plan that would ensure a slate of candidates evenly divided among the various districts, tribes, and ethnic groups. For nearly a week, he spent a few hours each day interviewing and vetting each prospective candidate, rejecting those who didn’t meet the agreed-upon criteria or who still seemed loyal to Saddam’s regime. On May 5, the elections took place. On May 10, Petraeus congratulated the victors and opened the new city council in a grand ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Meanwhile, Petraeus’s staff officers were setting up a civil-military operations center to restore basic services and institutions. Few civilians were available for this sort of work, so Petraeus sought out specialists within his own ranks. He assigned the commander of his signals battalion to help rebuild the city’s communications infrastructure. It turned out that a warrant officer in his aviation battalion had been a network-systems technician, so he was tasked to help local engineers rewrite the computer programs at Mosul University. An assistant division commander happened to speak Arabic, so he was put in charge of organizing the city’s merchants. Language was a big problem all around—none of the divisions in Iraq had been allotted enough translators—so Petraeus recruited some English-speaking students from the local university to fill the gaps.

By the end of April, truck deliveries had resumed at the city’s gas stations, where American soldiers were standing guard and, in some cases, pumping gas. By the end of May, water, electricity, and sanitation services were 90 percent restored. And the university was up and running: the class of 2003 graduated with only a few weeks’ delay.

The operation was straight out of Galula’s book on counterinsurgency, which Petraeus had brought with him and frequently consulted.

Petraeus had posters put up all around the base: “What Have You Done to Win Iraqi Hearts and Minds Today?” and “We Are in a Race to Win Over the People. What Have You and Your Element Done Today to Contribute to Victory?” But the slogans only reinforced a tone that was already clear. When sergeants and captains saw a one-star general spending part of each day coordinating fuel convoys from Turkey, and especially when they saw the division commander attending city council meetings twice a week, they got the message about the mission’s priorities.

Knowing the value of what his old mentor General Galvin called the War of Information, Petraeus also restarted the local television station, funded twenty-four newspapers, and invited reporters and cameramen to follow him and his officers as they met with sheikhs, opened schools, and performed ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

Petraeus, Anderson, and the others were doing all this entirely on their own. Invoking the power and obligations of an occupying army, Petraeus had full authority over his area of operation, and he assumed it to the maximum extent, at one point even opening up the border to Syria after realizing that Mosul’s economic recovery would spark inflation unless new goods could flow in. Petraeus informed his superiors in Baghdad what he was up to, but he never asked permission and certainly didn’t await instructions (knowing there wouldn’t be any).

The idea, he made clear to his staff many times, was not to get the people of northern Iraq to love America; rather, it was to get a critical mass of these people to develop a vested interest—to feel a stake of ownership—in the new Iraq, because unless that happened, the country would spin out of control.

His plan was nearly wrecked in mid-May, just as things were starting to get off the ground, when the new American proconsul, L. Paul Bremer, known to his friends as Jerry, arrived in Baghdad. Bremer was a former diplomat—he’d once been an aide to Henry Kissinger—who possessed a martinet’s manner and far too much confidence in his instincts and abilities. Barely a week into his tenure as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the formal title of his office, Bremer promulgated two directives (at whose behest is still unclear) that all but guaranteed disaster.

CPA Order No. 1, issued May 16, banned all but the lowliest members of Saddam’s Baath Party from holding any government job. CPA Order No. 2, released a week later, disbanded the Iraqi army.

The orders stunned nearly every American officer and senior official, in Iraq and back in Washington. Bremer explained in a public statement that the intent was to “show the Iraqi people that the Saddam regime is gone and will never return.” He seemed unaware that the first order would also throw fifty thousand suddenly angry Iraqis out of their jobs—including the civil-service elite, most of whom had joined the Baath Party only because membership had been required. The second order was still more calamitous, as the hundreds of thousands of men who would be thrown out of the Iraqi army possessed weapons and knew the locations of arsenals where they could get more. Petraeus would reflect later, as did many officers, that if Bremer’s orders didn’t create the insurgency, they certainly inflamed and accelerated its rise.

In the short term, strict enforcement of Order No. 1 would mean the shutdown of Mosul University, which Petraeus had worked hard to reopen, and the suspension of the provincial councils, which he’d done so much to create. (Two-thirds of the college faculty and several of the elected officials had been Baath Party members.)

Bremer visited Mosul on May 18, having heard that things were going well there. Petraeus put on his usual grand show, taking him around to the city council, the working gas stations, the busy merchants, capped by a PowerPoint briefing on how it all came to be. In the end, he persuaded Bremer to exempt Nineveh Province from the order banning Baathists from government positions. Bremer demanded only that their deal be kept secret. As Petraeus learned later, a few other division commanders had also asked for exemptions, to no avail—and thus with catastrophic results.

As a gesture to Bremer’s largesse, Petraeus staged a massive “renunciation ceremony,” attended by thousands of townspeople, in which senior Baath Party members signed an oath of allegiance to the new Iraq and received an official-looking certificate denoting their loyalty. (In one of his earlier ceremonies, Petraeus had learned that Iraqis didn’t quite believe an agreement was real unless it was stamped with an official seal. So he had some of his men design a seal, sending them into the local bazaar to find popular emblems and symbols with which to embroider it.)

Much of this was financed by the treasure trove of Saddam’s cash, which American soldiers had discovered in his various palaces. It amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars—piled together into a discretionary fund called CERP, the Commander’s Emergency Response Program—which Petraeus and several other American generals used, with varying degrees of creativity and effectiveness, to subsidize neighborhood services, bribe local officials, and pay compensation to people whose houses had been destroyed or family members killed needlessly. By the early fall, Petraeus and his aides had spent $28 million on over 3,600 CERP projects. “Money is ammunition,” he liked to say, reciting one of Galula’s dictums.

Not that the 101st engaged exclusively in “social work.” From the outset, thousands of its soldiers performed conventional military operations: patrolling the streets to enforce law and order (the first principle in any counterinsurgency guide was to make the local people feel secure), gathering intelligence, raiding weapons caches, and sometimes shooting and killing (as well as getting shot at and killed by) bad guys. But even then, Petraeus insisted on restraints. The troops on patrol were not to fly American flags on their vehicles. Raids were to be mounted only on specific homes and buildings that intelligence had firmly identified as harboring insurgents; there was to be no cordoning off whole neighborhoods on the strength of mere rumors.

By the summer, the insurgency, which had started to grip other provinces with alarming force, crept into Mosul, too, or, rather, emerged from the back rooms of Mosul, as the city was home to at least forty retired Iraqi generals and hundreds of ex-soldiers, many of them instinctively suspicious of foreign occupiers and made all the more so by the crushing effect of Bremer’s directives.

In mid-June, Iraqi police shot four protesters, sparking a riot that resulted in the wounding of eighteen American soldiers. Petraeus stepped up the aggressive side of his operation, forming a Joint Interagency Counterterrorism Task Force, modeled after the one he’d helped direct in Bosnia, bringing in agents from the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and National Security Agency. He and Mike Meese prepared the PowerPoint briefings, which included several of the exact same slides that they’d made for the briefings in Sarajevo.

But then the American soldiers were ordered home, and not just Petraeus’s division. Between December 2003 and April 2004, one of the largest troop rotations in modern military history took place, the result of a Pentagon order that no unit should spend more than twelve successive months on the ground in Iraq. All of the US armed forces who’d taken part in the invasion—120,000 in total—returned to their home bases, while roughly the same number of fresh faces took their place. This period coincided with the rise of the insurgency, and the turnover—with the arrival of inexperienced replacements—may have given the militias a freer ride than they otherwise would have had at a crucial juncture.

The switch was particularly devastating for Mosul and its environs. Two months before they left, Petraeus and Ike Wilson prepared a PowerPoint briefing with twenty-six slides spelling out why more troops were needed to sustain what they’d accomplished. Yet the eighteen thousand troops of the 101st Division were replaced by a single infantry brigade, known as the Arrowhead Brigade, augmented by some headquarters staff—just nine thousand troops in all. More than that, the new brigade’s commanders had no idea of what Petraeus’s team had been doing, and no training or background in those kinds of operations. Nor had the war’s political or military leaders yet devised a coherent Phase IV plan or any guidance of what to do.

Wilson told his successors that he was leaving behind four thousand gigabits of data and memoranda—a comprehensive record of everything the 101st had been doing, the status of its operations, a guide to the district’s key players—but the new officers ignored it. Instead, they focused exclusively on what most of the American brigades in Iraq were doing: killing suspected insurgents, surrounding whole neighborhoods, pounding down doors in the middle of the night. As any reader of Galula could have predicted, this was bound to make things worse in an insurgency war, alienating the local people and breeding more insurgents than it neutralized.

•  •  •

In 2004 the violence intensified and the militias spread, to the point where, finally, most senior Bush officials had to admit that they were indeed facing an insurgency. Even so, nobody put in place a coherent counterinsurgency strategy; nor were those who had been right about the war all along promoted or otherwise rewarded. Quite the contrary.

The troops of the 101st Airborne spent the year after Mosul back at their base in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. On October 14, Ike Wilson, still the division’s chief of plans, delivered a speech called “Thinking Beyond War” at Cornell University, his grad school alma mater.

Regarding the US occupation in Iraq, Wilson stated bluntly, “There was no Phase IV plan.” He blamed America’s senior civilian and military leaders, who, as he put it, had “conceived of the war far too narrowly,” failed to “recognize a war of rebellion, a people’s war, even when they were fighting it,” and suffered generally from “stunted learning and a reluctance to adapt.”

Tom Ricks, a war reporter for the Washington Post, obtained a copy of Wilson’s speech and wrote it up in a story that appeared Christmas Day on the newspaper’s front page. A friend called Wilson at home and told him to turn on the TV, any of the news channels, because all of them were reporting on the Post story about his speech.

Wilson had been slated to start work soon as head of the Iraq desk at the National Security Council in the White House. The assignment was suddenly revoked. Several senior officers—from colonels to a few three-star generals—phoned him to say that his analysis was spot-on but that they couldn’t do anything to support him. Instead, Wilson spent the next year as an Army Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the long-standing private think tank, then returned to West Point to teach in the Social Sciences Department. Mike Meese, who was now the Sosh chairman, told Wilson that it was a good thing Ricks had identified him as an “Army historian” instead of an active-duty officer; otherwise, certain people in the Pentagon would have ended his career.

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