Petraeus: it's the human terrain that wins the war

ON A blustery August afternoon in Edinburgh last week, the most celebrated military commander of his age was quietly doing the rounds with a group of injured British soldiers in the south of the capital.

The commander of US Central Command, General David Petraeus, was talking about his legendary running exploits.

Ten years ago, he fractured his pelvis after falling 60ft to the ground when, at the end of a skydiving jump, his parachute collapsed. At the newly opened Army Recovery Centre in Edinburgh, funded partly by the Homes for Heroes campaign, Petraeus was attempting to encourage a soldier who, similarly, had suffered a pelvic injury. Petraeus had managed to continue his running exercises in no time – just as, after being accidentally shot in the chest in another life-threatening accident, he is said to have proven to doctors that he could leave hospital by doing 50 press-ups.

Petraeus even had some Edinburgh anecdotes on hand: as a young lieutenant he had stayed in the capital on an exchange programme. After parachuting into Holyrood Park during one exercise, he had gone out on the town with a group of local Territorial paras. "A mistake I will not make soon again," he grins.

Petraeus was in town on a "semi-private" visit, having flown in from Kyrgyzstan earlier in the week, at the invitation of his fellow Iraq veteran, Major General Andrew Mackay, General Officer Commanding of the British Army's 2nd Division.

Nothing in the life of Petraeus could be entirely private. The evening before, he had met the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, and Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth.

Later that afternoon, he drove across the Forth Road Bridge to meet Prime Minister Gordon Brown for a catch-up at his home in North Queensferry. Petraeus is the solider whose place in military history is already cemented, as the man whose "surge" – however temporarily – fixed Iraq. And, as a result, he is feted wherever he goes.

Last night, Petraeus was due to receive the salute at the Military Tattoo. There is already a website (Petraeus2012) dedicated to his potential candidacy as the next US President – an ambition he denies. In the early 1990s, another four-star general, Colin Powell, emerged as a celebrity-soldier. Now it is General Petraeus whose stars are in the ascendancy.

The Army Recovery Centre, opened last week, is bubbling with the aura of the man. Camera flashes are popping, uniformed US Army press liaison men are fretting about timing. There is a palpable sense of presence. But the man himself, when he emerges, is as far removed from the overbearing caricature of the US warmonger as is possible to imagine. Slightly stooping, and with a handshake which does not even approach the US Army-standard bone-cruncher, it is easy at first to think that Petraeus is some wistful academic in an obscure university department. Until, that is, the stars on the collars begin to shine.

Petraeus fascinates because he breaks the mould. This is the soldier who, in 2003, commanded the 101st Airborne Division through some of the fiercest fighting of the Iraqi conflict, but who has also been named as one of the world's top 100 intellectuals. This is the soldier who, in a speech in the US given a few days before coming to Scotland in which he discussed his successful mission in Iraq, declared: "We came to realise that the key terrain… was the human terrain." He has even been described as a warrior monk. After the catastrophe of post-invasion Iraq, Petraeus has begun to show a different kind of American power; based on the pre-eminence of brain over brawn.

Petraeus, now commander of US Central Command, covering 20 countries including Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, was glowing about the centre he was visiting. Set up specifically for soldiers wounded in action, it offers respite and support for a small number at a time so they can either return to action or get back into civilian life. It is the first of seven likely to be built across the UK. "It offers care for wounded warriors but not in massive numbers. It's not warehousing them. It's a brilliant concept," he says.

But he has met Scotland on Sunday primarily to discuss Afghanistan, where fears over the rising death toll of British troops in recent weeks has led to renewed soul-searching about the nature of the mission. In the 19th century, it was the British Empire which was crushed there. In the 20th, the Soviets. So, in the 21st, is he the next to fall?

That reading of history is selective, he declares; the whole "graveyard of empires" theory of Afghanistan has been exaggerated. "No-one is understating the magnitude of the challenges, let me assure you, but I think we also have to keep it in perspective as well." He goes on: "It's the same as saying Afghans don't welcome outsiders… well, they certainly don't welcome outsiders who don't improve their security and their wellbeing. But our experience is, and every poll shows, that they did not enjoy being under the rule of Taleban, during which time it was a sanctuary for al-Qaeda.

"They generally support our presence, certainly in those areas where they see a benefit in themselves. I don't think there is a genetic rejection of outsiders."

For critics of the Afghan campaign, however, the trouble is that, even if success is won – and the General was keen to point out last week's elections had passed off relatively peacefully – the peace gained is dubious.

Patience with the likely winner of the elections, Hamid Karzai, is fast running out, with endemic corruption setting in. So what actually would success in Afghanistan look like?

"What does success look like? It looks like the progressive hand-off of tasks from international military forces to Afghan forces, from international organisations to the Afghan government," he says. "Clearly the shortcomings and the lack of capacity and capability, the corruption, the other limitations of the Afghan government are of concern and clearly there will be a conversation in the wake of the elections, as you would imagine, at the highest level."

This is Petraeus's gift, say those who have worked with him; his ability to see things in the round, moving seamlessly from the military to the political in a manner which makes the current row over whether British military chiefs should be getting involved in the controversy over troop numbers and equipment seem absurdly parochial. In Afghanistan, he says the mission is to persuade the majority of the public that it is in their interests to support the Nato troops, "so they can see that the government is one to be supported and embraced rather than opposed by helping the Taleban".

In Iraq, Petraeus was credited with gradually peeling away people from local militias, and gradually persuading tribal groups to back the political process. The job in Afghanistan is to translate those same factors. "You have to get all these lessons in Iraq and they have to be applied with enormous care in Afghanistan with respect to enormous understanding of the local circumstances in which you are operating."

He describes the task, using a very Petraeus-like formulation, as "a very nuanced appreciation of the factors that obtain".

Petraeus will also be overseeing a huge increase in US troop numbers, from 33,000 to some 68,000 in the next few months, in a repeat of his successful Iraqi "surge". Does he support the view of British commanders that they, too, should increase troop numbers? A wiry grin spreads over his face. "I've generally spent the last 35 years of my military career trying to go around minefields rather than going through them. Decisions about troop decisions are individual decisions for contributing nations," he declares. But, he adds, it has been "heartening" to see other Nato countries increase their troop numbers in recent months. And, after last week's elections, he sees signs of progress.

The problem is what happens when all those troops go home? In Baghdad last week a spate of bombings left nearly 100 people dead. The attacks outside two government ministries on Wednesday were the worst atrocities for 18 months, and the most damaging since US forces left. So isn't it the case that Petraeus's hard work comes to nought once he leaves?

"We always say that progress in Iraq is fragile and it is reversible, but there are 650,000 Iraqi forces that, in the vast majority of the country, are capable of clearing the security problems," he says.

"It only takes two attacks such as you had in Baghdad the other day to underscore the point that we have made repeatedly that al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni extremists, whilst significantly reduced in capability, still are able to carry out horrific high-profile attacks which cause enormous loss of innocent life.

"These are attempts to reignite sectarian violence and we have predicted all along that there would be continuing high-profile attacks."

But he argues that, leaving aside such incidents, violence is well down and al-Qaeda is now massively weakened.

There has also been talk in recent weeks that US forces are none too impressed with their British allies. One of Petraeus's own advisers, John Nagl, was recently quoted as saying the British had "not done everything right in Helmand". He warned the British needed to "think hard about those lessons". Petraeus is having none of it. "The distinction that Brits have always are those that are found in a relatively small number of militaries around the world – confidence, courage, an almost unique capacity for independent action, initiative, innovativeness, perseverance and just sheer will… there is an indomitable will there and there always has been. There is something about your soldiers that is very, very impressive."

The Brits, he adds, "don't hesitate in telling truth to power", except that they do it in a "very gentle way". Earlier this week he had dinner with the military historian Sir Michael Howard. "I have never seen a more gentle intellectual skewering of people. It is a true quality that you all have. And it is something that individuals like me value a great deal." It appears Petraeus has also done his homework on the British – knowing full well that lavish praise from an American is de rigueur this side of the pond.

After half an hour, he heads off into his car to go to see Brown. Everyone at the centre receives a small metal medal bearing Petraeus's signature, a curious custom that is common in the senior reaches of the US military. "Afghanistan is not any time soon going to look like American or British democracy. Nor is Iraq. In fact we used to say that the system in Iraq was Iraqocracy. I guess in Afghanistan there will be Afghanocracy," he declares.

For many, doubts about Nato's mission in Afghanistan will remain, particularly as coffins return home. Add the weakness of Iraq and lawless areas of Pakistan, and many rightly fear a powder keg is waiting to explode. But with Petraeus at the helm, and more troops on their way, there is no doubting the conviction, the muscle and the brains of the mission.


GENERAL DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS, 56, is the tenth and current Commander, US Central Command.

He previously served as Commanding General, Multi-National Force – from 26 January 2007 to 16 September 2008 – overseeing all coalition forces in Iraq.

He was the General George C Marshall Award winner as the top graduate of the US Army Command and General Staff College in 1983.

Afterwards he gained an MPA degree (1985) and a PhD (1987) in international relations from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

He later served as assistant professor of international relations at the US Military Academy and also completed a fellowship at Georgetown University. He has a BS from the US Military Academy.

There has been speculation that Petraeus, who is married with two grown children, may be interested in running for the presidency. However, he has stated that he has no political ambitions.