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Petraeus Rising: Managing the “War of Perceptions” in Iraq

Petraeus took command in Iraq in 2007 with misgivings, but soon found a way to turn it to his advantage.

President George W. Bush speaks as Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (2nd L), and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace (R) listen during a post-meeting briefing at the Rose Garden of the White House October 5, 2005, in Washington, DC.

When Petraeus returned from Iraq in September 2005, he did not get a prestigious assignment such as he might have wanted, because of tensions between Petraeus and other generals in Iraq, including Gen. George Casey. Casey had been miffed at Petraeus, in part because of his appearing on Sunday talk shows without consulting the theater commander, according to Casey’s former spokesman Col. Fred Wellman.

Petraeus was assigned to the Combined Arms Center, an arm of the Training and Doctrine Command, at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, where he presided over the rewriting of the Army’s Manual on Counterinsurgency (COIN).

The COIN manual ducked some central issues in the US wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan – most notably whether US troops should have been carrying out violent “cordon and search” operations, especially when they had little or no real intelligence to go on. Intent on staying within the political consensus of the military establishment, Petraeus opted not to criticize the tactic of violently invading private homes and seizing military-age males in the middle of the night in front of their families, which had become routine in Iraq.

But in one area, the manual staked out a bold new position. It called for the commander in a counterinsurgency war to influence the coverage of the war by the news media. “The media directly influence the attitude of key audiences toward counterinsurgents, their operations and the opposing insurgency,” the section on “information operations” said. “This situation creates a war of perceptions between insurgents and counterinsurgents conducted continuously using the news media.”

In the absence of information provided by the command, the manual warned, “some media representatives develop stories on their own that may be inaccurate and may not include the COIN force perspective.” It said commanders need to “engage the media, create positive relationships and help the media tell the story.”

The directive to manage news coverage to produce a media narrative that was more favorable to the command reflected his own experience in Mosul and at MNSTC-I. It could be argued that -more than anything else in the manual – those excerpts reveal the single most important element in Petraeus’s thinking about command of a counterinsurgency war.

Petraeus Plans His Personal Exit Strategy

Petraeus wasn’t thinking of the counterinsurgency manual as a ticket to return to Iraq. By the time Petraeus returned to the United States in 2005, he apparently already had given up on counterinsurgency in Iraq. A former aide to Petraeus, who asked that his name not be used for this story, told Truthout that by that time, Petraeus felt it was too late to wage a successful counterinsurgency in Iraq, because “so many of [the Sunnis] had gone over to the insurgency.”

In April 2006, testifying before the Baker-Hamilton Commission (also known as the Iraq Study Group, which was preparing a report to Congress), Petraeus endorsed Casey’s strategy of turning the war over to the Iraqis and drawing down US troops without expecting the insurgency to be weakened. Petraeus told the bipartisan panel, “[N]o alternative strategy is better,” as recounted in Bob Woodward’s The War Within.

But that autumn, as the war entered a phase of acute political crisis because of a collapse in US elite political support, the right-wing American Enterprise Institute saw the opportunity to sell the option of an escalation of US military involvement, Woodward reported. Petraeus’ patron, Gen. Jack Keane, the former Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army, became a key proponent of the proposal, making a pitch to President Bush on December 11 for sending five more brigades to Iraq with a plan to “defeat the insurgency.”

Keane also suggested Petraeus to lead the campaign, and eight days later, Petraeus was asked by the new Defense Secretary Robert Gates whether there were enough troops in Iraq. “I just can’t conceive that there are,” said Petraeus, according to Woodward’s account.

Petraeus took the command, but he carefully planned his exit strategy from a war he didn’t expect to go well. In his confirmation hearings in January, the most he would say about the situation in Iraq was that it was “not hopeless.” And he declared, “[S]hould I determine that the new strategy cannot succeed, I will provide such an assessment.”

In Baghdad, he told his staff he was giving the new strategy six months before deciding whether to pull the plug. “I think the general approach was, ‘we’ll go in and give this one last try,'” the former aide to Petraeus told Truthout. “And if it doesn’t work out by the time he was going to be testifying to Congress in September, he’s going to call it that way and recommend getting out. That was my understanding.”

Thus, the end of August was thus the deadline for Petraeus. But Petraeus knew that the last of the five additional US brigades would not arrive in Iraq until June, leaving only three months to produce results after the troop surge was complete. In contrast, Gen. Stanley McChrystal was given 18 months by President Barack Obama for his counterinsurgency strategy before the drawdown in US troops would begin.

Spinning the Anbar Turnaround Narrative

Only four days after his arrival, Petraeus assembled his generals and urged them to “engage” with reporters, as journalist Tom Ricks recounts in The Gamble. “Sixty percent of this thing is information,” he told them.

His biggest challenge was convincing the media that he had mastered the sectarian bloodletting, especially in Baghdad, that had sapped domestic political support for the US war. And it appeared distinctly possible that it might be an intractable problem. By mid-June, when all the additional “surge” troops had arrived, the trend line of sectarian killings in Baghdad was not moving clearly in the right direction.

At that point, Chris Wallace of Fox news tried to get him to say that the troop surge would continue into 2008. But Petraeus said it was “premature” to make such a commitment and that “a number of options” were “out there.”

Meanwhile, he had to head off the emergence of a negative cast to media coverage of the war. In a series of press briefings and interviews beginning in early June, he referred to a “stunning reversal” and an “almost breathtaking turnaround” in the Sunni Anbar province, which he said had been considered “lost” in late 2006. “[T]ribes that turned a blind eye to what al-Qaeda was doing in that province are opposing al-Qaeda very vigorously,” he told CNN.

That theme dominated coverage of Iraq through the summer. But Petraeus and the media were telling only a small part of the story. Sunni insurgent groups, supported by tribal leaders in Anbar, were already at war with al-Qaeda across much of Anbar in early 2006, and both insurgents and tribes had asked the United States to cooperate with them against al-Qaeda, but had been refused.

Petraeus led the news media to conclude that the turnaround in Anbar was the result of the surge in US troops, but in fact the Sunnis had been driven into a new alliance by the ferocity of the Iraqi government-sanctioned Shi’a terrorizing of Sunnis in Baghdad. By late 2006, the Sunni insurgents were more desperate because they essentially had lost the war with the Shi’a security forces and militia for Baghdad.

But under Petraeus, the US military accommodated the Sunni insurgents across the entire province of Anbar, as well as in Baghdad, agreeing for the first time to give them control of local security organs as long as they were fighting al-Qaeda. Although Petraeus’s command sought to conceal the fact that they were empowering the very insurgents, they had been fighting, they accepted lists of Sunni residents handed them by local Sunni sheikhs. Back in Washington, some US military officers werereported to be unhappy with the new policy, because it was an implicit admission that “US-trained Iraqi forces cannot control their country.”

Petraeus’s narrative of the Anbar turnaround glossed over those realities and claimed it was the additional troops and his “counterinsurgency” strategy that had accomplished the feat.

Exploiting Sectarian Cleansing to Claim Success

When Petraeus’s staff began preparing for the general’s Congressional testimony in early September, they were far from clear that the data on sectarian killings would support a claimed success for the surge. “As we looked at the violence charts,” the former Petraeus aide told me, “we didn’t start seeing a drop until just a couple of weeks before the testimony.”

In those last two weeks of August, Petraeus got the numbers he had been waiting for. In his September 2007 testimony to Congress, he cited as evidence of success the fact that those killings had declined by 80 percent in Baghdad from the high point in December 2006.

But there was a major problem with that claim. Seventy percent of the drop in the killings from the December peak had already taken place by the end of February 2007 before the surge had even begun, as shown in the graph accompanying his testimony.

More fundamentally, the sectarian violence had been driven by systematic strategy of “sectarian cleansing” – eliminating Sunnis from Baghdad neighborhoods which the Shi’a were intent on dominating. By early 2007, the Shi’a death squads had already accomplished their objective. As a US intelligence officer in Baghdad explained to the Washington Post, “Now that the Sunnis are all gone, murders have dropped off. One way to put it is that they ran out of people to kill.”

In fact there were very few mixed neighborhoods left in Baghdad. The Shi’a had won a decisive victory and now controlled 75 percent of a city that had once been dominated by the Sunni.

The maps accompanying Petraeus’s testimony depicting diminished sectarian violence obscured that reality by starting in November 2006 only, and by suggesting slight changes only in the sectarian make-up of the city’s districts after that. But a series of maps done for the US military showed dramatically how the Shi’a pushed Sunnis out of nearly all of the north and east of the city into enclaves in the south and west.

As Petraeus was preparing his testimony, in fact, the CIA was issuing a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq that noted how Sunni areas had been “surrounded by predominately Shi’a districts. Where population displacements have led to significant sectarian separation,” it said – and therefore – “conflict levels have diminished to some extent because warring communities find it more difficult to penetrate communal enclaves.”

In his April 2008 testimony, Petraeus grudgingly acknowledged that “some” of the decrease in sectarian killings could indeed be due to “sectarian hardening of certain Baghdad neighborhoods.”

Petraeus’s April 2008 testimony was far bolder in asserting his success than the September testimony had been, citing precipitous declines in numbers of attacks and in “ethno-sectarian deaths” to very low levels since September 2007. That, too, was disingenuous, because a very significant proportion of those declines was accounted for by Moqtada al-Sadr’s unilateral Mahdi army ceasefire in late August 2007.

Nevertheless, in March 2008, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, in charge of day-to-do operations in the war, formulated the new line in March 2008 that “the surge of Coalition forces – and how we employed those forces – have broken the cycle of sectarian violence in Iraq.”

Why Petraeus Conjured an Iranian Threat in Iraq

The Sadr ceasefire probably would not have happened but for Iran’s influence, however Petraeus continued to portray Iran as provoking more violence in Iraq. Iran valued its ties with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’a government more than those with Sadr. The Iraqi government credited Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with not only promising to restrain Sadr when Prime Minister al-Maliki visited Tehran in early August 2007, but also with having made good on the pledge.

Based on that Iranian assurance, al-Maliki had given the green light to his police chief in Karbala to attack Sadrists there in August.

When an al-Maliki attack on the Sadrist forces controlling Basrain late March ran into trouble, Iran again leaned on Sadr to stop the fighting and make concessions. Nevertheless, in his April 2008 testimony, Petraeus portrayedIran as playing a “destructive role” in the conflict by “funding, training, arming and directing the so-called special groups,” which he said “pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democraticIraq.”

Why was Petraeus making Iranout to be the biggest source of instability despite the fact that the United Statesand Iranwere backing the same government? Petraeus and his patron, Gen. Jack Keane, had been cultivating the support of Vice President Dick Cheney ever since late 2006, and Cheney had intervened in 2007 to overcome opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Keane’s helping Petraeus on Iraq.

Cheney was looking for an excuse for war with Iran. In June 2007 he had proposed seizing on any incident in which US war deaths could be blamed on Iran to launch a reprisal attack on Iran. Petraeus had immediately acted to support Cheney’s initiative. In early July his spokesman held a press briefing alleging that Iran was behind the January 2007 attack on US personnel in Karbala, despite the fact that Petraeus himself had acknowledged only a few weeks earlier that Iran had not been involved.

Petraeus charged in October and December 2007 that Iranhad provided RPG-29s, a sophisticated anti-tank weapon, to Iraqi Shiite militiamen, even though there was no evidence to support that charge. Ironically, Petraeus himself had been responsible for rushing 2,400 Soviet-made RPGs out to Iraqi security forces in October 2004 without an adequate system of accountability, which had certainly allowed the Mahdi Army to acquire them on the open arms market and by joining the Iraqi Police in 2005.

By March 2008, Petraeus had a more specific reason for catering to Cheney’s position on Iranin his testimony. Keane was working on getting him the CENTCOM command, after Adm. William Fallon had been forced to step down, and for that, he needed Cheney’s support.

Petraeus’s manipulation of perceptions of the Iraq war served not only his own interest in constructing a narrative of success, but the interests of the leader of the war party in the Bush administration.

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