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Gen. David Petraeus, who hands over command of Multi-National Force-Iraq on Tuesday, speaks to U.S. servicemembers at Camp Gannon, Iraq, near the Syrian border, last week. Petraeus will face a broad set of regional challenges in his next post at U.S. Central Command.

Gen. David Petraeus, who hands over command of Multi-National Force-Iraq on Tuesday, speaks to U.S. servicemembers at Camp Gannon, Iraq, near the Syrian border, last week. Petraeus will face a broad set of regional challenges in his next post at U.S. Central Command. (Joshua Murray/Courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps)

BAGHDAD - When Gen. David Petraeus leaves Baghdad on Tuesday to take control of U.S. Central Command, he will do so as the military face of the Iraq war and of the strategy that many credit with pulling the country back from the brink of civil war.

But in the coming months, colleagues and analysts say, wider regional tests in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran will challenge the man who has become perhaps the most high-profile American general in a generation.

Petraeus, until now largely defined as a counterinsurgency expert, will have to adapt. In his new post, he will oversee actual combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with warfare of a different kind in dealing with Iran, Pakistan, Syria and other regional problems.

Those who have watched him closest in recent years say it’s likely he will adapt, in part because of the advisers he will bring with him. Petraeus has been credited with seeking a wide range of civilian and military expertise, even if those around him were presenting ideas that challenged his assumptions.

"He always surrounds himself with the best and the brightest," said Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who served as Petraeus’ executive officer in Baghdad and is now a professor at Ohio State University. "He’ll always draft for intelligence and capability."

According to Mansoor, Petraeus and his staff were surprised when they arrived in Baghdad in February 2007.

"The situation on the ground was a lot worse than what we were led to believe," said Mansoor, author of the book "Baghdad at Sunrise," which chronicles his time as a 1st Armored Division brigade commander earlier in the war.

Mansoor recalled the first patrols Petraeus and his staff took through Ghazaliya and Dora, formerly upscale Sunni enclaves in Baghdad that "had turned into ghost towns" during the worst of the sectarian bloodshed.

Petraeus pressed hard to move troops out of their large bases and into the cities, a fundamental tenet of the "surge" of some 30,000 U.S. troops announced by President Bush in January 2007.

"We cannot commute to the fight" became the rallying cry, even as the policy pushed U.S. casualties to some of their highest points of the war.

As if the actual fighting was not hard enough, Mansoor said, "everything had a political impact."

"Amidst all of the fog and friction of the war," Mansoor said, "there was also a healthy dose of American and Iraqi politics. Nothing was easy."

Other officers who served with Petraeus say it is these experiences that will guide him in his next role.

Pitfalls ahead

But some observers warn that the experience in Iraq won’t easily translate to the problems which confront Central Command, particularly the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

"The obvious lesson is that blunt force won’t suffice," said Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army officer and professor of international relations at Boston University.

"But I see the two theaters as vastly different and doubt that many lessons will apply directly. Afghanistan differs from Iraq historically, culturally, economically, geopolitically and in just about any other way you can name."

Bacevich, a longtime critic of the Iraq war, also said "the challenges posed by Iran and Pakistan differ radically from Iraq. In neither case will counterinsurgency doctrine provide a solution."

Some also warn that Petraeus should heed the lessons of the ouster of his predecessor at CENTCOM, Adm. William "Fox" Fallon.

Fallon resigned under pressure in March 2008 after an Esquire magazine article portrayed him as "brazenly challenging" Bush’s Iran policy. What’s more, according to a new book by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, Bush had circumvented the military’s chain of command by a "back-channel relationship" with Petraeus through retired Gen. Jack Keane, a Petraeus mentor and author of the "surge" strategy.

"The chief lesson: Don’t allow your subordinates to have direct access to the president," Bacevich said. "Ensure that they actually work for you."

Still others say that Petraeus’ command and the "surge" are given too much credit for the improved security in Iraq. Overlooked, they say, are a series of "lucky breaks" and local Iraqi factors, most notably the shift in Sunni tribes against al-Qaida, which began before the "surge."

The same strategy won’t necessarily work in other circumstances.

"If we convince ourselves that it was the surge that was the primary cause for the lowering of violence, that may convince us that we can tackle another problem like Iraq in the future and have the same results," Col. Gian Gentile, a historian at West Point, told Steve Coll of The New Yorker.

Still, Petraeus has shown he is flexible. He knows what worked in Iraq might not necessarily work in Iran.

"Each is a hard issue in its own right," said Michael O’Hanlon, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution. "But [Petraeus] is very smart, and he’s been thinking about Iran intensively for years, and Pakistan intensively at least for several months. So there’s good reason to be hopeful."

Swift rise

By now, Petraeus’ personal biography is familiar. That is due in no small part to the general’s media acumen and the attention he garnered over the past 18 months, including his closely watched testimony before Congress.

A 1974 graduate of West Point, Petraeus finished at the top of both his Ranger school and Command and General Staff College classes, earned a doctorate from Princeton, and rewrote the Army’s counterinsurgency manual.

He is famously a fitness buff and fierce competitor who challenged younger soldiers to one-armed push-up contests. He suffered two serious noncombat injuries earlier in his career — one in 1991 when a soldiers’ accidental discharge hit him in the chest, the other a parachute accident in 2000 that badly injured his pelvis.

Petraeus, 55, rose swiftly through the Army. He led a counter-terror task force in Bosnia and commanded the 101st Airborne Division during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He returned for a second tour in 2004, when he became the first commander of the effort to train Iraqi security forces.

His command of that organization played a role in perhaps the most notorious episode of his career.

On the eve of Petraeus’ September 2007 testimony before Congress, the anti-war group MoveOn.Org bought a full-page ad in the New York Times, asking in huge type: "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?"

The ad accused him of "cooking the books for the White House" and calling him "a military man constantly at war with the facts," referring in part to statements he made as commander of the training effort.

In recent interviews as he prepares to hand over command in Iraq, Petraeus has said dealing with the deaths of soldiers under his command was far worse than that advertisement.

"Obviously, the weight of responsibility was heavy, enough to crush anyone," said Mansoor, the former executive officer.

"But he recharged his batteries by getting out and visiting soldiers — to give energy to them and to get energy from them."

Petraeus has also sought a connection with his troops by frequent "CG’s Messages."

The first, sent out when he assumed command in Iraq from Gen. George Casey Jr. on Feb. 10, 2007, might be instructive for Petraeus himself as he confronts the regional problems facing Central Command.

"The way ahead will not be easy," he wrote.

"There will be difficult times in the months to come. But hard is not hopeless…"


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