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His strategy worked in Iraq, but even he says Afghanistan is daunting.
Published Oct. 29, 2008

Gen. David Petraeus comes to U.S. Central Command with rare political capital.

He is praised by both presidential candidates as the architect of an Iraq troop surge that helped quell violence. As ground commander in Iraq since early 2007, he's had President Bush's ear.

He's a scholar-warrior who literally helped write the book on counterinsurgency strategy.

Now, as Petraeus takes the helm at CentCom in a ceremony Friday at MacDill Air Force Base, he will bear responsibility for military strategy in Iraq, Afghanistan and the entire Middle East.

"He's expected to wave his magic wand in Afghanistan," said Ben Friedman, a defense analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "He has a tremendous amount of latitude. He's a rock star."

As Petraeus well knows, the Middle East can swallow reputations whole. But expectations could hardly be higher.

"I hope for and wish him success," said military analyst Winslow Wheeler. "But it's going to take a lot more than Washington political skills to succeed in Afghanistan. ... If he can succeed there, he'll succeed where many others have failed."

Petraeus, who will replace the acting commander, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, pulls no punches about his new role.

"The effort in Afghanistan,'' he recently told the Washington Post, "is going to be the longest campaign of the long war."

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Petraeus (puh TRAY us) grew up in New York a few miles from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in the top 5 percent of his class from West Point in 1974 and joined a crop of young officers molded by the vexing lessons of Vietnam.

Petraeus trained in France, according to a recent New Yorker profile, and got to know French troops who had fought in Vietnam in the 1950s.

So began a lifetime fascination with the subject that culminated in a 1987 doctoral thesis he wrote at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, ''The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam.'' Friends said Petraeus began to focus on counterinsurgency strategy, not a popular area of expertise after Vietnam.

"Searching reappraisal of America's involvement in Vietnam must be part of any effort to avoid a similar experience in the future," Petraeus wrote in the dissertation. "At the least, such study will provide valuable perspective."

But lessons of Vietnam, he wrote, should not dictate all military philosophy.

John Nagl, a West Point graduate and friend of Petraeus, said Vietnam led the military to de-emphasize counterinsurgency training because the military thought it would have to avoid guerilla wars. But Petraeus rejected the notion and thought the military had to adapt to many different kinds of fighting, Nagl said.

"Gen. Petraeus understood that the enemy gets a vote on how you fight a war," Nagl said.

The rest of Petraeus' career has been on the military fast track:

Top honors at Army Ranger school. Aide to the Army chief of staff. Executive assistant to the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Commander of the famed 101st Airborne Division. Stints in Bosnia and Haiti.

In 1991, he lost part of a lung after he was accidentally shot in the chest by an M-16 during training.

Friends describe Petraeus as one of the most focused people they've ever known. Ambitious. Smart. Cautious. Media friendly. He's a 55-year-old physical fitness enthusiast.

Daniel Duedney, a fellow graduate student who befriended Petraeus at Princeton, remembers how Petraeus would meticulously compile lists of names when working on a project and ask all for input. "He was a very good listener, which was unusual for a graduate student."

Henry Bienen, one of Petraeus' faculty advisers at Princeton and now president of Northwestern University, said he never would have been able to guess Petraeus' political leaning.

Petraeus has been a registered Republican, though he has said he no longer votes to protect the impartiality of his command.

"One of the things that most matters to him is his reputation," said Bienen. "He wants to be honest and accurate."

Not to say there haven't been bumps along the way.

In 2004, as Petraeus oversaw training of Iraqi troops and police, Democrats accused him of providing an overly optimistic view of progress to help Bush's re-election. Petraeus denied doing so.

The surge, however, cemented his reputation. Sen. John McCain has called Petraeus one of the wisest people he knows. Democrats including Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton also praise him.

Critics argue that the lessening of Iraqi violence may have little to do with the general.

They point to other causes: the so-called Sunni Awakening that led many insurgents in Iraq to reject al-Qaida; years of ethnic cleansing.

Col. Gian Gentile, a harsh critic, told the New Yorker, "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 ... and have the same results.

"It pushes us into a sort of dogmatic view of ourselves."

Petraeus might counter with a maxim he repeats to troops: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."

How Petraeus will proceed in Afghanistan is something he is holding close to the vest. He has suggested that simply sending more troops may not be the full answer. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the military is considering a strategy of more highly trained special operations forces, rather than a large-scale influx of conventional forces.

It's a problem that goes beyond just killing more insurgents, Petraeus said, and he appears open to some negotiations with insurgents.

Petraeus has said he understands that tactics in Iraq can't simply be transferred.

Success in the Middle East can amount to a definition of terms.

In a New York Times story, Petraeus once said, "I don't use words like victory or defeat. In fact, I am a realist, not an optimist or a pessimist.


David Petraeus

Age: 55; born Nov. 7, 1952, to a Dutch sea captain and a Brooklyn woman in Cornwall on Hudson, N.Y., a few miles from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Education: Graduated in top 5 percent of his 1974 West Point class; master's and doctoral degrees, 1985 and 1987, Princeton University; received all three prizes awarded in his class at Ranger School and was the top graduate in the Army Command and General Staff College class of 1983. He is recognized as one of the Army's top intellectuals.

Career highlights: Ground commander in Iraq since early 2007; previously, aide to Army chief of staff, executive assistant to chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; commander of 101st Airborne Division.

Family: He met his wife, Holly, when he was at West Point, where she was the superintendent's daughter. They have two children.