Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, is assembling a small band of warrior-intellectuals -- including a quirky Australian anthropologist, a Princeton economist who is the son of a former U.S. attorney general and a military expert on the Vietnam War sharply critical of its top commanders -- in an eleventh-hour effort to reverse the downward trend in the Iraq war.
Army officers tend to refer to the group as "Petraeus guys." They are smart colonels who have been noticed by Petraeus, and who make up one of the most selective clubs in the world: military officers with doctorates from top-flight universities and combat experience in Iraq.
Essentially, the Army is turning the war over to its dissidents, who have criticized the way the service has operated there the past three years, and is letting them try to wage the war their way.
"Their role is crucial if we are to reverse the effects of four years of conventional mind-set fighting an unconventional war," said a Special Forces colonel who knows some of the officers.
But there is widespread skepticism that even this unusual group, with its specialized knowledge of counterinsurgency methods, will be able to win the battle of Baghdad.
"Petraeus's 'brain trust' is an impressive bunch, but I think it's too late to salvage success in Iraq," said a professor at a military war college, who said he thinks that the general will still not have sufficient troops to implement a genuine counterinsurgency strategy and that the United States really has no solution for the sectarian violence tearing apart Iraq.
"It's too late to make a difference in Iraq," agreed Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University expert on terrorism who has advised the U.S. government on the war effort.
Expanded role for academics
Having academic specialists advise top commanders is not new. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Petraeus's predecessor, established a small panel of counterinsurgency experts, but it was limited to an advisory role. Also, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, created a "Red Team" to examine his operations from the enemy's perspective and to report directly to him.
Still, the team being assembled by Petraeus promises to be both larger and more influential than anything seen in the U.S. war effort so far, both making plans and helping to implement them. The group's members are very much in the high-energy mold of Petraeus, whose 2003-04 tour commanding the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, the biggest city in northern Iraq, gave the U.S. military one of its few notable success stories of the war. He also holds a PhD in international affairs from Princeton University.
"I cannot think of another case of so many highly educated officers advising a general," said Carter Malkasian, who has advised Marine Corps commanders in Iraq on counterinsurgency and himself holds an Oxford doctorate in the history of war.
As the U.S.-designed campaign to bring security to Baghdad unfolds, Petraeus's chief economic adviser, Col. Michael J. Meese, will coordinate security and reconstruction efforts, trying to ensure that "build" follows the "clear" and "hold" phases of action. Meese also holds a PhD from Princeton, where he studied how the Army historically handled budget cuts. He is the son of former attorney general Edwin Meese III, who was a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, whose December critique helped push the Bush administration to shift its approach in Baghdad.
Petraeus, who along with the group's members declined to be interviewed for this article, has chosen as his chief adviser on counterinsurgency operations an outspoken officer in the Australian Army. Lt. Col. David Kilcullen holds a PhD in anthropology, for which he studied Islamic extremism in Indonesia.
Kilcullen has served in Cyprus, Papua New Guinea and East Timor and most recently was chief strategist for the State Department's counterterrorism office, lent by the Australian government. His 2006 essay "Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency" was read by Petraeus, who sent it rocketing around the Army via e-mail. Among Kilcullen's dictums: "Rank is nothing: talent is everything" -- a subversive thought in an organization as hierarchical as the U.S. military.
The two most influential members of the brain trust are likely to be Col. Peter R. Mansoor and Col. H.R. McMaster, whose influence already outstrips their rank. Both men served on a secret panel convened last fall by Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to review Iraq strategy. The panel's core conclusion, never released to the public but briefed to President Bush on Dec. 13, according to an officer on the Joint Staff, was that the U.S. government should "go long" in Iraq by shifting from a combat stance to a long-term training-and-advisory effort.
But to make that shift, the review also concluded, the U.S. military might first have to "spike" its presence by about 20,000 to 30,000 troops to curb sectarian violence and improve security in Baghdad. That is almost exactly what the U.S. government hopes to do over the next eight months.
Mansoor, who commanded a brigade of the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad in 2003-04, received a PhD at Ohio State for a dissertation on how U.S. Army infantry divisions were developed during World War II. He will be Petraeus's executive officer in Baghdad, a key figure in implementing the general's decisions.
McMaster's command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in northwestern Iraq in 2005-06 provided one of the few bright spots for the U.S. military in Iraq over that year. In a patiently executed campaign, he took back the city of Tall Afar from a terrorist group, and he was so successful that Bush dedicated much of a speech to the operation. McMaster, author of the well-received book "Dereliction of Duty," about the failures of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War, is expected to operate for Petraeus as a long-distance adviser on strategy. He is based this year at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think tank, but is likely to visit Iraq every month or two, according to a top U.S. military officer.
‘A fortress mentality’
Beyond those senior officers is a larger ring of advisers whose views already are shaping planning for the coming operation in Baghdad.
Lt. Col. Douglas A. Ollivant caught Petraeus's eye last year by winning first prize in an Army "counterinsurgency writing" competition, sponsored by the general, with an essay that scorned the U.S. military's reliance in Iraq on big "forward operating bases." "Having a fortress mentality simply isolates the counterinsurgent from the fight," he wrote.
Ollivant, a veteran of battles in Najaf and Fallujah who earned a political science PhD studying Thomas Jefferson, argued that U.S. forces should instead operate from patrol bases shared with Iraqi military and police units. That is exactly what Petraeus plans to do in the coming months in Baghdad, setting up about three dozen such outposts across the city -- which isn't surprising, considering Ollivant has become a top planner for the U.S. military in Baghdad.
Another adviser will be Ahmed S. Hashim, a professor of strategy at the Naval War College who served as a military intelligence officer in Iraq and then wrote a book sharply critical of how the U.S. military has operated there. Hashim, who holds a PhD from MIT, concluded his critique by arguing that the best course would be to partition the country along ethnic and sectarian lines.
For all that, many military insiders are skeptical that the extra brainpower ultimately will make much difference, or that lessons learned by McMaster in Tall Afar or Petraeus in Mosul will be easily applied in the far larger arena of Baghdad.
The joke among some staff officers was that Petraeus operated in such a freewheeling manner in Iraq's north that he had his own foreign policy with Syria and Turkey. In Baghdad, by contrast, he will have to operate constantly with Iraqi officials, with the U.S. government bureaucracy, and in the global media spotlight. Also, experts agree that the basic problem in Iraq is political, not military, and that although a military campaign can create a breathing space for politicians, it cannot by itself reverse the dynamic driving Iraqis to fight a civil war.
"It wouldn't surprise me if Congress pulled the rug out or the Iraqis blocked major revisions in strategy," said Erin M. Simpson, a Harvard University counterinsurgency expert. "I think they're going to be a very frustrated group."
Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency adviser, wrote recently on the Web site Small Wars Journal, "All that the new strategy can do is give us a fighting chance of success, and it certainly does give us that."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.