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Petraeus well-versed in Afghanistan war

Army General David Petraeus already has turned around a struggling U.S. war once. The White House is betting he can do it again.
Image: General Petraeus Visits JSS Army Outpost
Gen. David Petraeus walks down a street in the Ghazaliya neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq, in this Aug. 18, 2007, picture.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Army General David Petraeus already has turned around a struggling U.S. war once. The White House is betting he can do it again.

The professorial four-star general with a superstar reputation has not been chosen, however, to bring a bold new strategy to the war. Instead, he is seen as the officer best able to make the current strategy work by making peace among squabbling U.S. diplomats and U.S. and NATO military leaders. That tension surfaced in a series of contemptuous quotes by members of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's staff in the now-infamous Rolling Stone profile, put paid to the hard-driving special operator's glittering career.

If McChrystal's staff resembled a locker room-style boy's club in the magazine article, Petraeus runs his team more like a graduate seminar, said a former staffer who served on Petraeus' team in Iraq. That style is seen as key to drawing together the warring bureaucratic factions in Afghanistan, of a U.S. team that has seemed to spend as much time fighting each other as the enemy.

Petraeus also is seen as ablest to pick up the counterinsurgency battle plan exactly where McChrystal is leaving off. Petraeus was McChrystal's boss as head of U.S. Central Command, in Tampa, Florida, where he already was keeping tabs on the campaign, with frequent visits to Afghanistan, and neighboring Pakistan, as well as to Washington.

"He's already completely up to date on the intelligence, knows the political and military actors and understands the region," says John Nagl, president of the Center for the New American Security.

Knows the contacts
Over the past two years in his Centcom role, Petraeus has fostered what has been described as a good, working relationship with Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai. He knows Afghanistan's U.S. ambassador and retired Army general, Karl Eikenberry, from their years together in the army.

Most importantly, Petraeus has established a solid relationship with the White House, according to Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon. "He was part of both of the White House's Afghanistan strategy reviews, as well as the review of Iran policy and Iraq," O'Hanlon said. "He and the president know each other pretty well right now." Such a personal relationship that was notably lacking between President Barack Obama and McChrystal.

The Afghanistan job is technically a demotion from Petraeus' current post, where he oversees U.S. military involvement across the Middle East, including Iraq and Iran, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan and several Central Asian nations.

No one who has worked with Petraeus thinks that is how he will see it. "He's getting another opportunity to step into a war at a critical inflection point, when the security of the American people is at stake," said Nagl, a retired Army officer who worked for Petraeus drafting the Army's counterinsurgency manual. "So this is by no means a step down."

"He can walk right into the job," says his former executive officer, retired U.S. Army Col. Peter Mansoor. "He'll have the support of the troops. He can just roll up his sleeves, and get right to work."

Warm response in Congress
Response to his nomination in Congress has been widely positive, and he is expected to be confirmed quickly by the Senate. Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton said that Petraeus would take a step down in his career shows "the measure of a man."

"He knows we have to be successful there," Skelton said.

The shakeup comes as the American public questions whether the war can be won, and if it is worth fighting.

NATO announced eight more international troop deaths Wednesday for a a total of 75 this month, matching the death toll of the deadliest month of the nine-year war in July 2009.

Staying the course
Petraeus is expected to continue with McChrystal's strategy in Afghanistan in large part because it is based on Petreaus' own ideas about beating an insurgency. That plan calls for more troops to bolster security, while limiting the use of military firepower in order to win the support of the local population.

In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said operations in Afghanistan will continue as planned and "will not miss a beat."

"While he will no longer be the commander, the approach he helped put in place is the right one," Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement. "The strategy continues to have NATO's support, and our troops will continue to carry it out.

The post will mean another long stint overseas for a man who spent three yearlong-plus tours in Iraq. His return to the United States has not meant much more time with his wife, Holly, in Tampa, however. He spent more than 300 days on the road last year, even as he battled prostate cancer. He was later declared free of the disease after a course of chemotherapy.

"He is the Energizer general," said Mansoor, Petraeus' executive officer in Iraq in 2007-08. "But what he'll need is someone on his staff to make him pace himself. That was my job," says Mansoor, who now teaches at Ohio State University. "His natural instinct is to run himself into the ground."

Day to day, the 57-year-old general keeps a punishing pace, rising early for long runs where he regularly outruns officers half his age, and responding to e-mails in the middle of the night.

That nonstop pace has sometimes shown on Petraeus. He briefly collapsed during Senate testimony last week, apparently from dehydration.

Petraeus has denied repeatedly that he plans to run for president in 2012 and is said to want only one job: chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff.

His favorite expression, one of his former staffers says, gives you a key to his character: "Luck is what you call it, when preparation meets opportunity."