Petraeus Part II

Rick Atkinson’s series on MG David Petraeus continues with “Shifting Sands and Shifting Plans.” He takes us back to late March 2003 and the most hectic part of the major combat operations phase of the war, describing the balancing act the commanding general had to perform. Especially interesting, as it bears on the present situation, is this passage:

Three more days would be needed to fully subdue Najaf, but even before the city was completely pacified, the cheering crowds long anticipated by the Pentagon appeared on the streets, first by the dozens, then by the hundreds, and finally by the thousands.

Petraeus found himself trying to sort out his enemies. “I should have thought about this earlier, but the people who have control of these towns, the Baath Party officials, have a bigger stake in this than the Republican Guard,” he mused during one of our trips from Shell to Najaf. “The ones who are really fighting are those who have the most to lose, the local power brokers who are losing their cars, their headquarters, their houses, everything. In hindsight, we should have anticipated this. It’s the local power brokers we’re going to have to root out.”

On the afternoon of April 1, we drove up the escarpment and parked near a mechanic’s garage on the southern edge of town. Najaf was foul-smelling and very warm. Several pickups with machine guns stood in the street. “OGA,” Petraeus murmured, referring to Other Government Agency, the vernacular for CIA operatives. The team chief, lean and whiskered, wore a ‘Bama baseball cap decorated with an “I Love New York” button and his blood type, A.

“Get word to the head cleric and tell him that we deeply regret that we’ve had to fire near some of his holy sites in the city,” Petraeus said. “Now we need his help and advice on how to make sure that the city and the shrines are secure. Can we get a cleric to come out and talk to us?”

“We’re working on it, General,” Mr. OGA said. The most influential Shiite cleric in Najaf was Ali Sistani, who for years had lived under virtual house arrest near Ali’s shrine. Sistani’s many scholarly treatises included works on usury, marriage to infidels and “doubtful clothes,” of which our OGA friends had an extensive wardrobe.

“Sistani hasn’t issued a fatwa,” Mr. OGA said. U.S. intelligence hoped for a clerical legal decree welcoming the invasion. “But he’s not pro-regime. He’s sitting on the fence.” (On the fence Sistani would remain for the next year, even as he emerged as the preeminent figure in the Iraqi political landscape.)

“Again, it needs to be a tone of voice in which we say, ‘We need your advice,’ ” Petraeus cautioned. “We need to make this a cooperative effort.”

I was also amused that two of the locations discussed in the piece were code named “Exxon” and “Shell,” which seems rather odd from a PR standpoint.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. 101st Division SOP (“The Gold Book”) names the Forward Area Arming and Refueling Points (FAARPs) after oil companies, IIRC. In retrospect, they probably should have changed it.

  2. DeltaDave says:

    “I was also amused that two of the locations discussed in the piece were code named “Exxon” and “Shell,” which seems rather odd from a PR standpoint.”

    Well, the military folks generally have a very ironic and amusing view of the world. But that view to a large degree is politically tone deaf … to what resonates with American public opinion.

    I belive (from personal experienec) that the US military is VERY astute at foreign relations both from a coporate and a personal level. Where the folks in the military tend to miss the boat is that they are largely average Americans with the average American sense humor, understanding, insight. What they develop over time is a lack of appreciation for the political landscape.

    The military is a somewhat “closed community” which if you stay in long enough, you tend to lose touch with the political currents because you don’t have a daily hometown newspaper or new broadcast. Yeah, you see the alphabet news channels on TV, but that’s not the same thing…

    But I digress…. Exxon and Shell are perfectly logical from a military standpoint

  3. TM Lutas says:

    Since the troops seem to be headed towards a world where they are generally Internet connected, wouldn’t this insularity tend to break down as they gain the ability to tune into their local news back home from anywhere in the world? This feels like a stereotype that is going to become less true over time.

  4. Jalal Abu Jarhead says:

    While overseas in the Navy, I did sometimes feel starved for news, but I’m not comfortable with the conclusion that my isolated existence generated “a lack of appreciation for the political landscape,” at least no more so than any other American locality.

    Trust me, the farmers near the West/Central Texas home of my youth had no greater understanding of the political happenings in Boston, New York and San Francisco than we did after six months at sea.