Don't Move Dave

Last week the New York Times reported that the Pentagon is thinking about selecting the Commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNFI), General David H. Petraeus, as the next commander of NATO in a move that would take place this fall.  While few could argue that General Petraeus has not earned such an important job — or that he would be superb at it – more consideration should be given to the task at hand: succeeding in Iraq.

Simply put, the war in Iraq is too important to suffer a change in leadership now.  General Petraeus must stay in Iraq to consolidate the gains of the surge and to aid the Iraqis in establishing a stable and sustainable government.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have more than a little guilt recommending that the good general stay longer.  By the time of the proposed move, General Petraeus will have served over nineteen months as the Commander of MNFI, bringing his grand total to 47 months in Iraq since the beginning of 2003.  

Added to that, NATO could surely use his leadership.  The past few weeks has shown that NATO is not doing so well in Afghanistan.  One of the primary reasons for NATO’s problems is that most member nation military forces are not trained or suited for counterinsurgency.  Who better to drive NATO in the right direction than General Petraeus, the author of our military’s new counterinsurgency manual?

Put plainly, General Petraeus deserves to leave Iraq after so much time and effort and NATO deserves his leadership.

But this is not about who deserves what. It is about winning a war — and that is the job of a general: to win our nation’s wars.  

Historically, Americans have understood this.  President Lincoln, for example, was hard pressed to find a strong general to fight against the Confederate Army, firing general after general until he came upon Ulysses S. Grant.  Once selecting Grant to command the Union Armies, however, Lincoln is reported to have said "Grant is my man and I am his for the rest of the War."  

Or how about WWII, where generals were asked by our country to prosecute a war until its completion?  One cannot imagine moving Generals Eisenhower or MacArthur while they were still engaged in their respective theaters of war.  Like the old saying goes, “you don’t change horses mid-stream.”

To be sure, the Generals that are rumored to be in line to replace General Petraeus are very capable and experienced.  LTG Stanley McChrystal commands a sizeable portion of the Special Operations Forces in Iraq, and like General Petraeus, has spent the majority of the last few years living and fighting on Iraqi soil. Skilled in the art of war, knowledgeable about all things Iraq, and exceptionally adept at bringing the U.S. interagency to the fight, McChrystal would be an excellent choice to replace Petraeus.

The same can be said for the other candidate, LTG Peter W. Chiarelli, an officer of immense talent and currently serving as the military assistant to the Secretary of Defense, Robert M. Gates.  LTG Chiarelli has two Iraq tours under his belt, one as the Commander of the First Cavalry Division and another as the Deputy Commander of MNFI.  As such, he knows the military, political and cultural terrain better than most.  Furthermore, he is a progressive military thinker who understands counterinsurgency and the role that the interagency can play in strengthening Iraq’s economic, social, and political components.  In short, LTG Chiarelli is an excellent choice to take General Petraeus’ job.

But not now.

When I was a platoon leader in the Rangers, we used to conduct an exercise called “fall down one.”  In the heat of an intense training scenario, usually at night, in the rain, while attacking an opposing force, a platoon or squad leader would suddenly fall down and play dead.  The resulting chaos is almost indescribable, as soldiers attempt to re-establish the chain of command while under the pressure provided by a wily and aggressive enemy.  The newly designated leader would quickly fight to resume radio communications, maneuver troops under fire, and generally carry out the battle plan of the dead leader.  This friction-filled exercise has a few colorful names associated with it, but sadly only “goat rope” is printable here.

The point is that sometimes a leadership change during war is forced upon you by circumstance — by death, wounding, or something else beyond your control.  When it happens, it is a horrific event, and even the best leaders are challenged to take the reigns in such an environment.

There is no reason beyond our control that forces us to remove General Petraeus from command.  The situation in Iraq is generally trending in a positive direction.  The surge has dramatically improved the security situation, and while much work is to be done to achieve political accommodation, Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are in the best position to keep pushing the Iraqi leaders in the right direction.  

The bottom line here is that after five years of frustration, we have finally found a general who has put us on a path towards victory; who understands what it means to win in this environment; and who has adapted our strategy to the realities on the ground.

We have a fighting general. Let’s keep him in the fight.

Besides, General Petraeus already has four stars; he does not need another job.  If we are to give him another job, how about as CENTCOM Commander when Admiral Fallon leaves, so that he can oversee the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Or perhaps as Chief of Staff of the Army, where he can direct the entire Army in transforming and adapting to the wars of the future.

But not NATO. Put succinctly, NATO needs a good manager and we have lots of generals who can do that. After all, we are not fighting in Europe.

Rather than contemplate moving General Petraeus to well deserved job in NATO, the Pentagon and the President would be well served to borrow a phrase used by the Spartans and then later by the Roman Legions, when encouraging their soldiers to win in battle or die trying: “Come home with your shield or on it.”