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Profile: General David Petraeus


June 23, 2010


(KATAKAMI / BBC)  General David Petraeus, who has been nominated as the top US commander in Afghanistan, is one of America’s best-known military figures.

He is expected to step down as head of US Central Command, a role he has held since October 2009, to take up his new post.

US President Barack Obama appointed Gen Petraeus as the top US commander in Afghanistan in June 2010, replacing Gen Stanley McChrystal, who was fired after making controversial comments in a magazine interview.

Gen Petraeus is best known for his handling of the Iraq war in 2007.

The Afghanistan job is actually a step down from his current post.

In his role as head of US Central Command, he was responsible for overseeing US military operations and strategy in Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Middle East.

He took up the post in October 2009 after 20 months at the helm in Iraq, during which time his name became inextricably linked with the Bush administration’s military “surge” – widely credited with helping to reduce the sectarian violence that has plagued the country since 2003.

Gen Petraeus noticeably stepped back from the public debate while President Barack Obama decided whether to send reinforcements to Afghanistan in late 2009, but his advisers say he was a strong advocate of the move in private.

This change in approach fuelled speculation in Washington about whether the general might seek the presidency in 2012.

However, those close to the general dismissed the idea as absurd and said he is wary of being portrayed as a politician, rather than a military leader.

Mr Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, rejected talk that he is worried about such aspirations and insisted that the president “values his insights in helping to turn around an eight-year-old war that has been neglected”.

Intense, ambitious and hugely competitive – though not without detractors, even within the military – Gen Petraeus has a reputation as one of the brightest US commanders, correspondents say.

U.S. Senator Barack Obama listens (L) as Gen. David Petraeus (R) discusses security improvements in Baghdad while giving him an aerial tour of the city, in this July 21, 2008 file photo.

Cheating death

Born in 1952, Gen Petraeus grew up in New York state before going to the West Point military academy, from which he graduated in 1974 before being commissioned in the infantry.

He then served as an officer in airborne, mechanised, and air assault infantry units in the US, Europe and the Middle East, but until the invasion of Iraq six years ago had not been involved in real combat.

He was, however, accidentally shot in the chest when one of his soldiers tripped and accidentally fired a round during a training exercise in 1991.

Gen Petraeus spent five hours in surgery, during which he was operated on by Bill Frist, who later became a Republican Senate majority leader.

He cheated death again nine years later, when his parachute collapsed 18m (60ft) from the ground during a training jump and he broke his pelvis.

In 2003, he commanded the 101st Airborne Division in the advance on Baghdad, but it saw little fighting because of the swift collapse of the Iraqi armed forces.

The division was later moved to Mosul, where it was charged with restarting the economy, building local security forces and establishing democratic institutions.

There, Gen Petraeus first experimented with a strategy that would be revived during the “surge”. Troops were told to use less aggressive tactics and to make a sincere effort to win over and protect the local population.

If the rest of the US military had adopted this “hearts and minds” approach, his supporters say, Iraq would not have descended into such chaos. In reality, however, shortly after the 101st went home in 2004, Mosul was overrun by Sunni insurgents.

‘Petraeus Doctrine’

On a second tour, he became head of the Multi-National Security Transition Command, where he was tasked with building a new Iraqi army and police force virtually from scratch. The forces continued to be ineffective, though, and Gen Petraeus was criticised.

In 2005, he took over the army’s officer school at Fort Leavenworth, where he led the military’s effort to rewrite its counterinsurgency doctrine, known as Army Field Manual 3-24. The doctrine called for protecting the population from violence even at the risk of taking additional military casualties.

Two years later, Gen Petraeus took over command of Multi-National Force – Iraq, just as President George W Bush revamped his strategy in order to combat the insurgency and stabilise the country enough to allow a withdrawal.

Testifying to Congress in September 2007 alongside the then US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, the general warned Democrats calling for an early withdrawal date that such a move might have “devastating consequences”.

The subsequent deployment of nearly 30,000 additional troops and the application of the so-called “Petraeus Doctrine” saw the security situation in Iraq improve markedly, with less violence and fewer deaths, and progress on the political front.

The general is also credited with helping bring about the forging of successful alliances between US forces and Sunni tribes in Anbar province, in opposition to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Shortly before his term in office ended, President Bush announced that troops would begin to be withdrawn from February 2009. He also said combat troops would pull out by August 2010, ahead of a full withdrawal in 2011.

While Gen Petraeus backed the proposed drawdown, he warned that progress in Iraq remained “fragile” and “reversible”.

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