The greatest danger facing Petraeus as he seeks to implement nationwide in Iraq the principles that worked well for him in the northern region of the country when he commanded there, is that he may not be able to adapt to conditions and problems very different from -- and far worse than -- the conditions he experienced in the north, or that he discussed in the U.S. counter-insurgency manual he co-wrote with Conrad Crane.
Petraeus' work on the counter-insurgency manual was widely recognized as first class and it filled a major, outdated gap in the combat doctrine of the U.S. Army.
One of the many tragedies and "might-have-been" missed opportunities of the Iraq war is that Petraeus was not sent to command in Baghdad three or even nearly four years before he did. Had he applied the principles he discussed in the counter-insurgency manual on the ground in the Iraqi capital of six million people in April 2003 and onward, the Sunni insurgency might never have metastasized as dangerously as it did.
Ironically, at that time, Petraeus signed on to the "lean, mean, fast" strategy of then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that only 130,.000 to 150,000 U.S. troops were required to hold all of Iraq after the country's long-time dictator Saddam Hussein had been toppled by the lightning thrusts of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division.
The one senior U.S. Army commander who got the situation right was Gen. Eric Shinseki, who was publicly humiliated by Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, for warning before the start of combat operations on March 19, 2003 that hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops would be needed to secure Iraq once it had been conquered.
In any event, any manual, however prescient, comprehensive and brilliant, has to be applied in different ways to different cases.
Petraeus heads for Iraq confident in the relative success of his pacification efforts in the north of the country. But he was securing a major city, Mosul, is Iraq's third-largest city with about 1,750,000 people, but there are at least six million in Baghdad, two million of them in the Mahdi Army Shiite militia stronghold of the Sadr City district alone. And the Sunni insurgency he faces is far more ferocious by orders of magnitude in Baghdad than it was up north.
Worse yet, there was the makings of a basic government backed by general popular consensus in the Kurdish-dominated north. The Kurds had hated Saddam and have always been by far the most pro-American of all the ethnic and religious groups in Iraq. By contrast, the Shiite majority in Baghdad is not even reliably loyal, let alone enthusiastic, about their own Shiite-dominated government.
A network of rival Shiite militias, some more anti-American, some less so, in various stages of competition and conflict with each other, are the real framework of whatever order -- without any law -- that now rules in Baghdad.
As UPI Military Matters columnist William S. Lind has noted, these militias, the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Shiite religious establishment led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have shown themselves willing to wait on the sidelines and avoid any significant conflict with U.S. forces so long as those U.S. troops in Iraq do their own dirty work for them and fight or eliminate the Sunni insurgents and militias that are the only effective government in Sunni neighborhoods.
Lind predicts that when Petraeus implements the first stage of his strategy to drive the Sunni insurgents out of Sunni neighborhoods in the Iraqi capital, the Shiite militias will stand back and let it happen. But he warns that, if or when Petraeus then attempts to apply the same tactics against Shiite militia forces, all the furies of a popular uprising may break loose on the suddenly beleaguered U.S. forces.
There are other dangers that could derail the Petraeus "surge and secure" strategy. If the United States undertakes air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities while the anti-Sunni drive is in progress, the Mahdi Army and some other Shiite forces supported by Iran are likely to jump off the fence and start attacking U.S. forces immediately. A messy, confused and chaotic three-way war would then erupt in the streets of Baghdad, with an outcome no one could predict.
Also, the failure of the democratically elected Iraqi government to provide the most basic standards of security and public services to the Iraqi people, especially in their own capital, has allowed power to fragment entirely into the hands of the militias. Iraq, and especially Baghdad, today therefore is very different from the South Vietnam model that Petraeus used as the basis for his work on the counter-insurgency manual.
There is no credible national government in Iraq such as there was in South Vietnam for the U.S. armed forces to support. U.S. intelligence on both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias -- with the exception of the misplaced focus on the relatively small al-Qaida elements -- is woefully inferior to the intelligence on the Viet Cong that was amassed through the CIA's Phoenix program in South Vietnam in the mid and late 1960s.
And finally, the Iraqi army, which Petraeus played the lead role in recruiting and training, is far more unreliable as a U.S. ally than the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN, ever were.
The most important principle that Gen. Petraeus should remember in his new command, therefore, is: "One size does not fit all."