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Gates Hails 'Hero of the Hour' as Petraeus Prepares to Leave Iraq Command

The top U.S. commander in Iraq will leave his post Tuesday after a momentous year and a half, during which he is credited with reversing a spiral of violence that seemed destined to plunge the country into civil war. From Baghdad, VOA's Al Pessin reports on the legacy General David Petraeus will leave behind.

In February of last year, when General Petraeus arrived in Iraq, 81 U.S. troops were killed here. The number rose to a high of 126 in May, as more troops poured in and the general ordered them out into Iraqi villages and neighborhoods to engage a variety of insurgent groups. These days, the U.S. monthly casualty toll here averages about 20. And there has been a parallel reduction in Iraqi deaths, along with an 85 percent cut in overall violence.

En route to Iraq to preside over General Petraeus' change-of-command ceremony, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was lavish in his praise of the general's role in what he called the "turnaround" in Iraq.

"I think he's played a historic role. There's just no two ways about. We've lost a lot of lives, but it's really been an extraordinary effort of a translation of a great strategy into a great success in a very difficult circumstance," said Gates. "General Petraeus is clearly the hero of the hour, but I think all of us would say there are an awful lot of heroes working for him that have actually made this happen."

Analysts across the political spectrum also credit General Petraeus for taking the leading role in the Iraq turnaround. "He took a war that was clearly being lost and turned it around," said retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl. "If I were writing a book on General Petraeus' service over the last 18 months, I would call it 'Turnaround.'"

Nagl served in Iraq earlier in the war and is now an analyst at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. "His own role, his own vision, his own drive, his own understanding of counterinsurgency led him to implement a new strategy," he said. "He understood that the key to success in any counterinsurgency campaign is protecting the population. That comes first."

It was General Petraeus' first two tours of duty in Iraq that led him to believe a new strategy was needed. In 2006, while running the Army's main analytical center, he ordered the writing of a new counterinsurgency doctrine. In early 2007, with violence in Iraq seeming to spin out of control, President Bush ordered General Petraeus to take his new doctrine and put it to work.

Another expert who has become a fan of General Petraeus is Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, an early skeptic of the new strategy and the troop surge that went with it. "We have to start by saying it's simply remarkable," said O'Hanlon.. "It's the latest, greatest comeback in American military history, perhaps since the Civil War."

At Boston University, Andrew Bacevich also credits General Petraeus with helping to avoid defeat in Iraq. But he is not sure just how much of the credit the general himself deserves.

"I think it's a question about which historians will argue," said Bacevich. "The surge itself, in terms of an additional increment of 30,000 or so U.S. troops, probably was not decisive. More important, probably, was the change in tactics, or doctrine, that Petraeus introduced."

Bacevich says Petraeus was good, but also lucky, with the cease-fire declared by the main Shiite militia, and the change of allegiance among Sunni tribal leaders from al-Qaida insurgents to the new Iraqi government. And, Bacevich says, the success of the overall strategy behind the surge is still in question.

"As I understand the logic of the surge, it was to reduce the level of violence, in order to facilitate a political reconciliation among Iraqis," he said. "The violence has subsided to a degree, a significant degree. But I, myself, don't see that this political reconciliation, and, therefore, the end of U.S. involvement, is going to happen anytime soon."

As General Petraeus flies out of Iraq he knows it will not be long until he comes back. His new job is chief of U.S. Central Command, with responsibility for all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, the next question for analysts like Michael O'Hanlon is whether the general can transfer his success from Iraq to Afghanistan, where violence has been increasing.

"If only it were that easy. We're not going to have the capabilities in Afghanistan that we have in Iraq. The Afghan army is much smaller than the Iraqi army and much less well developed," he said. "The U.S. is not going to have the capacity to surge in Afghanistan nearly to the extent that it did in Iraq. And then the sanctuary provided by Pakistan makes the situation much more complicated. Afghanistan is actually in some ways a harder problem at this point."

Still, John Nagl says there are some key lessons from General Petraeus' counterinsurgency doctrine, and his success in Iraq that he should be able to apply to Afghanistan.

"The principles of counterinsurgency that General Petraeus employed so effectively in Iraq, in fact, have much to teach us about a better approach to the war in Afghanistan, which is not going well. Perhaps, the most important of those lessons is the absolute necessity to create security on the ground. And, the only way to do that in a lasting way is to put ground troops in," said Nagl. "So, we need to bring more troops onto the ground; we need a surge for Afghanistan, absolutely, of several brigades. And I expect and I hope to see that in 2009."

President Bush announced what some see as the first installment of the Afghanistan surge last week, but with other units scheduled to depart, it only amounts to about 1,500 troops, and not until February. Officials say gains in Iraq are still fragile, so they cannot shift resources to Afghanistan too quickly. If the situation continues to improve in Iraq, General Petraeus may get at least some of the additional troops he needs for Afghanistan, but not until well into next year. And that will depend on decisions made by the new U.S. president, who has not even been elected yet.

As if the war in Iraq were not a complex enough challenge, General Petraeus will now have to balance continuing needs here with his new responsibilities in Afghanistan, concerns about insurgent and terrorist safe havens in Pakistan and the policies of a new commander-in-chief back in Washington.