LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — Gen. David Petraeus trudges across a gravel helicopter landing area with his aides, looking purposeful but a bit grim, as he reaches a village outpost in the violent Afghan province of Helmand. He's here to chart progress, or lack thereof, in a war that's running at the pace of a horse cart, in a world that runs at the speed of a text message.
The only time the 57-year-old commander's smile reaches his eyes are a couple of brief moments when he stops and chats with troops. He poses for snapshots that memorialize his first months in command here, fighting a long war that he knows the American public, not to mention the White House, wants done yesterday.
Petraeus does not snap when a reporter asks him a question he has answered 50 times before, and will at least another 50 this year: Do you see progress?
When he replies, the pressure weighing on him shows in his voice — quieter than when he was in charge at U.S. Central Command in Florida, or earlier in Baghdad and Mosul — and it shows as well in the slightly hunched set of his shoulders, leaning on one arm of the chair.
There is none of the showmanship described in magazine profiles that sketched a megawatt four-star commander who outmaneuvers his adversaries with political and media savvy.
Instead, there is a solemn professor, patiently getting through the next order of business in a day scheduled down to the minute. To answer that "progress" question, he asks his aide for a stack of charts, leafs through to the chosen page, and then walks the reporter through his vision of the war, like a tough calculus problem he keeps having to explain over and over.
Yes, there is some progress, but only some, Petraeus says. No, he will not be drawn out on whether it's a trend. Yes, things are going according to plan. But no, he won't give the plan a timeline, because yes, he knows NATO has overpromised before.
His favorite expression is "only now do we have all the right inputs in place," as in only now do the United States and NATO have all the tools, from manpower to surveillance platforms to all the logistics and air support needed to fight the military side of a counterinsurgency conflict. That encompasses "stressing" the enemy through capturing and killing, and moving Army units into contested Afghan neighborhoods, to win them back from the Taliban.
He's got a chart showing those "inputs," too, including one called "People," which lists Gen. Stanley McChrystal — the man dismissed from the post Petraeus now occupies, after quotes embarrassing to the White House appeared in a Rolling Stone article. If you ask an aide why the chart hasn't been updated to say "General Petraeus," instead of "General McChrystal," the aide says: "McChrystal's name is there because the boss wants it there." McChrystal put everything into place, he explains.
True to that, Petraeus brings up McChrystal's name in nearly every conversation, mentioning how everything that's happening now was jointly planned by him and McChrystal last fall.
Petraeus says the burden of convincing the American public that this war is winnable is not his job — he advises the White House on how to prosecute the war, nothing more.
Yet when pressed about the dour headlines of diving public opinion polls back home, he turns to his computer and digs out the latest statistics on violence in Iraq — only six incidents thus far that day, compared to roughly "220 a day back in 2007," which is proof, he says, that his counterinsurgency strategy worked once and will again. You get the sense the tired general keeps an eye on that rearview mirror as a touchstone, to remind himself as much as the journalist sitting before him that no one believed he would turn around that war, either.
And he is keenly aware that few are convinced he can turn this one.
The NATO commanders he is to visit that day do report incremental progress, mapped out in spreading blotches of color overlaid on village maps, showing where once no-go zones have been turned into safe areas. In the U.S. Army counterinsurgency manual Petraeus helped author, these blotches of territory where troops establish security are called "inkspots." The plan is that the inkspots grow, expand and meet each other.
The commanders Petraeus visits explain the slow pace is because Afghans will work with NATO troops only if they see "Hesco" barriers go up. Those are the steel cages wrapped in a tough canvas burlap that troops station around their more permanent bases, filled with rocks and earth to stop car bombs and the like.
In the one area on the map the general visited Thursday — in and near the town of Lashkar Gah — these "Hesco inkspots" had indeed grown over the past year. The barriers are a symbol, Petraeus later explains, that the NATO troops and the security they provide are there to stay, presumably to be replaced later by Afghans.
Opponents of Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy have raised doubts about whether Afghan troops will be ready to take the lead from NATO by 2014 — Afghan President Hamid Karzai's stated deadline.
And NATO officers, like Petraeus' predecessor McChrystal, have openly admitted that the local government-in-a-box that was supposed to backfill NATO efforts is not yet providing adequate services. U.S. and Afghan officials privately complain that Afghan officials extorting bribes from the people they were hired to serve also remains commonplace.
Questioned about some of those obstacles, Petraeus said it was too soon to guess how much progress would be made on security, or governance, over the next year.
A member of Petraeus' staff explained the thinking — that they were "hunkered down," in "fingers-crossed" mode, because the whole plan's success depends on the Afghan government doing what now seems unthinkable: rooting out graft in a country where every level of government subsists on a latticework of bribes leveraged against impoverished Afghans. And the decision to do that is in the hands of an Afghan president whose own family is accused of benefiting from corruption.
The staffer spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the strategy debates within headquarters.
The most encouraging report of the day was of progress on "stressing" networks of insurgents. The commanders, American and British, painted a picture of Taliban leaders so under pressure from constant special operations night raids that they were running out of ammunition in some areas, and even trying to expand into rival Taliban territory to shake down the locals for cash to make up for their own weapons and ammunition shortfall.
But on Petraeus' mind were the losses of three Navy SEALs and a Navy Special Warfare electronic engineer whose private memorial service he attended that afternoon. The Navy men were among the nine victims of a helicopter crash that week. They were not on a mission that day, a reminder that every move in war zone carries deadly risk.
Petraeus' staff had tried to talk him out of going to the service, saying his days were too packed. He overruled them.
Asked about the service, he calls it "tough," before adding "four times as tough," to lose them all at once. The next day, he was to attend the service for the others — the chopper's five-man air crew from the 101st Airborne.
Next on Petraeus' schedule that night was a formal dinner in the commander's dining room across from his office — or as formal as it can be in a windowless room crammed with what looks like an oversized school table, lined by eight scuffed chairs, set with handmade place cards painstakingly penned by his staff. Petraeus would dine with his civilian counterpart, Ambassador Mark Sedwill, and guests before starting the routine again at 5 a.m. or so the following day.
How are Petraeus and his staff managing the 15-hour-a-day schedule, seven days a week?
"I think we've pushed it right to the limit," the general says, "and we stay there."
He calls the pace "sustainable," but says quietly, as he shakes hands, "there's not much of a reserve."
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.