War Stories

Revolving Doors

What the shifting of generals bodes for Afghanistan and Iraq.

Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli

Gen. David Petraeus’ promotion—from commander of multinational forces in Iraq to the head of U.S. Central Command, encompassing American military missions in all of central and south Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan—is by now old news, though it was announced only on Wednesday. So is the elevation of Petraeus’ deputy, Gen. Raymond Odierno, to take his place in Baghdad.

But in some ways, the more intriguing—and perhaps significant—announcement was the move to pin a fourth star on Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli’s shoulders and make him the Army’s vice chief of staff.

Chiarelli has spent the last year and a half as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ senior military assistant. The two met in August 2006, when Gates was a member of the Iraq Study Group (also known as the Baker-Hamilton commission), and Chiarelli, as the U.S. corps commander in Iraq, briefed the panelists during their fact-finding trip to the war zone.

More to the point, Chiarelli is widely known as one of the Army’s smartest, most creative senior officers. Many of Gates’ boldest speeches and actions can be traced to Chiarelli. For instance, on several occasions, Gates has said that future wars are likely to be “asymmetrical” conflicts waged against insurgents or terrorists, not high-intensity, head-on set pieces against foes of comparable strength—more like Iraq or Afghanistan, not World War II or Korea. Therefore, Gates concludes, the military—especially the Army—must change its doctrine, training, promotion policies, and weapons-procurement plans to meet these new challenges.

This notion comes straight out of an article that Chiarelli wrote just last summer for Military Review called “Learning From Our Modern Wars.” (An earlier article that he wrote for the same magazine, in 2005, served as a template for the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency that Petraeus supervised a year later.)

In the brief time that Gates has been defense secretary, the Army’s top generals and their assistants—most of whom rose through the ranks as tank or infantry officers geared to fight against Soviet tanks on the plains of Europe—have resisted these sorts of reforms.

The Army’s current vice chief, Gen. Richard Cody, is a straight-talking officer. But he is the embodiment of the traditional Army—and he’s been among the resisters.

When Chiarelli takes over the job, which involves running the Army’s day-to-day operations inside the Pentagon, he will be as well-positioned as anybody to maneuver these changes through the system. And since it has a two-year term, often extended to four years, he can keep doing this well after Gates’ term is up. If the Army is not too hidebound to change its stripes, the next few years might be the time it undergoes a metamorphosis.

The original personnel plan was to make Odierno vice chief and to send Chiarelli back to Iraq as Petraeus’ successor. The switch announced Wednesday suggests a desire for continuity, both in Baghdad and in the Pentagon.

Odierno was commander of the 4th Infantry Division at the start of the U.S. occupation and was, by all accounts, a disaster—a breathing stereotype of the hard-nosed American officer who breaks down doors, barges through homes, and humiliates suspects, “hearts and minds” be damned. (See Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco for the wrenching lowdown.) However, at some point, Odierno had a road-to-Damascus moment, and by the time he returned to Iraq as Petraeus’ deputy, he was a full-fledged adherent to the counterinsurgency doctrine.

Chiarelli is on the same page, too, and he has been for a longer time. But Odierno has been at Petraeus’ side more recently, dealing with the same subordinates, the same Iraqis, the same situations. He can assume the helm with no transition. Meanwhile, Chiarelli has a better take on the politics inside the Pentagon—who’s doing what and where the levers of power lie.

If the intention—for better or worse—was to stay the course in Iraq and advance reforms in the Pentagon, Odierno seems the right man for the former task and Chiarelli the right man for the latter.

Where does Petraeus fit into this equation? One word: Afghanistan. The Bush administration—and, therefore, the U.S. military—currently has no strategy for Afghanistan. Some talk a mix of counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and slam-bam combat, but there is no coherent plan. The hope is that Petraeus will come up with one, while Odierno tries to keep Iraq under wraps.

There is, however, a dilemma. Any smart officer who takes a close look at Afghanistan will conclude that, if he’s ordered to stay there and win (or at least not lose), he needs more troops. Like it or not, there’s only one place those troops can come from: Iraq.

The reallocation won’t happen as long as George W. Bush is president. Bush already made that clear by canning Adm. William “Fox” Fallon, Petraeus’ predecessor at Central Command, for publicly advocating just such a shift. (Fallon committed other sins, as well, but this was the main one.)

However, it is quite likely that, whoever the next president is, some brigades—beyond the five scheduled to go home this summer—will be pulled out of Iraq. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama—who, unlike McCain, explicitly advocate withdrawals—is saying that these troops will come home for good. They’re both saying that at least some of them will be shifted to Afghanistan. The hope with this appointment is that Petraeus—maybe—comes up with some ideas on how to use them.