November 17, 2007

Consulting Success

How successful has General David Petraeus proven himself to be? So much so that the Pentagon has decided to hire him as a consultant while still commanding an American army in the field. In an unprecedented move, the Department of Defense has recalled Petraeus temporarily to chair the commission that will decide which officers will make the best leaders in the future conflicts America will face:

The Army has summoned the top U.S. commander in Iraq back to Washington to preside over a board that will pick some of the next generation of Army leaders, an unusual decision that officials say represents a vote of confidence in Gen. David H. Petraeus's conduct of the war, as well as the Army counterinsurgency doctrine he helped rewrite.

The Army has long been criticized for rewarding conventional military thinking and experience in traditional combat operations, and current and former defense officials have pointed to Petraeus's involvement in the promotion board process this month as a sign of the Army's commitment to encouraging innovation and rewarding skills beyond the battlefield.

Some junior and midlevel officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been particularly outspoken in their criticisms, saying the Army's current leadership lacks a hands-on understanding of today's conflicts and has not listened to feedback from younger personnel.

"It's unprecedented for the commander of an active theater to be brought back to head something like a brigadier generals board," said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former head of the Army War College. A senior defense official said Petraeus is "far too high-profile for this to be a subtle thing."

Petraeus won't select the leaders himself. The board comprises 15 generals, all of whom have an equal vote on more than one thousand colonels considered for higher rank. Petraeus, however, will set the tone and most likely the example for the board in considering the candidates vying for only 40 open slots for brigadier general.

The Pentagon has more than one aim in this remarkable decision. Not only will Petraeus influence the selection of the next generation of generals, but he may help convince mid-level officers not to leave the Army. Captains and majors have retired or refrained from extending their careers out of frustration with an experiential disconnect between themselves and their commanding officers. The Department of Defense worries that these men and women, who have conducted the new kind of warfare that the US has to learn to fight well, will leave before they see an opportunity to help apply the lessons they have already learned first-hand.

Senior leadership understands now that they need to produce an entire generation of Petraeuses. The battles we will fight against radical Islamist terrorists will not be the set-piece battles of World War II, but the type of fighting and conciliation that Petraeus conducted in Anbar and western Iraq. Not only do they know it, but they know that they have to demonstrate to the junior and midlevel officers that they've learned it. In that sense, Petraeus serves as an acknowledgment to their belated appreciation for the success he's shown in Iraq.

Hopefully, this will help transform Army leadership to meet the challenges of this age. Petraeus has the opportunity not just to rescue the US from a failing mission, which he has already done in Iraq, but also to ensure that these missions don't falter from the start.


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