If public opinion has regarded centralising European treaties with less concern in recent years, it is because the nightly news has been dominated by Iraqi car bombs and US foreign policy failure. But Europe may be set free to dominate the political agenda in 2008 and the man we may have to thank is an American General with Dutch ancestry, David Petraeus, Commander of US forces in Iraq.
In wartime, civilian government and military incompetence are as typical as they are in peace, but severe setbacks in war sometimes result in the right man getting the top job.
It took President Bush over three and a half years to sack the main culprit, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Little more than a month later, Major General David Petraeus was confirmed as Commander of US Forces in Iraq on January 27th 2007 by the US Senate.
As Commander of the US 101st Airborne, Petraeus demonstrated how the occupation of Iraq might have been conducted more effectively.
An examination of the General’s war record in Iraq over his two tours highlights many examples of his intelligence.
During the summer of 2003, a common rumour among Iraqis was that the night vision goggles used by American troops could enable them to peer through the clothes of women. Rather than tell local Sheikhs this was false, the 101st put on an exhibition where a variety of US military observation and imaging devices were laid out for them to examine and use. The 101st referred to this as the "First Annual Tigris River Valley Sheikhfest". The meeting was repeated and evolved into a formal Tigris Valley Commission in which regional issues were discussed every month.
Petraeus was one of the few senior American officers who understood and supported the less aggressive policy of the British in Southern Iraq. He saw the point of getting on with Iraqis rather than making them feel like a conquered people and restored and re-opened the University of Mosul. He also sent his men to give money and toys to the families of people arrested for opposing Americans.
Abu Ghraib was a public relations catastrophe for America. Interestingly, Petraeus established a detailed set of procedures for his unit’s jails and brought in Sheikhs and Imams to inspect his unit’s facilities. Most substantially, he also opposed Paul Bremer’s arbitrary de-Baathification policy from the outset and almost certainly created bad blood with Secretary Rumsfeld by insisting that senior ex-Iraqi Army officers be paid their pensions.
Petraeus realised that Bremer’s May 2003 decision to disband 385,000 Iraqi Army soldiers, 285,000 Police and Ministry of Interior troops and 50,000 Presidential Security Forces would cost many American servicemen their lives. He was "astonished" that the Coalition Provisional Authority’s decisions were being taken without discussion with affected US commanders (from CPA verbatim notes). He had stuck his neck out and was to be banished by Rumsfeld to take command of the US Combined Arms Centre at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
But his time at Fort Leavenworth was not wasted. He used his training appointment to help make the US Army adopt the best counter insurgency training regimes in the World – Northern Ireland veterans who worked with him Baghdad in 2007 came away with the opinion that it is American, not Britain, that is the world leader in counter insurgency warfare. He made studying counter-insurgency a requirement at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College. "This is about institutional change and the whole Army is included. It is a kind of generational change", he said.
It’s too early to be sure, but it looks as if his policy is working. The last third of 2007 has seen a dramatic improvement in the general security situation in many of the troubled areas of Iraq including much of Baghdad. The numbers of attacks of all sorts and the consequent casualties showed a sustained decline. The six month ceasefire order given by Moqtada Sadr in August has been seen as a major contributory factor to this but may, with hindsight, be seen as a consequence of a change in the balance of power in Iraq as a result of new US strategies.
General Petraeus has effectively created a new Sunni army across Iraq. As many as 80,000 Sunni fighters have been recruited by the Americans. Many of them used to fight alongside the insurgents but now, encouraged by their tribal leaders, they have turned against al Qaeda and are keeping the extremists out of their areas.
The 31st December 2007 attack against members of one of these militia groups at a checkpoint in the town of Mashahida, north of Baghdad may also actually be an indication that this strategy is working.
Perhaps at last our key ally has the right man in place to sort out the Iraq quagmire. If General Petraeus is successful, Atlanticism will be back in fashion in 2008 and the UK will be in a much better condition to consider a sensible approach to European affairs.