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.”
The board, composed of 15 Army generals, will examine a pool of more than 1,000 colonels to select about 40 brigadier generals, expected to lead the service over the next decade or longer. Although each board member has an equal vote on the candidates, Petraeus will be able to guide the discussion.
Petraeus, a four-star general with a doctorate in political science, has spent three of the past four years in Iraq and has observed firsthand many of the colonels under consideration for promotion. He is well-regarded by military officials for his political skills in Iraq and at home, including winning support from a skeptical Congress for a U.S. troop increase in Iraq.
“Dave Petraeus in many ways is viewed as the archetype of what this new generation of senior leader is all about,” Scales said, “a guy . . . who understands information operations, who can be effective on Capitol Hill, who can communicate with Iraqis, who understands the value of original thought, who has the ability through the power of his intellect to lead people to change.”
The information revolution “is dramatically changing everything about the way we fight,” said Lt. Col. John A. Nagl, an Army counterinsurgency expert. “These enemies cannot defeat us on the battlefield but are trying to sap the public will, so to win you need a very different kind of leader, someone who understands information and asymmetric warfare, and that sort of flexible, adaptive thinker is not necessarily the kind the training and education programs of the Army grow and the skill set we select for.”
Petraeus’s involvement coincides with the Army’s consideration of initiatives to change its promotion system to reward a new generation of officers skilled in today’s counterinsurgency warfare.
The Army is struggling to retain experienced younger officers — recently offering $35,000 bonuses to captains — who are leaving partly because of their extended deployments in war zones but also because they are alienated from leaders who lack their combat experience, Army officers say.
“There are some great captains and majors who have great insight into this type of warfare. They are not leaving because they don’t have enough money; they are leaving because no one is listening to them. They don’t trust the people above them,” said an Army officer who served two tours in Iraq, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
In a speech at a large Army conference last month, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates raised the need for holding onto young combat veterans and “reexamining assignments and promotion policies that in many cases are unchanged since the Cold War.” Gates also stressed that the Army must retain lessons on irregular warfare from Iraq and Afghanistan — lessons he said were learned but lost after the Vietnam War.
“All these so-called ‘nontraditional’ capabilities have moved into the mainstream of military thinking, planning and strategy — where they must stay,” he said. Gates later met with Army leaders and discussed promotion policies, according to Army officials.
One initiative would transform the way officers are selected for nontraditional but vital jobs such as leading the military training teams that are in growing demand in Iraq and Afghanistan. Key officers for those teams, which total roughly 7,100 personnel, would be chosen from the same lists as commanders of combat units — placing the Army’s new leaders in those jobs.
“Senior Army leaders are supportive of this idea, and the personnel system is taking a very close look at it,” said Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, who is responsible for officer training as head of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The training officers now volunteer or are assigned in an ad hoc manner, and many see the jobs as career detours, often resulting in weaker leaders for jobs that the Army now considers essential, several officials said.
Some officers have also advocated the creation of a permanent Army advisory corps to nurture a new type of leader. “The people who would gravitate toward service in an Army advisory corps would be the type of adaptive, flexible leader skilled in unconventional warfare,” said Nagl, who is involved in training the military advisory teams.
Another initiative, favored by many young officers, would incorporate reviews by peers and subordinates into a rating system that now depends largely on ratings by superior officers; the idea is to make the system less hierarchical and prone to producing conformity. An Army task force is looking into incorporating such reviews, known as “360-degree evaluations,” into the “officer efficiency reports” that are now completed only by superiors, said Col. Paul L. Aswell, chief of the Army’s officer personnel division.
“Now the system is very risk-adverse because to advance in the officers corps, you really only need to make your senior rater happy,” said the officer who served in Iraq. “There is every disincentive to challenging that senior officer’s worldview. He has the power to stop you in your tracks.”
Army Secretary Pete Geren, who was involved in choosing Petraeus to head the board, declined to comment on it but said the board was set to recess this week and give him its recommendations. Petraeus will return to Baghdad by early next week, officials said.