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Petraeus: 'It's all about the local people'

The headline, "Petraeus Says He Will Propose Troop Cuts", while technically accurate, is misleading considering the current tenor and debate in the United States. Hurried news consumers will read that and conclude that General Petraeus is considering drawing down the surge when he briefs Congress in September. The full quote (and principal context) regarding a reduction in troop strength doesn't appear until the end of the article.

Petraeus, who wrote the Army's book on counterinsurgency, said he and his staff were "trying to do the battlefield geometry right now" as he prepared [Ed Note: Or rather, 'prepares'] his troop-level recommendations.

"We know that the surge has to come to an end, there's no question about that. I think everyone understands that by about a year or so from now we've got to be a good bit smaller than we are right now.

"The question is how do you do that ... so that you can retain the gains we have fought so hard to achieve and so you can keep going. Again we are not at all satisfied where we are right now. We have made some progress but again there's still a lot of hard work to be done against the different extremist elements that do threaten the new Iraq."

When General Petraeus says "by about a year or so from now we've got to be a good bit smaller than we are right now," he is speaking to the current troop rotation policy and the desire leave them relatively unaltered. This is a topic General Casey addressed as well recently.

The head of the U.S. army says the military can sustain the current surge of forces in Iraq until next spring without changing deployment policies. ...

There are currently about 162,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, most of them from the army. General Casey noted that the number will come down automatically in the spring when the deployments of the extra forces sent earlier this year expire, unless there is an order to send more troops to replace them.

"The surge was and remains a temporary function," said General Casey. "I think we're on record here as saying the surge can be sustained through the spring without changes to the existing mobilization and deployment policies. And that's where we are. And we're going to wait and see here what happens, what our commanders on the ground recommend in the coming months."

What Casey and Petraeus are both saying is that 'The Surge' will naturally and mathematically come to an end between spring and summer of 2008 if nothing in rotation policy changes. Recall that 'The Surge' was not merely additional troops sent to theater, but rather primarily already scheduled deployments accelerated and current deployments extended.

'The Surge,' therefore, represents a bell curve overlap of 'in' and 'out' rotations. The back end of the bell curve begins to take effect in early spring and 'normalizes' by summer 2008.

General Petraeus' more notable words are not regarding troop strength. After all, neither the rotation schedule nor his mention of it are new developments or even particularly noteworthy. However, his characterization of Sunnis taking up arms to fight al-Qaeda and side with American forces is.

Petraeus said the shift in loyalty among many Sunni insurgents in Iraq's western Anbar province, Baghdad's Amariyah district and a similar hotspot in the city called Ghazaliyah was "a pretty big deal."

"You have to pinch yourself a little to make sure that is real because that is a very significant development in this kind of operation in counterinsurgency," he said. "It's all about the local people. When all the sudden the local people are on the side of the new Iraq instead of on the side of the insurgents or even al-Qaeda, that's a very significant change."

You really do have to pinch yourself. It's not possible to overstate its importance. And his declaration that "[i]t's all about the local people" is particularly noteworthy. This fundamentally different approach is the key to getting the Sunnis to feel comfortable with American forces and build trust. Al-Qaeda does its part to drive the Sunni's toward us by baking their children and slaughtering them by the hundreds. But the Sunnis do not need to necessarily embrace us to fight al-Qaeda (though it helps immeasurably logistically).

The new emphasis on building local relations is what drives that other side. And it is signature Petraeus.

Marines and soldiers were effectively building local relations before Petraeus arrived. Ramadi, after all, did not change character with a Baghdad change of command ceremony. The difference, however, is that the entire theater now has a commander who understands (and has long understood) that, like politics, all security is local. Overall security is but a conglomerate of localized security that is rolled out in a manner that enlists (and creates) former insurgents and rolls through the enemy terrorist strongholds.

Meanwhile, as Malik Daoud tours the streets under his Baghdad command, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is touring the streets of Kabul, the other primary battleground of the same conflict.