As John McCain and Barack Obama gin up their campaigns, a general of importance to both of them is winding down his job.
This month, Gen. David Petraeus will end his tenure as top commander in Iraq. He moves to an equally challenging job this fall as chief of U.S. Central Command, overseeing the entire Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In that post, he'll be confronting the growing jihadi threat on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Yet the improvements in Iraq security on his watch have dramatically changed the Iraq options the next president faces. In an hourlong phone interview from Baghdad, I talked with Petraeus last week about what's been achieved and what lies ahead.
The general was proud of achieving goals set in 2007 for bringing down violence in Iraq. Daily attacks, civilian deaths and coalition casualties have all sharply dropped.
It is important to understand how Petraeus achieved these gains. Some attribute them to "the surge" - an increase of about 30,000 U.S. troops. Others credit the "awakening" of Sunni tribal groups in Anbar province who turned against al-Qaida before "the surge."
Petraeus points out, however, that "the surge encompassed many actions." Indeed, the credit for Iraqi security gains lies with a broad strategy developed by the general that focused on protecting civilians who wanted to turn against al-Qaida and other sectarian militias but had been too fearful to act.
"We had intellectual constructs that allowed us to exploit opportunities that came along," Petraeus says. "One was the concept of 'reconcilable' and 'irreconcilable'." When former Sunni insurgents who had fought U.S. troops decided to change course, Petraeus backed them - and put 100,000 of them on the U.S. payroll. That accelerated changes in Anbar, and undercut al-Qaida.
"The al-Qaida brand in Iraq is discredited now," Petraeus says, helped by an information campaign that dramatized the group's hideously violent attacks on civilians.
Similarly, the Petraeus strategy sought to isolate the most violent Shiite militiamen and establish relations with those who were 'reconcilable.' "Once (the Shiite public was) no longer worried about car bombs," Petraeus said, "people wanted JAM (the radical Shiite militia) out of their neighborhoods."
Yet the general is quick to admit that the gains are "fragile or reversible." Why so? "Because security gains are necessary but not sufficient for a self-sustaining situation," he says. His strategy pacified neighborhoods and towns, but at the national level, sectarian politicians have still not reconciled.
One key example: The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is supposed to take responsibility for hiring or retraining 54,000 Sons of Iraq (SOI) as of October. But Shiites remain mistrustful of SOI groups, which contain many former Baathists; many SOI members fear arrest or dismissal, and some are threatening to fight again.
"Maliki has personally committed to me he will look after the Sons of Iraq," Petraeus told me. "They (the Iraqi government) know if they don't look after the SOIs they could have an insurrection on their hands." This could help revive al-Qaida in Iraq.
This brings us to the question of what future role American troops should play in Iraq. Listening to Petraeus, it's clear that Americans still provide a buffer between sectarian groups.
The general, who wants withdrawals to be "conditions-based," says: "There are many reasons why the U.S. presence remains valuable. We provide enablers, advisers, mentors, technological expertise and on occasion act as an honest broker."
Yet Maliki has yet to sign an agreement to govern the U.S. troop presence after a United Nations mandate expires in December. Maliki wants a full U.S. troop withdrawal by the end of 2011.
Petraeus says that Maliki's position is "explained by domestic politics and an enormous sensitivity toward Iraqi sovereignty." Iraqis have provincial elections this year and national elections next year, and Maliki is courting voters fed up with a large American presence. Other Iraqi leaders are privately nervous about Maliki's timetable but won't say so in public.
Whoever wins the U.S. elections will face political pressures at home and in Baghdad for a speedier U.S. exit. Too rigid a withdrawal timeline could jeopardize gains. But growing Iraqi nationalism will limit any extended U.S. presence.
Petraeus sees the longterm goal as an Iraq at peace with itself and its neighbors, but substitutes the word "Iraq-cracy" for "democracy" as a political objective. That goal - an Iraqi political system that's fairly stable, but doesn't match past U.S. visions - might just be possible, due to the strategy shifts that the general wrought.