Reflections on the "Counterinsurgency Decade": Small Wars Journal Interview with General David H. Petraeus

Reflections on the "Counterinsurgency Decade": Small Wars Journal Interview with General David H. Petraeus

Octavian Manea

“We no longer wage the same sort of war as you, colonel. Nowadays, it’s a mixture of everything, a regular witches’ brew…of politics and sentiment, the human soul and a man’s ass, religion and the best way of cultivating rice, yes, everything, including even the breeding of black pigs”. 

-Jean Lartéguy, The Centurions (1960)

SWJ: In his recent op-ed published in the New York Times, “The Pipe Dream of Easy War”, General H.R. McMaster warned against the fantasy of “a new era of war”, and especially about the dangers in the blind faith in the transformative effects that technology promises to have on war. He argued that over the past counterinsurgency (COIN) decade we relearned a few lessons that we really should keep in mind as we head into the future: “American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments”. His warning reminds me of an article you wrote in 1986 with General John Galvin about “uncomfortable wars”. You warned to take into consideration “the societal dimension of warfare”. To what extent do you see that prophecy still holding true post Iraq and post Afghanistan?

General Petraeus: I think the essence of the article back in 1986 with General Galvin was frankly the importance of the human terrain in each particular situation, and the importance of understanding the terrain, having a very nuanced, detailed feel for the context of each situation, not just nationally, but sub-nationally and literally all the way down to each valley and each village. That kind of knowledge was achieved in Iraq and helped us enormously during the Surge. We had a greater understanding there, earlier than we did in Afghanistan, just because we had so many more forces on the ground, 165,000 American military alone at the height of the surge. In Afghanistan at the height of our deployment, we had 100,000 US troopers and about 50,000 coalitional forces, and we maintained that level for a relatively brief period of time. As I noted on a number of occasions, we never really got the inputs close to right in Afghanistan until late 2010.

So, noting the importance of human terrain, I believe, is a fundamental aspect of crafting a counterinsurgency campaign. In fact, it was the biggest of the big ideas when we launched the Surge in Iraq, and we knew that since the human terrain was the decisive terrain, we would had to secure it as our principal focus – and to do so by living with the people, locating forward operating bases/joint security stations in the neighborhoods and villages, and specifically right on the sectarian fault-lines across which the heaviest fighting was ongoing in the capital. We ultimately established 77 additional locations just in the Baghdad area of operations alone, and many dozens more elsewhere throughout the country. There were other big ideas to be sure:  e.g., that you can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial strength insurgency, such as we faced, therefore you need to reconcile with as many of the insurgents as was possible, seeking to maximize the number of the reconcilables; correspondingly, we also needed to intensify our campaign of targeted operations against the irreconcilables. But I think, fundamentally, it comes back to this issue, that it is all about people, counterinsurgency operations are wars in, among, and, in essence, for the people. And the first task of any counterinsurgency campaign has to be to secure those people.

SWJ: In your recent Chesney Gold Medal acceptance speech at RUSI, you used the landmark formula of people’s war. This infers a connection between this past decade of counterinsurgency, and the people’s wars of previous eras. To what extent do you see classical principles of counterinsurgency still applicable today?

General Petraeus: I think many of the concepts of the past counterinsurgency campaigns remain valid. But by not means all as, clearly, every situation is unique. What was valid against a Maoist form of insurgency is not necessarily as applicable to other insurgencies that have taken place. What a counterinsurgent tries to do is to understand past cases, along with the principles, if you will, that have evolved from their study, and then to apply those concepts intelligently to new, particular situations.

No two situations are alike; even within a particular country or in a particular campaign, what works in Fallujah may not work in Baghdad; or what did work in Mosul at the beginning did not continue to work after a certain point in time when, e.g., a very important initiative of reconciliation was not supported by the Iraqi authorities in Baghdad and our efforts failed. This is about understanding all aspects of the context in which you are operating, and then understanding the principles from the past, but applying them in a thoughtful manner to the specific situation one confronts in a specific place. We should also keep in mind that at any given time you might be conducting very serious offensive operations in one area, defensive operations in another, and stability operations in yet another. In many cases you are going to be conducting some mix of all three of them simultaneously.

SWJ: Is it reasonable to expect military commanders to acquire enough local knowledge and insight to influence the political and societal dynamics? To be culturally savvy?

General Petraeus: Developing that knowledge is very important because it helps the commander to understand the context in which the military campaign is carried out. And I do believe such understanding is possible.  In the end, counterinsurgency operations depend on a keen understanding of the political, historical, cultural, economic, and military situation in each area. But, let’s note that in a counterinsurgency what you carry out is a civil-military campaign. This was again another one of the big ideas of the Surge, that the campaign should become even more integrated. To be fair, my predecessor General George Casey and his partner, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, had developed a comprehensive civil-military campaign plan but it was clear that we had to push the integration further. So the Provincial Reconstruction Teams were established at the brigade level and not just at the division level. There was even greater integration of some of the fusion cells that we established between Multinational Forces Iraq HQ and the US and British Embassies. Even the campaign plan reviews became a civil-military affair with Ambassador Ryan Crocker and me together at the head at the table for such activities with our respective senior staff members and leaders.

SWJ: In his 2009 IISS speech, General Stanley McChrystal inferred that his main target audience is comprised of rational people driven by extremely practical things: “villagers are supremely rational and practical people: they make the decision on who they will support, based upon who can protect them and provide for them what they need.” Is FM 3-24 (Counterinsurgency) and the whole contemporary COIN discourse too narrow, too focused on rational, cost-benefit models of decision-making?

General Petraeus: No I don’t think so. First of all, FM 3-24 was not Iraq or Afghanistan specific. Its aim was to provide an overall doctrine. It was also aimed principally for the battalion, brigade level and higher. When you talk about rationality it should be understood as a bounded rationality, in the context that it is being exercised. In other words, it is rational in the context of the local culture, religious tradition, sectarian, customs, and education level. And, as I noted earlier, you very much have to understand the human terrain and everything that affects it. As we say, try to walk a mile in their shoes. In the case of Afghanistan, you need to do this at a 10,000 feet altitude, with a heavy load, over rugged terrain -- and it is probably many more miles than just one.

SWJ: It seems that we live in a time of “rebalancing”, not only in a geographical sense, towards the Asia-Pacific, but also that we are pivoting away from a focus on past COIN decade and stability operations…

General Petraeus: I think that it is understandable when you have expended as much blood and treasure as we have, to try to do anything possible to avoid such considerable commitments in the future. Having said that, as I pointed out in the RUSI speech, the counterinsurgency era is not over. And the reason it is not over is because the insurgency era is not over. Whether they are triggered by domestic struggles for power and influence, ideological inspirations, or subversion from outside a country’s borders, insurgencies and their outcomes will continue to shape our world. Many elements continue to carry out insurgent activities around the world. If anything, insurgencies are even more present than they were before. Countries will continue to face insurgents and the proper response will be a comprehensive civil-military COIN campaign because we are talking about enemies that are heavily embedded in the fabric of their host population, forcing the host nation, and maybe us, to adopt a more comprehensive approach in order to win the peace.

In this context, we clearly need to maintain and preserve the understanding of counterinsurgency, the doctrinal and professional expertise and the combat experience that has been developed over the past decade. We clearly have to, wherever we can, keep our footprint light, carry out operations in which we have a national interest by assisting others, enabling them, occasionally fighting alongside them. The light, small footprint is obviously the desired approach; it is the right answer -- except when it is the wrong answer, which is when it is not enough. In this context, some cold hard calculations and assessments of interests should be made. We do need to be careful not to overlearn lessons drawn from our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, careful not to jettison everything that we have learned.  We probably need to have a hard look at how are forces are configured to insure that we can carry the full spectrum of operations (defense, offense, stability and support operations) and, moreover, that we can do that as much as possible in working through, in support of, or alongside host nation forces.   

SWJ: You definitely don’t seem to share Fred Kaplan’s conviction that Afghanistan was the Waterloo of COIN.

General Petraeus: COIN is here to stay because insurgents are here to stay. That does not mean that big US commitments to COIN are the preferred course of action. In Afghanistan, we initially tried to avoid a big footprint, explicitly. Secretary Rumsfeld tried to avoid that repeatedly, and arguably we missed some opportunities as a result of this choice. And that lesson is one that we must learn as much as what the cost is when we do go in with much more substantial forces. I also think that, at least arguably, what has happened in Afghanistan is an accomplishment of the tasks that were laid out for us when President Obama ordered the surge of forces: the overriding goal was, and is, to prevent Al Qaida from re-establishing bases similar to what they had when the 9/11 attacks were planned there; today, we’ve been able to prevent that and also to enable a counterterrorist campaign that has struck enormous blows to Al Qaida’s leadership in the tribal areas of Pakistan, as well as in areas of Afghanistan to which small elements of Al-Qaida tried to locate in recent years. Beyond this, to achieve the overarching objective, to insure that Al-Qaida cannot re-establish its foothold in Afghanistan, there is only one way or course of action and that is to enable the Afghans to overtime to secure and govern themselves. When we launched the surge in Afghanistan the tasks were to halt the momentum of the Taliban, in certain areas to reverse the momentum, in order to enable time, space and security for the accelerated development of the Afghan security forces and institutions so that we could commence transition which of course, we will have completed very soon. At that point the Afghans will assume the tasks of securing and governing their country, albeit with continued coalition help and funding. Clearly, they will still require assistance over the next few years to enable some of their capabilities. But this is an accurate depiction of what we were supposed to accomplish and I think that by and large we have accomplished what we were asked to do, though it has always been challenging, costly, and, indeed, frustrating at many points. 

SWJ: What made Afghanistan different than Iraq?

General Petraeus: Many, many factors made Afghanistan different from Iraq.  And we didn’t go into Afghanistan during the Surge there thinking that Afghanistan was Iraq, merely taking what worked in Iraq and applying it in Afghanistan. In fact, I specifically emphasized, in September 2005, to Secretary Rumsfeld, in the first slide of a briefing to him after I did an assessment in Afghanistan on my way home from my second tour in Iraq, that Afghanistan didn’t equal Iraq. And we had these differences keenly in mind during the Afghan Surge. Certainly, on occasions we called that some aspects that worked in Iraq might be usefully tried, but only as applied with a thoughtful understanding of the differences between Afghanistan and Iraq and the specific context in the locale in Afghanistan where an idea might be implemented. One significant difference was related to the very substantial insurgent sanctuaries in Baluchistan and North Waziristan; others included the comparative lack of infrastructure in Afghanistan, the shortage of human capital after 30 years of war, the lack of any significant revenue generation, much lower educational literacy levels than in Iraq, the minimal sinews of governance or even the memory of strong governance.  Again, the differences were significant and many, and we were keenly aware of them.  Indeed, it was my recognition of the differences and the context in Afghanistan that I cautioned, even as CENTCOM commander before command in Afghanistan, that we would not be able to turn the situation around in Afghanistan as we were able to do in Iraq during the surge there.

SWJ: What role did FM 3-24 play, or was meant to play, in rebalancing the US military towards a more politicized form of warfare?

General Petaeus: FM 3-24 was an attempt to fill what was a genuinely doctrinal void, but the fact is, we should never forget that the biggest of the biggest ideas was put forward in FM 3.0 Army Operations (in the portion of that manual that was finalized while I was Commander at Fort Leavenworth):  this was the idea that all operations would consist of some mix of offense, defense and stability operations. The key of course is to understand the situation sufficiently to get that mix right. The fact is that any conceivable operation in the future is still going to have some mix of these three types of operations, including the stability component which, as we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, might consist of activities to support the establishment of local governance and rule-of-law capability, foster economic development, counter corruption, train host-nation security forces and reintegrate reconcilable belligerents.  Again, it is always best to have host nation elements perform such tasks, but they do have to be performed.

SWJ: Bearing in mind some of the very possible features of the future - less political support for large footprint expeditionary operations and for nation building overseas, a dire fiscal perspective for defense - can we assume that what we are going to see only light footprint missions of the sort that had been advocated by Edward Lansdale?

General Petraeus: If you pull out the Anaconda slide (SWJ: Below) you will find out that no matter what the insurgency, no matter where the insurgency is, you need the elements of the Anaconda framework. At the core there are the insurgents that have certain needs to sustain the insurgency (money, ammunition, explosives, leadership, communications, popular support, ideology, command and control, sanctuaries). To deal with that you need a comprehensive civil-military effort that aims to squeeze the life out of the insurgency like an Anaconda snake. It tries to take away from the insurgents their access to the elements vital for their survival. And for this you need a very comprehensive effort. It cannot be done by the military alone or by civilians alone, host nations forces or the international community alone. It takes all the above. You need to have some conventional forces to carry out traditional clear-hold-build operations and special mission unit forces that can conduct high-risk targeted operations.  You need to have an element that is going to organize, train, equip, build infrastructure for the host nation forces (police as well as military).  You have to do the same with the civilian elements for local, provincial, and national governance structures for rule of law, elements beyond police (detention, penitentiary facilities, justice and legal courts). You need to enable some form of reconciliation because typically you cannot kill or capture your way out of the problem. You must take away as many of the fighters and leaders from the insurgents by convincing as many of them to be part of the solution instead of continuing to be part of the problem.  There have to be enticements for this.  Also, you need to improve basic services, education, infrastructure, access to food, health-care because that is what convinces the people that the government can provide better for them than the insurgent organization. You need a regional effort around the country to cut off the sanctuaries, lines of communications, the access and the ability of young men to travel from one area to another on a one-way plane ticket (as it was the case with Damascus and a lot of suicide bombers that came into Iraq from there). It has to be a very comprehensive effort on all of these very different lines of operations. Now, as we move forward, we should expect that most future campaigns will be comprehensive civil-military endeavors, requiring to employ every available tool in our diplomatic, economic and defense arsenals in complementary fashion and to do so in concert with coalition partners and host-nation elements.

SWJ: Usually the critics of COIN make the argument that COIN is about tactics, and that the supporters fail to see the broader strategic picture. Can we really talk about a grand strategy of COIN?

General Petraeus: This is semantics. These are wars among people and these semantical debates about whether strategy or tactics are being employed are missing the point. It is clearly not only about tactics. What we implemented, what we crafted in Iraq can only be described as a comprehensive civil-military strategy and operational-level campaign plan. There were strategic level ideas, there were operational level derivatives from those ideas and there were tactical level activities nested within the operational ideas. So I am not sure what this particular debate is about.

SWJ: Is that what you were trying to suggest by using the “all in” expression?

General Petraeus: What I really meant was that the US military was going all in and the idea was that “with all due respect, Mr. President, the rest of the government should come all in” with the military because to defeat an insurgency it takes a whole of government approach, it requires all agencies, civilian and military, to succeed.

SWJ: Expeditionary counterinsurgency campaigns seem to work best when there is a functional administrative machinery (like in the Philippines and Colombia), not a hollow state infrastructure. In this context, if we totally depend on the performance of the host nation authorities what happens when the local government has a very weak popular legitimacy and a failed, unsustainable administrative infrastructure? Is the expeditionary COIN campaign a doomed effort, an impossible/Sisyphic mission? Does it make sense to build everything from the scratch?

General Petraeus: If you want to accomplish the mission you need to help rebuild that administrative infrastructure, even building it from scratch if none existed there. It may be frustrating, it may be costly, full of setbacks, challenges, problems, but the ability to accomplish the mission depends ultimately on the host nation capacity to secure and govern itself to a good enough level. Now, e.g., we are not trying to build in Afghanistan the governance capabilities of Switzerland, but what we aim for is to help enable Afghanistan to assume the responsibility for securing, governing and even financing itself over time. Building the capacity of the host nation to govern is fundamental to the mission. I don’t know how else you can do that, unless you want to give up. Clearly, if that capacity is lacking, the mission can become akin to a Sisyphean endeavor.

SWJ: You emphasized in a 2006 Military Review article that “everyone must do nation-building”. Should we expect this to remain past the COIN decade?

General Petraeus: It is not only about the COIN toolkit. It is really about the ability to conduct stability operations. As our doctrine specifies, all of our operations will be some mix of offense, defense and stability operations. The fact was that we were not as prepared for that as we should have been when we went into Iraq and Afghanistan. We had inadequate structures, especially on the civilian side. CPA was stood up after a month or more into the operation, and it wasn’t really effective in the provinces for many months; and even then, it had distinct limitations. It should have been already running and organized to deal with a number of contingencies, including insurgency.

Moreover, it should have been ready to employ existing organizations. If you are going to do reconstruction, just take an existing Army Corps of Engineers element and apply that for the task with the proper augmentation and enablers required to operate in a place like Iraq. That also gives you existing administrative procedures, standard operating procedures, regulations, which you thankfully won’t have to recreate from scratch.  There are multiple further examples of that, as well, from the early days of Iraq.

Of course, the amount of effort you devote to training for the stability operations will be dependent on your assessment of the likelihood that your troops will engage in such operations. But clearly, we can’t go back to the days of training that we used to do at the National Training Center where there were no civilians on the battlefield, no urban sites, it was just tank on tank and maneuver warfare.

SWJ: At some point, Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb emphasized that “it is not about winning and losing, but about setting the conditions for progress and change.” In the end, is the responsibility for the long term success, for not losing the peace, the responsibility of non-military actors?

General Petraeus: Well, a lot can end up relying on the military as it was the case with the surge in Iraq. If we hadn’t improved the security, it would not have mattered how good the civilian effort was because everything else would have been immaterial. Security is the foundation on which all other activities build. It is critically necessary. But as you pointed out it is not sufficient, there are many other tasks that have to be performed and a good number of them belong to the civilian realm. In wars among people, again, the nature of the fight requires an integrated civil-military campaign. It is very appropriate for military commanders to be keenly aware - and in many cases involved - in what might be civilian activities, and vice versa.  

SWJ: In a world where the military mind remains “uncomfortable with warfare’s societal dimension” (to quote General Galvin), how difficult is it to set-up the right organization to wage a comprehensive civil-military campaign?

General Petraeus: It is very hard. It takes enormous military and civilian resources. Adding to the difficulty is that the civilian side doesn’t have battalions, brigades, divisions, headquarters sitting and waiting to be deployed. It has some specialized individuals but not many. The State Department has been historically underfunded, in my view. You need to work the architecture in various locations: we had a Ministry of Health fusion cell, an Elections fusion cell, a Reconciliation fusion cell, an Energy fusion cell, etc.. You need to bring civilians and military people into the actual structures, to create a unity of purpose and a cohesive team of teams, despite the fact that they’ll continue to report to two different hierarchical chains. In Iraq, during the Surge, we realized that we need to pursue an even greater civil-military integration. We actually changed our mission statement to include civilian elements. When I was questioned as to why civilian tasks were mentioned in my mission statement, I reminded them that this was a civil-military campaign, and that the campaign plan was a civil-military endeavor.

SWJ: How would you assess the relevance of the Human Terrain System (HTS) Teams in providing local insight and context?

General Petraeus: They were valuable. I supported their development when I was the Commander at Fort Leavenworth. I encouraged the establishment of the program and the courses through which all the HTS contractors went and I strongly supported strongly their use in Afghanistan and Iraq. Clearly, there is an uneven nature to what you get in this kind of endeavor. In some cases we had people that were fluent in Arabic or fluent Pashto speakers who spent time on the ground and had lots of knowledge, and in other cases you got much more generalists, students or practitioners of anthropology. In any case, they were generally a useful asset and they often provided continuity by bridging the departure of one brigade/battalion and the arrival of the next unit. They were thus very useful in prolonging the institutional memory of the human terrain and battlefield.

SWJ: Is Al-Qaida’s waging a people’s wars? Should we view this as a global insurgency?

General Petraeus: Whether you call it an insurgency or not, whenever it grows as it did in Iraq, you have to counter it with some of the same kind of approaches that you use to defeat insurgencies. You want to reduce the problem to a level at which you can deal with it largely with specialized counter-terrorist forces. But before you do that, you’ve got to reduce your opponent’s potency considerably. Ultimately, many of these groups want to establish a Caliphate somewhere in Yemen, the Maghreb, Iraq, presumably now in Syria, and/or arguably in Somalia, for a period. They are going to try to control populations, terrain and even to administer it. You can call it what you want to call it, but you have to counter it with the same general operational concepts, tactics, techniques and procedures that you employ for counterinsurgency, albeit all modified as needed for the specific context:  you always need to tailor the elements of the Anaconda plan depending on the specific circumstances.

SWJ: Bin Laden seemed to have been using a Maoist frame of interpretation. In his Abbottabad letters, he always talked “about how important is to gain people’s support for the mujahidin cause because this is as important as the water to the fish”. It was something that he emphasized again and again as a lesson for losing the Al-Anbar tribes.

General Petraeus: I think that those people that claim the Maoist insurgency is no longer valid should read those letters. Again, clearly, what we’ve seen is not precisely a Maoist insurgency; there are a lot of differences and a counterinsurgent had to understand those differences in each case, but to reject the principles associated to defeating a Maoist insurgency would be foolish in light of bin Laden’s letters (when we see how much he has embraced the Maoist concepts and used the very vocabulary). Again, these are people’s wars. Al-Qaeda does not typically have the strength, certainly not at the outset of the campaign to seize and hold terrain.

SWJ: Do you expect that the urban warfare to be a predominant trend in the next wave of people’s wars?

General Petraeus: It already is. Iraq was an urban insurgency. It was perhaps the best example of a true urban insurgency. There were entire neighborhoods that were totally dominated by Al-Qaeda in Ramadi, Western Baghdad, Fallujah and a host of other locations. As urbanization continues in the world, insurgencies will find both their shelters and battlefields there.

SWJ: What is happening in Mexico? We see this mutation from traditional cartels to criminal insurgencies.

General Petraeus: You have illegal narcotics empires that have developed enormous paramilitary capabilities: armored vehicles, heavy weapons, fleets of aircrafts, submarines and submersibles, communications networks, etc – and enormous sums of money. They are, in a sense, imperial organizations because they have to continue to grow and they are constantly looking for avenues to generate new revenue. They do kidnapping, extortion, bribery, money laundering and a whole host of other illegal activities beyond those associated with the transport of illegal narcotics. They then run into each other and fight over turf and “criminal markets.” Over time they erode the rule of law and in many respects, although the Mexican leaders don’t like using the term, the appropriate intellectual construct for responding is a counterinsurgency construct. You can take the Anaconda slide and sketch out what has to happen to re-establish the rule of law in these affected areas. It is very difficult, impossible actually, to do this only with local police and judiciary and prisons because these provide high value targets for the narco-traffickers to assassinate, intimidate, or simply corrupt. The officials’ families are also very susceptible to be killed, captured, intimidated. But, I think that the Anaconda plan provides the right template, emphasizing civilian and security force entities, including the military, working in concert, in different combinations, tailored to the specific local setting.

SWJ: In the pages of International Security, there is a debate about “testing the surge”. One side argued and tried to demonstrate that the drop in violence in Iraq was the product of a synergy: both the surge and the Awakening.

General Petraeus: Well, the surge included the Awakening; that was a key initiative. In fact, the progress was a product of a comprehensive civil-military campaign. The surge was not just about extra forces. In fact, the surge that mattered the most was the surge in ideas: it was the change in strategy and the strategy explicitly included reconciliation. It was not just extra clear-hold-build operations and then us getting lucky with the reconciliation. Look, I did reconciliation in 2003 in Mosul and it made an enormous difference until it was undermined by the unwillingness of the Iraqi leaders of the de-Baathification Committee in Baghdad to validate the results and replicate them elsewhere in Iraq. We were the only one authorized to try reconciliation initiatives. I was allowed explicitly by personal direction of Ambassador Bremer to support the Iraqi conduct of reconciliation. Everywhere else, commanders were not able to do that. We had big results and an advantage that showed for quite a long time, but ultimately when they lost hope there (in the northern area of operations of the 101st Airborne) they had already lost hope everywhere else. The incentive for the Sunnis was not only not to support the new Iraq, it was actually to oppose it -- because the new Iraq had taken their house, their job, their pension, their position, their livelihood, their pride and even their position in society. Reconciliation had to be a crucial element of the surge. There was no other way, and I went back to Iraq keenly aware of that.  Indeed, that’s why my first trip outside Baghdad was to Ramadi to see the reconciliation initiative that was developing there. There were, of course, other big ideas: you’ve got to secure the people; as I noted earlier, the human terrain is the decisive terrain, and therefore you must secure the people and you can only do this by living with them.  Of course, that meant that we had to reverse the movement of our troopers to big bases, and that was a huge shift.

The second of the big ideas was that you can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial strength insurgency; therefore, you must reconcile with as many as you possible can. Now, it was fortunate that there was a reconciliation initiative that was a couple of months advanced outside Ramadi, but still in the early stages. We haven’t even started to clear Ramadi, which was the big mission that didn’t take place until we were a month or so into the surge – and that was helped considerably by our new partnerships with Iraqi tribal leaders who felt empowered, especially with the surge of forces, to oppose Al Qaeda.  So, you can’t break the surge into different components. The essence of the surge, in fact, was the pursuit of a comprehensive approach, a civil-military campaign that featured all these different elements, the effects of each of which were expected to complement the effects of the others. Each of the components of the new campaign – security, train and equip, governance, economic development, rule of law, and so on – was designed to complement the others. Progress in one area therefore enabled, or reinforced, progress in another. Moreover, the Surge marked the first time that the entire Multinational Force and its civilian partners carried out a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign theatre-wide, and the first time that reconciliation was supported systematically throughout the country when I directed that we would support the nascent Sunni Awakening outside Ramadi and seek to set off a chain reaction throughout Sunni Arab areas (something we did later in the areas of Shia militia, with less overall numbers coming in, but with positive results).

The surge was all of these, a comprehensive effort, and to say that it was the result of different tactical military operations and approach, that is correct, but that was not enough. It was the synergy, but the synergy was what we set out to achieve. It wasn’t either or, it was all of the above. It was all in and that is what we wanted to achieve. To some extent it is an artificial distinction, but I agree with the conclusion. The surge was not just the extra forces, that was the enabler, the surge was this change in strategy which was all of the above. I changed the mission in the first week that I was there. We then stopped transitioning tasks to Iraqi forces, as we recognized that the Iraqi security forces have become so diminished, in some cases intimidated, in other co-opted, corrupted, hijacked by sectarian interests, that we had to reform large elements of them.

SWJ: How influenced were you by the study of Vietnam War? And by the CORDS Program? What other, direct experiences were relevant in providing you insight of how to put together a comprehensive civil-military campaign?

General Petraeus: Actually for me, the influences of the Vietnam conflict were at different levels. My study of Vietnam was mainly a study of the influence that this experience had on the high level military advice on the use of force. It is inevitable that when you do this you also delve into operations and I took some lessons and impressions from that. I took a sense that we tried to fight a big war when the enemy was still an insurgency. And then, ultimately, ironically, it was large conventional forces that defeated the South. We eventually cut off aid to them that denied them important enablers perhaps to watch their back. I am not saying that it could have been a success forever regardless. But, the U.S. came at the awareness of the need for counterinsurgency approaches with General Abrams with some of the Marine Corps programs and a variety of other initiatives, including CORDS (that started under General Westmoreland). There were even recommendations in this regard as early as 1962 when very early advisers –General Cushman in particular – supported the implementation of a counterinsurgency approach (small elements living with and securing the people and helping develop host-nation capacity to secure and govern themselves), but we opted instead for large unit search and destroy operations, enormous use of air-power, indirect fire, attack helicopters, etc.

When I was in France I came to study Bigeard, the works of Larteguy and Bernard Fall, a number of the other classics, ultimately Galula. But very important for my development was the summer I spent down in Central America with General Galvin, where I got to see firsthand the features of these uncomfortable wars that highlighted a greater importance accorded to the societal dimension: there were insurgencies going on then in Colombia, Peru, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador. The Central America experience was very instructive because in El Salvador, in particular, there was a true national plan and a civil-military campaign conducted largely by Salvadorians and enabled to small degrees by very small teams of trainers, advisors and some special mission forces.

I continued to study this when I was in Haiti as a Lieutenant Colonel, the Operations Chief for the UN force. This was very instructive because it was a very substantial nation-building operation, but it was also an operation in which we lived with the people for the first time. When the UN forces took over, the US forces were only deployed in the capital, the only place where conventional forces where deployed. And so UN forces started to build infrastructure to enable the deployment more into the countryside. I strongly urged this approach, with MG Kinzer’s full support.  As we achieved a much greater coverage of different major cities and provinces by conventional forces this then enabled us to push special forces further out into the hinterland. This was not just nation building. There was a fairly significant number of security operations carried out, targeted operations against serious criminals and paramilitary groups, etc. But nation building was very prominent there, and here is where I got my first experience, actually truly conducting a complete comprehensive civil-military campaign: train their police units, reform the penitentiary system which was a disaster at the time, rebuild rule of law, re-establish basic services (electricity, food, shelter, water) in a country that was at the basic level of public services imaginable. It was a very substantial effort and a great learning experience in terms of what nation building is all about.

Bosnia was another level of this, a much larger coalition effort, but we had US special missions conducting war criminal hunt and after 9/11 counter-terrorist operations and I was the deputy commander of each of those elements. We had a great mix there of intelligence-driven, targeted operations with the very same forces that we would use later on in Afghanistan and Iraq; there was also a very sophisticated, well-developed comprehensive civil-military campaign. We had, what was called the Multi-Year Road Map for Bosnia and Herzegovina. There we had really substantial partners who actually carried out many of these tasks: police training, election organizations, governmental development, etc.

As you can see, there were many experiences that provided me with insights in how to conduct a comprehensive, civil-military campaign. And in fact they’ve always fascinated me. I was doing the lessons learned for the National Security Staff on the civil-military effort to launch the Haiti operation when I was actually pulled out of the fellowship that I was in to go to Haiti, to do Haiti rather than study Haiti, so-to-speak. But, later, I also studied various aspects of the Presidential Decision Directive 56, signed by the Clinton Administration in May 1997, which was meant for managing complex contingency operations and that was quite a model of the kind of integrated approach we should take. In order “to foster a durable peace and stability, and to maximize the effect of judicious military deployments”, the PDD 56 called for integrating closely “the civilian components of an operation with the military components”; “military and civilian agency should operate in a synchronized manner through effective interagency management” that will “reduce pressure on the military to expand its involvement in unplanned ways, and create unity of effort within an operation that is essential for success of the mission”. We never actually implemented the PDD 56, but the framework was there!

General David H. Petraeus (Rtd) served for thirty-seven years in the US military, including as Commander of coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as Commander of the US Central Command. Following retirement from the military in August 2011, he served as the Director of the CIA until November 2012.  He now serves as: the Chairman of KKR’s Global Institute, a visiting professor at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College, a Judge Widney Professor at USC, and co-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on North America.

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The Centurions quote at the beginning reminded me that I posted the following review of the book from the Harvard Crimson (1962) around here somewhere or the other. I haven't read the book but the review is interesting:

The book's total reliance on dialogue tends, actually, to convince the reader that the Army's critics are right: that the Army has removed itself from reality. For the conversations seem suspended in a theoretical and emotional world of their own, to which we are denied entrance. The novel never really puts to a test the ideas the characters mouth, and as a result it is dogmatic and unconvincing. The Centurions reads like an Ayn Rand novel, with a kind of crazy internal logic, but without contiguity with the world. The conversations are all terribly knowing, but they smell of a sick and dangerous self-induced naivete.

How does this keep happening to post WWII armies, the US included? Because as crazy as RMA is, so too is the idea that every conflict must be viewed through one version of "boots on the ground" or drinking chai.

But it keeps happening and this is outside the standard coindinista/cointra conversation so this is not really directed at this interview but an offshoot of the conversation.

Here I'm not talking about an all volunteer Army and societal isolation, what I mean is: why do Western militaries keep grasping onto very strange intellectual theories and fetishizing the theories of war over reality? Even the fetishization of Clausewitz falls into this category. This is not against Clausewitz. It's the romanticization and fetishization. Is it because we really are pretty secure and without these theories there really isn't a rationale for much of our outward posture?

The US is huge, we are not an island or a small European nation. Post WWII British couldn't pivot to Asia and they are an island. They don't have our size or resources so the fears of the foreign policy class and military don't make sense to me? Fears of being marginalized, I mean, or losing our standing as a nation.