Thinker, Teacher, Soldier, Spy: A Conversation with GEN (Ret.) David Petraeus

In this very special episode of The Burn Bag, hosts A’ndre Gonawela and Ryan Rosenthal talk to former CIA Director GEN (Ret.) David Petraeus about a range of topics. General Petraeus gives us his take on current and future U.S. defense policy in the Middle East, and provides an insight into his own time as CENTCOM Commander in the 2000s dealing with ‘nation-building’ in Iraq and Afghanistan. We also talk to General Petraeus about his strategy in dealing with counterinsurgency in Iraq — drawing on the General’s own acclaimed ‘Field Manual’. General Petraeus also addresses the challenges posed by regional powers and great powers, such as Iran, Russia, and even China on U.S. interests in the Middle East, and how other countries such as Pakistan have interfered in past U.S. efforts to ensure domestic stability in Afghanistan. General Petraeus does indeed also touch on the recent Defense Department shuffle by President Trump, and provides his thoughts on the current transition period and the national security implications of the ongoing non-cooperation by the Trump Administration. 

00:03:37 Transition from Military to CIA: “It was going from one group of very dedicated professionals who were a bit more visible, to another group of equally dedicated professionals who were not as visible. It was a privilege to lead in both of those institutions and be the Director of the CIA. The key when I went to the Agency was to ensure that I wasn’t bringing all of my military folks along with me, nor staying in uniform. The President and I had discussed this, when we discussed the possibility of me being nominated to be the Director and I noted then, what I had already concluded was that the way to demonstrate that I was leaving the military behind was by retiring before assuming the position of Director of the CIA, which is not something that all generals who have served as the Director have done… so I retired, and brought no one with me. I’m someone who was fairly famous for having a constellation of superstars around me, to the extent that I could assemble them.”

00:10:11 ON THE TRANSITION TO THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION: “We know from the 9/11 Commission report, which was bipartisan, that among the factors that may have contributed to the intelligence failure leading up to 9/11, was the fact that the delay in determining the president and therefore starting the transition to the Bush Presidency, may have contributed to the failures that led to the 9/11 attacks. I think there’s something to that, I’d argue that even if you want to argue about who won, which I think is a bit conclusive at this point, but certainly has not yet been certified, you can still get on with a lot of the transition tasks, such as allowing the President-Elect to receive the Presidential Daily Brief, allowing information to be shared with the President-Elect’s Coronavirus Task Force, etc, etc. I mean we’re in a time of war right now, albeit a war against the pandemic… it seems to me that it’s more than time to get on with that process, even if people want to continue to pursue legal cases. But it is time to enable the transition to go forward even as the arguing continues.”

00:13:05 ON ENDING ENDLESS WARS: “No one understands the desire to end endless wars more than those who have fought them, particularly those who had the privilege of commanding them at the height in Iraq and Afghanistan as I did, and therefore wrote more letters of condolences to America’s mothers and fathers than any other commander in those theaters. That said, I think we have learned the hard way, when we pulled all of our combat forces out of Iraq and said, ‘We have ended the War in Iraq.’ I would want to raise my hand and say, excuse me, we haven’t ended the War in Iraq. We have ended our involvement in the War in Iraq. The work continues and if it doesn’t go well- and I fear it may not- we may have to go back in. And of course we did have to go back in, in that case. So this underscores the importance of doing what the incoming administration has argued is necessary, which is not just to end endless wars, but to do so responsibly.”

00:14:09 ON SUSTAINED COMMITMENT: “We have dramatically drawn down the levels fo commitment that we have in Iraq Syria Afghanistan and a variety of other places, where our forces are continuing to support host nation elements in combatting Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, and a variety of other extremist elements… what we should’ve learned at this point in time, is what is need is a sustained commitment that is sustainable, and sustainability is measured in terms of blood and treasure, and I tend to think that what we have reached in Iraq Syria and Afghanistan is quite sustainable… the fact is that we have figured out, through the use of this extraordinary constellation of drones that we have produced, in the years even since we were engaged in the Surge in Iraq, where we just started to glimpse the possibilities of very dense numbers of those over certain areas. That enables us to advise and assist, to train and equip, and to enable host nation forces in a way that was just unthinkable previously. And you add to that the fusion of intelligence that we do uniquely well, and a few other attributes we bring in enablers, and you have a very very sustainable, sustained commitment. In my view, I think a new Administration will come in, hopefully take a look at where we are, and say that’s not all that bad, considering where we were in the height of involvement in the Obama Administration, or in Iraq in the Bush Administration.”

00:23:54 ON IRAQ STABILIZATION: “In Iraq from the very beginning, the military had to pursue the so-called stability components of a comprehensive civil military counterinsurgency campaign, which we recognize was necessary. And keeping in mind that, just like any campaign, a counterinsurgency campaign is some mix of offensive operations, defensive operations and stability operations. What makes a counterinsurgency campaign different is the amount of effort put into the stability operation so that once you have achieved security in an area, the way you solidify it is by these nation building stability operations. It’s by restoring basic services initially. It’s repairing damaged infrastructure, it’s getting basic health services and schools and markets reopened. It’s getting the electricity flowing and water purification programs and all the rest of this. You can imagine every aspect of it. Some of us had done this before. I had watched this in Central America. I’d done it as the United Nations Chief of Operations, not the US but for the UN force in Haiti, which was a very heavy nation building effort. I did it for over a year in Bosnia as well and watched it in some other places. I studied it and read about it and even wrote a dissertation about the US military and the lessons of Vietnam. Some of us, I think, had in mind a template for this.”

00:25:37 CIVIL MILITARY PLAN FOR IRAQ: “I had in mind a very well developed civil military plan from Bosnia. The problem was that we didn’t have any civil in the civil military plan in Iraq. So we did it ourselves. We assigned units to every organization that comprised the government of say Nineveh province and of which Mosul was the capital where we spent the first year in Iraq when I was Commander of the 101st Airborne Division. The medical hospital that we had partnered with a local hospital. We had a Signal Battalion that partnered with the Ministry of Telecommunications and on and on. There were a lot of logical pairings. And then in some cases where we didn’t have that, what we did is we took some elements from the Civil Affairs Battalions that we had and then augmented them. For example, the aviation one of the Aviation Brigade headquarters was given responsibility for reestablishing Mosul University, which was the University of 19 or 20 colleges and I think it was close to 30,000 students, so this is no trivial task. But they had all of the assets that you might need for this or could hire them with the authorities that they had in the funding that we were able to provide to them. So that’s how we went about it, and that continued for a number of years. Gradually, overtime by the time of the surge, we had a very well developed US Embassy, some of the nongovernmental organizations and international organizations had come back, the UN was reestablished and we’re helping out in certain respects. But in many of the areas that were completely out of control, like Anbar province. Again, we largely had to do what was necessary in that realm of nation building, which also included, in addition to the tests that I described earlier. Reconciliation again with the rank and file, the insurgents in the rank and file of the Shia militia, even as we pursued the irreconcilable relentlessly, the leaders of the insurgents, al Qaeda and the Shia militia. Then also a host of other tasks involving getting governance going again because the government in Baghdad just didn’t have the capability to support the provincial governments, the district governments, and all the rest of that. So we did a great deal of that.”

00:28:09 ON IRAQ IN 2013: “Over the years as well, the good news is that as we went back into Iraq, say in 2013, and so after the advent of ISIS. That there was enough of the Iraqi institutions still there that all we needed to do was again advise and assist, train and equip and enable, particularly in the military side. And by and large with certainly some  expertise provided, but by and large the Iraqis were able to do what was necessary. The same has generally been true in Afghanistan. And to a lesser degree, in some of the other locations where we have had sustained commitments of host nation forces.”

00:43:37 GENESIS OF THE FIELD MANUAL: “At the end of the day, it’s about the people you are trying to win the so called hearts and minds. What you’re trying to do is get people to support you and reject the insurgents or extremists. And ultimately, to transfer that support to the host nation government to that of the new Iraq so that we can gradually hand off tasks to Iraqi security forces and institutions. And gradually draw down and ultimately, of course, remove the bulk of our forces.”

00:46:23 ON CHINA: “You see the unprecedented rise of China, a country that in 41 years achieved economic growth that’s never ever been seen before in history, and that has been accompanied by a rebuilding and now a very impressive modern military, and other components of national power, playing a bigger role as is to be expected. And a situation in which you have China emerging certainly as a major strategic rival to the U.S. and the West, but also the U.S.’ biggest trading partner. So it’s not the Cold War by any means… but clearly there are points of very significant difference, but also areas in terms of very significant common interest, whether it is trading, climate, or a variety of other topics. That is the most important relationship in the world. Rightly, the focus should shift/rebalance, not pivot — you don’t pivot away from the Middle East. You still have to stay focused on activities there, but at a much lower level, as I said a sustainable sustained commitment. But clearly the focus has to be, the main effort has to be that which is contained in the U.S.-China relationship… it’s arguably more important than all the other relationships put together. And ideally, [it] would be a relationship that is also pursued by the United States with its partners and allies around the world, in a direction I’m confident a Biden Administration will seek to go. So that has to be the focus, there needs to be enormous effort to ensure that there is no strategic miscalculation, that the elements of deterrence, capability, and adversaries’ perception of capability and will are present, when it comes to any of the interests where indeed there are actual or potential differences. And certainly there has to be, and there has been, more attention given to Russia… the U.S. is a superpower, and can keep many plates spinning. The biggest plate is China, but there’s a plate called Russia, a plate for the other irregular wars going on around the world, in which we need to stay engaged, albeit at sustainable levels. That would be the approach I would advocate.”

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