Interview

The David Petraeus I Know

The David Petraeus I Know

From February 2007 to May 2008, Peter Mansoor was Gen. David Petraeus’s right-hand man in Iraq. Now a retired U.S. Army colonel teaching at Ohio State University, Mansoor worked closely with Petraeus as the general’s executive officer, assisting with the implementation of the "surge" strategy and preparing his congressional testimony — including the grueling hearings in September 2007 that Petraeus later said were "the most miserable experience of my life." FP senior editor Benjamin Pauker caught up with Mansoor in the wake of Petraeus’s dramatic nomination to take over command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was fired by President Obama in the wake of a Rolling Stone profile gone wrong.

Mansoor describes his former boss as "a very hard man to keep up with" who will do whatever it takes to succeed. As for the mission, Mansoor worries about a divided team on the ground, declining morale among U.S. soldiers, and a poor understanding of counterinsurgency warfare. "Hearts and minds have nothing to do with it," he says. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: Having served under Gen. David Petraeus, how would you describe him as a leader?

Peter Mansoor: General Petraeus is a very focused, intelligent leader. He drives himself hard and he expects the people around him to put everything they have into the mission. And he also cares for the people around him. He takes care of them, both in the current assignment and future assignments. He is a very competent leader, and that’s what he looks for in the people around him. My experience was very positive. He’s a very hard man to keep up with [laughs] given the pace he keeps. It was very refreshing to be around an intelligent leader who was in this war to win it, and not just managing his way through the conflict.

FP: How is his health?

PM: He had a bout with prostate cancer, which was treated with chemotherapy, and supposedly that has been completely cleared. Then there was the episode where he fainted when talking to the Senate Armed Services Committee. I don’t think it was so much exhaustion as it was coming back from a long, overseas trip where he was dehydrated already, given the plane travel; he was suffering from some sort of bug, and then he failed to eat breakfast the morning of the hearing and didn’t drink anything, because as you know — or maybe you don’t [laughs] — they don’t give you bathroom breaks during those Senate hearings. As a result, he was dehydrated, lacked fluids, hit a wall, and fainted.

FP: Is there a concern about his stamina given the requirements of the job?

PM: No, General Petraeus has done more than any other general — maybe except for Stan McChrystal — to ensure that he keeps in good shape. He’s very attentive to his health. Of course, this is going to be very difficult for his family; this is his fourth combat tour since 2003 — and two of them were at the four-star level — which is very psychologically and mentally challenging. So this is not going to be an easy assignment. But physically, he’ll be up to the task. It will be important for the folks around him to make sure that he gets the sort of rest and exercise needed to keep him mentally engaged at a top level.

FP: What kind of hours does he keep?

PM: This was part of my role, because his natural instinct is to drive himself into the ground and, as his executive officer, I worked to readjust the battle rhythm to make sure he got eight hours of sleep a night, and that he got to run and do physical training at least three times a week. These are the kinds of things that keep a senior commander going. You could just see him emerge refreshed in the morning, after he had a good sleep or a nice run. It would help the clarity of his thinking.

FP: Do you think General McChrystal’s reported four hours of sleep might have affected the clarity of his thinking?

PM: You know, he’s a different person, so I can’t really speak for General McChrystal, but I do know that General Petraeus did much better when he had eight hours of sleep.

FP: As you’ve said, it’s not an easy assignment. Certainly, Iraq wasn’t easy either, but if anything, Afghanistan seems even more complex.

PM: People tend to forget just how complex and difficult Iraq was at the end of 2006. The success of the surge was not preordained. Those who say the Afghanistan war is lost without even implementing the chosen strategy fully reminds me of a comment by Sen. Harry Reid in April of 2007 when he said that the surge has failed and the war is lost, when we hadn’t even gotten all the surge troops on the ground yet. I think we’re at the same stage right now in Afghanistan. The surge troops haven’t arrived and the operations in Kandahar haven’t yet begun. It’s also unclear what sort of relationships General Petraeus will be able to build with President [Hamid] Karzai and the other leaders in the region. So, I think it’s far too early to tell. We’ll be in a much, much better position in July 2011 to determine how the strategy has succeeded or not and then to determine the way ahead, whether that be a drawdown, as is currently planned, or something else.

FP: In terms of troop levels, it’s widely known that McChrystal wanted more than the 30,000 that have been allocated in the surge. Does General Petraeus think that that’s a sufficient number, or is he likely to use his leverage with the Obama administration to push for even greater numbers?

PM: It would be very unlikely at this point, I think, for General Petraeus to say, ‘Well, the strategy that I helped formulate now needs more resources for its execution.’ It could happen, though. I mean he could get on the ground and realize, as we did in [in Iraq] in January 2007, that things were much worse than he had realized. But he has had a number of trips to the region and he’s had constant contact with General McChrystal, so I think it’d be highly unlikely that he would ask for more troops.

FP: Some people have called for General Petraeus to come in and make a clean sweep of the team that was around McChrystal. Do you have any sense of who he will bring in?

PM: You know, they’re all folks well under the radar. I don’t think there’ll be any famous names in there. But again, what I think he’ll do when he gets to Afghanistan is forge relationships with the folks that he needs to forge relationships with, and that includes Hamid Karzai, it includes Ambassador [Karl] Eikenberry, and he already of course has a relationship with Ambassador Holbrooke, which, by all accounts, is fairly good. I think President Obama should be very clear that if the team can’t work together that more changes will be made. He’s already made the change in the military side that would suggest that if Ambassador Eikenberry is not supportive, or if the president feels that Ambassador Eikenberry’s relationship with Karzai is damaged to the point where he’s ineffective, he may have to change him out.

FP: As Petraeus takes over command, what do you think some of the critical factors are in turning the war around and making sure the strategy can be successfully executed? If you could point to three things, what would they be?

PM: I think the first thing would be developing a solid relationship with Hamid Karzai, and a solid relationship with Ambassador Eikenberry, or whoever fills that position. It is that triumvirate — the U.S. ambassador, the senior military commander on the ground, and the president of the host nation — that have to develop the kind of relationship that will lead to success and unity of effort in the counterinsurgency we are waging.

The second thing is that he has to continue to engage the Pakistanis. He has forged relationships with them already, and he should leverage those to ensure the Pakistanis do whatever they can to reduce the insurgent sanctuaries along the Pakistani side of the border. As long as those sanctuaries exist, the Taliban will have a life left.

And then the third thing I would say is that he needs to reinstill confidence in the troops: confidence in the strategy, confidence in the leadership. I think one quick thing he could do is to readdress the rules of engagement. The rules should be permissive enough to allow the troops to fight the enemy while being very cognizant of collateral damage. But perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of risk aversion and as a result we’re not engaging the enemy effectively. I think the troops sense that, which is why we saw those comments by the platoon in Rolling Stone, and I don’t think you can ignore them just because they’re in a magazine .

FP: Have you gotten a sense that there is a morale issue for U.S. troops in Afghanistan?

PM: I think there is. The folks coming back from the region tell me they feel like their hands are tied; they capture insurgents and they have to free them for lack of substantial evidence. We’re not keeping people locked up. At the height of the surge in Iraq, we had 25,000 people in our detention facilities. We have less than 1,000 in Afghanistan. That doesn’t make sense to me. The troops feel as though their hands are tied in terms of the use of firepower. That’s going to be part of a natural pushback to the rules of engagement, but part of it might be an accurate description of commanders who are too risk-averse. It’s very difficult for soldiers to go into combat and then feel as though they don’t have the tools to do the mission, and rules of engagement are one of those tools.

FP: That brings up an interesting point. Is there a concern that this is becoming more of a drone war rather than by troops on the ground? Much of the surge in Iraq was successful because there were troops in neighborhoods. There was a presence on the ground that people felt.

PM: And by the way, there was also a lot of fighting! Folks forget that 2007 was the bloodiest year of the Iraq war. And now we get comments from troops preparing to go into a village along the lines of, ‘OK, we’re going to go into that village and do some of that COIN shit.’ That shows a fundamental misunderstanding of counterinsurgency warfare and the role of security operations within it.

FP: Does that mean there’s a sense that COIN has become too civilian-focused? They’re just playing too nice?

PM: No, just the sense that counterinsurgency is nothing more than handing out goodies to the population and trying to win their hearts and minds — and really, hearts and minds have nothing to do with it. It’s about earning the trust and confidence of the people and controlling the population so that the insurgents can’t survive among them. And I don’t know what we’ve done to control the population in Afghanistan. We certainly have not instituted measures to the extent that we did in Iraq with the extensive blast barriers, checkpoints, and biometric identity devices. We haven’t held a census. There’s a lot of standard counterinsurgency tools we haven’t deployed in Afghanistan, and until we do, we are not going to be successful. Some of them are going to be disagreeable to the population but we have to go there or we’re going to lose the war.

FP: As his former executive officer, would you consider joining General Petraeus again, if he asked?

PM: Well, I’d have to consult with my family but it’d be an honor to work with General Petraeus again. Again, he surrounds himself with really talented people, and I’m sure he’ll make a clean sweep of General McChrystal’s personal staff and bring in his own team from Tampa. So, I doubt they’ll need someone off the bench from Columbus, Ohio.