The FP Interview with Gen. David H. Petraeus

As America's most famous warrior-scholar looks to export his Big Ideas about fighting wars from Iraq to the arguably even tougher battlefield of Afghanistan, FP's executive editor, Susan Glasser, spoke with him in the Pentagon days after he took over his new command.

Gen. David Petraeus: In looking at which lessons learned in Iraq might be applicable in Afghanistan, it is important to remember a key principle of counterinsurgency operations: Every case is unique. That is certainly true of Afghanistan (just as it was true, of course, in Iraq). While general concepts that proved important in Iraq may be applicable in Afghanistan — concepts such as the importance of securing and serving the population and the necessity of living among the people to secure them — the application of those ‘big ideas’ has to be adapted to Afghanistan. The ‘operationalization’ will inevitably be different, as Afghanistan has a very different history and very different ‘muscle memory’ in terms of central governance (or lack thereof). It also lacks the natural resources that Iraq has and is more rural. It has very different (and quite extreme) terrain and weather. And it has a smaller amount of educated human capital, due to higher rates of illiteracy, as well as substantial unemployment, an economy whose biggest cash export is illegal, and significant challenges of corruption. Finally, it lacks sufficient levels of basic services like electricity, drinking water, and education — though there has been progress in a number of these areas and many others since 2001.

One cannot adequately address the challenges in Afghanistan without adding Pakistan into the equation. In fact, those seeking to help Afghanistan and Pakistan need to widen the aperture even farther, to encompass at least the Central Asian states, India, Iran, and even China and Russia.

FP: Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that U.S. efforts in Afghanistan were really on the verge of failure. What’s your incoming assessment?

DP: I told [then] Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in September 2005 that Afghanistan would be the longest campaign in the so-called ‘long war.’ That judgment was based on an assessment I conducted in Afghanistan on my way home from my second tour in Iraq. And having been back to Afghanistan twice in recent months, I still see it that way. Progress there will require a sustained, substantial commitment. That commitment needs to be extended to Pakistan as well, though Pakistan does have large, well-developed security institutions and its leaders are determined to employ their own forces in dealing with the significant extremist challenges that threaten their country.

FP: I was rereading an account of an Afghan veteran from Soviet operations there. After every retaliatory strike, he said, ‘Perhaps one mujahideen was killed. The rest were innocent. The survivors hated us and lived with only one idea — revenge.’ Clearly [U.S.] engagement in Afghanistan didn’t start out in the same way as the Soviets’ did, but one of the questions is whether all these occupations wind up similarly after seven years.

DP: A number of people have pointed out the substantial differences between the character of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and that of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, especially in the circumstances that led to the respective involvement, as well as in the relative conduct, of the forces there. Foremost among the differences have been the coalition’s objectives: not just the desire to help the Afghans establish security and preclude establishment of extremist safe havens, but also to support economic development, democratic institutions, the rule of law, infrastructure, and education. To be sure, the coalition faces some of the same challenges that any of the previous forces in Afghanistan have faced: the same extreme terrain and weather, tribal elements that pride themselves on fighting, lack of infrastructure, and so on. In such a situation, it is hugely important to be seen as serving the population, in addition to securing it. And that is why we’re conducting counterinsurgency operations, as opposed to merely counterterrorism operations.

FP: Tell me where you see lessons from Iraq that might not apply in Afghanistan, and things that you will export.

DP: We cannot just take the tactics, techniques, and procedures that worked in Iraq and employ them in Afghanistan. How, for example, do you communicate with the Afghan people? The answer: very differently than the way you communicate with the Iraqi people, given the much lower number of televisions and a rate of illiteracy in the Afghan provinces that runs as high as 70 to 80 percent. Outside Kabul and other big Afghan cities, Afghans don’t watch much television; they don’t have televisions. In Iraq, one flies over fairly remote areas and still sees satellite dishes on many roofs. In Afghanistan, you not only won’t see satellite dishes; you also won’t see electrical lines, and you may not even find a radio. Moreover, you can’t achieve the same effect with leaflets or local newspapers because many Afghans can’t read them. So, how do you communicate with them? The answer is, through tribal elders, via hand-crank radios receiving transmissions from local radio stations, through shura councils, and so on.

FP: What people most want to know, of course, is: Where does this end? The counterinsurgency principles, your own statements in the past, have focused on the idea that such wars end with political solutions — you don’t kill your way out of it.

DP: One of the concepts we embraced in Iraq was recognition that you can’t kill or capture your way out of a complex, industrial-strength insurgency. The challenge in Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq, is to figure out how to reduce substantially the numbers of those who have to be killed or captured. This includes creating the conditions in which one can have successful reconciliation with some of the elements fighting us. Progress in reconciliation is most likely when you are in a position of strength and when there are persuasive reasons for groups to shift from being part of the problem to becoming part of the solution. In Iraq, that was aided by gradual recognition that al Qaeda brought nothing but indiscriminate violence, oppressive practices, and an extremist ideology to which the people really didn’t subscribe. Beyond that, incentives were created to persuade the insurgents that it made more sense to support the new Iraq.

The challenge in Afghanistan, of course, is figuring out how to create the conditions that enable reconciliation, recognizing that these likely will differ somewhat from those created in Iraq.

FP: Do you think that does involve speaking with warlords, people like [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar, who up to now have been absolute non-starters?

DP: Any such outreach has to be an Afghan initiative, not the coalition’s. In Iraq, frankly, it was necessary for the coalition to take the lead in some areas where there was no Iraqi government or security presence.

FP: Do you think there is something qualitatively or quantitatively new and different about the insurgencies that U.S. forces have encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan?

DP: We looked at this issue closely when we were drafting the counterinsurgency manual. And we concluded that some aspects of contemporary extremist tactics are, indeed, new. If you look, as we did, at what [French military officer] David Galula faced in Algeria, you find, obviously, that he and his colleagues did not have to deal with a transnational extremist network enabled by access to the Internet. Today, extremist media cells recruit, exhort, train, share expertise, and generate resources in cyberspace. The incidence of very lethal suicide bombers and massive car bombs is vastly higher today. It seems as if suicide car bombs have become the precision-guided munition of modern insurgents and extremists. And while there has been a religious component in many insurgencies, the extremist nature of the particular enemy we face seems unprecedented in recent memory.

FP: The counterinsurgency manual, an object of huge praise, is seen as a key moment in the rethink that put the war in Iraq on a different course. But it has not been uncontroversial. There are people on the left who see it as a form of neocolonialism; conservatives are skeptical of anything they see as nation-building, while others believe that by organizing to fight this kind of war, the United States risks not being prepared for a more conventional conflict in the future. How much of an intellectual debate have these principles stirred up? What do you say to these critics?

DP: It’s important to recognize the most important overarching doctrinal concept that our Army, in particular, has adopted — the concept of ‘full spectrum operations.’ This concept holds that all military operations are some mix of offensive, defensive, and stability and support operations. In other words, you’ve always got to be thinking not just about the conventional forms of combat — offensive and defensive operations — but also about the stability and support component. Otherwise, successes in conventional combat may be undermined by unpreparedness for the operations often required in their wake.

The debate about this has been a healthy one, but we have to be wary of arguments that imply we have to choose — or should choose — between either stability-operations-focused or conventional-combat-focused training and forces. It is not only possible to be prepared for some mix; it is necessary.

A wonderful essay that I read as a graduate student captures the essence of my view on this. The essay discussed the different schools of international relations theory, and it concluded that ‘the truth is not to be found in any one of these schools of thought, but rather in the debate among them.’ That is probably the case in this particular discussion. We would do well to avoid notions that we can pick and choose the kinds of wars in which we want to be involved and prepare only for them.

FP: You said [that] even in 2005 when you were in Afghanistan, you reported to Secretary Rumsfeld that this could be the longest part of the long war.

DP: I didn’t say it could be. I said it would be. My assessment was that Afghanistan was going to be the longest campaign of the long war. And I think that assessment has been confirmed by events in Afghanistan in recent months.

FP: Just how long did you have in mind?

DP: Those are predictions one doesn’t hazard.

Susan Glasser is a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy; former Moscow bureau chief of the Washington Post; and co-author, with Peter Baker, of Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution.

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