The region has “no shortage of problems,” Petraeus said. “It is indeed a world of contrasts – the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor.”
The CENTCOM region, which includes Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and 17 other countries, is rich in energy-producing reserves of petroleum and natural gas, but it suffers from a dearth of potable water, basic services, adequate governance and economic development, Petraeus said.
Those problems are compounded by the proliferation of terrorist groups, extremist elements, militias, state-based aggression, piracy, smuggling and drug trafficking. Add to that the “youth bulge” – 45 percent of the population is between the ages of 15 and 29, inadequately educated or educated in extremism – and you have “a fertile field for extremism.”
Though violence in Afghanistan is 60 percent greater this year than last, and concerns in Iran remain “huge,” recent progress in Iraq and Pakistan has been “heartening,” Petraeus said – “still fragile and still reversible,” but less so than last year at this time.
“Clearly we have our work cut out for us in this region,” he said.
Full spectrum counterinsurgency operations are key to success, but countering terrorism requires more than an increase in the number of counter-terrorist forces, Petraeus said. “Full spectrum” must include stability operations.
“Wherever you are on the spectrum (of violence), you are going to have to do some measure of offense, defense and stability operations,” he said. “You cannot forget that last category. You have to do it all.”
“We’re trying to replace the great game, as it’s called, – the competition for power and influence between the great powers around the world – with a broad partnership, one that is founded on the common interests against extremism coming out of Afghanistan and Pakistan and also the illegal narcotics industry,” he said.
Petraeus reminded his audience, most of them combat veterans, that the surge in Iraq was successful because it went beyond the troop build-up in that area and “embraced a comprehensive approach” to COIN operations.
“The surge was really about big ideas, about employing certain counterinsurgency concepts. The biggest idea was that we had to secure the population and serve them, and we had to be seen doing both if they were to support us and our Iraqi partners,” he said, referring to the 77 joint security stations established in the heart of Baghdad. U.S. forces went where the violence was greatest, Petraeus said, and “lived among the people,” signaling their commitment to establish a secure and stable environment.”
A comprehensive “big picture” approach also requires a concerted focus on identifying “reconcilables and irreconcilables” among the insurgent population, he said.
“You can’t clear and leave – you have to clear and hold,” he said. “You get your teeth in the enemy and you don’t let go. That means finding the irreconcilables, capturing, killing or running them off. That’s our job. That’s reality.
“But you cannot kill or capture your way out of an industrial strength insurgency,” he said. “You’ve got to figure out who are the reconcilables are – who are the bad guys you can get on your side. They have to be reintegrated.”
These lessons learned in Iraq “do not hold us prisoner in Afghanistan,” Petraeus said. “You cannot take what we did in Iraq and import it wholesale.”
“We’ll take these (lessons) as they are applicable, and let them guide us with a nuanced approach to local situations in (Afghanistan) that are different from district to district and province to province,” he said.
This nuanced approach does not apply in respect to “truth” and Army values, Petraeus said. Here, there is no gray area.
“The only thing that works is the brutal truth, and being first with the truth. No spin, no lipstick on pigs,” he said. Where there is a “results problem,” there must not be a message problem.”
“Don’t try to modify reality,” he said.
The reality in Afghanistan is that the sudden increase in violence there is the result of “our going on the offense,” Petraeus said. “The violence there is a heck of a lot less that the height of violence in Iraq. Still, a 60 percent increase over this time last year is a significant concern. It reflects the resilience and growth of the Taliban.”
Afghanistan will take a sustained, substantial commitment, he said. “It’s serious, but doable, as you’ve heard it said.”
Petraeus urged his audience to recognize their place in “the big picture.” From time to time, he said, Soldiers fall victim to the “Ground Hog Day syndrome” – each day seems to be a repeat of the last.
“We’re all afflicted with it. If you’re the CENTCOM commander, you’ll occasionally suffer from it. One day is just like the last and the next day will be the same,” he said. “You have to remind yourself that you matter. Your leadership, your professional competence, your example – they matter. The qualities you possess as a leader – they really do make a difference in the overall efforts, in the big picture. Each of you matters greatly.”