Petraeus noted that violence initially spiked in Iraq during the early days of the troop surge there before dropping to the lowest numbers since the start of the war in 2003. Similarly, he said, coalition troops are likely to encounter strong opposition from extremists in Afghanistan.
“When you go into an enemy’s sanctuaries, areas where he has been able to base and to plan and to build car bombs and all the rest of it, they will fight you for it,” he warned. “So there will be tough months ahead, without question.”
Petraeus was quick to note the “enormous difference between Iraq and Afghanistan.” Afghanistan, for example, lacks Iraq’s huge oil revenues and its “muscle memory” of strong central government institutions.
These, as well as culture differences between the two countries, require a different approach to conducting counterinsurgency operations, he said.
“You have to apply [them] in a way that is culturally appropriate for Afghanistan,” he said. For example, a key strategy shift that accompanied the troop surge in Iraq – in which U.S. troops lived within the Iraqi communities they helped to secure – won’t necessarily work in Afghanistan, Petraeus said.
“You don’t move into a village in Afghanistan the way that we were able to move into neighborhoods in Iraq,” he said. “You have to move on the edge of it, or just near it, but you still have to have a persistent security presence.”
Petraeus expressed confidence that the operations under way in Afghanistan ultimately will succeed, but he tempered expectations. “It will be very difficult, and you won’t see the dramatic turnaround that we have seen in Iraq,” he said.
One big difference between the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is that there’s a nearly universal understanding of why the United States is fighting in Afghanistan, Petraeus said. “There is absolutely no debate about the fact that that is where the 9/11 attacks came from,” he said.
Similarly, there’s general agreement about the need to keep extremists from reclaiming Afghanistan as a safe haven to plan and launch future attacks, he said.
The American people need to recognize that “this represents a vital interest to our country,” Petraeus said.
While at Harvard, Petraeus paid tribute to hundreds of student veterans studying at the Kennedy School, Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School.
Calling them the “new greatest generation,” he said, “I am simply here to say to each of you, ‘Thank you.’”