The commander of U.S. Central Command spoke to a packed stadium at Kansas State University, invited as part of the prestigious Alfred M. Landon lecture series on public issues hosted there.
To a resounding ovation, he stepped to a podium that has seen three standing presidents and five former presidents, the current and three previous defense secretaries, a slew of politicians, ambassadors, Pulitzer and Nobel prize winners, but only a handful of military generals since the series began in 1966.
With his own Ivy League doctorate degree and tours as a military professor, Petraeus is no stranger to academia and is friends with the university’s president.
Barely 100 miles away at Fort Leavenworth, Petraeus once commanded the Army’s Combined Arms Center, the service’s think-tank for lessons learned, dubbed the “Intellectual Center of the Army.” It was there in 2006, along with Marine Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, that Petraeus laid the foundation of the strategy which would eventually turn around the war in Iraq, and one Petraeus said he believes will work in Afghanistan.
Petraeus left Fort Leavenworth to take command of the troops in Iraq and to oversee the 2007 presidentially-ordered surge. Yesterday he credited the surge for providing critically-needed security, but he also cautioned that the surge must be viewed within the context of a broad counterinsurgency strategy, and not as the solution in and of itself.
“This is not to discount the importance of sending additional troopers …,” Petraeus said. “At the low point of the security situation in Iraq, we were seeing more than 50 dead bodies a night turn up on the streets of Baghdad alone, so there was no doubt that more troopers were needed to help quell the horrific violence.”
Equally important, though, Petraeus said, was that the surge signaled to the Iraqi people that the United States was committed. This gave them the confidence to stand up to the extremists, he said.
Also during the surge, more than 100,000 additional Iraqi security forces were added and more than 100,000 locals joined the Sons of Iraq program which paid local Iraqis to patrol and protect their own communities.
“Together, these efforts provided the strength and numbers necessary to confront the elements that stoked the violence and brought Baghdad to its knees,” Petraeus said.
But probably the most important element of the surge, he said, was employing the additional troops in line with key counterinsurgency concepts.
Moving troops out of large forward operating bases and into small, community-based joint security stations earned the trust of the locals and paid huge dividends in terms of intelligence. Under the safety umbrella of the security station, locals who rejected the insurgency turned over enemy fighters and their weapons caches in record amounts.
“As coalition and Iraqi forces began to provide breathing space from the violence, emboldened Iraqis increasingly began to reject violence and those who employed it,” the general said.
This opened the door for reconciliation efforts between rival tribes, and even with those who once fought on the side of the insurgency. Offering amnesty, U.S. and Iraqi leaders reached out to those who had opposed the government and encouraged them to participate in newly established political process. Job training helped give local young men an option to fighting with the insurgency.
Even within the military-run detention facilities, detainees considered irreconcilable were culled from others who were provided job training and education.
And military officials worked hard to legitimize the Iraqi government, partnering with Iraqi officials to boost electricity generation, oil production and commercial development.
These efforts, along with the successes of the Iraqi government, led to the turnaround there, Petraeus said.
This is in stark contrast, however, to the current situation in Afghanistan.
Petraeus cited the downward spiral the country has taken, with an expanded and stronger insurgency and markedly increased levels of violence.
Also, the Afghan government has been slow to develop, is wracked with corruption, and its legitimacy in the eyes of the locals has suffered.
Petraeus embraced President Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan, saying that progress there is tied to a “robust, sustained and comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign.”
“Our fundamental objective in Afghanistan remains … to ensure that transnational terrorists are not able to establish the sanctuaries they enjoyed there prior to 9/11,” Petraeus said. “Accomplishing this aim, though, requires not just killing or capturing terrorists, but also developing Afghan security forces, reducing the drug trade that finances the insurgency, fostering the growth of Afghan governance …, creating basic economic opportunity for Afghan citizens, and so forth.”
But while the challenges in Afghanistan parallel those in Iraq, the fight is not the same, he said. In fact, Petraeus called it “daunting,” and said that, while the principles of counterinsurgency are the same, they must be adapted to work in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is larger and more rural than Iraq with more rugged terrain and harsher climate. Fewer in Afghanistan are literate and there are fewer natural resources.
The total revenue generation in Afghanistan was under $1 billion last year, compared to $60 billion generated in oil revenue alone last year in Iraq. Also, Afghanistan has very little infrastructure, all but stopping the government’s attempt to deliver basic services.
“In Afghanistan, we are building; not rebuilding,” Petraeus said.
More forces are needed in Afghanistan, Petraeus said, which will allow troops to secure areas that have been already cleared. Just as in Iraq, many times enemy fighters simply hide out in the mountains until the U.S. troops have gone, and then return to the villages and towns.
“The increase in forces and focus on securing the people are needed, to help create the breathing space that will allow Afghanistan to stand up for themselves and that will also allow the government to begin working for its people and providing essential services, instead of simply struggling to survive,” Petraeus said.
Even now, the U.S. military is mirroring the strategy of moving troops out of bases and into the communities. In the small combat outposts they partner with the Afghan forces to keep watch over the villages so that the insurgents cannot return. They are also funding the rebuilding of schools, clinics and other projects that provide basic services, in an effort to gain the locals’ trust.
Another program that mirrors efforts in Iraq is the Afghan public protection program, similar in concept to the Sons of Iraq. More trainers are needed to help grow the Afghan forces, Petraeus said.
But, just as in Iraq, more U.S. or NATO forces alone are not the lone answer to solving the problems there.
“Operating in a country known as the ‘graveyard of empires,’ our forces must partner with their [Afghan] counterparts to show the Afghan people that they are not would-be conquerors but are instead there to secure and serve Afghan communities,” Petraeus said. “Doing so will require being good neighbors.”
Reconciliation efforts must be embraced – a much debated topic within both the U.S. and Afghan governments because most believe that senior Taliban leaders would never agree to necessary preconditions. But Petraeus said it should start at the local level where those who are simply fighting to support their families are given an economic alternative.
Petraeus also echoed recent remarks by senior U.S. officials that the way ahead in Afghanistan will require a much more coordinated civil-military approach.
“As always, military action is necessary, but not sufficient,” Petraeus said. “Additional civilian resources will be essential to building on the progress that our troopers and their Afghan partners can achieve on the ground.”
Finally, Petraeus said that Afghanistan and Pakistan must be viewed as a single problem set, or a single theater with different rules of engagement. Increased Taliban activity in the bordering Pakistan impacts efforts in Afghanistan and poses a global threat, he said.
“Even as we actively pursue militants and seek economic and governance improvements, in Afghanistan, we also have to encourage the Pakistani government to recognize that these militants are the most significant threat to their country’s very existence,” Petraeus said.
More support is needed for Pakistan to help them build, train, and equip their forces, he said.
Dubbed by senior U.S. officials as the “long war,” Petraeus will not likely see the turn-around there under his watch on the same scale as in Iraq.
But Petraeus saw the war in Iraq come nearly full-circle, starting out as a commander on the ground at the launching of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Now, as CENTCOM commander, he’s mulling exit strategies and managing the shift of forces from there to Afghanistan.
And he said he is confident of such success in Afghanistan.
“By increasing our civilian and military footprints in Afghanistan, focusing our troopers on securing and serving the population, fostering reconciliation, pursuing a comprehensive approach and working toward greater unity of effort, we can help Afghan forces and leaders achieve the security, economic and governance improvements that are so necessary in their country,” Petraeus said.