Petraeus at the Press Club

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009 at 3:02 pm

No counterinsurgency leadership conference would be complete without the U.S. military’s chief theorist-practitioner of counterinsurgency, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia — and this one at the National Press Club is no exception. Petraeus’ remarks in Washington come, of course, at an extremely delicate moment: after the leak of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Afghanistan strategy review and President Obama’s earlier vow not to increase forces in Afghanistan until he’s convinced the strategy is correct. Since Defense Secretary Robert Gates thinks that it’s best for Congress not to receive testimony from McChrystal or Petraeus until after Obama’s decision, this liveblog that I’m about to undertake will have to serve as a substitute.

Petraeus is talking on the subject of leadership in counterinsurgency — and hails “what’s come to be known as Counterinsurgency Nation” in the audience — the theme of today’s conference, and so I wonder what resonance his remarks will or won’t have for the Afghanistan debate. “My apologies,” he says, to those who hoped “I would divulge pre-decisional details” on Afghanistan, and says he hopes people will ask him questions on the topic of counterinsurgency leadership. “I assure you it will be the focus of my answers,” he says, to laughter. Out comes the PowerPoint slide on the Central Command region, the challenges it faces and what he’s trying to do. In the ‘Stans, it’s “to replace the Great Game… with a broad partnership.” He says there have been “heartening developments” in Pakistan, including “operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas,” like the death of Beitullah Mehsud.

The fight against al-Qaeda: you have to say it’s going “mildly positive.” From the Pakistani tribal areas to Iraq and Saudi Arabia, with the exception of Yemen. Petraeus calls for a comprehensive “whole of governments” approach to counterterrorism, praising the Saudis’ efforts against al-Qaeda in particular.

Petraeus’ interlocutor, retired Marine Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor, asks Petraeus how he would describe al-Qaeda’s “state of health” and even to describe it. “Diminished over where it was, certainly several years ago, and certainly from where it was when we launched the surge in 2007,” Petraeus replies. Even in the Pakistani tribal areas. “Doesn’t mean that we are not tracking various threats,” and references recent U.S. and western European arrests of terrorism-related suspects, as well as links between al-Qaeda’s senior leadership to offshoot extremists in Yemen and North Africa and elsewhere.

Question time. Trainor reminds everyone not to ask about Afghanistan. Did Petraeus’ strategy review ahead of the Obama administration include a resource request? Twenty counterinsurgents per thousand civilians was the recommendation in the counterinsurgency field manual, Petraeus says. “Concentrate your efforts in the areas where the insurgency is… most threatening the population.” He references Bruce Riedel’s strategy review for the Obama administration on Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy, and shows a slide of insurgent activity focusing on the Afghan south and east to demonstrate where counterinsurgency efforts ought to focus.

Unprompted, Petraeus defends Obama’s review of Afghanistan strategy. “We said we expected some form of assessment that we thought would take place in the fall,” he said, and muses on the Afghan election. There have been “events like election that looks like it may not produce a government with greater legitimacy in the eyes of the people.” He praises Gen. McChrystal’s “superb” counterinsurgency guidance and his “highlight[ing] of the need to change the culture” by such things as obeying Afghan traffic laws. As for the resources McChrystal will request, Petraeus says,  “the resource options piece will be in in a few days as well.”

Next question, about “the process of thinking through the change of strategy” in Afghanistan, from counterinsurgency to “a more distant approach,” from al-Jazeera. That’s too “pre-decisional,” Petraeus said.

Next question is about COIN leadership. “I think we have developed leaders as well who are capable of full-spectrum operations,” Petraeus says, recapitulating the history of establishing that concept in a doctrinal document called FM 3.0. He has a nice subtle note of praise for Gen. George Casey, the much-derided Army chief of staff, as someone who supports institutionalizing some of the lessons of Iraq. Casey, of course, was Petraeus’ predecessor in Iraq, and counterinsurgents typically view his inattention to population security as a contributor to the security deterioration in Iraq that the surge reversed.

Next question: how do you import counterinsurgency lessons in countries without a robust U.S. troop presence. “It requires a whole-of-governments counterinsurgency focus, but that doesn’t mean those forces have to be yours.” Pakistan is the great example. “It’s the Pakistanis that are out there on the front lines. We don’t below the brigade level” and not for training “where they don’t want it.” That works where you have “functioning institutions” like the Pakistani military, “unlike a situation, say, in Iraq after the disillusion of the military.” But he praises the Iraqi security forces and the security transition in advance of U.S. withdrawal in 2011. “Their operational tempo has picked up.”

Petraeus, in response to a question about local policing, details another element of strategy under review. “One of the things being looked at is the structure of the Afghan national security forces… No surprise that when the situation gets difficult” the police get hit hard earliest. “They are very much in harm’s way and they tend to be the first who will collapse.”

Gendermerie model might be a bridging element until the police get better. Petraeus: “it maybe that you have to do what you did in Iraq , where the first element that goes in is an Army unit… or work with the tribes” in some fashion. “They can’t become just tribal militias,” linking back in to the district or the province and back into the national security institutions.

Lessons from Vietnam? “People have been right to say Iraq is not Vietnam, Afghanistan is not Vietnam… there are some similarities always you can point to.” But the biggest lesson of Vietnam “is not to become a prisoner of lessons you may have learned very viscerally.” Confesses to trying to overcome the tendency to “solve every problem of Afghanistan with [measures] that worked in Iraq.” Prioritizes “real knowledge of the local circumstances in which you are applying [counterinsurgency] lessons.”

Pete Mansoor, Petraeus’ executive officer in Iraq, asks about civilian leadership. What about his relationship with Amb. Crocker and President Bush? Petraeus: “Ryan Crocker was sent from central casting,” citing his diplomatic experience in chaotic Mideast and South Asia postings. “There were very, very few folks who actually knew Iraq,” obliquely referencing the Iraqi exiles who advised the Bush administration ahead of the invasion. “We already agreed by the second day that the focus was going to be secur[ing] the population… and our cooperation was not optional.” Additionally: “And then obviously there was a real focus on Iraq. There was no question it was the main effort.” He may not have meant it that way, but that statement has reasonance in a political context where some wonder whether President Obama is committed to Afghanistan. Petraeus, however, does not mention anything about President Bush.

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