Petraeus Speaks to CNAS

Created: June 11, 2009 09:02 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

I’m in an overstuffed ballroom at the Willard hotel for the third annual conference of the Center for a New American Security, where the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, Gen. David Petraeus, is delivering the keynote address. It’s an appropriate venue: Petraeus is effectively the leader of the counterinsurgency community, and CNAS is the premier think tank exploring and developing its ideas. Why not do this liveblog-style:

Calls for strengthening the State Department and USAID, as “the challenges we face… require whole-of-government approaches, not just military approaches.”

Big idea: Counterterrorism “requires a counterinsurgency approach,” not just a narrow focus on finding, capturing and killing terrorists, “and that is counterintuitive.”

9:06. And out comes the PowerPoint. Petraeus is briefing on CENTCOM’s jobs. “Enable Partners” is his listing for Iraq and Afghanistan, with “Defeat Extremist Networks” placed over the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. “Defeat Extremist Networks” is also over Yemen. Says his job is like spinning plates; Radiohead on his iPod? Unproven.

9:09. Iraq progress assessment is like Petraeus’ greatest hits: “substantial progress” since the surge, but “still fragile and reversible,” though less so since the provincial elections. Afghanistan is “in contrast”: security situation “deteriorated in specific areas in particular, in the east and the south, the areas of the so-called Pashtun insurgency.” Puts his laser pointer over the words “requires well-resourced, comprehensive counterinsurgency approach.” Pakistan: “no question” that the Pakistanis understand the “existential threat.” Praises the Pakistani military for its operations in and around the Swat Valley against the Taliban. “It’s obvious there is a clear recognition not just to clear the miscreants … there is also a recognition of the need to hold those areas and then to rebuild them… That recognition is there.” What the U.S. is trying to do is provide “logistical assistance,” support the displaced-persons camp.

9:15. The history of the surge and its lessons. More than new forces, but COIN strategy, plus-up of Iraqi security forces and signal of U.S. committment. “They are the big ideas that were the underpinning, the intellectual underpinning” of the surge: “to security the people, to protect the population, and, I would add, to be seen to be securing them.” Important to recall in Afghanistan: “We must be partners there, good neighbors, as opposed to be dominating, or wanting to take over.” He means also in terms of Afghan perceptions. But you don’t live among the Afghan people. You’re “going to provide a consistent security presence by being near the village,” and concerned about civilian casualties. So a short commute to the fight, as the COINdinistas say?

9:19. Understand local circumstances to determine who is an irreconcilable element, and then “pursue them… tenaciously” and “relentlessly.” Just in case anyone thought COIN was bloodless, though I’m not sure whoever thought that. “Reintegrate” is a better term in Afghanistan, and that requires “a phenomenal understanding of who’s who, [and] how systems work.” And “you have to be first with the truth,” which requires “very flat approval structures” in order to get strategic communications focused and fast.

9:25. Petraeus has one of those unreadable pinwheels on a slide to explain the lines of operation and as they related to the enemies in Iraq. It makes sense if you’re as smart as he is. Me, I think it might make a cool tattoo.

9:27. Maj. Gen. Doug Stone is in Afghanistan. He was a silent hero of the surge, as he practiced COIN and reconciliation efforts in Iraq jails at Camp Bucca. “Knocked the recidivism rates in Iraq way, way down.” Now the U.S. is working on creating special extremist holding cells in Bagram.

9:30. “If you’re protecting the population, this somewhat macabe statistic, violent civilian deaths” is important, because its the test of security for the population. CNAS’ latest Afghanistan paper talks about that as an appropriate metric for assessing the success of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

9:33. Now onto Afghanistan. Brings out the month-by-month charts of violence from 2004 to 2009. “Last week was the highest level of security incidents in … post-liberation history.” Around 400. “Some of this will go up” because of raised tempo of U.S. and NATO operations.

9:36. “For the first time you see the people rising up against” the Pakistani Taliban.

9:37. U.S. forces going to around 68,000 by the fall. First is Task Force Spartan southwest of Kabul. Flowing in is the combat aviation brigade based around Kandahar. “We will double the number of airframes… but we will increase by five or sixfold the available helicopters for operations.” Big big concern for commanders in Afghanistan. Marine Expeditionary Brigade coming into the south. Going to be a new Stryker brigade into the southeast as well. “Recall where the Pashtun insurgency is, that has to be the focus.” A brigade from the 101st Airborne will serve as advisors.

9:39. The new goal for Afghanistan army and police size, tentatively: 230,800 by 2012. “Recall the ratio that typically needs to exist” for counterinsurgency operations in the 2006 Army/Marine Corps field manual and “a back of the envelope” calculation makes it clear that the current 171,000 Afghan soldiers and police are insufficient. A final total is still under review.

9:43. “Proud to be able to help” the Pakistani military “in indirect ways.” Yesterday the U.S. delivered “4 MI-17 helicopters” to Pakistan, which he calls “the most rapid security assistance” operation in military history.

9:44. Pushes back subtly against idea that U.S. military operations are too COIN-heavy. You need “full spectrum operations” always, a mixture of “offense, defense and support and stability operations.” Our “troops can still fight.” It’s kind of crazy (though not really surprising, I suppose) that the people who primarily doubt this are U.S. Army officers.

9:47. Recounts the battle of Sadr City in the spring of 2007, and points out how much intelligence, reconnaissance and survaillance support the U.S. brigade commander had during the operation. Lessons here for Afghanistan. “This is how we fight, when we can, with the assets we have… shifting assets for Afghanistan while still maintaining what we have in Iraq.” (Calls the “responsible drawdown strategy” in Iraq on track, by the way.) This is also why Gen. McChrystal made a point of saying he wanted these assets very badly for the Afghanistan war.

9:54. I think Haider Mullick, a very smart observer of Pakistani military and political issues, is the audience member who proposes to Petraeus setting up a joint U.S.-Pakistani military lessons-learned process. Petraeus calls it “a great idea” and says he’ll “pursue it.”

9:55. A Fox News reporter asks about a Weekly Standard report that detainees were getting read Miranda rights. Petraeus says he has “No concerns at all. This is the FBI doing what the FBI does. … The real rumor yesterday is whether our forces were reading Miranda rights to detainees and the answer to that is no.” Sorry, Steve Hayes.

10:01. “A sustained civilian increase would be a better description” of increased U.S. civilian efforts than “civilian surge.” Not just “State and AID but other agencies as well.” Petraeus says its “on track.” And Petraeus is out.

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