Gen. David Petraeus @ Seattle Town Hall

Gen. David Petraeus spoke this evening at Seattle Town Hall in an event sponsored by the Seattle World Affairs Council.  His talk, innocuously titled US Central Command Update, focused on lessons learned from the counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq, with an overview of current challenges there and in the surrounding region.

Gen. Petraeus opened with a survey of his bailiwick, Central Command, which includes 20 countries from Egypt to Pakistan, and Kazakhstan to Somalia.  His responsibilities include a daunting list of challenges, any one of which would test the capabilities of the ablest commander.

  • Reverse the cycle of violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • Sustain the gains in Iraq
  • Counter the malign influence of Iran in the region
  • Support the governments of Lebanon, Yemen, and the Central Asian “stans”
  • Counter piracy, drug trafficking and arms smuggling off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden.

I really don’t know how this guy sleeps at night. 

I’m not a big fan of military action in general, but it’s hard not to be impressed by Gen. Petraeus.  Here’s a brief summary his remarks on key topics.  I’ll follow this with some thoughts & observations.

Iraq:  There’s been progress in Iraq, but the gains are fragile and reversible.  At the height of the violence, before the surge, 55 dead bodies were turning up every 24 hours in Baghdad.  It’s no wonder the government couldn’t pass any legislation.  Progress was achieved through a comprehensive and multi-faceted strategy in which “kinetics” – military operation – were only one part.  Iraqi security forces are taking on more responsibility in a process that’s been going on for the last 18 months, now accelerating with the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraqi urban centers.  Politically, the various ethnic factions are heading towards an “Iraqracy” which is not democracy as we know it.  Major challenges remain including; Al Qaeda “irreconcilables,’  Iranian interference, Shiite extremists, inter-ethnic tensions between Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, intra-ethnic tensions within the Sunni and Shiite communities, a shrinking budget due to falling oil prices, and shaky infrastructure.

Afghanistan:  Afghanistan will be the longest campaign in this war, and will require a sustained and substantial commitment by the US and its partners.  The objective:  ensure that Afghanistan does not become a sanctuary from which transnational extremists can do to us again what they did on 9/11.  Today, roughly 70% of the violence occurs within 10% of the Afghan districts, mostly in the Pashtun-dominated south and east.  One key short-term objective is to ensure the legitimacy of the national elections scheduled for August 20.  Another is to destroy the insurgency/narcotics nexus. 

Iran:  Recent unrest in Iran following the elections there reveals fissures in the Iranian power structure, particularly between former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  Meanwhile Iran’s nuclear ambitions have spurred surrounding Arab nations to becoming more open to cooperation with the United States.  This includes recent dialog with Syria, as well as increasing support by Arab states for the Iraqi government. 

Yemen and Somalia:  Yemen is at risk of becoming a failed state and needs US support against Al Qaeda elements there.  Piracy off the coast of Somalia – clearly a failed state – threatens commerce in the region. Merchant ships finally are starting to follow three simple tips provided by the military:  1.  When pirates approach, speed up.  2.  Take evasive action. 3.  Pull up the ladder.  (“I’m not making this stuff up.”)

Q&A;  Gen. Petraeus appropriately dodged a question asking him to compare Presidents Bush and Obama.  He focused instead on the positive interactions he’s had with President Obama and members of his Administration.  Are we really in Iraq just to secure control of their oil?  The General says, do the math.  We could purchase Iraq’s entire oil output for the next 20 years for the cost of just a single year of the Iraq war. 

None of this is really surprising or “news.”  Still I was struck by a couple of themes that emerged from Gen. Petraeus’ talk. 

He spoke repeatedly about building a learning organization; about the need to create policy (which I believe they call “doctrine” in the military), train leaders, and then field commanders, execute in the field and use that experience to learn and adapt the doctrine. He talked about getting out of one’s “intellectual comfort zone” to learn other viewpoints.  It’s not just about going in and blowing stuff up, I guess. 

Probably the most impressive slide in the General’s talk was one titled “The Battle of Sadr City.” It depicted all the assets placed at the disposal of a relatively low-level officer, a battalion Colonel, in command of the operation to root insurgents out of Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite area of Baghdad, home to about two million people.  Satellite imagery, surveillance aircraft, unmanned drones, attack helicopters, and ground forces were all used to precisely target and destroy insurgent rocket teams, with, apparently, minimal damage to civilian areas.  I can’t confirm the claims about collateral damage, but the coordination, communication and systems integration involved were certainly amazing.  

Likewise the need for coordinated action on military, political, social, and economic fronts was a recurring theme.  The complexity of these efforts is really mind-boggling. 

For all the recent progress, though, a couple of questions leap to mind: 

  • Why has it taken so long for the US to learn these lessons?  Sure, hindsight is 20-20, but Iraq is by no means the first insurgency or even the first modern insurgency the world has seen. 
  • How do we prevent the country from ever again entering a conflict in such a disastrously unprepared and uncoordinated fashion? 

This talk was basically a tactical report.  I would like to learn how Gen. Petraeus sees US military strategy evolving in the region and around the world.  He’s clearly destined to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a minimum, so I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough. 

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