The general whose surge turned the tide in Iraq—and who aims to do the same in Afghanistan—may hold the fate of Obama's presidency in his hands.
Zakaria: In 2003, after the fall of Baghdad, you were placed in northern Iraq, in Mosul, commanding the 101st Airborne Division. And you decided that you needed to fight the war in a different way.
Petraeus: It was very clear early on that we, the military, were going to have to do the nation building. People occasionally ask, "What were the big decisions you made in Iraq?" The biggest decision I made early on in Iraq that I announced—to a little bit of stunned silence from the commanders—was that we [were] going to do nation building.
Using those words? Because the Bush administration up to that point had specifically denounced nation building. Condoleezza Rice wrote an article in
saying that the 82nd Airborne should not be assisting kids to go to school.
Using those words. As a card-carrying member of the Council on Foreign Relations, with my Foreign Affairs subscription up to date, I was keenly aware of the Rice essay, but I had done a fair amount of nation building during my life in various forms: Central America, in Haiti as a chief of operations for the U.N. force there, in the Balkans.
When President Obama talked about Afghanistan in his Dec. 1 speech, he didn't advocate "nation building." When I and a few others had lunch with him, he specifically said, "We're not going to do nation building."
Certainly we are doing elements of nation building [in Afghanistan]. It's inescapable. In a counterinsurgency campaign, even one that is more narrowly focused as a result of this process [of reviewing the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan],…inevitably you are going to perform tasks that are elements of nation building. It might be more effective if we just, out loud, said, "We're not trying to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland; we're not trying to make it into an advanced, Western, industrialized democracy in the next few years." What the president is trying to convey is, again, limitations on our aspirations, and what it is we're trying to accomplish. I think that's reasonable. One of the outcomes of this presidential review was a pretty realistic appraisal of what is possible, what is doable; and that should be an important element that informs one's strategy.
I told the president something to the effect of, "Seems like what you're describing is in some tension with General Petraeus's counterinsurgency manual, which is more explicitly about nation building." And he said, "You should ask General Petraeus, because he supports this approach."
I fully support it; I really support the president's decision. I think that what he is trying to convey, having had the benefit of 10 multiple-hour sessions and the final session in the Oval Office with him, is that there are distinct limits on our activities, and distinct limits on our goals and objectives for Afghanistan.
What is the central lesson of counterinsurgency?
"Secure the population." To be truthful, we would have been happy to hand this off to civilians [in Iraq]. We really wanted to. I kept asking, "Where is the team from ORHA [the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which was set up to handle the post-hostilities phase in 2003]?" Then ultimately, when the individuals from CPA [the Coalition Provisional Authority] arrived, eventually we got [on the ground] three or four CPA officials who actually were fantastic. One of them was a fluent Arabic and Kurdish speaker; [she] was terrific. But there's only so much that one person can do, and we had a force of 25,000 or so, with four engineer battalions, two signal battalions, and two civil-affairs battalions.
It struck me that because of the way we handled things in Iraq, the United States was taking on not just nation building but also a very large social-engineering project. The new Iraqi regime, with our tacit approval, disempowered the Sunni elite. That elite had run the Army, the bureaucracy, the state-run industries, and you were creating the impression among Sunnis that they had been dispossessed in the new Iraq.
It was not just an impression; it was reality that they were disproportionately affected by de-Baathification, especially in the Sunni areas. We always tried to make a distinction between the Saddamists and those that were in the Baath Party at say, level four, down the food chain, as a way of getting a job or an education, [but the process went awry]. Ironically, many of those Sunnis who were cast out were Western--educated. They were really the ones that we wanted to have help run the country; they actually understood how the country ran; they spoke English; they were much more secular, in most cases. And then not only did we lose them, we actually, in many cases, thrust some of them into the insurgent camp because their entire incentive was to oppose the new Iraq, not to support it. Ending an insurgency or keeping one from starting involves trying to give as many people as possible a stake in the success of the new Iraq.
When you look at what happened in Afghanistan, the complaint you hear from some people, like former Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is that you've dispossessed the Pashtuns. You've allowed the Northern Alliance to take over the country. Yes, President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun, but that's window dressing. If you look at the Afghan Army, it's largely a Northern Alliance army—in other words, a non-Pashtun army.
I'm not sure I completely buy that. People are often drawn to single-factor explanations, because it's concise, it's easy, but it typically is not sufficient. There was a cover story in NEWSWEEK ["The Mind of the Taliban"] that described how the Taliban survived. [They were] defeated, disrupted, dispersed—command and control destroyed. They were literally just surviving, and then they reconnected with each other over time in the marketplace or in the mosque or in some village and then, over time, in a couple of years, they put their foot back in the water in Afghanistan, and they found that the new Afghan security forces weren't all that well developed; the Coalition forces were very sparse, very small in number. They start to come back in and they reconnect with the illegal narcotics industry, with other criminal syndicates, and of course, they're always getting some money from outside. And all of these different factors together start to result in the Taliban increasing their influence, control of certain areas, development of infrastructure, revenue generation, command and control re-establishment, and ultimately you have a situation where now there are 33 [Taliban] shadow governors for a country with 34 provinces.
Why have you not been able to peel off elements of the insurgency in Afghanistan as you did in Iraq?
One of the findings of CentCom's strategic assessment of Afghanistan was that we did not have the nuanced understanding and the robust intelligence-analysis capacity of the insurgency that we developed in Iraq. To pursue reconciliation effectively, you really need big ideas, the right concepts and policies, and obviously in Afghanistan, [we] had to agree with the Afghan government. Then you have to have structures and resources that can enable this process to happen.
So we are not seeing deals with Pashtun groups that break with the Taliban, as we did with Sunnis in Iraq breaking with the insurgency there?
What you have seen is actually the attempt at deals. There has been a willingness; I gather that Karzai's brother met with either Mullah [Mohammed] Omar or his close aides in Saudi Arabia.
Is that the right level to do it at?
In my view, I think that perhaps may be a bit premature, if the Taliban thinks that they are winning. If an insurgent group thinks it's winning, that is probably not the most advantageous time to try to reach a deal with them. And not with what is arguably an irreconcilable element of that particular insurgency. It is probably more productive—for the time being, at least—to engage at the lower and midlevels.
Is that happening?
Yes, it is.
The New York Times
also reports that you are looking into recruiting tribal militias?
Well, be very careful about [that], because it's not necessarily tribal militias. They are community defense initiatives. And they really are—there is a distinction, and it's lost on some. There are certainly tribal elements, but what we don't want to do is legitimize the revival of warlords and the very large military forces that they had—which in some cases were very clearly substantial tribal militias—but rather to empower and legitimize local security arrangements.
What would be wrong with more tribal militias even if they encouraged a certain amount of decentralization? There are people who say trying to create a strong central government in Afghanistan is going against the grain of the country. You should be encouraging local involvement, whether you call them warlords or "local leaders."
There certainly is an effort to encourage in some cases the reestablishment, and in other cases the strengthening, of traditional social organizing structures. Again, there is not a desire to create a strong central government for a country that really is not structured in that respect. There's a keen sense of realism about what is achievable and even desirable in Afghanistan. So, without question there have to be initiatives to support the development of local organizing structures—we're talking subdistrict and below now—and then to connect them ultimately to the district, to the province that connects to the national [government]. There are going to be all kinds of constellations and alignments of different tribal leaders, commercial leaders, and all the rest of that, but [our job is] helping them to get governance that serves the people rather than preys on the people. To achieve legitimacy, governance has to gain the support of the people and, of course, in that sense, it has to be seen to be helping them rather than hindering or, again, preying on them.
You say you're not an optimist, but a realist. But underlying your conception of what is possible is an enormous amount of optimism about the role the United States can play in creating the possibilities for peace and a decent government.
When I was a commander as a three-star of the Multi-National Security Transition Command–Iraq, we used to have congressional delegations come over all the time—I mean, almost two or three a week—and they kept asking, "Are you optimistic?" So I finally developed a slide and it said, I AM A QUALIFIED OPTIMIST. And then I listed the qualifications. Well, what happened is they'd come back and say, "Petraeus is optimistic," and they stripped off the nuance. After that, that was constantly thrown back at me as Iraq deteriorated: "You were an optimist and now the security forces you developed are in the grip of the militias," or this or that. So I think it is just best to say I'm a realist. The reality is that Afghanistan is hard; it is hard all the time, and what we are endeavoring to do is going to be very, very challenging. As Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal said, "The situation is serious, but the mission is doable." I do agree with that, but I do that in a way that is coldly realistic, that assesses the challenges and how difficult the tasks are.
At a hearing a few years ago, somebody asked you, "General Petraeus, has this occupation of Iraq strengthened American national security?" And you said—I remember this part—"I am so riveted and focused on my mission that I have not given that a lot of thought." I'm paraphrasing, but I thought that what you were doing was, in effect, saying, "It's not my pay grade to be thinking about that."
That's exactly it. I said, "I think that's a question for the national-security adviser or intelligence community, or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs." My mission is to perform certain tasks in Iraq, and that's what I'm focused on. I'm not doing an assessment on the impact of Iraq as an opportunity cost to other missions within CentCom around the world.
So, if I were to say to you: 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, still 120,000 in Iraq
Is this worth the enormous expenditure, first and most important, in terms of the lives of our servicemen but also in budgetary terms? Is this something that is in our national interest to pursue at this cost?
If I didn't believe that, I obviously wouldn't recommend or support what it is that we're doing.