April 26, 2010

Gen. David Petraeus Speaks at Cornell

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Following a keynote speech at an ROTC awards ceremony on campus Friday, General David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, engaged with a score of professors from the Peace Studies Program in a wide-ranging question-and-answer session.

During the roughly 90-minute discussion, Petraeus addressed questions about the challenges of establishing a viable Afghan government, the cause of some military successes in Iraq, the military’s increased reliance on contractors, the relationship between civilian and military leadership and minimizing civilian causalities, among other topics.Gathered with Cornell professors and some uniformed military officers in a conference room in the Biotechnology building, Petraeus began with a brief slideshow presentation outlining his main responsibilities.  “I never renounced my first amendment right as a U.S. Army four-star general to use PowerPoint,” he joked. As chief of the U.S. Central Command — one of the six geographic units that the military uses to organize its operations throughout the world — Petraeus is in charge of all military activities in the Middle East, excluding Israeli and Palestinian territories.Following his brief introduction, the discussion quickly turned to substantive questions of U.S. military policy and operations.Prof. Jonathan Kirshner, government and director of the Peace Studies Program, asked whether Petraeus could forecast a viable government in Afghanistan. “We’re trying to get governance that’s seen as legitimate in the eyes of the people,” Petraeus responded, noting that establishing local governance and social organizational structures is often more important than strengthening the central government in Kabul.“Can it be done? I think it can, but it won’t be easy,” he said.  In addition, Petraeus urged for the U.S. to maintain realistic and modest expectations about the future of the country.

“We’re not going to turn Afghanistan into a Switzerland in the next two years, nor should we try to,” he said. “‘Afghan good enough’ is good enough.  That’s how you have to take it forward.”Throughout his remarks, Petraeus appeared to be treading a line between carefully choosing his words and candidly addressing the pointed questions posed by Cornell faculty. At times he went “off-the-record” to elaborate on details about civilian casualties, intelligence-gathering and foreign policy toward Iran.He also sought to steer clear of rendering any political judgments.Asked to compare the leadership styles of President Bush and President Obama, Petraeus retorted that he found such comparisons “awkward,” offering praise for both administrations.“[The two administrations were] extraordinarily bright, extraordinarily hardworking. Both of them had the country’s best interests at heart, so it’s tough beyond that to characterize them,” he said. However, he noted that the last few years of any administration are starkly different from the first several years of a new presidency.  Petraeus said that he generally reports information to either the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Secretary of Defense, or both simultaneously rather than to the president directly. He reports directly to the president only when specifically asked, which he said Obama requested once or twice during his recent decision-making over Afghanistan troop levels.The nature of this relationship between civilian leaders and military brass also generated some discussion.Petraeus was asked whether he agreed that civilian leaders tended to be more hawkish than military leaders.“I think that characterization is probably true. I think that was certainly true during the first term of the Bush administration,” Petraeus said, adding that it was “very much so” during the summer of 2002 in the lead up to the Iraq invasion.When questioned whether such a characterization applied to Obama’s recent Afghanistan decision-making, Petraeus offered a more vague explanation, pivoting to a description about the role of military advice.“Military leaders have an obligation to provide their best professional military advice,” he said, citing a situation in the fall of 2007 when he was told Congress was unlikely to support his military recommendations. He said that such political and budgetary constraints ought to be under the purview of the White House.“Our job is to provide the military advice,” Petraeus said. “[The president’s] job is to worry about the other factors.”Within the military chain of command, however, Petraeus noted that such professional advice might differ. For instance, while one general focused on one country may issue recommendations, they may not take into account the bigger picture of resource allocation and opportunity costs for the region at large.Since 2007, Petraeus has widely become known as the architect of the “troop surge” strategy in Iraq, which he also discussed Friday.“The real surge in Iraq was a surge of ideas. It was not [only] 25,000 or 30,000 extra U.S. forces,” he said. “It was a complete change from a strategy focused on transition tasks to Iraqi forces to a strategy focused on securing the people … and a bunch of other components [like] … promoting and supporting reconciliation and tenaciously going after the bad guys.”Prof. David Patel, government, raised the issue of what caused the breakthrough in Iraq in 2007, suggesting that technological developments were the driving force.Petraeus said he generally disagreed with this emphasis on the technological breakthroughs.“Technology helps but it’s not enough to have the results of one discipline. You have to have humans supporting [any intelligence garnered from technology].”Petraeus noted that the military had become more versatile — especially in its ability to know where to use different types of intelligence technology — because of the institutional knowledge gained after spending four or five years in the region.   “It’s about [humans] living this. It’s about knowing what to look for. It’s about having the sense [of where to look],” Petraeus said. “I can tell you, we know they’re trying to go into the southern belts of Baghdad right now. We can even say the villages, because we’ve seen this movie before.”“There is a reason why we haven’t had any hard intelligence on Osama bin Laden in years, not months,” he said. “That’s because he doesn’t show his face anywhere. He doesn’t talk on anything. It takes him three or four weeks just to get a simple message out.”Human manpower is vital to intelligence operations because “this is a thinking enemy,” Petraeus added. “We have to keep evolving.”In addition, Petraeus addressed the issue of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.He said that there is not a set formula or ratio that weighs the potential cost of civilian casualties in an operation. At the highest levels —  major anti-terrorism operations that are overseen by Central Command –— Petraeus said that it is easier to determine a collateral damage estimate, or CDE. He said, “We don’t accept much collateral damage.”In the field during tactical engagements, with the threat of suicide bombers and other dangers, such decision-making becomes more challenging, however.“We will never deny our troopers dropping a bomb if they are in a tough spot,” he said. “But what we do want them to think very, very carefully before they drop a bomb on a structure if they don’t know who is inside. Or, if a vehicle is coming toward them and they think they’ve got some intelligence … and it turns out that they are civilians instead. That’s the kind of second-guessing that we want them to go through.”Minimizing civilian casualties through this type of “second-guessing” — for which the military provides extensive tactical training — is “hugely important,” he said. “You can undermine the entire campaign if we have these kinds of events.” Petraeus also briefly addressed the issue of military contractors – who now outnumber the number of troops in the region, he said.The military contracts out much of its “housekeeping” — e.g. cutting the hair of troops, keeping generators operational — work to local nationals or third party nationals because it is most cost-effective, he said.The more controversial security contractors, which represent a small subset — the low tens of thousands, Petraeus estimated — of the total contractors also serve an important role of freeing up troops for combat and security operations, he said.“Certainly there were some hard lessons learned in that arena over time about us getting control over [the contractors],” he said but said they were important because they free up battalions or brigades to do work in the field instead of driving people around.“I actually contracted out my own security when I was a three-star general in Iraq,” he said.Petraeus’s visit to Cornell Friday was shrouded in some secrecy. He came at the invitation of Lt. Colonel Steven Alexander for an annual ROTC awards ceremony. Alexander offered the Peace Studies Program the opportunity to meet with Petraeus following the ceremony, which Prof. Kirshner, the program’s director, said he gladly accepted.Alexander said that the events were not publicized because Petraeus’s attendance was not confirmed until a few days prior. He also said that the times and locations of the events were not publicly announced due to security concerns.

Original Author: Michael Stratford