Tag: General Petraeus

“Get the Big Idea Right”

This morning, the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville hosted CIA Director David H. Petraeus.  The event was not publicized and required a ticket for admission. As chair of the Political Science Department, I was invited to hear the talk — and had a seat very near the front and center of the stage, less than 25 feet from the speakers. Unfortunately, very few students outside of the (approximately 40) McConnell Scholars were invited to the event.

The lecture hall was instead filled with older guests, including many veterans and some active duty servicemen (and women, though I didn’t see many), local elites important to the University and Center, faculty, administrators, etc. I sat between a veteran and a banker with a famous local name. Senator McConnell was on the stage with the scholars, as was his spouse, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, University President James Ramsey, and Center Director Gary Gregg.

Petraeus spoke on the subject of leadership, a central concern for the McConnell Center and its students. Unfortunately, the former four star General gave a half hour talk that began with a very long introduction thanking his various hosts (and a couple of jokes) and ended with many platitudes that were not especially provocative. 

In between that long intro and weak conclusion, the body of the speech addressed 4 main points (Petraeus called them tasks of leadership) and employed primarily examples from the 2007 Iraq surge “success” to illustrate them:

  1. Get the big idea right (in this case, counterinsurgency strategy)
  2. Communicate effectively throughout the organization
  3. Implement the ideas
  4. Capture the lessons: refine and repeat

Petraeus did not take questions at the end.

That last fact was especially disappointing to me since it seemed like Petraeus ignored the elephant in the room. After all, the Iraq war started in March 2003 and the insurgency was a fairly significant problem not long after the successful U.S. capture of Baghdad. Why did it take so many years to “get the big idea right”? More importantly, how was Petraeus able to convince political leaders of the need for his favored strategy in a context that so obviously started by getting the big ideas WRONG?

In some ways, I think the problems I had with this particular speech and event parallel many of the most common criticisms levied against the CIA.

Why was the event secret? Guests were asked not to publicize the event because of security, but the CIA is frequently accused of excessive secrecy in the name of security. The McConnell Center has often hosted serving Secretaries of State, Ambassadors, Senators,and other political dignataries. Most were advertised in advance and the events were milked for PR purposes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s address was so highly anticipated that people on campus could watch a live-stream of the event. Does a former first lady, President’s spouse, prominent presidential candidate, and serving Secretary of State face lower security threats?

I suspect that the visit of the CIA Director was not advertised because someone feared that left-leaning members of the campus community might organize a distracting protest outside the facility. Even if this is CIA policy, I challenge the rationale behind the policy.

The failure to invite a larger sample of the general student population, the decision to invite dozens of local elites, and the lack of questioning suggests another problem with the CIA. It has a reputation for not being especially accountable to various constituencies.

I’m sure organizers felt as if the event went off well, like an uncontested slam dunk. 


A puzzle in promotion: Petraeus at the CIA

This is a guest blog by Jarrod Hayes, who is is an assistant professor of International Relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His research broadly focuses on the social construction of foreign and security policy.

The New York Times is reporting that President Obama plans on moving Leon Panetta to the position of Secretary of Defense and David Petraeus to the position of CIA director. While the Panetta move is interesting in its own right (i.e., will Panetta have the force of will necessary to manage the DoD?), what I find far more interesting is the move of General David Petraeus to the CIA, a man whose credentials for leading the CIA at best require some creative argumentation. I find the move puzzling (hence the title) and would like to forward a possible explanation for the move as well a negative repercussion that could result. First, the explanation. In June 2010, when Obama fired then U.S. commander in Afghanistan Stanley McChrystal after insubordinate remarks by officers under McChrystal’s command came to light, the President was left with a problem. Seven months earlier, Obama had announced a large troop increase to Afghanistan as part of an effort to prevail in a conflict claimed to be vital to US national interest. What appointment could Obama make in replacing McChrystal that would be in line with the President’s contention that success in Afghanistan was of critical importance? The obvious answer was hero-of-Iraq-and-counterinsurgency-demigod Petraeus, and so the President demoted (lateral move?) Petraeus from Central Command Commander to head up the Afghan mission. However, the appointment presented its own problems. At the same time Obama announced the Afghan ‘surge,’ he promised to begin bringing home US troops after 18 months (~midyear 2011). Would Petraeus, a man now vested with an immense amount of military and security legitimacy, resist when Obama decided to pull the plug? If he did, the President’s political capital could take serious damage at a time when the campaign for re-election would be at a critical stage.

Obama appears to have found a solution by promoting Petraeus to CIA director. Petraeus now has less reason to oppose a drawdown in a conflict that is going less than swimmingly (see Steve Saideman’s excellent post on the subject here) because his personal credibility and legacy are no longer on the line. Moving Petraeus to the CIA also shifts his institutional context, and if Graham Allison was right about where you stand depends on where you sit, being at the CIA ties Petraeus hands for two reasons: 1) CIA has global concerns (less dog in the Afghan fight) and 2) CIA has a firm institutional emphasis on not making policy. So the promotion is a win-win all around. Petraeus gets out of a fight that may be impossible to win and Obama removes (or at least lessens) a potential political landmine. The only downside is the poor guy who will get tagged with whatever comes in Afghanistan after the US leaves.

There is, however, a dark side to promoting Petraeus to the CIA. Since September 11, 2001, the CIA’s mission has increasingly focused on the US military mission. Military commanders have pressed progressively greater demands for timely battlefield intelligence and policy shifts that accompanied the Bush administration’s GWOT put the CIA on the front lines. These changes are not cost free. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen (and Andrew Bacevich regarding foreign policy broadly) among others has argued that the CIA since September 11 has become increasingly militarized at the expense of its traditional role as a collector and analyzer of political intelligence. It used to be the CIA’s primary job to know the kinds of things that might have led us to be less surprised by the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. The shift to a more militarized CIA means that the Agency no longer focuses on that kind of information (perhaps encouraging technological workarounds?), hence the surprise at the ‘Arab Spring.’ Since September 11, I think there is a good case to be made that we ask the CIA to do too much, and the increasing focus on militarily useful intelligence comes at the expense of the political intelligence that forms the basis of sound foreign policy-making. The appointment of Petraeus creates the real possibility that this pattern will not only continue but also be cemented and accelerated. If that is the case, Americans and their policy-makers will be increasingly in the dark about the world and what happens in it.


When Myths Meet Reality in Iraq and Afghanistan

What are America’s prospects in Afghanistan?  Two articles from The New York Times today throw light on the question. 

[America’s Afghanistan] strategy looks a lot like the one that brought General Petraeus success in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. With Iraq engulfed in apocalyptic violence, American field commanders reached out to nationalist-minded guerrilla leaders and found many of them exhausted by war and willing to make peace. About 100,000 Iraqis, many of them insurgents, came on the American payroll. 
The Americans were working both ends of the insurgency. As they made peace with some insurgent leaders, they intensified their efforts to kill the holdouts and fanatics. The violence, beginning in late 2007, dropped precipitously. 
Can the Americans pull off something similar in Afghanistan?
The other article provides a preliminary answer—by undermining the question’s premise. 
Members of United States-allied Awakening Councils have quit or been dismissed from their positions in significant numbers in recent months, prey to an intensive recruitment campaign by the Sunni insurgency, according to government officials, current and former members of the Awakening and insurgents. 
Although there are no firm figures, security and political officials say hundreds of the well-disciplined fighters — many of whom have gained extensive knowledge about the American military — appear to have rejoined Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Beyond that, officials say that even many of the Awakening fighters still on the Iraqi government payroll, possibly thousands of them, covertly aid the insurgency. 
The defections have been driven in part by frustration with the Shiite-led government, which Awakening members say is intent on destroying them, as well as by pressure from Al Qaeda. The exodus has accelerated since Iraq’s inconclusive parliamentary elections in March, which have left Sunnis uncertain of retaining what little political influence they have and which appear to have provided Al Qaeda new opportunities to lure back fighters. 
The Awakening members’ switch in loyalties poses a new threat to Iraq’s tenuous social and political balance during the country’s ongoing political crisis and as the United States military prepares to withdraw next year. 
* * *
One Awakening leader in Diyala, Bakr Karkhi, said during an interview that nearly two dozen of his fighters had rejoined Al Qaeda during the past few weeks, a process he said had been occurring throughout Sunni areas of Iraq. Other fighters, he said, had abruptly stopped reporting for duty. “I became suspicious when some of them started making questionable comments, so I expelled them,” he said. “Others left the Awakening on their own and then disappeared from their villages. We found out they were conducting illegal operations and cooperating with armed groups, including Al Qaeda.” 
Sic Transit Pax Petraeus.  The supposed success of the Iraq “surge” is still anything but clear or assured—despite bipartisan acclaim for it here in the U.S.  The eagerness with which Republicans and Democrats embraced the surge was, of course, not based on long-term research or deep insight.  It was simply an easy way to declare a kind of “victory” in a hugely expensive and bloody war entered on false pretenses and without strategic vision.  In that, it was much like George Bush’s declaration of victory in Iraq onboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln back in 2003. 
On the bright side, the myth of the surge has provided short-term cover for a drawdown of American troops—though some 50,000 remain in Iraq.  That is progress of a sort, but leaves the U.S. heavily committed and the Iraqis still incapable of solving their problems on their own.
The Obama/Petraeus strategy in Afghanistan is to forge a similar myth—as a basis for a similarly slow and hugely costly “withdrawal.”  But if neither the Afghan nor Iraqi surges leads to durable peace–due to deep political distrust between the indigenous forces there–then the policies will in fact be failures.  Sadly, the straws in the wind from today’s news point to exactly that–the predictable result when myths meet realities. 

Negotiating with the Taliban

He’s not alone, of course, but scholar Gilles Dorronsoro is quite pessimistic about the Afghan surge and ongoing counterinsurgency campaign:

The current counterinsurgency campaign shows little signs of accomplishing its mission. The surge is not enough to reverse the Taliban’s gains, or the quick decline of the Karzai government. Pakistan’s lack of support makes the Taliban sanctuary there a major strategic problem.

More troops and the latest strategy have failed to make progress. The war is not conclusive in the south — where stabilization could take years—and the Taliban is gaining momentum in the north.

Instead of being able to begin a withdrawal next summer, the United States could be forced to add more troops just to hold ground and compensate for our allies’ progressive withdrawal. Never mind turning back the Taliban’s gains.

He concludes that negotiation with the Taliban toward political solution is the only option. What are the prospects for negotiation — and for a successful outcome?

David Petraeus says this week that Afghan government and insurgent figures are already moving in that direction:

“There are very high-level Taliban leaders who have sought to reach out to the highest levels of the Afghan government and, indeed, have done that.

…certainly, we support them [initiatives by Karzai government] as we did in Iraq, as the U.K. did in Northern Ireland; this is how you end these kinds of insurgencies.”

The Taliban deny that any talks have occurred.

I suppose that could be read as good news since the Taliban may not want the Afghan people to think they would make common cause with its enemies. American hawks sometimes employ the same logic

Some westerners note that the alleged talks are merely “embryonic” and even Petraeus admits “This is very, very early stages, I don’t think you would yet call it negotiations, it is early discussions.”

Even if serious talks emerge, I’d hold off ordering the champagne to celebrate. First, the US and Afghan governments have established preconditions for talks that likely pose a huge hurdle to meaningful progress — insurgents must lay down their arms and accept the constitution. The Taliban likewise have stated their own preconditions — foreign troops must withdraw first.

Jeremy White says negotiations are ultimately doomed because the political solution the US has in mind fails to recognize the nature of the insurgency and may increase violence in the short-term as locals left out of payoff schemes launch attacks in order to get their fair share of any loot. He references his own on-the-ground research experiences to bolster these claims.

In any event, stay tuned. If everyone agrees (a big if) that the only solution can be political, then we have to hope for some sort of political solution. Right?


Where’d you hide the body?

Bloggers on the right have been trumpeting the apparent decline in Iraqi civilian deaths as a clear sign that the surge is working. Apparently, we do body counts now that we like the numbers.

However, I’ve been arguing since September that civilian deaths may well be down because Iraqis feel insecure and have simply fled their homes. Such self-segregation is a classic response to ethnic war and there’s new evidence suggesting this viewpoint is correct. From the AP’s Lauren Frayer on November 5:

Deadly rivalries have forced Shiite and Sunni Muslims to flee once diverse neighborhoods across Iraq’s capital, leaving the city with clear boundaries between sects. More than 60 percent of those forced to flee were in Baghdad, the report said… In some places like Shiite-dominated Hurriyah in northwest Baghdad, fighting has subsided because there are literally no more Sunnis left to kill.

Representative David Obey of Wisconsin: Insurgents “are running out of people to kill.” Even General Petraeus acknowledges that this is part of the explanation for the reduction in the death rate.

The Iraqi Red Crescent reports that nearly 2.3 million people fled their homes but remained in Iraq, up from less than 500,000 at the beginning of the year. These “internally displaced persons” now outnumber refugees who have crossed state borders for Jordan or Syria. The AP again:

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, some 2 million Iraqis have fled their country. Of these, 1.2 million are in Syria, 750,000 in Jordan, 100,000 in Egypt, 54,000 in Iran, 40,000 in Lebanon, 10,000 in Turkey and 200,000 in various Persian Gulf countries.

Altogether, adding the IDPs and the refugees means that nearly 4.5 million Iraqis are no longer living in their former homes.

Make that 5 million counting the war dead — or nearly 20% of the July 2007 estimated population.

More bodies: the U.S. military has already suffered more dead soldiers in 2007 than in any other year of the war.

Post title inspired by James McMurtry.



General Petraeus finished delivering his prepared remarks to the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees not long ago — and I’ve already been interviewed about them by the local NPR station (WFPL).

Basically, I concluded that his report was not surprising. Most analysts expected an optimistic assessment that would not call for a substantial reduction in American troops. The General is only talking about returning the US troop level to pre-surge levels by mid-July 2008. A modest proposal, eh?

I also noted a few points that General Petraeus did not address (though many in the blogosphere have):

  • What about seasonal violence? Yes, violence is down since the surge began in mid-June. But violence goes down every summer when it is hot. How much different was it this year?
  • What about the refugees? How much of the decline in ethnic violence is attributable to the fact that up to 100,000 Iraqis are fleeing the country every month?
  • What about winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis? Petraeus did not mention the latest ABC/BBC/NHK poll finding that nearly 60% of Iraqis think it is acceptable to target American troops. How can counterinsurgency succeed in such a context?

In short, I wasn’t shocked, or awed.


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