Nation & World

Petraeus addresses John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum

4 min read

General talks of lessons learned, challenges ahead

Gen. David H. Petraeus, chief of the United States Central Command, spoke at Harvard April 21, offering his perspective on leadership and lessons learned in Iraq, and his take on the United States’ strategy for the future security of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

His appearance at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum was a special ticketed event under tight security. Outside, a handful of protestors with signs stood in the rain on the sidewalk along the Littauer Building. But inside, the mood was friendly as Petraeus engaged in a conversation with David Gergen, professor of public service at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (HKS) and director of its Center for Public Leadership.

“When you went to Iraq people said it was hopeless … and it turned around,” said Gergen. “What leadership lessons did you learn from Iraq?”

“We sat down and we tried to get the big ideas right,” responded Petraeus.

Four primary ideas emerged from this analysis, he said, the first and foremost of which was the notion of securing and serving the people — something that could only happen by American forces living directly with the Iraqi population.

“You can’t ‘commute to the fight,’ as we say. You can’t drive through the neighborhood a couple of times a day and go back to your big base and expect them to feel a sense of security.”

Educating commanders about key strategies, overseeing their execution, and effectively exploiting lessons learned from the strategies’ employment were the other top three “big ideas,” said the general, who admitted to reading Bruce Catton’s “Grant Takes Command,” as a source of inspiration and guidance at the end of particularly difficult days in Iraq.

Clearing an area of insurgents, holding it, maintaining its security, and building up the area are other essential moves in the securing of any hostile region. Equally important is the next step: promoting reconciliation.

“You have to promote reconciliation. You can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency like that which we faced in Iraq,” noted Petraeus, adding that the process involved separating hard-core radicals who would be “part of the problem forever” from those who were reconcilable and could become part of the solution.

Petraeus took command of the multinational force in Iraq in 2007 and is widely considered responsible for the success of the troop surge and the subsequent reduction of violence and attacks on U.S. forces.

The general, who is known for his ease at connecting with troops, praised the effectiveness of e-mail, a tool that he said enables him to communicate directly with his junior officers, a key component of good leadership.

“It’s a wonderful tool, it does allow you to reach down. … It also allows them to reach up.”

Many of the lessons learned and the ideas developed from the conflict in Iraq can be applied to the situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Petraeus, but not without modification.

The goal in working with Pakistan, whose Afghanistan border has become a haven for insurgents, is to help its officials understand that their country’s biggest threat comes from internal extremists, not from neighboring India, said Petraeus. He noted the difficulty of communicating this relatively foreign concept to many Pakistanis, calling it “intellectually dislocating.”

Afghanistan was the subject that raised the most questions among the forum crowd, many of whom wondered about the best way forward.

While many of the same strategies and lessons learned from Iraq apply to Afghanistan, said Petraeus, numerous other factors are at play. Understanding institutional structures and influences, important cultural differences, and the rampant drug trade (the “oxygen of terrorist movements”) are all critical.

Above all, he noted, the process of securing the country will take time. The United States is committing additional troops and financial aid and is training civilians who will complement local security forces in the coming months, but the security situation won’t improve right away.

“We do believe that we can achieve progress,” Petraeus said, “but it’s going to get worse before it gets better, just as it did in Iraq.”