The General: David Petraeus

By Fareed Zakaria
Monday, December 21, 2009; 9:00 AM

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.

ZAKARIA: Using those words? Because the Bush administration up to that point had specifically denounced nation building. Condoleezza Rice wrote an article in Foreign Affairs saying that the 82nd Airborne should not be assisting kids to go to school.

PETRAEUS: 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.

ZAKARIA: 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."

PETRAEUS: 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.

ZAKARIA: 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."

PETRAEUS: 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.

ZAKARIA: What is the central lesson of counterinsurgency?

PETRAEUS: "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.

ZAKARIA: 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.

PETRAEUS: 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.

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