As America's most famous warrior-scholar looks to export his Big Ideas about fighting wars from Iraq to the arguably even tougher battlefield of Afghanistan, FP's executive editor, Susan Glasser, spoke with him in the Pentagon days after he took over his new command.
Gen. David Petracus: In looking at which lessons learned in Iraq might be applicable in Afghanistan, it is important to remember a key principle of counterinsurgency operations: Every case is unique. That is certainly true of Afghanistan (just as it was true, of course, in Iraq). While general concepts that proved important in Iraq may be applicable in Afghanistan--concepts such as the importance of securing and serving the population and the necessity of living among the people to secure them--the application of those 'big ideas' has to be adapted to Afghanistan. The 'operationalization' will inevitably be different, as Afghanistan has a very different history and very different 'muscle memory' in terms of central governance (or lack thereof). It also lacks the natural resources that Iraq has and is more rural. It has very different (and quite extreme) terrain and weather. And it has a smaller amount of educated human capital, due to higher rates of illiteracy, as well as substantial unemployment, an economy whose biggest cash export is illegal, and significant challenges of corruption. Finally, it lacks sufficient levels of basic services like electricity, drinking water, and education--though there has been progress in a number of these areas and many others since 2001.
One cannot adequately address the challenges in Afghanistan without adding Pakistan into the equation. In fact, those seeking to help Afghanistan and Pakistan need to widen the aperture even farther, to encompass at least the Central Asian states, India, Iran, and even China and Russia.
FP: Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that U.S. efforts in Afghanistan were really on the verge of failure. What's your incoming assessment?
DP: I told [then] Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in September 2005 that Afghanistan would be the longest campaign in the so-called 'long war.' That judgment was based on an assessment I conducted in Afghanistan on my way home from my second tour in Iraq. And having been back to Afghanistan twice in recent months, I still see it that way. Progress there will require a sustained, substantial commitment. That commitment needs to be extended to Pakistan as well, though Pakistan does have large, well-developed security institutions and its leaders are determined to employ their own forces in dealing with the significant extremist challenges that threaten their country.
FP: I was rereading an account of an Afghan veteran from Soviet operations there. After every retaliatory strike, he said, 'Perhaps one mujahideen was killed. The rest were innocent. The survivors hated us and lived with only one idea--revenge.' Clearly [U.S.] engagement in Afghanistan didn't start out in the same way as the Soviets' did, but one of the questions is whether all these occupations wind up similarly after seven years.
DP: A number of people have pointed out the substantial differences between the character of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and that of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, especially in the circumstances that led to the respective involvement, as well as in the relative conduct, of the forces there. Foremost among the differences have been the coalition's objectives: not just the desire to help the Afghans establish security and preclude establishment of extremist safe havens, but also to support economic development, democratic institutions, the rule of law, infrastructure, and education. To be sure, the coalition faces some of the same challenges that any of the previous forces in Afghanistan have faced: the same extreme terrain and weather, tribal elements that pride themselves on fighting, lack of infrastructure, and so on. …