Gen. David Petraeus Transcript

Table of Contents

I: A Surge of Ideas 0:15 – 18:32
II: Petraeus’s Command in Iraq 18:32 – 47:04
III: Turning the Tide 47:04 – 1:07:04

I: A Surge of Ideas (0:15 – 18:32)

KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to have with me today David Petraeus, retired General David Petraeus, who was in command, of course, in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. Such a long career, distinguished public service. I don’t even know where to begin this conversation.

Maybe we can begin with Iraq. You famously took over there and turned it around – the surge. People thought it couldn’t work, but it did work. I think people would be fascinated to know, how did it happen? Where were you? How do you suddenly go from – Where were you? You were in Leavenworth?

KRISTOL: I was a three star at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, overseeing the organization that, really, was in charge of all the leader development training: the Command General and Staff College, our majors’ academy, the scenarios of the Combat Training Centers, doctrine, history, all these different activities. It was called the “Engine of Change for our Army.” And it was quite a substantial lever at that time, in particular, because we knew that the Army had to make – overhaul, really, the whole process of preparing units – individuals and leaders – for deployment to Iraq and to Afghanistan.

That was the year in which we did the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. I was there for about 15 months, actually. We did the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. We really overhauled what was termed the “Road to Deployment.” Overhauled all the courses that were taught to the lieutenants, the captains, the majors, and so forth. The sergeants major, the senior noncommissioned officers.

It was an exhilarating time, in many respects. It was very intellectually stimulating. It was a lot of challenging, intellectual discussion during that period because we knew that we had to change a lot of what it was that we were doing, not only to prepare our forces and to train them and so forth, but then how we were operating in the field, as well.

KRISTOL: Before we get to Iraq, do you feel like that worked? I mean, do you feel that you made the Army and the military, in general, sort of was able to change in accord with the new challenges?

PETRAEUS: We did. What was interesting is I went to the Chief of Staff of the Army. I got back from my second tour of Iraq, which was a 15-and-half-month tour, having served there a year or so as a division commander, two-star general in the very beginning, the fight to Baghdad in the first year. And then went back pretty quickly after that. First, to do an assessment, then went home, gave the results of the assessment to the Secretary of Defense. He said, “Get over there and implement it.” This was the train-and-equip mission. Spent 15 and a half months doing that, and then as I said, went to Fort Leavenworth.

And on the way back, went to the Chief of Staff of the Army and said, “Chief, do you got any guidance for me?” And he looked at me and said, “Shake up the Army, Dave.” And I said, “I can do that, Chief.” It was an extraordinarily, really, a teams of teams effort where, again, we all knew – I was a three star at the time. The four star above me, certainly – in fact, I replaced him, he was in position before me – then, the two stars that were under us – all knew we had to overhaul all the different activities that we were pursuing, and we did.

But the most important, I think, at the end of the day was sort of the intellectual foundation on which we built when we went back to Iraq. A lot of us were home for – after a first or a second tour. I had almost two and a half years on the ground by the time I went back for the surge. And I mention often times that the surge that mattered most was not the surge of forces.

We added about 25,000, maybe, 30,000 forces, when it was all said and done, to an existing, somewhere almost, 140,000 US troops. And so that would not predict mathematically that you would do what we were able to do, which is drive the level of violence down by some 85 or more percent, and that it would then stay down for three years after the surge was over and as we drew down our forces and so forth, up until tragically it was undone by Prime Minister Maliki when he launched a series of highly sectarian and divisive activities in very late 2011 after our forces had left.

But the surge that mattered most was the surge of ideas. It was the change of strategy, and in many respects, this represented quite a significant change to what it was we were doing prior to the surge. We were in the process throughout 2006 of really consolidating, getting onto big bases, handing off to the Iraqi forces, and accelerating that process, even though the level of violence continued to rise and it was becoming very clear at a certain point that the Iraqi forces couldn’t handle that level of violence. In fact, they were not only not unable to handle the level of violence where it was, much less the rising level, they were actually getting worse because they were getting increasingly beaten up, intimidated, corrupted, demoralized by the situation that they were facing.

There was a prevailing view that we needed to hand off to them, as late as November of 2006. The meeting after the election that President Bush had with Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq in Jordan actually endorsed an acceleration of what it was we were doing. So consolidate on big bases, get out of the neighborhoods. There was almost a sense that we were part of the problem, instead of part of the solution.

And we went in, and with the surge, we obviously – there were a series of big ideas. One was that number one, we had to provide security for the people. That was the foundation for all other progress. Without that, you could not achieve progress in any of the other areas.

And so you had to secure the people, and the only way you could do it – biggest of the big ideas – was by living with them. So we established – just in the divisional area that encompassed Baghdad alone – some 77 additional locations in which our forces were located. Most of which also had Iraqi forces co-located with them. Many of these, if not the majority, required serious fights to reestablish or establish these locations because we picked, frankly, the sectarian fault-lines. This was where the fighting was the most intense, and we literally had to position our forces between, on the one side, the Sunni Insurgents and Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and, then on the other side, the Shia Militia, supported by, increasingly by Iran.

Over time, that obviously, that did work. So that was the biggest of the big ideas. You’ve got to live with the people to secure them. Beyond that, we not only stopped the transition to Iraqi forces, we reversed it. We just took places back over to which we had transitioned control to Iraqis, and it was clearly not working. And then we had to reconstitute Iraqi forces. So we literally would have to take entire brigades offline, put them into training centers, beef them back up with people or equipment and so forth, and then train them for a at least a month, and then put them back into the fight. And a very, very extended process required for that.

Beyond that, we then pursued very aggressively reconciliation. So this is really trying to get the Sunni Arabs back into the fabric of Iraqi society. Of course, a Shia majority society with a Shia Prime Minister, understandably. And this fabric had been torn apart by a sense of the Sunni Arabs being alienated from this Shia-led government. And in a sense, because of the De-Ba’athification and firing the military without telling them what their future was, and de-Ba’athification again – this is, the firing of the members of the party down to a certain level, fairly medium level, without reconciliation.

Again, these were two policies that were catastrophic in their effects, and they took place in the first year – very early in the first year of the war – and we really never could fully recover from that until we were able to institute a policy of reconciliation, which, initially, we built on an instance that was already ongoing outside Ramada in Anbar Province in Western Iraq, Sunni Arab majority area. And we decided on our own we’re going to build on this. There was very little Iraqi governmental presence because the insurgents were so dominant there. That was yet another big idea, and then there were a whole host of others.

But by the way, there’s one other that’s very important because folks at times have said, “Well, Petraeus, he brought the kinder, gentler face to this,” and we did. We very much beefed up the so-called nation-building activities. All the local governance and jobs and schools and hospitals and all of the different services we tried to reestablish.

Again, you can’t do that until you have security, and when you start to reconcile with the large numbers of what used to be mid- and lower-level insurgents, you now can identify the higher-level insurgents and Al-Qaeda leaders much more effectively. And General McChrystal, and then Admiral McRaven after him, led our Special Mission Unit forces, and we were very, very aggressive and really amped that up many times over, with the start of the surge as well, doing as many as 15 precise operations each night in what were called kill-or-capture raids.

We wanted to capture individuals, we wanted to detain them, we wanted to interrogate them, in accordance with the rule of law and so forth. We’re firm believers that if you want information, reliable information, from a detainee, you become his best friend. You don’t have to resort to other means. In fact, those will normally bite you in the backside because they’re going to cost you more in the long term than any information you’re going to get, by and large. And we had enormous success in that regard, as well. Our Special Operations forces were phenomenal in what they did. Then we had to overhaul a whole bunch of other areas and really to build on what General Casey and Ambassador Khalilzad had done, so Ambassador Crocker and I really increased even more the unity of effort.

You’re not going to have unity of command. I reported to the Department of Defense or Central Command. He reported to the Department of State. But you had to have unity of effort, and we literally sat next to each other, shared the same waiting room, we were in each other’s office. Any time either of us went to see Prime Minister Maliki, we would both go. And we would literally sit in the chair next to him, depending on whose meeting it was. So if it was my meeting with the Prime Minister, I’d sit there, interpreter between us, my interpreter, and the Ambassador over here. If it was his meeting, he’d sit there, his interpreter, and I’d be over here. And occasionally, we actually switched places just so the Prime Minister was clear who was now in charge of the American side of the meeting.

KRISTOL: That’s good. And probably the term, “the surge,” which I probably had a little part in publicizing – it was, in a way, unfortunate because it does make it seem that it was just quantity and not a really radical qualitative change in approach.

I’ve talked – I’m not an expert on this at all – I’ve talked to military historians and analysts who say it’s one of the most impressive, sort of abrupt – I mean, you laid the conceptual groundwork for it, but operationally, making it happen as quickly and successfully as you and your colleagues did was really unusual.

PETRAEUS: The additional forces, obviously, what they did do was they enabled us to much more rapidly implement the new big ideas, if you will. Keep in mind, we’d spent the previous 15 months back in the states, a lot of us, developing this intellectual foundation, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual captured it and then began its process of institutionalization, even as we were overhauling the scenarios through which our brigades and divisions and core headquarters went in the road of deployment. But now we’re implementing it and these additional forces gave us enormous ability, again, to much more rapidly to do that and then that enabled us to report progress, frankly, when the Ambassador and I had to go back to Congress.

We had this staring us in the face. When I went through the confirmation hearing, I had to pledge that I would be back within six months or so, and I managed to stretch it to September – ironically, September 11. And a very, very emotional, explosive, and, you know, glare-of-the-spotlight hearing. But we were able to report significant progress.

KRISTOL: I remember that so well. They couldn’t deny it. How did it work? Operationally, you’re at Leavenworth, what happens when you take over command in a war and how does it just – how did you hear about it?

PETRAEUS: Actually, I mean – we were out – I had been told that I was very likely going to go back to Iraq and to replace General Casey when he came home. I think he was at the two-and-a-half-year mark at this point in time, roughly. I thought it would be the next summer, it turned out to be that they moved that up a little bit. My father was ailing, he was in an assisted living out near where my sister lives in Santa Clarita, California. So knowing, again, that I was likely going to head back to Iraq, I wanted to be sure to see him at least one more time. So my wife and son and I flew out to LA, and we’re in a rental SUV headed up to the location – I was on leave.

It was New Year’s – you do it over the weekend, always. On the way, all of the sudden, and I had my laptop out, and a cell phone out, and every single cell phone in the car went off simultaneously. I was literally watching my inbox, and it just starts scrolling with all the messages coming in. And it’s from all the different press, and what had happened, it was starting to leak that – or at the very least, it was a lot of people trying to get a hold of me. I think that was the initial. They were trying every way they can because the Secretary of Defense wants to talk to me. So we pull over into a convenience store parking lot, and I’m taking what was, you know, one of the most important calls of my life, and Secretary says, “President intends to nominate you to be the Multinational Force Iraq Commander.”

I wanted to have a little bit of a conversation and say, “You know, you need to understand who you’re getting. I want you to understand I’m going to provide my best professional military advice, based on facts on the ground, informed by an awareness of the issues in which you and the President deal, but based by facts on the ground, sir.”

KRISTOL: Did you know Gates, particularly, at this point?

PETRAEUS: Not particularly. Actually, what was interesting was that the day after he was sworn in, actually, the night he was sworn in. He was sworn in, I think, in late November or early December of 2006. And, you know, the level of violence was skyrocketing. He’d been on the Baker-Hamilton Commission, which had very sort of mixed, sort of recommendations that were a bit of a spectrum, shall we say.

I got a call that afternoon, I think – the afternoon he was sworn in late morning or early afternoon. I got a call right away, and it said, “Secretary wants to see you tomorrow morning in the Pentagon.” So we rustled up a plane, I guess, or got some ticket and flew back to Washington. Early the next morning, I went in and saw him. And he said, “Look, I’m headed over to Iraq, and I just want to know what you think I should look for.” And I said, “Well, you know, with great respect, I think you basically need to ask people, ‘Is the strategy working?’” I mean, clearly, the level of violence had been skyrocketing; clearly, a lot of what we have been doing does not seem to have been working. I learned later, I found a document that was actually signed by the Commander and the Ambassador that said, “The strategy is failing to achieve its intended aims.” So this is, really, the essence of the issue.

If it is not, are there any folks out there that have some sense of what ought to be done? I was very, very fortunate that Lieutenant General Ray Odierno had just taken over as the Multinational Core Iraq Commander. So he was at the operational level; I was going to be, eventually, the four star, although I didn’t know it at that time. And he knew what we need to do. He also had – there were Plans Officers there who knew that we needed to secure the people, we needed to live with them, and to be fair to General Casey as well, there was already an initiative that was just beginning, in fact, as I took over to establish the first Joint Security Station, that was the first of these locations in a neighborhood.

In fact, I remember visiting it, I think, right before it was established, or very quickly thereafter. The day after I took command when we went around Baghdad in various armored vehicles and helicopters, and I was just shocked, frankly, by what I saw. I knew Baghdad very well from when I had been there as a two star for a few weeks and then as a three star, the train-and-equip, we had built an awful lot of police stations and an awful lot of them were blown up, frankly. It was just horrific. I actually – that’s the one I’ve confessed years later that I went back after that particular daylong visit to all these different units and put my head on the desk, and my hooch there in my room, had a table and a bunch of computers, comms gear, and everything else – I did a lot of work in there at night – And I thought, “What in the world was I thinking?”

KRISTOL: And this is January?

PETRAEUS: This is early February after I took over.

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