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General Petraeus grew up in Cornwall-on-Hudson, just 7 miles from West Point.

His father was a Dutch sea captain who, unable to get back into port in Rotterdam during the war, joined the US merchant navy. His mother was a librarian from Brooklyn. He enjoyed many “broadening cultural experiences” as a kid, but his father was “all about results” – giving him a healthy dose of reality from an early age.



He grew up admiring those from West Point but as a student, he nearly threw in the towel after two years after spending the summer hitchhiking up the West Coast. He benefitted hugely from West Point’s emphasis on physical fitness, “intellectual rigor and the “enormous opportunity to lead at a very young age.”

The Iraq surge of 2007

The surge was a response to a situation in Iraq that was “very out of control.” 53 civilians were being killed every 24 hours in Baghdad alone. But it was also a very high-risk strategy that entailed a 180-degree shift from what went before – i.e. handing off to Iraqi forces. Had the approach failed, the country could have gone up in flames. 25,000 extra American troops were brought in, but the real surge was in ideas.

Things got worse before they got better. It was a very, very difficult “grinding” experience. Violence went down 85% over 18 months of surge and then went down further until the US withdrew. “Tragically,” the PM then started undoing the progress, something which was hard for him to watch as CIA Director. 

There were several narrowly averted crises during his time in Iraq. When a crisis occurs (e.g. innocent civilians being killed, shrines being attacked), you have to make an assessment and find ways to mitigate risks. It is important to go out with the truth, the bad news. Don’t try to put lipstick on the pig. 

In the campaign, they “constantly work[ed] on getting the big ideas, right.” It was critical to ensure that the intent of the leadership was widely understood and could be put into practice through the daily actions of soldiers. It is also important to “formally sit down and determine how to refine the big ideas”, again and again. A lot of this is captured in his work on strategic leadership with Harvard’s Belfer Center.

Afghanistan

Biden’s decision to withdraw troops is a mistake. He wants to end the “never ending war” but that won’t happen. All he is doing is ending US involvement: the war itself will likely get worse.

Yes, partners can be “maddening, infuriating, corrupt” but the US is taking an enormous risk in fully withdrawing. With a modest contingent of about 3,500-4,500 hundred troops (compare to the 100k US troops and 50k coalition troops when he was the Commander in Afghanistan) we could maintain things and keep Al Qaeda, Islamic State and other extremists in check. By pulling out, we have given the Taliban just what they wanted – in the same way the Soviets did when they withdrew.

The transformation in Afghanistan since the US went in has been huge. Girls are now educated; that is now in jeopardy. The US has no other bases in the region. Pakistan won’t let US troops back in. It might get a base in Uzbekistan but that is not close by. So, this withdrawal is very significant. If there is a full-blown civil war expect millions of refugees to flood into Pakistan, a nuclear power that is already “beset by problems.”

There is still uncertainty about what level of commitment the US will have to the Afghan Security Services going forward. We could well end up with the kind of civil war that we had before, including a fall back to war lord-led units in the north.

The Afghanistan pull-out will not have a particular influence on Iraq and Syria, so long as we maintain our commitments in those countries. The bigger question is if the US does not have the appetite to keep 3,500 troops in Afghanistan, does it really have the will for a long-term systemic competition with China? He feels that perceived US weakness around the red line in Syria – which proved not to be a red line – may have influenced Russia’s decision to go into Crimea and China’s behaviour in the South China Sea.

5 lessons we should draw from the wars of the past 20 years with Islamist terrorists:

  1. They will exploit ungoverned spaces in the Muslim world.
  2. You have to do something about this or it will move: violence, instability and refugees will be exported.
  3. Due to its military strength (drones, precision air attack and intelligence), the US has to lead, but working with a coalition is important; that coalition should include Muslim countries.
  4. You can’t just counter terrorists with counter-terrorism forces. You can disrupt them that way but if you want to take back control you have to have a comprehensive approach. The US has learnt how to support host nation forces to do the actual fighting with US drone, intelligence, and close air support. 
  5. We must recognise that this is a generational struggle. We have to keep at it. We need a sustained (and sustainable) commitment, in terms of blood and money.

The good thing is that we know these things now and have the right capabilities. This should allow the US to refocus on resurgent great power rivalries (China and Russia).

China vs Taiwan

He believes the chances of a Chinese invasion are slim in the short term, though you can never discount the possibility of a miscommunication or a misperception. We need to work hard to see that that does not happen, including building up deterrence. “Deterrence is a function of the adversary’s perception of your will….will matters here.” You have to make it “very clear” that you have both the will and the capabilities.

Strategic engagement with China is crucially important. The Biden Administration is going about this in a very competent manner. To try to influence Xi / China you have to have a coherent, comprehensive, “whole of governments” (i.e. working with allies) approach.

We have been supporting Taiwan in many different ways. Would the US respond militarily if all hell broke loose there? Yes, he thinks so, though he does not foresee a change in the US rhetorical policy, which has always had a slight degree of ambiguity. He doesn’t think that the US will put in place an Article 5 Collective Self Defense agreement with Taiwan (as it has with Japan and NATO). That would be provocative.

Russia

Russia seems to be pulling its troops back from the Ukraine border. He thinks they were mostly there as a distraction from domestic political issues (“domestic source of foreign policy”) around Navalny and the flat economy. Putin likes to show the rest of the world that he is still relevant (as he did by going into Syria, getting involved in Libya, plus incursions into Georgia, South Ossetia, etc.). But the US and major European partners all engaged to get Russia to withdraw. Putin saw he was in trouble; more western sanctions on Russia would not be popular. Putin’s worst nightmare would be an economically successful, vibrant Ukrainian democracy.

Quick fire

  • JCPOA: yes he thinks we will go back to this but questions whether going back would be a good deal. We need to extend the length, do something about the missile program, etc. The big deterrent here is that if the Iranians do get weapons-grade uranium, the only remaining option will be to take it out physically and who knows where that would go.
  • Covid vaccines: He does not think the US will release doses to Covax until it has completely satisfied remaining demand. There has to be sufficient vaccine when those who are hesitant finally see the light. But we are only secure when everyone is secure. We have to appreciate this.
  • Would Churchill be a leader today? Churchill was a truly extraordinary strategic leader who was lucky with timing.
  • The military leader he most admires is Ulysses S Grant. He was brilliant in combat at a tactical level, an operational level and a strategic level.
  • The next country to land on the moon will most likely be the US though China has a good shot.
  • UFOs: yes, there are unexplained phenomena, but there are no extra-terrestrials. The CIA plays along with this idea for fun.