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After Iraq Tenure, Examining What Petraeus Brings to Afghan Effort

June 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Pending confirmation by the Senate, Gen. David Petraeus will take the helm of U.S. forces and counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Judy Woodruff gets three views on how Petraeus will lead the war effort.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the changes General Petraeus might make in prosecuting the Afghanistan war, we get three views by people who have worked with or have written about him.

Retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor was his executive officer in 2007 and 2008 during the surge in Iraq. He’s now a professor of military history at Ohio State University. Kimberly Kagan is the president of the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank. She was last in Afghanistan in March. And Greg Jaffe is a military reporter for The Washington Post. He’s also co-author a book that profiled General Petraeus: “The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army.”

Thank you, all three, for being with us.

Greg Jaffe, to you first.

Remind us what General Petraeus’ leadership style is.

GREG JAFFE, The Washington Post: Well, you know, he’s very good politically.

I mean, one of the things I think he did a great job with — and I think Pete Mansoor can talk about this in depth — is establish a relationship with Prime Minister Maliki that wasn’t always a comfortable. It wasn’t always a happy relationship. But I think he was able to push Maliki, along with the U.S. ambassador there, Ryan Crocker, to really do things that were both in the Iraqis’ interest and in the broader U.S. interest.

So, that’s critical. He’s also very good at getting a few big ideas out to the troops, getting their sort of buy-in and getting this kind of sprawling force moving in the same direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kimberly Kagan, what would you add to that? What will he bring that’s different?

KIMBERLY KAGAN, president, Institute for the Study of War: He’s also an energetic commander, like General McChrystal was. The headquarters a year ago was energized by General McChrystal.

I think that General Petraeus will bring that. But he will also bring a fount of experience from his time in Iraq, including how to see — oversee a counterinsurgency fight, which involves improving the government, the economics and the social structure which in Afghanistan is so fragmented. In Iraq…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pulling it together?

KIMBERLY KAGAN: Pulling it together, synthesizing it, and seeing to it that securing the people is but one element of a larger strategy to see to it that the Afghan government gets built and gets built in a way that endures over time, rather than collapsing again and again into civil war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Colonel Peter Mansoor, elaborate on that. You did work closely with him in Iraq.

COL. PETER MANSOOR, U.S. ARMY: Well, what I would to what Greg had to say, besides a relationship that I’m sure General Petraeus will attempt to forge with President Karzai, is that he will attempt to forge a better relationship with Ambassador Eikenberry.

He had a very successful team relationship with Ambassador Crocker in Iraq, and it was one of the reasons why we had unity of effort during the surge in 2007, 2008. So far, we haven’t had that kind of unity in Afghanistan, and I think that will be job number one when he gets there, to form the team both with Ambassador Eikenberry and with President Karzai.

And one of the things he did in Iraq, for instance, whenever he saw Prime Minister Maliki, he would always go together with Ambassador Crocker. There was never playing one off against the other.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What can you tell us at this point, Greg Jaffe, about his relationships with some of these key players in Afghanistan?

GREG JAFFE: Well, you know, he’s clearly known Ambassador Eikenberry for a long time. Both of them are infantry officers in the Army. They both kind of grew up together around the same tile. They had different career paths.

But it’s clearly someone he knows, and, as Pete suggested, I’m sure he will go out of his way to forge a close relationship with, despite the fact that they may have some differences on how best to sort of prosecute the campaign. He’s clearly spent time with Karzai. McChrystal had the main relationship there. And McChrystal and Karzai had a very warm relationship.

You know, the Petraeus/Karzai relationship may not be as warm. I think Petraeus may use his influence to push Karzai to do things that may not be as comfortable for him. I think — you know, Petraeus is very savvy in managing that relationship. So, it may not be as smooth from the outside but it may be more productive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kimberly Kagan, picking up on what you started to bring up a minute ago, the skills that served him well in Iraq, because people look at the two wars and say they — they aren’t necessarily at all the same kind of war. So, what skills that were useful in Iraq do transfer to Afghanistan?

KIMBERLY KAGAN: Although Afghanistan and Iraq are different conflicts, the truth is that a counterinsurgency fight has certain shapes. You have to take care of the problem in a very specific way.

As General Petraeus was quoted as saying in the opening segment, you actually have to defeat the enemy in the sanctuaries and safe havens that he has established. You have to work to establish government that is viewed as legitimate in the eyes of the people.

And you have to mediate between the people and the government when there is a dispute between them. And then, in addition to that, you have the challenge of building host nation security forces to make sure that over time the country can defend itself, but not push those forces out too far too fast without U.S. or coalition partners to help them really get to the level of quality that they need to be at in order to protect and defend their country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter Mansoor, Colonel Mansoor, do you have a sense of how General Petraeus sees the similarities between the two countries, the two wars?

COL. PETER MANSOOR: Well, I think we would all agree that there’s differences in terms of the people, the cultural aspects, the terrain, the climate.

But there are some similarities as well. We are fighting an insurgency, and all insurgencies, there are certain principles that can used against them. One is that you have to — that war is fought and won or lost among the people. And that’s something that General Petraeus will transfer with him from Iraq to Afghanistan. I think it’s what everyone knew, but it’s how you go about executing that that matters.

I think one of the things he will look at right away, for instance, is the rules of engagement and whether they’re being applied correctly by the troops at the lower levels. There’s a lot of concern among the troops in Afghanistan that their hands are being tied. And what we found in Iraq early in 2007, where there was the same sort of sense among the troops, is that the rules of engagement were OK, but there were a lot of risk-averse commanders that were applying them incorrectly down at the lower levels.

So, I think General Petraeus will take a look at that and that’s just one example of how he will transfer things that he did in Iraq to Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you refer to rules of engagement, this is having a concern about civilian casualties. So, are you saying that — are you referring to the concern that that’s been too much of a concern in Afghanistan?

COL. PETER MANSOOR: The concern among the troops right now is that they can’t fight the enemy, that their hands are being tied, that even when they’re in clear situations, they’re allowing the enemy to escape or they can’t keep them in detention due to overly restrictive rules, that they can’t use the types of weapons they need to even in clear situations where they’re fighting against Taliban.

So, I think this is something that will be looked at. And I think it will be communicated in a very clear and forthright manner to the troops, so that they understand the rules of engagement and they understand how and why they have to be applied.

And I think that, you know, what that article showed was that the troops right now don’t understand that. So, General Petraeus, you know, he’s a master communicator, and he will get out among the troops and he will get that message out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, Greg Jaffe, what we heard Defense Secretary Gates say — and we saw this in the clip a minute ago — today is that, while General Petraeus won’t have the ability to change the basic strategy, he will be able to look at the approach and make some changes.

GREG JAFFE: Yes. No, and I think that there will be changes. I think, as Pete suggested, he is very good at communicating a few big ideas to troops, kind of getting folks on the same page.

So, I can imagine that will happen. You know, he’s also a risk-taker, as he proved in Iraq during the surge in terms of reaching out to the Sunnis, kind of trying to — the Sunni insurgent population, particularly in that country, and reaching out to enemies.

So, I would expect there to be an aggressive push to reach out to some of the more reconcilable elements of the insurgency in Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that? Do you expect to see visible changes?

KIMBERLY KAGAN: I think that every general makes adjustments when he gets on the ground, thinks about how we’re conducting the operations in Kandahar or in Helmand, how to balance forces, whether — and whether we are doing all of the things that we need to be doing to succeed.

This conflict is complicated, but the United States can achieve its objectives. What General Petraeus needs to do is figure out how to apply our forces better and how to use the political leverage that the United States and the international community have to facilitate President Karzai doing some things that may not be in his personal interests, but are in the interests of the country, creating of him the statesman that he can be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All the reports coming in so far on General Petraeus, at least in the last day or so, the reviews have been very positive, glowing.

Kimberly Kagan, just quickly, is there anything we need to know about him that’s less than perfect?

KIMBERLY KAGAN: Well, I have great respect for him. He’s a terrific commander. He comes in, and he gets ahold of a problem set, he thinks it through, and he comes to a clear solution about it.

Does he adjust time and time again after that? Sometimes. But it takes a lot to persuade him to adjust. So, that means that there will be a lot of forward momentum after six or eight weeks, and it will harder to correct his course six months out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter Mansoor, any tarnish on this — this general?

COL. PETER MANSOOR: Well, I would agree with Kim, in that one of the hardest things for General Petraeus to do is to admit failure. He’s a man that hasn’t failed very much, if at all, in his life.

And I remember flying across the Atlantic with him on the way to Iraq, and I remember telling him that the hardest thing for him to do, should it come to that, is to tell the president that the strategy isn’t working. And so it will be very — you know, he is going to give his all to this mission. And if anyone can get this — this mission accomplished and turn this war around and get it spiraling upward again, it will be General Petraeus.

The other thing is…

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think we’re going to have to leave it there. My apology.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We will come back to you soon to let you finish that thought.

Colonel Peter Mansoor, Kimberly Kagan, Greg Jaffe, thank you all.

GREG JAFFE: Thanks.

COL. PETER MANSOOR: Thank you.