December 18, 2006
"We Have to Raise our Sights Beyond the Range of an M-16"

In an interview with SPIEGEL, General David Petraeus, a former commander in Iraq who is now responsible for training United States Army troops, discusses the lessons of Baghdad, the reasons a war can't be won using weapons alone and why America's future warriors need a post-graduate education.

SPIEGEL: General Petraeus, you were in charge of combat operations in Iraq, you supervised the build-up of the new Iraqi security force and now you oversee the training and education of Army officers here at Fort Leavenworth. Would you agree that you are trying to impose a sort of a cultural revolution on the United States Army?

Petraeus: There is quite a big cultural change going on. We used to say, that if you can do the "big stuff," the big combined arms, high-end, high intensity major combat operations and have a disciplined force, then you can do the so-called "little stuff," too. That turned out to be wrong.

As I came here to Fort Leavenworth late last year everybody knew, from the chief of staff of the Army on down, that we needed to make substantial changes as an Army. My predecessor here, General William Wallace, actually coined the phrase "engine of change" for the overall organization that we oversee and that's what we try to be here for our Army. We're dealing here with new doctrines, new concepts on all levels, that, in turn, shape the education of our commissioned, warrant, and non-commissioned officer leaders, and then, in turn, influence the training of our units at our Army's major combat training centers. All that had to be modified in light of the lessons we've learned in our ongoing operations, and that is what we have tried to do.

SPIEGEL: What are those lessons?

Petraeus: We brought a lot of experiences back from Iraq but also from Central America and to some degree from other places like Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo. But there was a general awareness of the importance of understanding the huge impact of cultural, religious, and ethnic factors -- that knowledge of the so-called "cultural terrain" was as important in many cases as knowledge of the physical terrain in contemporary operations. We had to deal with these new challenges because it turns out they are key elements when you plan and conduct military operations.

SPIEGEL: You are the co-author of a new counterinsurgency doctrine that will be published this week. When one reads the draft version, one has the impression that the Army of the future will not only be a war-fighting organization, but also a nation-building agency.

Petraeus: We went over that paper again and again to avoid any misunderstandings. But overall we're talking about extremely complex problems here. In key areas we had a lot of paradoxes, great paradoxes. What we are trying to do is to present counter-intuitive situations to people to really make them think. And counterinsurgency operations are war at the graduate level, they're thinking man's warfare.

One of the paradoxes, for example, said: The best weapon for counterinsurgency is: Don't shoot. Well, that's true if you're in Mosul and the violence level is low, then you have a situation where you can say, as we used to do: Money is the best ammunition. But it is not true if you're in a section of Baghdad that is very threatened by violence. Then the best weapon is to shoot, and the best ammunition is real ammunition. Everything depends on the situation, and it is vital that our leaders understand that reality and constantly assess and reassess the situation in their areas of operations

What we simply don't want anymore is to give people a checklist of what to do. We want them to think, not memorize. You know, a lot of this is about young officers. But we have to be clear with them, they have to know: You must be a warrior first, that is true, that's why we exist, we exist in many cases to kill or capture the bad guys. But on the other hand, we have to teach them: You're not going to kill your way out of an insurgency. No: you have to take out the elements that will never reconcile with the new government, with the system, but then try to win over the rest. And this part is not done with tanks and rifles.

SPIEGEL: Is that a view widely shared within the army?

Petraeus: Yes. You know, of course this is much less straightforward than the fight to Baghdad, but don't get me wrong. The fight to Bagdad was not easy. It was very, very hard, real people died and bled and we really blew things up, but -- we always knew how to do that, we have it refined to a very high level, we did combined operations that were really at the high end of our business. In fact, you could say that we practiced that stuff by and large for 25, 30 years while we were waiting for the big roll of Soviet tank armies at the Fulda gap or the northern German plain.

But this other stuff, what we used to call the "little stuff" -- the build-up of civil infrastructures, the fight against low-key separatist violence, the dealing with local leaders, it is very, very challenging because it's non-standard and it's definitely not what we have trained for. The demands are very different. When it comes to insurgency, there is no army on the other side, no battalions, the enemy won't expose himself, it's all about intelligence.

SPIEGEL: In your view, what would the ideal officer look like today?

Petraeus: Certainly they have to be warriors first. Obviously war fighting is the foundation. But we also want leaders who can do more than that. We want what we now call the pentathlete leader, metaphorically -- a leader who is not only a sprinter, but also a long-distance-runner and high jumper. We need people who feel comfortable throughout the whole spectrum of conflict, not only in combat operations. They should understand a conflict in a deeper sense, its background and its nature and the wide range of responses to that. Counterinsurgency is, in fact, a mix of offense, defense and stability operations, and it can include the reconstruction of civil infrastructure, drilling wells, handing out soccer balls, talking, drinking tea, you name it.

SPIEGEL: You propagate the idea that young officers should go to graduate school. Why does a soldier need a master's degree?

Petraeus: We're talking about how to react to unforeseeable, non-standard tasks, we're talking about environments that are very different to those we're used to. You have to work in a foreign language, you have to negotiate with people who come from another religious background or who don't even share what we would call the same core values. Now here you have a setting quite similar to graduate school, which takes you out of your intellectual comfort zone -- and that really is something a young officer should experience.

You know, we in the Army, we have to admit, that we're living sometimes a sort of a grindstone cloister existence. We work very hard; indeed, we have our noses to the proverbial grindstone. And we tend to live a somewhat cloistered existence much of our lives. So we have to try to raise, as one of my colleagues once put it, our sights beyond the maximum effective range of a M-16-rifle. Graduate school and other experiences that get us out of our intellectual comfort zone help us do just that.

What went wrong?

SPIEGEL: During your time as the commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul you tried to do exactly that. Your work up there is considered the most successful example for a new security doctrine. But what went wrong after the first year?

Petraeus: The first year was quite a good period in Ninevah Province and northern Iraq. We did, indeed, have a tough patch there, too; but by and large it was a fairly good period. Certainly we had to deal with the dynamics of Sunni Arabs who started to question whether they had a stake in the success of the new Iraq or not, and that was yet another dilemma over time that accumulated along with the influx of foreign fighters and the return of Saddamists who merged with people in the neighborhoods who weren't sure about their future in the new system. And of course that dynamic is still there.

SPIEGEL: What do you tell critics who claim that your operations failed in Mosul? Despite the fact that things got off to a good start, the region has since fallen to pieces.

Petraeus: It's important to understand the chronology. The trouble really started about five months after the 101st Airborne left Iraq -- though there is no question that the insurgents and foreign fighters were already trying to make inroads in our area as early as the fall of 2003. In fact, when many other areas did poorly during the uprising across Iraq in April 2004, Mosul and the Iraqi security forces there did quite well. The eventual spiral downward was likely the result of political dynamics in the wake of the tragic assassination of the governor of Ninevah Province at the end of June 2004 -- just as sovereignty was transferred from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the interim Iraqi government led by (former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad) Allawi. But you'll always find these big, catalyst moments in history as one occured when the governor was killed, on the very same night of the transfer of sovereignty. The situation in Ninevah became very fragile. The Sunni Arab members of the province council largely left, in a province where Sunni Arabs make up more than 70 percent of the population. So that couldn't turn out well, and soon the situation started to go downhill at an increasing pace.

SPIEGEL: Still, the insurgency began some time before that. Is it fair to say that the insurgents were buiding themselves up right behind your backs as you tried to revive civil life?

Petraeus: It is correct that the insurgents made a concerted run to put roots down in Nineveh Province during our time there because, in fact, things there were going well. And it is also correct to say that they managed to put roots down in the time around October or November 2003. That caused us big problems, and we responded with a very concerted effort to pull out the roots they were putting down as quickly as we could identify them.

SPIEGEL: Were you fully aware of what was going on out there?

Petraeus: We knew it was happening, but until you can get specificity in respect to that there is not much you can do about it. We knew it was happening because we started to get a few more attacks. We knew it was happening because the attacks were a little bit more sophisticated. We knew it because we were getting better intelligence about the insurgency. All this was coming together, so we could feel that something was going on. But what you have to do at such a time is get specific information about a large number of questions. Who is it? Who are the leaders? Where are they hiding? Where are the safe houses? Who has the expertise in explosives? Who are the financiers? You have to get to the point where you have "actionable intelligence" -- that is intelligence that is sufficiently precise to enable targeted operations, not just sweeps, but precise raids to capture specific insurgents.

We focused our intelligence efforts on this effort and, over time, we constructed information about the enemy networks and built what we call "target folders" that contain detailed information needed to target specific insurgents. You can find in such folders maps accurate to something like ten meters. In other words: You know precisely where to go. It's not a neighborhood, it's exactly that house, and you have a digital photograph of the entry point, digital photographs of the neighborhood, you have a description of the neighburhood, a description of the individual, you have solid information of all kinds. Then you can go to an infantry battalion and tell them: Okay, this is in your area, three nights from now at 2 o'clock in the morning we can roll these guys up. And that's what we did.

In late November and in the beginning of December 2003, we went to 35 simultaneous targets in a single night. That's just unheard of, the scale is enormous, and we succeeded in getting 23 of those 35 targets, with only one shot fired. Another night we did 27 targets simultaneously just in Mosul. And on many others we did between 15 and 20 simultaneous targets. So I'd say, we really worked hard to root out the insurgency. But it is true that eventually this level of activity -- especially the level of intelligence effort required to support it -- became unsustainable for the force that followed us as the situation spiralled downward in the wake of the assassination of the governor and given the very fractious local situation that resulted. They were about one-third our size when the situation really spiralled downward in November 2004, and they also didn't have the same intelligence structure we had. They worked it very hard, but the situation became very difficult for a period for them -- though many of us from the early days in the north were pleased to see the situation improve and stabilize to a considerable degree in early 2005 and since then -- though the area certainly still presents numerous challenges by virtue of its multiethnic realities, its proximity to traditional smuggling areas, and its history of providing senior leaders to the former regime. Let's not forget that Mosul was where we killed Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay, and where we killed the No. 3 leader in the terrorist organization, Ansar al-Sunnah, during the 101st Airborne Division's time.

SPIEGEL: So one could argue that the efforts made weren't sufficient.

Petraeus: It would be more accurate to say that the efforts proved to be unsustainable over time as the situation evolved, particularly in the wake of the governor being killed. It also showed the reality of counterinsurgency operations -- which we capture in the soon-to-be-published manual -- that what works today may not work tomorrow. Tactics and approaches must constantly evolve. You know, it's always easy to blow doors down and go in with the machine guns blazing or throw a grenade in. But when you do that you often risk creating more enemies because of the way you conducted the operation.

We certainly had our share of successes in both "kinetic" and "non-kinetic" operations, as you saw when you visited us in 2003. We knew, for example, that Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay survived up there for a couple of weeks before we got them. What we were proud of in that particular case was not only getting them, but also the way we did it. We even offered them a chance to surrender and it was only after they wounded three of our soldiers that we said: "Okay, that's it, now we're going to take them out." But we got them without blowing up the rest of the neighborhood, we caused no significant damage whatsoever.

So again, yes, the insurgents built up in the North over time, as they did everywhere, but I'd like to think that we reacted to that fact in a sensible way as soon as we had enough intelligence.

SPIEGEL: After leaving Mosul you were put in charge of building a new Iraqi security force -- a key issue even up to today. What were the challenges?

Petraeus: That was and remains a massive undertaking and even I myself have doubts about whether I really understood the magnitude of it, as it is such a vast endeavor. You know, people look at this in theory and think, well, we're dealing here with the training of a couple of battalions -- give them rifles, vehicles, materials, stuff like that, rebuild their infrastructure. But it has cost $2 billion so far -- and that's real money.

And that's the easiest part of it, actually. The hard part is building the institutions to support the new security system, and I'm not only talking about logistics here. I'm talking about the policies, the big over-arching ideas, I'm talking about the set of values on which this system is built. These are questions that are constitutional almost by nature. And I'm talking about ministries, communications systems, depot and maintenance programs, branch schools and training centers, airfields, naval bases, barracks and so on.

As you know, the key problem that Iraq has to resolve today is the constitutional issue involving oil. And there's a wide range of constitutional issues to be solved as well: What power does a province governor have? What power does an interior minister have over the governors? Who gets to hire or fire the police chief? Who's in charge of training the police? The army? Where do they train? Do you need more national training centers? These questions are very challenging in any country, but they are particularly challenging when you have sectarian violence.

SPIEGEL: Did you have good support from the Iraqi government as you were trying to build up the security forces?

Petraeus: You're always wrestling with competing tensions, without question. There are always tensions between Iraqi national feelings, ethnic groups, religious groups, political parties, you even have to deal with family and clan structures -- that is simply part of the Middle Eastern culture. The desire and the goal is to find people who think of themselves as Iraqis first. That's a pretty tough challenge, and it's particularily tough when there's sectarian violence emerging as has been the case, particularly, since the bombing of the Shia mosque in Samarra some 9 months ago.

SPIEGEL: What's your outlook for the Iraqi force and the whole security system of the country?

Petraeus: I think you actually have to ask: What's the outlook for the Iraqi national government. You know, I don't have any doubt, and I think we have shown, and the Iraqis have shown, that they can train battalions, brigades, and divisions, they can train national police, which is more challenging, but that's all doable.

The question is: How long will it take the national unity government to truly foster a sense of national unity and to give the Iraqi security force members a sense that they are fighting for Iraq, for their Iraq rather than drifting off to militias or into sectarian groups or whatever it is. That is the challenge right now for Iraq.

We keep coming back to this national unity issue, that really is the so-called "long pole in the tent." When it comes to building up ministries and their apparatus, when it comes to recruiting civil servants, you name it, all critical paths run through that critical factor.

SPIEGEL: There is a tough discussion going on in the US about how and when to withdraw the troops from Iraq. Can you take any stand there?

Petraeus: No, I can't. You know, I truly think that the Army is best served when its leaders adopt a professional approach that includes, of course, the principle of civilian control of the military. This is a hugely important principle. Our elected officials determine the objectives, and soldiers figure out the resources required and the risks involved. They have to say then whether that is reasonable or not and then maybe we have to discuss the objectives. That is nothing I have to decide. That concerns people who really are above us, and I support that principle fully, though military officers have an obvious obligation to provide their best military advice as part of the process.

Interview conducted by SPIEGEL editor Ullrich Fichtner.