We Must Be Coldly Realistic Over The Use Of Force By David Petraeus


DeM Banter: so many great quotes in here… can I just get an Amen? I am starting to pondering how long until the next [fill in the blank]. Any thoughts?

London Daily Telegraph
June 11, 2013
Pg. 21

Many of the lessons we have learnt post-9/11 have been paid for and written in blood

Since leaving the US government, I have had an opportunity to think about some of the missions in which I was privileged to engage while in uniform and then as director of the CIA. Reflecting on what some term the “counter-insurgency era” – or occasionally even “the Petraeus era” – I want to argue that this era is far from over, for the simple reason that the era of insurgency is not over.

Insurgencies, or so-called small wars, are among the oldest forms of warfare, and remain the most prevalent. Whether they are triggered by domestic struggles for power and influence, ideology, ethnosectarian differences or subversion from outside a country’s borders, their outcomes will shape the world in which we live – as the upheavals associated with the Arab Spring and the extremist challenges in Mali and the Maghreb remind us.

The United States, Britain and the other countries that have sacrificed so much since 9/11 may, understandably, be reluctant to put boots on the ground either to counter insurgencies or to support groups seeking to topple oppressive regimes. In spite of that, however, we do need to preserve the understanding and skills gained from the past decade. Numerous countries and regions face or will face insurgencies. And undoubtedly, it will be in our interest to help at least some of those countries, even if we do so in ways that do not include large military footprints.

As the counter-insurgency scholar John Nagl has observed, many of the lessons we have learnt in the post-9/11 period have been paid for and written in blood. In Iraq, for example, it is clear that we came up short on a number of critical issues, and spent a number of very tough years before recognising what needed to be done. In an article for the US Army’s Military

Review in late 2005, I made some observations intended to inform leaders at the operational and tactical level. For example, a test of each operation was to ask a simple but vital question: “Will this operation (or policy) take more bad guys off the street than it creates by its conduct?”

As I look back, it strikes me that the same lessons apply in the strategic and tactical realms. Clearly, we must be clear-eyed, coldly realistic and professionally objective during deliberations over the use of force. Our decision-making must be imbued with intellectual humility, not hubris. We will need well-developed intelligence to inform our decisions and actions, and must maintain a detailed understanding of the countries and societies in which we operate – not just at the macro level, but village by village, valley by valley.

When I was working on the “surge” strategy for Iraq, I remarked that “everyone must do nation-building” whether they liked it or not – and also that success requires more than just military operations. These principles run deep in history and common sense; none the less, they remain contested, particularly by some who would like to return the focus of our military to its so-called traditional war-fighting tasks.

Yet shedding our capabilities for stability operations will not make the need for these capabilities disappear. All future operations will continue to include some mix of offence, defence and stabilisation; and most will be comprehensive civil-military endeavours, requiring us to employ every tool in our diplomatic, economic and defence arsenals – in concert with coalition partners and host nations.

Given the understandable desire to minimise our commitments, we will have to place a greater emphasis on security assistance, to enable others to meet their own challenges. Along these lines, it would be wise to recognise that an ounce of prevention will often be worth a pound of cure. And that, in another observation from my days in Iraq, “money is ammunition” – something equally true at a strategic level.

TE Lawrence famously observed, “Do not try to do too much with your own hands.” A light footprint is desirable whenever possible. Indeed, it is typically the right approach – except when it is wrong. And in those cases, policymakers need to be forthright in determining our interests, our options, and ultimately our actions.

We have, during the past decade, developed very experienced leaders who have learnt a great deal about irregular warfare. Our armies have transformed themselves into organisations that foster a culture of innovation and demand unprecedented levels of adaptability, initiative and courage. These qualities must be preserved and protected.

Small wars will continue to span a wide spectrum of political violence. Some fanatical enemies will remain marginalised from their populations. But at the opposite end will lie enemies heavily embedded in the fabric of their host population, forcing that nation – and possibly us – to adopt a more comprehensive and therefore more costly approach to win the peace.

Over the coming years, Britain and America’s superiority in defence and security must be maintained to safeguard our interests, and those of the international community: in fact, we should not only reaffirm the value of Nato, but expand ties between its members, to strengthen our economic power. Our enemies will typically attack us asymmetrically, avoiding the conventional strengths that we bring to bear. Clearly, the continuation of so-called “small wars” cannot be discounted. And we should never forget that we don’t always get to choose the wars we fight.

This is an edited extract from a speech yesterday by General David H Petraeus to the Royal United Services Institute in London, on receiving the Chesney Gold Medal.

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