General Knowledge

Students test Petraeus’ military and mental mettle during campus ‘conversation’ with commander


Students who filled the reserved Ferst theater orchestra seats filed to microphones to pose questions about Afghanistan, Iraq and war itself to Gen. David H. Petraeus, armed on stage with PowerPoint graphs, charts and maps.

Petraeus, named commander of the U.S. Central Command in October 2008 after more than a year and a half as the commanding general of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, spoke at Tech on Jan. 19, after a lunch engagement with the Atlanta Press Club.

One student quoted Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who said, “In war, there is no substitute for victory.”

Petraeus immediately responded that the bulk of Gen. MacArthur’s military career had taken place during World War II, “a war that you could actually seize a hill, plant the flag and go on to the next battle and ultimately go home to a victory parade.”

“I’ve often said that the endeavors in which we are engaged now are not those kinds of wars,” he said. “There is no great hill that once you take it and plant your flag, you now control all that you survey.”

Instead, U.S. military forces are applying pressure throughout the Al Qaeda network, Petraeus said.

“You can’t just do the Whac-A-Mole. You can’t whack in one place and have it pop up in another. You’ve got to whack it everywhere that you can find it. That’s why we’ve built a network to take on a network,” he said.

Earlier, Petraeus reminded his audience why U.S. forces are in Afghanistan.

“We are there for a very, very serious reason,” he said. “That’s because that’s where the 9/11 attacks came from. They were planned in Kandahar, initial training was done in camps to the east in Afghanistan before they moved to Hamburg and to U.S. flight schools. So it was a completely direct link between Al Qaeda safe havens that existed in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 and the attacks that took place on 9/11. We have to make sure those cannot be established again.”

There was an enormous reduction in violence in Afghanistan in late 2001 and in 2002, he said, followed each year by a gradual resurgence of the Taliban. And after a 2005 assessment, the general said he believed “Afghanistan was going to be the longest campaign of the long war.”

Petraeus said that “one of the major objectives has to be to reverse that Taliban expansion to provide greater security for the people, to help develop the Afghan forces so they can partner with us … and ultimately lead operations themselves so that we can indeed, as President Obama described, in the late summer of 2011 begin the transition of tasks to the Afghan forces … and begin a responsible reduction of our forces there, something that I believe is possible.”

Military forces are combating Al Qaeda in Iraq with what Petraeus called the Anaconda Plan, which restricts access to weapons, foreign fighters, safe havens and money.

The plan also includes degrading “the support of the people through information operations campaigns. In this case we hung around their necks three labels: extremist ideology, indiscriminate violence and oppressive practices. Every time they blew up another group of innocent civilians, a mosque, a bridge, what have you, we would hang those around them again,” Petraeus said.

“What’s the message? Comprehensive. You’ve got to use everything,” he said. “We called it the Anaconda Plan because you’re putting pressure on the network in every respect possible. That’s obviously what we’ll try to do in Afghanistan as well.”

The general was asked to comment on a statement Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut made in late December in which he said Yemen could be the source of “tomorrow’s war.”

“It’s a country that has a lot of the conditions that someone might say was sent from central casting for the establishment of terrorist networks and cells, even an insurgency, if you will,” Petraeus said, adding later, “We’ve got to keep our eye on that ball as we keep a lot of other plates spinning throughout the Central Command and indeed throughout the world.”

Petraeus expanded his world by attending Princeton for master’s and doctoral degrees in international relations after graduating from West Point and the U.S. Army Command General Staff College.

“I learned there are some seriously, seriously smart people in this world who hold very different views about some pretty important topics than I do,” Petraeus said, calling it a hugely valuable experience to learn not everyone lived as “we in the military live, and that is a somewhat cloistered existence with our nose to the grindstone.”

When addressing the timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Petraeus said President Obama was sending two key messages in his West Point speech on Dec. 1.

“What he was conveying was on the one hand a message of increased commitment, resolve, resources, troops, civilians, money and so forth — we’re in this. On the other hand, though, was a message of urgency. … We’ve got to get on with this,” Petraeus said.

“We have to recognize the reality that we’ve been at this since late 2001, early 2002, and there are various clocks out there. … In this case, of course, you’ve got the Kabul clock, you’ve got the Washington clock and you have clocks in other capitals as well, given the significant coalition force that is there.

“Everyone needs to know that we are intent on getting about this just as fast as we can without, obviously, rushing to failure.”

“Service Industry”

Georgia Tech has a long history of producing soldiers and statesmen.
Gen. David H. Petraeus met with Georgia Tech’s Army, Air Force and
Navy ROTC cadets during his visit to campus in January. [Read more]


“Reading the Tea Leaves”

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