Former CIA director and overseas commander speaks at Duke

Sep. 11, 2013 @ 10:23 PM

On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, asked active-duty military, ROTC members and veterans to stand.

Nearly half of the audience within Duke’s Page Auditorium stood up Wednesday to applause.

“It’s wonderful to be in the Blue Devil Nation, even if it’s in the Tarheel State,” Petraeus said.

Petraeus, who served for 37 years and earned four stars, said the U.S. military is comprised of the “new greatest generation,” a quote he gleaned from TV journalist Tom Brokaw while Petraeus was serving as the 101st Airborne Division commander in Iraq. Brokaw was visiting, and he began talking about World War II veterans being the greatest generation before climbing into a helicopter on the way to Baghdad.

Peter Feaver, Duke professor of political science and public policy and director of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy, hosted the discussion. He sat across from Petraeus as they discussed the general’s viewpoints on the 2007 surge in Iraq and withdrawal from the country at the end of 2011.

There has been “an enormous degradation of that central core of Al-Qaeda,” Petraeus said of the terrorist cell as a whole. The U.S. killed Osama bin Laden, who was a leader who gave specific, tactical direction, but now there are “organic (terrorist) structures within these countries experiencing civil strife.”

Feaver asked Petraeus to comment on academic criticisms that he sent troops to Iraq at a time when sectarian violence was already experiencing burn-out. Without that natural burn-out, critics say, the surge would have been less successful.

“I truly did believe we could do what we did,” he responded. “What I could not guarantee is that we could achieve such dramatic results.”

He said while he oversaw the Iraq surge, the U.S. military reduced violence by 90 percent in a country where three car bombs a day was normal.

The conversation switched to his leadership in Afghanistan. Petraeus said Afghanistan was a much different animal than Iraq, where Afghanistan had limited infrastructure and human capital and its major export was illegal narcotics.

While the United States prepares to bring most of its forces home from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, Petraeus said, “The Afghans are going to need continued funding … we are going to have to provide a certain number of enablers and support forces…I think we recognize that it’s inescapable. If we don’t want them to crumble, we have to continue to fund them and to support them.”

Petraeus was asked of his views on Syria, which has rebels trying to topple the unrelenting regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. also is in a stalemate regarding a disciplinary strike against Syria for its use of chemical weapons.

And Russia’s recent plan, which would place Syria’s chemical weapons under international oversight, may be a far-fetched idea, Petraeus said, in terms of having blue-helmeted United Nations officials cleaning up dozens of chemical weapons sites during a civil war.

“It’s a challenging image, I guess, but again, it’s worth a try,” he said.

Audience members asked Petraeus about the CIA drone program and its number of civilian casualties, if Obama could do more to gather support for a strike against Syria, and the National Security Agency leaks by whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

Petraeus provided little comment about the NSA leaks, only that Snowden damaged national security and “that’s why he’s not coming home,” and Petraeus said he couldn’t release covert information about the drone program and civilian casualties.

“In war, you often make decisions on imperfect information and intelligence…You are not always successful, and that’s as far as I can go on that, I’m afraid.”

Petraeus joined the City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College this summer as a visiting professor of public policy.

He is currently teaching a seminar called, “Are We on the Threshold of the North American Decade?”, which will examine America’s leadership role in the emerging global economy.

“We can continue to lead around the world without becoming overextended, which has been argued that we have been over the past decade,” he said.