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Petraeus The Diplomat

If it weren't for the stripes on his uniform, one could be forgiven for mistaking General David Petraeus for a USAID official, or foreign service officer. While military operations took up a sizable portion of his talk at the Center for a New American Security, he portrayed the counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan as the task of more than just his soldiers, but of the entirety of the federal government. Before launching into one of his trademark PowerPoints, he took a moment to acknowledge and echo former undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns' call earlier in the conference for a huge increase in the number of diplomats and aid officials employed by the federal government. "We have to have a robust whole-of-government effort," he urged. Even within the military rubric, he views his troops as doing far more than "kill or capture the bad guys", to use his words. "The overriding mission of a military force in counterinsurgency has to be securing the people, protecting the population," he said, "And, might I add, be seen as securing the people, protecting the population."

To be sure, counterinsurgency (or COIN) has never been a traditional military endeavor. Community relations have always been more important, and infantrymen have doubled as diplomats. But it is still striking to hear Petraeus list the causes of the success of "the surge" in Iraq, and to note how little the actual increase in forces figures into his calculus. In fact, he plainly states, "It was much more than the increase in US forces or even the increase in Coalition forces." More than the troop increase, the decision to have troops "live among the people" --"we created 70 additional locations in Baghdad alone," he notes--was critical in tamping down violence. Before living with local Iraqis, the forces did not--could not--have as clear an understanding of their security needs as they do now. “We disrupted the hell out of the bad guys," he recalls, "but we could never drive from one end of Ramadi to the other.” The effort in Afghanistan, he argues, will have to be very different. Working in smaller villages as a opposed to urban areas, it is neither practically nor culturally possible to live among the peoples. "I am trying to achieve a persistent security presence. The best way to do that is to get at some point above the village," he said.

Beyond this change in the military's role, Petraeus credits his close alliance with then-Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker as a key component of the surge's success. "We built fusion cells for energy, for health, for elections," he explained, in order to "generate a unity of effort". He hopes to replicate this effort in Afghanistan, and refers to South Asian envoy Richard Holbrooke as "my great diplomatic wingman." Tellingly, he refers to one of his own main tasks as "turning bilateral relationships into multilateral relationships" in the Gulf. "We’re trying to encourage a broad partnership against extremism, against the illegal narcotics operation, against what could be called a ‘new great game’ in Central Asia," he explained. One expects sentences like that from the State Department; it is truly novel to hear them from a four-star general.

Petraeus knows what he's doing is new, and even as he leads CENTCOM, he speaks like a rebel fighting against the old, crusty establishment. "There are people who say we don’t know how to fight anymore," he laments, adding, "Well, we don't shoot dumb artillery anymore." But he insists that full spectrum operations--encompassing offense, defense, and stability operations--have always been a part of the military's toolkit. Given his speech, however, he appears to be adding a fourth type of operation to that spectrum: diplomacy.

--Dylan Matthews