Gen. Petraeus Takes On The Other War

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Gen. David Petraeus is credited with great success in Iraq and has now been tapped to lead the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. What did he learn from Iraq that's useful, and how are the countries different? Host Scott Simon talks with retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, co-author of the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, about the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan and how the strategy has unfolded in Marja.


A switch in commanders gives General Petraeus a chance to adjust the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. Earlier this week, we spoke with retired Army general - Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl. He wrote, along with General Petraeus, the Army's manual on counterinsurgency operations and says the lessons learned in Iraq will inform the leadership in Afghanistan.

Mr. JOHN NAGL (U.S. Army, Retired): Many of the principles that General Petraeus used to such good effect in Iraq I think still apply. The primary one is providing protection and security for the population. But in addition to that, he has the ability to build coalitions and to reach out to people, even people who have been fighting against the United States.

So his greatest accomplishment in Iraq almost, other than convincing the American people that we still had a chance to win there, a skill that he may use again, was reaching out to many of the Iraqi insurgents and bringing them onboard with the coalition effort. And it's that skill set, I think, of reaching out to the Taliban and convincing them that they have a brighter future cooperating with the Afghan government rather than fighting against it that is probably going to be his biggest focus over the course of the next year.

SIMON: The president of the United States, the commander-in-chief, as we were recently reminded this week, has vowed to start withdrawing troops next summer, about a year from now. How do you tell the Taliban that the U.S. and its allies are committed to winning, will stay there to do the job, while assuring Afghans and Americans that we're not going to stay there forever?

Mr. NAGL: So the president has been very clear that Afghanistan is a war of necessity, that America has vital interest at stake there and he has demonstrated, I think, by putting General Petraeus in command in Afghanistan how committed he is to achieving those objectives. He has chosen our very best.

But General Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Gates have been very clear that while the drawdown will begin in July of 2011, a year from now, the speed of the withdrawal and the rate at which American troops depart will be based on conditions on the ground.

SIMON: You're making it sound as if the drawdown might almost just be cosmetic.

Mr. NAGL: It certainly won't be cosmetic for the soldiers, the Marines, who get to come home on time. The president is conscious of the fact that his army is under strain, that it's getting tired, and that he has to show some light at the end of the tunnel for his all-volunteer force.

But he also has to put some pressure on the Afghan government that this lifeline will not be there forever. And my sense is that that message has perhaps not been conveyed as well as it could've been, but that if there's anybody who knows how to send a message and make sure that it's received very clearly, it's General David Petraeus.

SIMON: I want to ask you about the rules of engagement, because there have been articles this week, including the famous one now in Rolling Stone, that suggest that there are complaints from the field that U.S. soldiers find the rules of engagement restrictive. They have to go through so many levels to receive approval before they fire a mortar or order in an air attack, that by the time it's approved the target's moved, and that they feel that not only increases their exposure to casualties, it gives away their technological advantage over the Taliban.

Mr. NAGL: And I feel their frustration. I had to go through procedures to clear mortar and artillery fire, close-air support, when I was serving in combat in Iraq in '03, '04, and what has happened since then, I think, is we as an army have learned a great deal, we understand even better that killing an innocent creates more insurgents.

And so we've gotten even more careful than we were when I was fighting. I've read the rules of engagement that General McChrystal promulgated. I agree with them completely. I don't think they're too restrictive. But I think what has happened is, and this is no one individual's fault, but as those rules have been interpreted by the succeeding layers of command all the way down to the soldier on point for the nation, they've gotten more and more restrictive.

And I do think that one of the things that General Petraeus is going to have to do - and I think this is a real service, actually, provided by the now-famous Rolling Stone article - is that General Petraeus is probably going to have to take a look with his intervening commanders at those rules of engagement to make sure we have the balance right.

SIMON: Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl. He's now president of the Center for a New American Security.

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