Gen Petraeus Exclusive on Emerging Threats, Negotiating with the Taliban and More

Estimated Read Time: 20 Minutes

By: Matt Lyles and Steve Bressett

In this episode, Matt Lyles and Steve Bressett sit down with retired US Army General David Petraeus. General Petraeus discussed operations in degraded communications environments, the use of technology in decision making, and counterinsurgency strategy and operations.  Additionally, General Petraeus discussed the implications of recent US negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

General Petraeus served over 37 years in the US Army, culminating his career with six consecutive commands, five of which were in combat. Following his service in the military, Gen Petraeus served as the Director of the CIA during a period of significant achievements in the global war on terror. He currently serves as the Chairman of the KKR Global Institute.

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Matt: Sir, good afternoon. Thank you for being with us today. Jumping right in. Sir, the advances of technology that are driving all the complexity on the battlefield and in the future fight, which we see is around 2030, it’s assessed that all of our C4ISR and mission command systems will be degraded in a near-peer or peer conflict. In that environment, how do you see the joint force conducting command and control in a degraded comms environment?

Gen. Petraeus: Well, with great difficulty. First of all, Matt, good to be with you. Air assault. It’s good to see the 101st Airborne Division patch on your right shoulder. Thanks for what you did with that great Division in Afghanistan and Iraq. Look, the degradation of C4ISR obviously makes what we have been doing virtually impossible. I mean, we’ve gotten used to having the ability to communicate all around the world, the ability to have remotely-piloted vehicles actually piloted out near the Las Vegas desert even if they’re in Iraq or Afghanistan or who knows where. We’ve had full-motion video pushed all around the world. We can do VTCs with anybody in theater all the way on up to the Pentagon and even the White House if we have to, and so forth.

And you generally have very good situational awareness, because of a variety of different tools and programs, of where your forces are, and a reasonable sense of where the enemy is and what the enemy is doing. With all of this degraded, or even completely disrupted and no longer having eyes over the enemy, no longer being in an air environment where we have supremacy, all of this obviously changes. And it may be worth going back and looking at how did we do this before we had systems that could be jammed, that could be disrupted the way the networks that we have developed are now vulnerable.

Obviously, what you also want to do, needless to say, is to harden them, to reduce their vulnerabilities, to improve their resilience and all the rest of that. And we take that as a given that that should be done. But the question that you raised, I think, is a valid one. How do you operate if you can’t do it the way that we have gotten used to operating in the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaigns that we’ve been carrying out. And we did this before, when I was a younger officer, actually all the way up until perhaps flag rank, we really didn’t have any appreciable numbers of tactical satellite radios. We did line-of-sight systems. They used to have a tactical command post, a main command post, and a rear command post. And it was largely because of the line-of-sight limitations and also of course the enemy’s artillery capabilities.

We collapsed all of that, basically, and operated everything out of a main because you don’t have those challenges, and you have systems because of satellites and so on that are certainly no longer limited by line-of-sight. It could be that that is a system. We actually used to, when I was a young, young officer, we’d literally run wire in some situations as we established certain defensive positions or what have you. So it was really the old-fashioned way. And hopefully we’d have something much more modern, much more capable, along those lines. But I think that the individuals who develop these architectures are going to have to take into account how they could be degraded or disrupted or just flat shut down, and then figure out, “Okay, what are the workarounds that we’re going to employ?”

I mean, I hope we don’t get back to a world in which you have runners, you know, Grant writes out his order, he gives it to an aide, and the aide runs it over to a division or whatever commander. But certainly there can be something I would hope more sophisticated than that. But we’re going to have to have a real rethink, I think, of what is possible in a world where a potential adversary has such extraordinary capabilities as we expect to see.

Matt: And as we make that adjustment, and we’re looking at degraded C4ISR and even multi-domain operations, as you were making decisions as a commander, what specifically, in that degraded environment, are you looking for your staff? How would you want them to prepare you?

Gen. Petraeus: You know, when I hear that, it sort of says, “Oh, gee, what’s the minimum acceptable information?” Well, the truth is that the minimal acceptable information is what you have by a certain point in time. Unfortunately, sometimes you just have to make a decision and, as you well know, there’s entire courses and theories and books about decision making under uncertain conditions and with imperfect information and all the rest of that. And I think you have to, again, recognize you’re not going to have this phenomenal visibility and situational awareness and real-time communications and a network that enables commanders. By the way, I’ve never believed in this concept “network-centric warfare.” There’s nothing centric about the network. It’s a commander-enabled or network-enabled commander-centric warfare, I think. And you’re still going to have that except now it’s not going to be enabled by any means as much by the commander.

So, I think, again, you’re going to have to scramble and scrabble for every bit of information that you can get that is relevant. But at a certain point in time, the commander, or the decision maker, is going to have to make a decision. And what you want is as “perfect” information as is possibly attainable, recognizing that it may be very, very imperfect because of what an adversary can do to the systems that provide the information that we are used to having now.

Matt: And keeping along with that same line of questioning, sir, so in the future, on the battlefield, commanders have to make rapid decision with those. If you had to safeguard one capability, what capability would you want to ensure that you safeguard to facilitate your ability to make those decisions on the battlefield?

Gen. Petraeus: I guess it would be one of the intelligence capabilities that is providing you the information, in particular about what the enemy is doing, but also in many cases about what your own forces are doing relative to the enemy. So it’s going to be both friendly and enemy intelligence information I think. I’d like to say the ability to talk to the subordinate commanders, the ability to begin to at least see where they are and so forth. But I think that we’re probably not going to have all of that. Although, again, there could be workarounds.

I wouldn’t rule out American or other allied ingenuity coming up with some solutions that involve who knows, very high-speed robots that can go out and are, again, part of a fiber optic network that can’t be disrupted in the way that a network that is operated through some form of Internet can clearly be. Perhaps again, communications that are peer-to-peer, as they say, rather than having to have a server and a switch. But, again, if you have enough entities out there, again, within line-of-sight of each other, you can establish your own network, and it can actually be somewhat self-healing and so on.

So, I think we tend to be a bit constricted in our thinking because what we’re trying to do is figure out how to preserve the C4ISR capabilities that we’ve gotten used to in these wars where, again, the enemy doesn’t have much of an ability to counter what we have or to disrupt it. And then we see another potential adversary that could very much do that but let’s see what the great tech folks can do, let’s see what we can do in partnership with those in the tech world. And you know I’m an investor in 15 different startups, and I’m amazed by the extraordinary innovativeness that is demonstrated by the founders.

Matt: Continuing with that, you mentioned you invest, and you continue to be amazed by some of the different innovators out there, when you look at current or future threats, with respect to technology and anything like that, what in your mind do you believe that we’re missing, or what in your mind is something that maybe keeps you up at night?

Gen. Petraeus: If I knew what we were missing we wouldn’t be missing it, of course, but the bigger issue is what are the developments that should really have our attention. And I think this is some combination of machine-learning, ultimately AI, that is in some cases perhaps completely autonomous with the exception of when you actually make a decision to conduct lethal activity. But various systems that are enabled by this, and that could have enormous numbers and so forth, so that you can’t shoot down a single entity.

But the degree that, again, various forms of robotics, and not just thinking of course of a replica of a human, but actually nano-bots if you will, all the way up to some bigger platforms, again, that are not just remotely piloted or that are perhaps completely autonomous at least in their non-lethal activities. I do believe that there should be a human in the loop when you’re going to get into that. But that human can be enabled enormously by what machine-learning and AI can indeed do, as capabilities such as facial recognition, signature recognition, identification of specific items.

You know, in counter-drone activities, one of the real challenges is for the sensors to figure out, is it a bird or is it a plane or is it a drone that is going to threaten us? Again, AI increasingly—and of course the more data it gets, the more accurate it is, so the more experience it has the better it gets—is what is going to enable us in many respects.

By the way, we will see this in cybersecurity as well. Where, again, you’re going to have actions taken at the speed of light, literally, perhaps without a human in the loop. The human will have designed the algorithm, updated the algorithm, but the machine now is constantly learning and, again, eventually applying true AI. It’s this kind of advance that I think is very, very dramatic in its implications and could be very threatening if we cannot keep up and ideally be ahead of our potential adversaries.

Matt: If you had unlimited resources, and unlimited authorities, what would you change with respect to the DOD?

Gen. Petraeus: That’s a massive question. And this comes down to whether your philosophy, if it’s humans not hardware, quality not quantity. It’s into this kind of big idea. I have generally thought that investing in people always returns a dividend. But maybe the question actually is not entirely right. Because the truth is you’ll never have unlimited assets. The question really is, where should you spend the marginal dollar? So if you are given a few more dollars, where would you tend to steer them?

And of course you’ve got to have a prioritization of whether it is … maybe it’s into more investment in innovation, maybe it’s more investment in hardware, maybe it’s more investment in future initiatives. But I tend to think, again, that you can’t go wrong by putting a fair amount of marginal dollars into additional investment in what is the most precious commodity that we have, and that is our human beings. That really is the key to all of this, even as those humans are enabled ever more unbelievably by advances, mind-blowing advances in a variety of different fields, many of which we’ve discussed here.

Matt: Well sir, thank you, and I’m going to turn it over to Steve

Steve: General, thank you for your time and for being with us today.

Gen. Petraeus: Privileged to be with you, Steve. And thanks for what you did as a B-2 fleet driver.

Steve: I wanted to address something that you spoke with us this morning about, which was that we have to accept a real paradox that we can’t counter insurgency with killing more insurgents. We have to work towards reconciliation and reintegration of our adversary. To that end, former ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, was recently quoted in the Washington Post by saying that, “Meeting and negotiating with the Taliban without the Afghan government, we are delegitimizing the very government that we claim to support.” Do you believe that the US should engage in negotiations with the Taliban?

Gen. Petraeus: Well, first of all, let me just say that killing or capturing bad guys is a component of whatever you want to call it, a counterinsurgency, comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign such as ambassador Crocker and I were privileged to oversee together during the surge in Iraq. Or a counterterrorism campaign. But it’s seldom sufficient. My point was that you can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency, even though you have to do a lot of that. But what you have to do even more of is probably reconciliation to strip away the mid- and lower-level insurgents and, in the case of Iraq, not just those individuals but also, in this case, militia members as well. One, the first, was generally Sunni, and the second, generally Shia.

And reconciliation does include obviously sitting down with people who have your blood on their hands. In other words, talking with the enemy. Otherwise you wouldn’t need to have those kind of negotiations. And so I am one who believes, again, you do have to talk to the enemy, but I certainly share Ryan’s reservations that you get so far down the road in discussions with the Taliban without having the Afghan government participating in some fashion, where all of a sudden you could end up in a place where what you think is okay or reasonable, is unacceptable to the host nation government leadership.

And that would be a very uncomfortable place to be. So, again, Ryan Crocker and I linked arms for 19 months of the surge in Iraq, not just physically and mentally but conceptually. And I think he is a generation that is distinguished by a number of great diplomats, that he certainly deserves to be at the top of the list. And he does speak truth to power. And again, in this case I share the reservations that he has expressed.

Steve: With the recent notification that the US could potentially begin withdrawals from Afghanistan, it has received mixed reviews from the American people. As you look back, what was the exit strategy for that conflict while you were in command or at the CIA?

Gen. Petraeus: Well, in truth, we never had an exit strategy. What we had was a strategy to allow us to continue to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan with the reduced expenditure in blood and treasure. Let’s recall that we went to Afghanistan for a reason. That was to eliminate the sanctuary that Al Qaeda had when the Taliban controlled that part of the country, where the 9/11 attacks were conducted and where the initial training of the attackers was also carried out. And we stayed to prevent Al Qaeda from reestablishing a sanctuary, something it has sought to do repeatedly in eastern Afghanistan and now the Islamic State is seeking to do the same.

We have also, frankly, stayed because Afghanistan has proven to be a very important platform from which we have launched the so-called regional counterterrorism campaign. It’s well-known as an example that the operation that ultimately killed Osama Bin Laden was launched obviously from eastern Afghanistan. In fact it was during the time that I was privileged to be the commander there, albeit that night the chain of command ran from JSOC commander to the CIA director because of the nature of the legal authority, Title 50, for that operation.

So, again, we didn’t envision leaving, exiting, completely. What we wanted to do was drive the level of violence down, year on year. Because this is a very cyclical fight. It’s unlike Iraq. You don’t fight all year long at the same level. You’re somewhat impeded by the weather. Weather has a huge effect in the winter and obviously it’s a reduced fighting season. So you’re always looking at how does it compare to last year at this time, taking into account various other factors as well.

And then in doing that, enabling, accelerating the training of the Afghan security forces, and then beginning to transition tasks to them so that indeed it is they who are fighting for their country as we shift more to advising, assisting, enabling, training, equipping, funding, and so forth. And arguably, that we did, I think, accomplish what we set out to do during the year that I was privileged to command there, which was essentially to halt the advance of the Taliban. They were on the march. To reverse it in some key areas such as Kandahar and Helmand provinces and to a lesser degree some of the eastern Afghanistan where it was difficult to get to that during the time that we had all of our forces, indeed to improve and increase the training of the Afghan forces, and to start transitioning to that. And we did do all of that during that time.

I felt that we might have considered the pace of the draw down a bit more carefully, frankly. Because as you know, if you reach the point where if you draw down too fast and you essentially undermine what you fought hard to achieve, it takes a lot of effort to get back in and to re-achieve it. We’ve seen this in some cases, arguably in Iraq as well, where there were other circumstances that also contributed to the withdrawal of our combat forces.

But that was the concept. And I would contend that the fight against Islamist extremists is not one that we’re going to see the end of in our lifetimes probably. I think this is a generational struggle which requires you to have a sustained commitment. But of course you can only sustain it if it’s sustainable in terms of the expenditure of blood and treasure. And therefore you have to do what we were trying to do which is to reduce the expenditure indeed of blood and treasure so that you can sustain this campaign for a fairly significant amount of time. Not unlike the sustainment of the deployment of our forces in Korea or in Europe during the Cold War, and even beyond. We still have tens of thousands of forces there.

So that’s, I think, the way that you approach this. And that is a different mindset obviously. And I can understand why people get frustrated at having to continue to do that and, understandably, why they would like to withdraw and again focus on nation-building at home rather than abroad. But the reality is that this is a situation where there are ungoverned spaces in the Muslim world, Islamist extremists are going to exploit them. You have to do something about it because otherwise they’re going to spew violence, extremism, instability, and a tsunami of refugees not just into neighboring countries but, as we saw in the case of Syria, and some of Africa, and to a degree Iraq, all the way into our western European allies, undermining their domestic political situations, the most they have seen since the end of the Cold War. And inevitably in many cases the US is going to have to lead and we’re going to have to have a comprehensive approach. Just, again, to come back to you, you can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency. You just can’t counter terrorists with counterterrorist force operations. You have to employ all tools.

But, what we want to do is what we’ve been able to do now in Iraq and Syria which is to have the host nation forces doing the bulk of the activity and the fighting, political reconciliation, restoration of basic services, reestablishment of local economies, rule of law, et cetera, so that we can have a sustained commitment that is sustainable. And the advent, frankly, of the Air Force remotely piloted vehicles, the Reaper in particular, has truly transformed what is possible in this regard, together with increase of precision munitions platforms and capabilities and fusion of intelligence.

Steve: Now that you’ve been a few years removed from your work as the ISAF commander, and now the National Defense Strategy pivots us towards a peer competition, is there any lessons learned that you would like strategists to have in mind as we approach the challenges of tomorrow?

Gen. Petraeus:  Yeah, I think that this is a uniquely challenging time for folks like you, in the sense that you can’t jettison the lessons of the wars in which we’ve been engaged since 9/11 because we’re still at it and we have to maintain the capabilities that are necessary to sustain the commitments that I’ve described, that I certainly believe are necessary. But now there are new challenges. We have, as the National Security Strategy explained, and the National Defense Strategy entered an era of renewed great power rivalries, as much as we want mutually beneficial relationships and I very fervently want that between the United States and China and, if we could, with the US and Russia, we have to recognize realities and that is that the capabilities have increased in the potential adversaries. Noting that, by the way again, with respect to China, unlike during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, where we did very little trading between the US and the Soviet Union, with China, the US and China are each other’s biggest trading partners. And that’s, again, a paradoxical situation.

But we do need to be firm in our relationship, we do need to have the capabilities to ensure deterrence of any provocative action. And obviously the defensive capability if it comes to that. And so you are in an era where we are planning for very challenging multi-domain warfare with true peer competitors in a way that we certainly haven’t had to contend, however capable the asymmetric abilities of the terrorists and extremists and insurgents that we’ve countered in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan and a variety of other places, particularly since 9/11.

Steve: General, thank you again for your time today. We really appreciate your insight into the situation in front of us and behind us.

Gen. Petraeus: Oh, the privilege has been mine. It’s great to be back with the tribe.

Steve: Thank you, sir.

Gen. Petraeus: Thank you.

Matt: Thank you, sir.

Major Matt Lyles is a student at the Air Command and Staff College in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist program. He is an infantry officer in the US Army with multiple deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Email:

Major Steve Bressett is a student at the Air Command and Staff College in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist program and holds a doctorate degree in education. He is a senior pilot with more than 2,900 flight hours in the B-2, T-38, and T-6. Email:

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment
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