General Petraeus Gets Counterinsurgency

By David Levine, Law and Security Program

On the morning of May 10, 2007 I opened my email to find this letter waiting for me. At the time I was serving as an intelligence officer in the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, advising Iraqi counterparts on everything from effective counter-insurgency tactics to the rule of law to requisitioning supplies.

I experienced first hand the ill effects on the mission of the “torture and other expedient methods” that General David Petraeus cited in the letter on values that he sent to every military member in Iraq, and I felt the seeming breath of fresh air at the embassy-cum-headquarters when he and his staff arrived in the spring of 2007.

Disregarding human rights norms and the rule of law makes it harder to successfully carry out the already difficult work that a counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign requires. Gen. Petraeus made it very clear that he understood that and that any behavior to the contrary was unacceptable. This made my own meetings with Iraqi leadership easier, and I’m convinced it has been critical to the success that we’ve had over last few years.

I was thus encouraged by the nomination of Gen. Petraeus to lead the coalition effort in Afghanistan and by what I heard at his confirmation hearings this morning before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Gen. Petraeus gets it. When pressed about Rules of Engagement (ROE) that were implemented to reduce civilian casualties and that some consider too restrictive, he stated unequivocally that protecting the civilian population and our own troops are not mutually exclusive; one reinforces the other. While he will review the ROE, he does not expect to change them; he expects to ensure they are enforced consistently across the board.

Ensuring that we are protecting the civilian population—from both Taliban atrocities and errant U.S. weapons—will help keep our troops safe; and it will make the job easier for the young officers and enlisted people carrying out the advisory mission that is at the heart of any counterinsurgency operation.

In an aside near the end of the hearing, Gen. Petraeus singled out the Afghan judicial sector as one that needed additional U.S. support to operate effectively. This, in particular, is heartening to an intelligence officer-turned-law student. As the United States increasingly turns detention operations over to our Afghan counterparts, it is especially important that the judiciary is capable of providing defendants with fair criminal trials that meet international standards.

In several reports, HRF has laid out recommendations for the Afghan system that should be accomplished in concert with the reform of Coalition detention operations. Following these recommendations would ensure protection of the civilian population and effects not dissimilar to the ROE discussed above. Fair and transparent detention and judicial operations foster better relations with the Afghan population and advance the U.S. strategic mission.

Having witnessed the sea-change in outlook that Gen. Petraeus brought with him to Baghdad, I know that he is capable of following through on the promise of his statements; for the sake of my friends still in the military and the Afghan people who have been subject to far too much violence over the last several decades, I hope he succeeds.


Published on June 29, 2010


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