This interview with General (Ret.) David H. Petraeus, now Chairman of KKR Global Institute, was conducted by Jeff Cunningham, professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management of Arizona State University. (video appears at the end of the post)
Q. You speak to leaders around the globe. What are they worried most about?
A. There’s a convergence of issues about which we’re all worried. Business leaders are always concerned with the micro issues, financials and growth thesis, but now they are equally concerned about the macro when it comes to the governance and geopolitical risks.
Does your role at KKR require some of the same skills as a military leader?
With this difference, that I’m providing thoughts, analysis, advice to individuals who are commanding large enterprises around the world, rather than the national security team in the Situation Room (or in the Oval Office) when I was director of the CIA.
If Jeff Immelt of GE asked for your counsel on doing business in Iran, how would you respond?
Certainly, anybody who’s interested in investing in Iran ought to get a very good, trustworthy, experienced Iranian partner; and second, should get a very good international lawyer because the legal restrictions on business with Iran are still quite considerable because of Iran’s continuing support for both Lebanese Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, both of which are designated terrorist organizations.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, political leaders were influenced by local and cultural issues rather than mission goals. How did you work with that?
Very carefully. With a considerable degree of, at times, patience, occasionally showing the full range of emotions, ideally while acting rather than actually truly losing it.
“You don’t get to choose your partners in real life or in those circumstances.”
Prime Minister Maliki was already the elected leader of Iraq and actually was a reasonable partner during the time of the surge, which represented true big, big changes, a surge of ideas.
It was only later when Prime Minister Maliki unfortunately undid what we’d worked so hard to achieve that it tore the fabric of society once again that we had put back together during the surge.
How did you motivate our troops in a situation that had become so desperate?
This is not a win-or-lose, take the hill, plant the flag, and go home to a victory parade. The troops knew that as well.
“I truly believed in what it was we were going to do and I think the troops did, too.”
I did believe that if we changed our approach; if we incorporated the ideas that I just described, which, again, were very big shifts; if we implemented that strategy, a comprehensive, civil military counterinsurgency campaign worthy of that description, that we would indeed drive down the violence.
What you’re trying to do is gradually accumulate progress so that you can gradually transition and gradually go home. That did, indeed, work for quite a period. It was only when the sectarian activities were pursued, it was undone, and that is absolutely tragic.
I think that the Islamic State in Iraq is very defeatable, and I think we will defeat them. Once again, it’s going to come down to politics in Baghdad.
You are dealing with a region that doesn’t exactly embrace democracy.
“It has to be their form of democracy.”
Actually, in the very beginning, when I was there as a two-star general commanding the 101st Airborne Division, where we did the fight to Baghdad, we had a very conventional fight and destroyed the forces of the regime, and then we were deployed up to the north to the very, very difficult city of Mosul in Nineveh Province, which was literally in flames. There were terrible looting, terrible violence.
We blanketed it as quickly as we could and then we very quickly got an Iraqi government, an interim government, and our goal was to be representative of all the major elements in Nineveh Province — all the districts, all the tribes, all the ethnic groups, the sectarian groupings— and then to be as responsive as possible to the people.
Again, the key was to be representative and responsive.
But once we did de-Ba’athification without a reconciliation process, that was a huge blow. Then you fire the military without telling them what their future is, again a double blow. Those set us back very, very significantly.
“We had a test question that was on the wall of the operations center whenever I was a commander anywhere, and it asked, “Will this policy or operation take more bad guys off the street than it creates by its conduct?” If the answer to that is no, you don’t do it.”
You had a counterinsurgency strategy which worked, and then politicians implemented de-Ba’athification, which led to chaos. How do you deal with that?
In a rational, respectful, calm, and hopefully convincing manner, explain when issues are being considered that should not be considered, the kinds of thoughts that ought to be considered “Go sit under a tree until the thought passes” kind of ideas.
Unfortunately, there was no consultation with us. Ambassador Bremer himself, the Coalition Provisional Authority head, a year later, acknowledged that his biggest failure, if you will, was not having a reconciliation process.
Frankly, there never should have been de-Ba’athification because you’re casting tens of thousands of Iraqis, the most respected members of their societies, on the ash heap of history.
Did it ever seem to you that we waited till the place got really messy before we asked you to come back to fix it?
I think sometimes it takes a real crisis to make a significant change, and there’s something to that. The country was on the verge of an all-out sectarian civil war.
You were with your wife, Holly, in California when you received a call from Secretary of Defense Gates.
We decided that I needed to go see my father. I recognized that there was a possibility this might be the last time I would see him. We were driving from LA Airport out to Santa Clarita, where he was in a assisted living home near my sister. On the way, every phone in the car goes off. It was from everybody who knew me saying, “Secretary Gates needs to get hold of you.”
I took a call and it was Secretary Gates, “The President wants you to go back to Iraq to take command of the multinational force in Iraq.” So we pull into a convenience store parking lot off the freeway and having one of the most important calls of my life on a cell phone and with spotty coverage.
The truth is in a conversation like that, they just want to get you to “yes” and then say, “Thanks very much.”
How did you frame your understanding of mission when you were in the Oval Office?
Later on, I had a conversation with President Obama, and he began our meeting, just the two of us — everybody else was going out of the Oval Office as I was coming in — and avoiding eye contact . He said, “I am asking you as your President and Commander-in-Chief to go to Afghanistan and take command of the International Security Assistance Force.”
“When someone starts a request like that, it’s not something to which you can say no.”
But I wanted him to know what he was getting, and so I said, “Mr. President, you should understand that I will provide my best professional military advice based on the facts on the ground and the mission you’ve given us as we have discussed it and informed by the issues with which you have to deal uniquely. Congressional politics, national politics, coalition politics, strain in the force, budgets, deficits. These are your province. I’ll be aware of those, but my advice will be determined by facts on the ground.”
A year later, at the end of several meetings, when asked if I agreed with his decision, which was less than what I’d recommended, I said:
“With great respect, as you’ll recall our discussion, my recommendation was driven by facts on the ground, awareness of what you’re dealing with, but at the end of the day, the facts on the ground haven’t changed, and so my recommendation is also unchanged.” That was a very interesting, tense moment.
If you were in the business world, you’d receive a huge bonus and a bigger office for your victory.
I wasn’t doing this for the stock options.
What does it mean — to a civilian, to become a four-star?
Candidly, it’s a particularly big deal if you are going to be the commander of a theater at war. You’re not just the face of the war. You are the one individual, perhaps more than anyone else, together with your country’s ambassador, who is going to be listened to the most intently by the Commander-in-Chief in Washington.
How much danger did you face as a four-star general?
I never thought that much about the danger to me. In fact, I never even wore a Kevlar helmet in Afghanistan.
That’s not to say there couldn’t be a random rocket that has your name on it or a sniper out in some patrol area that we’re in. But this is not closing with and destroying the enemy, as our troops on the ground were doing, as our son, who was at the time a second lieutenant and the platoon leader of an airborne infantry platoon in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was doing on a fairly frequent basis.
The dangers with which I had to contend, frankly, were far more in the political realm. They were the most devilishly difficult and the most emotional and most challenging, even after you’ve got the security situation right, because at the heart of it, the struggle in Iraq was about resources and power.
I understand that in order to feel what combat troops were dealing with, you managed to get yourself shot?
We used to jokingly say that this is all part of battlefield realistic training. Yeah, we had a very aggressive live fire program and I was actually walking behind a particular rifle squad, and a soldier who had knocked a bunker out with a grenade, spun out of it, tripped on the top step. His rifle came down, and we think he tensed— because he actually was knocked out momentarily — squeezed off a round, and it went right through my chest.
I was actually standing next to a brigadier general, Jack Keane, who ultimately was a four-star general, ultimately commanded the division as well — a great mentor of mine over the years, tremendous mentor, and was the one person in the Oval Office with President Bush in late December who said, “We need to surge.” Apparently, what they’d all agreed on was who should command the surge, but none of them besides General Jack Keane said that there should be a surge of forces.
Anyway, that was an interesting moment, and it’s one of those where if it hits an artery, you’re finished.
In the hospital with the gunshot wound, they had to put a tube into your chest without anesthetics?
They realize “It probably hasn’t severed an artery or he’d be dead by now. He’d have bled out,” but there’s fluid, very clearly, and so they’ve gotta get suction in there. It’s one time where somebody said, “This is really going to hurt.” I’ve heard people say, “This’ll be a prick.” But he said, “This is really going to hurt.” He didn’t have time to do any anesthetic. He just took a scalpel and cut an X in my side right here, right to the bone. He crunched right to the bone and then peeled it back, ripped it back, and drove a hard plastic tube right into my lung, and got suction on it.
The comeback was reasonably quick. I was very thankful for that, frankly. I was not the most patient of patients. I was doing laps around the hospital.
You flunked rehab?
Yeah, yeah. I’d put it all in a wheelchair and push it around the — just to keep active.
There’s a story about you doing 50 pushups to prove you were ready.
I said, “What do I need to show you?” Either I still had some tubes in or pulled ’em out and just got down and knocked out 50 pushups, and jokingly I said it’s the only time I ever stopped at 50. They realized, “Just let this guy out of here. He’s a —”
“There’s a little something genetically strange here.”
With a name like David, the Goliath slayer, inevitably you were going to do something in the Middle East.
I don’t know if it was inevitable or not. In fact, a lot of people have said at various points, people get lucky or lucky with timing. If you’d been the guy that commanded the 101st prior to you, you would’ve gone off to the Pentagon. Again, I come in and take over, and off we go. Folks said, “Oh, he got lucky with the surge, got lucky because the Sunnis were ready to reconcile.”
I’ve always thought that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. In fact, that’s a quote from a Roman philosopher.
I’d spent a lot of my life preparing for the possibility that I might do something again in a war zone and worked that very, very hard.
Can you connect the lines between that period and ISIS?
The al-Qaeda in Iraq elements and the Sunni insurgents that we were battling on the Sunni side became the core of ISIS of the future. We destroyed these elements, estimates have been that they were down to dozens at most. They were truly rendered incapable of accomplishing their mission without reconstitution, which is the definition for destruction. The Sunni population was now supporting the new Iraq because of reconciliation and, again, going after al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq were indeed the elements that ultimately came back to life, got back off their stomach onto their knees. When Prime Minister Maliki went after the Sunni Arabs, the leaders, and then violently put down the demonstrations about that, it flipped that community, and that ultimately became the Islamic State leadership and then some of its rank and file.
Of course, that drifted over into Syria, where you have a full-on sectarian civil war. They grow a great amount of additional strength, start getting the international volunteers, equipment, money, really revenue-generating organization, and experience, and then sweep back into Iraq, first into Anbar Province and then into Mosul in that very impressive, frankly, conventional offensive.
It’s an army that came this time. This is not an insurgent or terrorist organization. This is a real army, but, frankly, we do pretty well against real armies.
You said ungoverned spaces will be occupied.
Ungoverned spaces in the Islamic world, especially, it seems, this part which is from West Africa, North Africa, Middle East, including the Sinai, but the way, of course, where we’re seeing real problems, and then into Central Asia and perhaps some other areas will be exploited by Islamic extremists, and the effects of them exploiting these areas will not be contained in those areas. I think that’s a huge revelation, if you will.
It’s something we really have to take to heart because it means you can’t admire the problem until it goes away, as people sometimes waggishly say in Washington.
Why is this America’s fight?
American leadership is absolutely indispensable. It doesn’t mean we do it ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we don’t want coalition members, especially Islamic countries. If you’re going to defeat Islamic extremists, you want as many Muslim allies as you can possibly get, and, oh, by the way, Islamic extremists are an even bigger threat to Islamic countries than they are to countries that feature other religions, ethnic groups.
All the allies and partners together can’t come close to what it is that we can provide when it comes especially to this armada, again, of intelligence, surveillance, and recognizance assets, drones, manned and unmanned aircraft, precision strike capabilities, and perhaps most importantly, the industrial-strength ability to fuse intelligence from big data. That fusion really enabled the kinds of aggressive targeting of the Sunni extremists and ultimately the Shia militia extremists as well.
Now, the other big issue here is that this is going to take a long time, and so I think we now acknowledge that this is a generational struggle.
It’s a true endurance race, and that should inform us as we are conducting our activities so that we are absolutely cost-effective, and limiting to the extent possible the loss of our young men and women.
Finally, get as many coalition partners as you can. Having commanded the largest coalition in history in Afghanistan, coalition maintenance takes a lot of time, but it’s worth it. Churchill was right. The only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them.
Each time you were in the Oval Office, you were dealing with a president that had reelection on his mind.
Of course, President Bush was not running for reelection in Bush 2, which is when the surge was conducted, and he was such a steadfast commander-in-chief during that period.
Again, that didn’t matter. They still have political imperatives. They still have political issues. There are budget deficits. There are all these issues that are frankly beyond the purview of the individual in Iraq or Afghanistan, indeed just at his own boss has a bigger purview. Then you get to the Pentagon and you have the whole world, and then you get to the White House and you have, again, a host of additional factors and issues.
My view was that you just can’t provide something that’s completely irrelevant because it’s so unrealistic — but that the recommendation and the options developed would be driven by the facts on the ground, not by what’s going on in Washington.
Can you tell us a little bit about the people that you draw inspiration from in terms of your leadership.
I was privileged to work for General Jack Galvin, and we really developed a very, very close relationship. He’s a soldier scholar, statesman and he’s the one that asked me if I didn’t want to raise my sights more than the maximum effective range of an M-60 machine gun, i.e., go to graduate school instead of to another infantry or even a ranger assignment. That made a huge difference.
What was the impact of your Ph.D. on your own leadership process?
Graduate school for me was the ultimate out of my intellectual comfort zone experience and an experience in which I drew for the rest of my life.
It was just the sheer knowledge that there are very seriously bright people out there who don’t see the world the same way you do, in fact, some who see it very, very differently from the way you do.
It was also an intellectually humbling experience. I’d actually been the number 1 graduate at the Staff College out of a thousand, the youngest student in the class. You can be excused, I guess, if you at least inside think, “My elevator might go all the way to the top floor.” (Graduate school taught me that) there are an awful lot of seriously bright folks out there and, again, it’s good to have a little bit of intellectual humility.
General Galvin said to you at some point in your time together, “There’s no book that explains leadership in battle”.
When I had some time on my hands after leaving government before figuring out what I was going to do next, I did, in fact, outline a book and the title was Relentless: Leadership Lessons Learned — Some the Hard Way.
It lays out my thoughts on strategic leadership, in particular of getting the big ideas right, communicating them effectively to the breadth and depth of the organization, overseeing their implementation, and then, often most importantly, determining how they need to be refined, revised, shot and left by the side of the road, so you do it all over again and again and again.
This is not something that’s casual. This is not “Yeah, we think about lessons in the shower in the morning” or something.
If you had a dollar for every time someone said, “Tell me how this ends.”
I wasn’t thinking or I might not have said that with Rick Atkinson, multiple Pulitzer Prize winner, sitting in the back seat of my Humvee. What I happened was, we’re in the fight to Baghdad and fairly early on I realized, “This may not go quite the way people have envisioned it.” I’d actually asked before on the eve of going in when they had a big gathering of people. I said, “Could you tell me again what happens after we get to Baghdad and take down the regime?”
A retired general stood up from the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, and said, “You just get us to Baghdad, Dave. We’ll take it from there.”
I realized fairly early on with our experience in Najaf, the first major city, I think, in Iraq that was liberated, that this is non-trivial. By the way, that’s in a Shia Arab-predominant area. Imagine what it’s going to be like when we get to Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Christians, Shabaks, Yazidis, and Turkmen, and all the others. That’s where I asked, “Tell me how this ends.”
What was it that you brought to the party that made you a conquering warrior?
I’d like to think that I at least at that point in time and the final 19–1/2 months at least, where I was privileged to command the surge, that at least I had a sense of what Iraq was, an understanding of the human terrain.
Then, we’d spent a lot of time trying to get the big ideas right. It also took a great, great team, and everybody embracing the idea. Troops wrote me, because you’re accessible to anyone on e-mail, and say, “Thanks for letting us do what they taught us in the counterinsurgency center.”
Then there was a degree of determination. There’s a little bit of the stubborn Dutchman in me, taking after my old Dutch sea captain father.
He was fairly relentless. There is a recognition that “It’s about results, boy,” as he used to say. I’d come home and try to give some excuse about something, and he’d just stare at me and say, “Results, boy.”
Do we underestimate the physical toll of these kinds of pressures?
It’s very, very tough. I think we occasionally do. Those we’ve asked to go back repeatedly for tour after tour, especially, frankly, again, those that are out every day under body armor and Kevlar helmet with heavy loads and 120 degrees in the midday sun and then a 25- to 35-knot wind blowing sand in your face. This is hard, just environmentally hard, and then you throw in an enemy who is very adaptable, has great expertise in explosives and small-unit tactics and so forth, and downright barbaric in some cases, and in some instances willing to give his own life to take you with him. That’s a very, very tough adversary.
The enemy’s impressive?
It varies, but certainly there are some very, very talented, diabolically, barbarically, extremist enemies that we have who are very, very tough. We should and we do recognize it.
I can tell you anybody that’s fought them may hate them, may have disdain for them, may have a variety of other feelings, but respects their capabilities. It’s tough, though.
Did the stress ever get to you?
In Iraq there was a point — you deal with this day in, day out, and you have no peers. You’re the only four-star there, and every now and then some friend or General Keane or the chairman or some of the SecDef will come in, and you can unburden yourself a tiny bit, but even then you’re holding back. I remember after some real tough, tough stretch it was starting to turn but you’ve got political battles, the prime minister, the members of the Parliament, all kinds of issues that you’re dealing with.
I remember I called up the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and I said, “Hey, Admiral. I just want you to know this is not the easiest thing in the world.”
Because, remember, my own chain of command initially wanted to draw down and hand off, which is what we’d tried already and had failed, but there was not enormous, unbounded confidence that we were going to be able to do what we ultimately did.
He said, “Yeah, I got it, Dave, and we won’t leave you there forever.” I just felt that somebody needs to know. That’s the challenge, as they say, that’s the loneliness of command.
I knew we could do what we did do. I just wasn’t certain we could do it in time to have demonstrable results to report at the hearings in September of 2007. Thankfully, the final weeks leading up to the hearings had quite dramatic reductions in the level of violence. If we’d not had that, it’s not inconceivable that the policy could’ve been lost.
Jeff Cunningham is Professor of Global Leadership at Thunderbird School of Global Management and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication of Arizona State University.
He studies C suite and board matters and has counseled more than a few in his career.
He is the former publisher of Forbes Magazine and ceo of Zip2 (Elon Musk’s first company), and was a venture capital partner with Schroder Ventures.
He has served on 10 public company boards, four as chairman.
He is the founder of Directorship Magazine, the leading journal in the field of corporate governance and now the official publication of the NACD.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org