Late last month, WPRB News sat down with General David Petraeus, commander of United States Central Command and recent recipient of Princeton’s James Madison Medal, to discuss military issues in the Middle East, from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to drones and cybersecurity. Nick Tagher, Naomi Nix and Aaron Smargon hosted the episode, and Andrew Saraf contributed research. Nikki Leon was the executive producer. The audio can be found on WPRB’s [website](

What follows is a transcript that has been slightly edited for length and footnoted with context and critical commentary by Conor Gannon and Patricia Valderrama on behalf of the Nassau Weekly; the sentiments expressed therein do not necessarily reflect the opinion of WPRB News.

Nick Tagher: This week on “Taking On,” we sit down with General David Petraeus, head of the United States Central Command. [. . .] Prior to heading Centcom, General Petraeus spent nineteen months as the Commanding General of the multinational force in Iraq. He also served as commander of 101st Airborne Division throughout the first year of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Naomi Nix: An undergraduate from West Point, and MPA [Master in Public Affairs, a Woodrow Wilson School degree] and PhD graduate student at Princeton University, General Petraeus is this year’s recipient of Princeton’s James Madison Medal—it’s the highest honor a Princeton graduate alumnus can receive. Nick leads off our discussion.

NT: All right, well, thank you General for joining us. It’s an honor and it’s a privilege.

NN: And congratulations on receiving Princeton’s Madison Medal for an outstanding record of service.

General Petraeus: Well, thanks very much. It’s great to be back at Princeton.

NT: Well, we’ll get started with a current event. As you know, the military’s main operation in the news today is the offensive in Marja, to take back Marja from Taliban control, and reestablish Afghan governance over there. How does installing Afghan governance and routing the Taliban impact the stability of Afghanistan, and what does this portend for the viability of the Afghan state?

GP: Well, those objectives are precisely what it is that we are trying to accomplish with the campaign that we just started, really, with respect to Marja. If I could just talk about really what’s going on in Afghanistan over the last year or so—we’ve worked very hard during that time to ensure that we have the right structures, the right organizations to carry out the kind of comprehensive civil-military campaign that’s necessary. Then we got the all-star team in charge of those different organizations, General McChrystal and all the others; we worked with them, they developed the concepts for the campaign that are necessary. Then President Obama committed the additional resources that are necessary to enable it, and they’re flowing: 5,000 of the 30,000 [soldiers] are already in country, and Marja is the first, the initial effort, the initial operation in what will be a campaign that stretches out over the course of this year and even into 2011, the objectives of which will be indeed to increase the security for the Afghan people, particularly in key areas and along key lines of communication [1], and then to enable the development of Afghan governance—local governance, a lot of it in traditional ways, familiar to the Afghan people, but governance nonetheless [2]—that can resolve disputes and that can, over time, ensure better services for the Afghan people, revive local markets and indeed help them achieve, over time, a better life for themselves and for their families.

NN: So Hamid Karzai won a hotly contested election, but he was accused of manipulating votes and placing his tribe above other tribes. Are there risks with negotiating separate peace agreements with smaller leaders and do they undermine the central government?

GP: Well, first of all, it’s accurate to observe, as you did, that the election did not result in the greater legitimacy that was indeed hoped would be an outcome of that particular election for the incoming President, in this case, of course, President Karzai being reelected and his government. But, obviously, you have to work through that, and it is absolutely essential over time that, again, Afghan governance be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the people. It cannot therefore be corrupt, it can’t be predatory governance, it has to help them achieve a better life and achieve a better life for their family members as well. Certainly the negotiations with elements of the insurgency that could be reconciled, that could be reintegrated back into society, with tribes that aren’t necessarily the ones in power, all of this will be carried out with the Afghan government, not independent from it, and it’s essential that that be the case.

NT: In a speech on September 17, 2009, you said, “it’s also necessary to find ways to identify the reconcilable members of the insurgent elements.” My question is, how does the military distinguish between those who are willing to give up their arms and turn sides versus the so-called “hard-core” warriors?

GP: Well, you just mentioned one way. They literally lay down their arms, they literally come in and talk with our Afghan partners and ISAF [International Security Assistant Force, a NATO-affiliated group working in Afghanistan] element leaders, and they have to demonstrate a sincere desire to be reintegrated into the population, to become part of the solution instead of a continuing part of the problem. It is difficult to make these decisions, as it was in Iraq, and it is also difficult to bring yourself to sit across the table, if you will, or sit around drinking chai with individuals who may have been trying to kill us, but that’s how you, that’s how you reduce insurgencies [3]. You can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgent problem; you do have to do some of that, without question, and indeed we are bringing in more of our so-called Special Mission Units to do just that. But we are also working to develop more Afghan forces, we are working to empower Afghan people through local defense initiatives, so we’re working across the board in a very comprehensive effort, that one element of which is this so-called reintegration of reconcilables [4].

NN: Do you think that the Afghan military is in a better position to identify who is a potential to be reintegrated and who needs to be captured or killed?

GP: In most cases, yes. Certainly in the cases where, of course, you have trustworthy partners, we can—we sometimes joke and say we can do all the cultural awareness and language training in the world and we’ll never, ever reach the levels of the locals [5]—and that’s obviously very true. So when you have good partners, certainly they are critical to the reintegration process, as it’s termed in Afghanistan, of reconcilable elements; but they have to demonstrate a level of integrity in this process, they have to show fairness, there has to be openness, and it cannot be a case where the Afghan leader is helping his own tribe or his own people; he has to indeed be objective about this, as much as is possible. [6]

NT: This morning, you were talking about drone warfare in the Afghan war and I’d like to touch on this point for just a moment. Do you see drone warfare as a tool that helps the U.S. Army because it doesn’t put soldiers in harm’s way and it achieves tactical victories, or do you see it sometimes as a hindrance, because of the civilian causalities that arise and therefore become propaganda victories, for example, the way there was a propaganda victory in Fallujah in 2004?

GP: Well, first of all, what I was talking about was not just drone warfare at all. What I was talking about was the use of close air support: it can be fixed-wing manned aircraft, B-1s, F-16s, F-15s, you name it; it can be unmanned aerial vehicles that are armed and also have full-motion video; it can be attack helicopters; it can even be indirect fire from artillery, multiple rocket launchers and so forth. So it’s any means of these very lethal systems that can, if not employed properly, can cause innocent civilian loss of life. And indeed, in war, there will be innocent loss of civilian life [7], but our objective is to keep that to an absolute minimum, without tying our soldiers’ hands behind their backs, but to make sure that we don’t give the enemy a propaganda tool, and that is, again, innocent civilians killed in the course of operations by our weapons, if at all possible. And indeed, actually with unmanned aerial vehicles the record is very, very impressive. Speaking in a generic sense, not in any particular campaign now, unmanned aerial vehicles typically are very precise; you have full-motion vision of what’s going on in the situation before the trigger is pulled, if you will, and the weapons tend to be relatively small in relation to, say, larger bombs—although we have some now that can even carry quite substantial bombs, all of them though being precision munitions. So, in fact, unmanned aerial vehicles are extraordinarily useful; they have a substantial dwell time [air time][8] and as you layer these and package them, you can get what’s called the unblinking eye [9]: you can just stare at a location and really gain a knowledge of a pattern of life as it’s called [10], that is so substantial that you can then pull the trigger and take out a bad guy [11] with a good degree of confidence that there are no innocent civilians in a location.

NN: In 2007, China was accused of hacking Pentagon systems. Is cybersecurity an increasing threat and how does the military plan to respond?

GP: Well, we’re working very hard at defenses in cyberspace. The enemy is active in cyberspace in a number of different ways, various enemies and indeed just plain hackers, if you will, as well, that can nonetheless cause significant damage if they carry out attacks in certain systems. But we’ve worked very hard to erect defenses in cyberspace. There are literally, I think it’s tens or hundreds of thousands of intrusions per day, or attempted intrusions into our secure and non-secure networks—again, attempts—and we have to work very, very hard to protect our systems and to ensure that individuals can’t get in those and exploit that opening that they achieve.

NT: In 2009, Kevin Chilton, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said, “I don’t think you take anything off the table when you provide options,” in response to a cyber attack. Can you, first, give a scenario that would prompt military action and the second question is, in the example of China, at what point does one consider hacks directed by the Chinese government indistinguishable from hacks done by individual citizens of China?

GP: Well, first of all, I am not sure how granular the evidence is, or, in fact if I did, I’m not sure I would talk about it here, in terms of what we see different countries or citizens of different countries doing. There’s no question that we know where substantial numbers of these hacking efforts come from, these cyber intrusions. There are certainly suspicions that in some cases they are being actively aided and abetted by governmental agencies, although it’s not always crystal clear, in certain cases. But what is clear is that we have to work very hard, harder in fact than we have in the past, increasingly to erect those defenses and General Chilton, who is the head of Strategic Command, indeed has a subordinate element that does network defenses and so on, and that is hugely important.

NT: I’d like to briefly change tracks just because we’re kind of pressed for time, and I’d like to ask you a question with regards to Iraq and Iran. The first question is, in a February 17th Wall Street Journal op-ed, Kimberly and Frederick Kagan claimed, “Iranian senior leaders actively attempt to undermine the democratic, secular and cross-sectarian political process.” How significant is the political and military threat posed to Iraq by Iran and what is the U.S. doing to address it?

GP: Well, there’s no question that Iran has, over the years, continued to arm, train, fund, equip and even direct, in some cases, militant extremist elements inside Iraq. These have been militia members, currently the elements are Asaib al-Haq—although that’s reconciled by and large—Qutb Hezbollah [12], the Promised Day Brigade, and some others. And these indeed continue to carry out attacks on a daily basis with signature weapons provided by Iran, specifically the explosively-formed projectiles, certain calibers of rockets, and some other weapons that are employed, and that’s—obviously that is of concern, but it’s not just of concern to us, it’s of concern to the Iraqi people and to Iraqi leaders as well, who do not welcome a neighbor meddling in their affairs, causing security issues, and in some cases attempting to manipulate political activities either. [13]

NN: In a January interview with CNN, you said that Centcom had been thinking about various what-ifs and making plans for a whole variety of different contingencies. What considerations are taken into account when determining whether to proceed with military action?

GP: Well, what I was getting at—you know I was asked, tell me about your plans for taking out Iran’s nuclear weapons, and obviously I wasn’t on a Sunday show going to lay out specifically what it is that we might be planning or might not be planning. What I did say, as you correctly conveyed, is that it would be irresponsible if we were not asking certain what-ifs and if we were not making contingency plans. That’s what military commanders get paid to do. I think the country expects the geographic combatant commanders like myself to do just that, and to prepare for some of these different what-ifs. But we don’t then go out and, you know, explicitly talk about them. We do, in certain cases want, certainly, to support diplomacy; it is useful at times to know that certain defensive actions have been taken and certain precautions, and even preparations, for other activities may have been made, but that’s where we generally want to leave it.

NN: If President Obama were to shelve his diplomatic approach, would it be feasible for the military to remove the Iranian threat?

GP: Well, before that certainly, what we have certainly pursued, what the United States has pursued over the course of the past year has been the engagement track and it’s worked very hard at this; and I think at the end of the day, as the emphasis is now put on what’s called the pressure track, there can be no question about the willingness of the United States to reach out an open hand, as the saying goes, to make efforts to sit down and talk, without preconceptions, with Iran; and indeed in each case, Iran has not answered that in the manner to which we offered. So the result is that now the emphasis is shifting to the so-called pressure track, to the efforts by the UN Security Council, and many countries beyond the United States—Russia has expressed concerns, as well, about Iranian nuclear activities. The countries together are examining what kind of additional instruments, in terms of sanctions and so forth, should be applied, and I think that’s very much the appropriate course at this time, indeed while the military does make whatever prudent preparations we should be making to answer the what-ifs, if it should ever come to that.

NT: You touched on the subject of sanctions—Russia, which used to be against sanctions, has now become more in favor of it—however the US has still run into opposition from the Chinese at the Security Council in being able to implement sanctions. How much more effort until the US considers sanctions a failed option?

GP: Well, first of all, we’re still in the somewhat early days of determining what sanctions can and should be implemented and indeed, let’s not just cast this as the United States. There are numerous other countries, very important countries in the world, that are also concerned and…they are also working with all of the different members of the Security Council and indeed other countries around the world; and so there are other countries also certainly having dialogue and will have dialogue with China, with Russia, again, with all of the different partners in this effort.

NT: General, we’d like to ask a couple broader questions about the war on terrorism and radical Islam. It can be argued that the most significant foreign threat to the US today arises from extremist Islam. What therefore is the role of the US military in combating an ideology?

GP: Well, the military has substantial information operations activities, particularly in a place like Iraq, Afghanistan, even more broadly at Central Command, that we work together with the State Department and the other organs of the U.S. government to employ in a coordinated fashion—with the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, specifically, and with others. So that is an important role. Beyond that, we have very active engagement efforts: we also invite thousands of students from countries in the region to the United States for professional military education courses, and of course tens of thousands come to attend various civilian education courses as well. So there’s very substantial involvement in terms of not just the participation in the public arena and…augmenting and supporting public diplomacy efforts, but also just in the activities that we carry out in building relationships and indeed in building the regional security architecture. All of that has a place in the effort to combat the forces of extremism that indeed do pose such a threat to the countries in the region and to our homeland as well.

NN: So how, in your opinion, would you define success in both Afghanistan and Iraq?

GP: Well, I think most simply put: it’s that you can hand off to the countries’ leadership, to their security forces the tasks that in many cases we have performed in the past. That process is actually quite well along in Iraq: that’s what has enabled our drawdown from some hundred and sixty-five or so thousand U.S. forces and other coalition forces during the surge, down to now ninety-six thousand four hundred most recently and will enable the further reduction to somewhere around fifty thousand or so by the end of August this year. And a change in our mission from that of conducting combat operations—albeit now generally in support of Iraqi forces—to one that is explicitly an advise-and-assist mission as we indeed endeavor to help our Iraqi partners. It’s very similar in Afghanistan, although we’re obviously further from that point at which we can begin the process of transitioning tasks to Afghan forces and begin what President Obama has described as a responsible drawdown of our forces.

NT: Well, that will conclude our interview with General Petraeus. General, thank you for interviewing with us. It’s been an honor and, once again, congratulations on receiving the Madison Medal and best of luck to you.

NN: Thank you, General.

GP: Thanks, Nick and Naomi.

Aaron Smargen: General, congratulations again on receiving the James Madison medal.

General Petraeus: Thanks very much, Aaron.

AS: In your remarks this morning, you spoke of the importance of “intellectual soldiers, who can think as well as fight.” Reflecting back on your time as a student at both West Point and at Princeton, what civilian aspects of higher education prepared you for military leadership as well as for challenges on the battlefield?

GP: Indeed, what we’re trying to develop in the military, especially now given the challenges of the endeavors we have in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, which aren’t just about offense and defense, they’re also about stability and support operations. We’re trying to develop so-called pentathlete leaders, if you will. Again, individuals who can do more than just conventional combat operations but can also do the nation-building aspects that have been such important components of the efforts in those countries. [14] Now, what helps when you go to civilian education—civilian graduate school as I was privileged to do here at the Woodrow Wilson School—I think, first of all, is just an awareness that there are some really bright folks out there that don’t necessarily see the world the same way that we do: that’s very salutary when you end up operating in cultures that are very different from our own, with individuals who have different religions, different languages, different social traditions and all the rest of that; and then also certainly the challenges to thinking critically about topics. And I enumerated, of course, today, a number of these different attributes that Princeton, I think, successfully develops in the bulk of its graduates. And so that’s very important as well.

AS: Speaking of critical thinking, in your Princeton dissertation, “the American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam,” you wrote, “for the military, the debate about how and when to commit American troops abroad, has become a debate over how to avoid, at all costs, another Vietnam.” How much longer will the United States, and indeed the U.S. Military, remain in the shadow of Vietnam?

GP: Well, it depends how these ongoing operations turn out, I think. Frankly, there are some who felt that the lessons of Vietnam and the Vietnam experience were buried in the sands of Kuwait, with Operation Desert Storm, but then you have the experience in Somalia, you had some other protracted peace-enforcement operations in the Balkans and Kosovo and so forth, and that reawakened, for some, at least, various aspects of the Vietnam experience and the lessons that some took from it. The fact is that while lessons of history are hugely important, they can often obfuscate as well as illuminate. They can—history doesn’t repeat itself. It is certainly hugely important to study it, to try to glean what you can from it, but then to realize, I think, that the first lesson about lessons of history is that every situation is unique, it has its own context, its own specific circumstances and situation and the key is to understand those specifics with such granularity that you can apply the general lessons from past experiences in a manner that is sensible for that particular location in that particular operation.

AS: Another enduring effect of the Vietnam War has been the banning of on-campus ROTCs at private universities across the United States, including Princeton’s sister Ivy League institutions, Columbia and Harvard. What do you believe has been the impact of such policies, demographically, symbolically, or otherwise?

GP: Well, I mean its practical effect has been that probably fewer Harvard students are in ROTC than would be certainly if it were on-campus and my hope is that over the course of the years ahead that we’ll see ROTC return there. For what it’s worth, I actually was privileged to commission the eight Harvard students who were part of ROTC detachments elsewhere in Cambridge, Massachusetts, including the one our son was part of at MIT. And there were about 2,000 Harvard alumni there in that audience and family members for these eight students; and I think it was—they were there to make a statement, frankly, to show that they did believe that ROTC should come back to the campus. My hope is that the issues surrounding all that can be resolved in the years ahead, so that you can—you know, we want our very best to have an opportunity to serve, to take advantage of ROTC scholarships and so forth, for those that want to, just as Princeton students are able to do. And Princeton indeed has, I think, the best ROTC program in America and it was a privilege to spend time with them yesterday and run with a handful of the ROTC cadets here this morning.

AS: Could you comment on what you think it would take to reverse these bans?

GP: Well, in some cases of course, it’s wrapped up with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, so we’ll see if that law is changed in the course of the year or years ahead and I certainly think that would remove that which is used as in some cases, perhaps a sincere obstacle, and in other perhaps not, but that would remove that particular issue from the equation.

AS: And one final question, General. What twenty-first century challenges do you anticipate that the United States will face in terms of military and public service recruitment? And how can we as a nation work to overcome them?

GP: Well, I think it is important that all segments of society, in a sense, share burdens and also share the privilege of serving our country in uniform. I was privileged to have some extraordinary Ivy League graduates—some of which again, went to other ROTC programs or to the Officer Candidate School—serving with us there in Iraq. And they were true national assets. I would hope that all students, again, at least would have that opportunity and would be exposed to some who are pursuing that particular course. But as President Tilghman rightly observed today, in fact, as I offered during my Baccalaureate address last spring, there are a number of different ways to serve our nation, to live the unofficial motto of Princeton, in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations. And indeed you can certainly argue that perhaps, it is more important to have someone serve our nation by inventing a new cure for some disease than perhaps it is to be in a particular executive branch department. Again, there are many avenues for service to our nation and I think that Princeton prepares its graduates admirably to follow a number of those different avenues.

AS: Thank you so much, General Petraeus, and again, congratulations on receiving the James Madison Medal today.

GP: Thanks, Aaron.

[1] This “security for” appears dependent on “key lines of communication”; these must be lines “between.” Security, in other words, depends in this construction on the existence of a communication network, national in scope. How such a framework stands in relation to a tribal society remains to be seen.

[2] The tension under which Petraeus evidently strains here—that traditional governance is “governance nonetheless”—is a product of the overextension of Western power, to the point that it comes to rely on the very forms of non-Western sovereignty it displaced (as illegitimate) or dismissed (as insufficient). (For more on the dismissal, including the trope of “ungovernable spaces,” see Shelagh Weir’s A Tribal Order.)

[3] N.B. “Insurgencies” appears here without “insurgents.” Whether abstract, as here, or chemical—as below in “industrial-strength insurgent problem”—the problem solved by countersurgency is never a human one in military rhetoric.

[4] We’ve moved, now, from “reconciled” to “reconcilable” to “reconcilables.” What began as an American activity (v.) moved through an Afghan condition (adj.) to an essence (n.). To speak of “reconcilables,” rather than “reconcilable agents,” is to transform a form of diplomatic exchange between rational parties reconciliation—into a question of evaluating and, in a sense, capturing docile parties. Note too that “reconcilables” must be “reintegrated”—having been, in their essential difference, placed outside the boundaries of Afghan society.

[5] Absent the joke in question—which we suspect Petraeus withheld with good reason—we may not comment on the efficacy of a training regimen in “cultural awareness” that still allows one to speak of the only intermittently trustworthy “locals.” It is revealing that the issue of culture clash came up only in the context of identifying “who is a potential to be reintegrated and who needs to be captured or killed”; surely, the majority of Afghanis tracked by America’s unblinking eye desire neither reintegration nor death—may, in fact, be women and children supporting the insurgency in roles which cannot be understood without a cultural awareness broader than the one supported by the dichotomy set up here.

[6] Just as security was predicated on a network of national communication, earlier, so does it depend here upon the existence of a national interest: one that appears, in its foreign application, is posited as antithetical to the local interests endemic to representative government (e.g., earmarks).

[7] A Freudian slip; correcting for the parapraxis, one may read “loss of innocent civilian life.” As the repressed moral logic of counterinsurgency comes to the fore, we see the two categories of killing: innocent, and intended. The domestic, intermediary category of manslaughter has not been exported.

[8] “Dwell time” typically refers to the time a soldier spends at home, on leave. Leaving aside its identity between machine and man, this construction thus situates the drone’s home in enemy territory.

[9] For more, see Panopticon by Jeremy Bentham: a blueprint for a hypothetical prison that provides for total surveillance to ensure complete obedience.

[10] “The unblinking eye” is capable of perceiving not simply movement, but “a pattern of life.” What Bentham proscribed as a mode of imprisonment here comes to encompass every aspect of a civilian’s daily activity—without having even interned that civilian within four walls. Such total surveillance saturates the nation: filling (and extending beyond) its borders, claiming in its purview even the identity (“pattern of life”) of its citizens.

[11] The War on Terror’s “evildoers” has become “Af-Pak’s” “bad guys,” as the Book of Job gives way to the Book of Eli.

[12] The Nassau Weekly could not confirm this name’s referent.

[13] Neighbors meddle; Old Europe colonized; America develops. By speaking on behalf of the Iraqi “people… and leaders as well,” Petraeus adopts the most effective trope of a larger colonialist discourse: the assumption of knowledge of what is best for the group whose sovereignty has just been violently abrogated by the colonizers. Luckily, Western superpowers are not neighbors, and so they do not meddle.

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