General David Petraeus updates on war, Middle East

As part of the Colonel Leslie Callahan Memorial Endowment, Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts (IAC) and Center of International Strategy, Technology and Policy (CISTP) hosted U.S. CENTCOM Commander General David H. Petraeus at the Ferst Center on Tuesday. The event was free and open to the public.

Petraeus, who assumed leadership of the U.S. Central Command in 2008, addressed students, faculty and other guests on the present turmoil in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the current status of CENTCOM and its activities with regards to the war. The talk took the form of a question and answer session led by Dr. Kenneth Knoespel, the interim dean of IAC. It later shifted to become more of a conversation between Petraeus and audience members.

“Normally the staff makes a bunch of Powerpoint slides and I normally point my laser pointer and say, ‘next slide’…but I thought that a conversation could be more interesting because you can take the conversation to where you want it to go, and that is precisely why you are here,” Petraeus said.

In addition to a number of faculty members and Institute President G.P. “Bud” Peterson, senators, congressmen and state representatives including former senator Sam Nunn, were in attendance. In welcoming Petraeus, Knoespel was quick to attest the strong connection between Tech and the U.S. military throughout history and the importance of that relationship in the face of strife in Haiti and other humanitarian efforts.

“Our history of research and education has manifested itself above all in service of a generation of students and faculty and staff of the military. The strength of our own ROTC units —army, navy, air force—is also a testimony of the generations of service to the nation, we remember this afternoon,” Knoespel said.

Petraeus opened his talk by presenting a number of strides that the U.S. military had made within the past few months in Afghanistan and the Middle East. He attested the courage and valor of those serving in the army, especially those who had renewed their oath to serve in the armed services. He then progressed into strategies for combating militant guerilla groups such as Al-Qaeda.

“What we have seen now in Afghanistan after a very early defeat, I think it’s fair to say it was a defeat of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda elements that were in and running Afghanistan at that time in late 2001 and 2002, there was in part a reduction in violence done, and then we saw each year a gradual resurgence of the Taliban. And over time there’s always a fighting season in the spring, summer and early fall and goes down in early winter, and each year it goes higher and higher,” Petraeus said, noting the increased extremities of peaks of violence in Afghanistan. The instances of guerilla violence have increased from the tens to the hundreds in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war. He noted a spike during the 2008 U.S. elections as well. However, Petraeus was quick to note that this contrasts with the same information in Iraq, which shows a decrease in violence from the mid thousands to a few hundred cases due to the surge in U.S. troops over the past few years. He also discussed the military’s strategy to combat Al-Qaeda and Taliban presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively using the Anaconda strategy, which seeks to undermine extremists using U.S. intelligence, counterinsurgency and relations with local citizens.

In response to student questions concerning U.S. relations with countries such Syria and Yemen, the general was at first hesitant to give a definite answer, but noted the difficulties in diplomacy in that region.

“It is a very tricky and sensitive time and in some respects [the time] makes diplomacy more challenging with the lack of solidity and foundation,” Petraeus said.

Despite being mostly calm during the talk, the political turmoil surrounding the War in Afghanistan was present at the talks through protestors both inside and outside the Ferst Center. When Petraeus began discussing strategy, approximately 14 people (with no relation to Tech) stood up and turned their backs to the general and revealed anti-war shirts. The members were escorted out by security without trouble.