Gen. Petraeus: ‘Downright miraculous’ to see success of Kurdistan Region

Gen. David Petraeus participates in a previous discussion forum at the Yale University’s Jackson Center for Global Affairs, Feb. 18, 2020. (Photo: Jackson Center/Tony Fiorini)
Gen. David Petraeus participates in a previous discussion forum at the Yale University’s Jackson Center for Global Affairs, Feb. 18, 2020. (Photo: Jackson Center/Tony Fiorini)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - Gen. David Petraeus, who famously commanded coalition forces in Iraq and led the “surge” that largely ended the insurgency there, expressed his high regard for the achievements of the Kurdistan Region in a webinar hosted jointly by Yale University’s Jackson Center for Global Affairs and the non-profit, Justice for Kurds.

Tuesday’s event marked the second such webinar in a four-part series that is being conducted weekly through May 4.

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Petraeus became familiar with the Kurdistan Region in the first year of the 2003 US-led war in Iraq, when he led the 101st Airborne Division, which was headquartered in Mosul

In that context, Petraeus explained, “We also oversaw relationships with the Kurdistan Regional Government,” which he described as “very, very easy, given how much control and how good a security situation they had.”

Speaking broadly of Kurds living in the several countries of their divided homeland, Petraeus noted the great difficulties they face. Not only is it a ”very, very tough neighborhood,” but they are land-locked, perennially dependent on others.

Nonetheless, Petraeus said of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, “It’s been quite impressive—it’s downright miraculous—to see how well they have done, to see what they have achieved, in so many different respects.”

“Not just in building economies and modern infrastructure,” he continued, “but in education as well, despite these enormous challenges with which they have had to contend.”

Petraeus Leads the 2007 Counterinsurgency Fight

Petraeus was among the most successful US commanders in Iraq, and as the Iraq war, formally known as Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), dragged on far longer than the US had anticipated, Petraeus returned to lead the surge, which then succeeded in reducing violence in Iraq by 90 percent.

Petraeus designed and led a shift in the US approach from fighting a conventional war to fighting a counter-insurgency. The latter has, as a key objective, establishing a competent, successful political authority which can can maintain control in order to prevent the insurgents, once defeated, from regrouping and returning—like what the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have established in northeast Syria or what Petraeus experienced, already in 2003, in the Kurdistan Region.

A counter-insurgency strategy requires far more interaction with the local population than a conventional war-fighting strategy. It also requires more troops—hence, the surge.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who presided over OIF in its first three years, dismissed the significance of the insurgency and even went so far as to forbid the very use of the word by Pentagon analysts. Rather, Rumsfeld insisted, the violence in Iraq was the work of “dead-enders.”

But he missed a basic point: when a conventional army, like Iraq’s, is defeated, conscripts may well go home. However, the Sunni officers, who enjoyed a privileged position in the former regime, along with members of other institutions closely tied to it, like the Republican Guards and intelligence services, may well fight to recover their lost standing and status and dissolve into an insurgency.

That is pretty much what happened, and after the 2006 presidential elections, Rumsfeld was obliged to step down. He was replaced by Bob Gates, while Petraeus, returned to Iraq as Commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq and undertook to execute the new counter-insurgency strategy. It proved largely successful—until the Islamic State suddenly emerged out of the Syrian civil war and incorporated a third of Iraq into its “caliphate,” threatening Baghdad itself.

Need to Maintain Military Relationship with Kurds in Syria and Iraq

In Tuesday’s webinar, Petraeus stressed the importance of maintaining America’s defense cooperation with the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq.

“Just from a military perspective,” he said, “I certainly hope that we will remain engaged in the region in general and in northeastern Syria and northern Iraq in particular.”

“There are very important relationships, very important interests for the Kurds in those areas and for us,” he said in closing remarks.

“I think we need to continue to recognize those” and “ensure that they are recognized militarily, as well as in the diplomatic and economic realms.”

So far, there has been little sign that the Biden administration intends to end America’s military relationship with the Kurds.

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Rather, the opposite appears to be the case. It has indicated that it intends to continue the fight against the Islamic State, working with its current partners, including Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq.

Iran seeks the “Lebanonization” of Iraq

Emma Sky, who served as an adviser to senior US military officers in Iraq, including Petraeus, moderated the discussion. She is now a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute and co-teaches, with Petraeus, a class on great power competition.

The discussion focused on regional power competition and its impact on the Kurds, and Sky asked Petraeus about Iran’s objectives.

“What it is most intent on doing,” he replied, “is solidifying under its control the so-called Shia crescent.”

“This is the area that stretches from Iran through Iraq, through Syria and then down into southern Lebanon,” he said. “It would like to achieve full hegemony over that area.”

Ryan Crocker was the top US diplomat in Iraq, as Petraeus led the surge, and the two worked closely together.

To achieve its goals, Petraeus explained, Iran has sought “to Lebanonize Iraq, as my great partner, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, used to describe it,” when we were working together in Iraq.

Iran is trying to do the same in Syria, Petraeus continued: “to replicate what Iran has been able to do in Lebanon, where it “has a very powerful Shi’a militia on the ground,” which it funds, directs, trains, and equips and “employs in places like Syria.”

“It would like to do the same in Iraq,” he said, where it supports “a handful of militias,” funding, training, and equipping them, as well.

Petraeus fought those militias during the surge, supporting the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in that effort and sometimes fighting them directly.

The militias were essentially defeated in 2008, he explained. But they reemerged, as the Islamic State threatened Iraq, and “they never really came off the streets since then.”

“They are an enormous challenge for the Iraqi prime minister,” Petraeus continued, noting that their influence is buttressed by pro-Iranian parties in Iraq’s Council of Representatives.

That, indeed, is how Iran projects power and influence, as it follows a playbook that it first developed in Lebanon in the 1980s, shortly after the Iranian revolution.

Editing by John J. Catherine