The former second-in-command to Gen. David Petraeus during the 2007 “surge” of U.S. troops to Iraq just finished up a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything (AmA) that’s a fascinating look at the behind-the-scenes strategy during the Iraq War.
Col. Peter Mansoor (Ret.), now a professor of military history at Ohio State University, served 26 years in the Army with two tours in Iraq, to include duty as Petraeus’ executive officer in 2007.
He had some great questions thrown at him, and we’re sharing the ones here we found the most fascinating. You can read the full AmA here.
Most interesting to us (and the answer most upvoted) was his answer to what the U.S. faced as its greatest threat. Notably absent from his answer was talk of nation-states or terrorists, when he wrote, “Collapse from within – the increasingly polarization of our domestic politics. We need to find common ground and work from the middle outward, not from the extremes inward.”
Some answers have been edited for clarity.
On whether the war in Afghanistan is or was “winnable” and what that would be considered to be:
“I think the United States had to fight the war in Afghanistan, but we took our eye off the real objective, which was the destruction of Al Qaeda. The mishandling of the fight at Tora Bora in 2001 was incompetence at its finest. The Bush administration then took its eye off the ball again through its ill-considered invasion of Iraq, leaving Afghanistan to fester.
At this point the best the United States can hope for is to support an Afghan government that can keep the country together after 2014 and convince the Taliban that it cannot win the war in any conceivable time frame. In my view, this will require the election of an Afghan president with some real leadership abilities, unlike Hamid Karzai. With good leadership and support from the United States and our NATO allies, anything is possible.
For a view of what winning might look like, look at Colombia. A decade ago the country seemed on the verge of disaster with the FARC on the ascendancy, but now the war there is all but over. Good Colombian presidential leadership and U.S. support were the keys to victory.”
On what the average citizen without military service probably doesn’t grasp about Gen. Petraeus:
“I don’t think the average person understands just how open Gen. Petraeus was to advice from below. He had an open e-mail channel to anyone in Multi-National Force-Iraq — and often received messages from junior leaders on problems in their areas that they could not get resolved through their chain of command (or problems that the chain of command were creating). I often discussed issues with Gen. Petraeus and found him willing to listen — provided you had something intelligent to say and were ready for the give and take that followed. I think this aspect of his leadership style is one that other leaders can and should follow — but they have to be willing to listen and accept advice and thoughts from below (which means reining in their egos).”
On whether the firing of Ba’ath Party loyalists was largely responsible for the insurgency that took root:
“There were three decisions made in the spring of 2003 that, in my view, created the insurgency in Iraq:
- Extensive de-Ba’athification that many Iraqis believed amounted to the de-Sunnification of Iraqi society
- Disbanding the Iraqi Army, the only indigenous forces that could have been revitalized and used to help secure Iraq in the aftermath of major combat operations
- Empowerment of an Iraqi Governing Council composed of highly sectarian politicians, many of them expatriates who did not understand the Iraqi people’s concerns
The occupation of Iraq was significantly different from the occupation of Germany after WWII. Germany was devastated from end to end and its armed forces annihilated. Millions of Germans died in the war and the Germany people were starving. Simply put, the level of distress made the Germans more open to cooperating with the occupying forces.”
On the harsh words he had against Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in his book “Surge”:
“Senior leaders must be willing to listen. Rumsfeld thinks he was open to criticism, but he was not. If a leader cannot listen to contrary opinions and make informed decisions based on a full range of views, then he/she courts disaster — as Rumsfeld did in Iraq.
Abu Ghraib was a moral failing of the U.S. military that should have resulted in the resignation of the Secretary of Defence. President Bush was faithful to his subordinates to a fault. He should have let Rumsfeld go in the spring of 2004 and put different leadership in place in the Pentagon.”
On what the future will bring as the next big evolution of warfare:
“Drones are actually part of an ongoing trend that will impact war dramatically in the future – robotics. We will witness that evolution on the ground as well as in the air. If you look at drones, as advanced as they might seem, we are actually at the point where nascent air forces were in 1916 during WWI. Aircraft were first used for reconnaissance, then someone figured out how to drop bombs from them, then fighter aircraft were developed to attain air superiority, then aircraft were used for transport and strategic bombing. The same evolution will occur with drones, and we are at the leading edge of that evolution.
Robotic ground vehicles will also be developed in the future, as well as exo-skeletal suits that will dramatically improve the capabilities of infantrymen. It sounds like sci-fi, but it will happen.”
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