General (Ret.) David Petraeus: Tactician and Warrior gives talk at the Reagan Library

By Debra Tash

General (Ret.) David Petraeus spoke at the Reagan Library tonight.  He was introduced with a film clip from, fittingly, Patton starring George C. Scott.  As the World War 2 commander surveys a desert battle where U.S. troops under his orders are beating German General Rommel’s Panzer Division, Patton says: “You magnificent bastard, I read your book.”

Petraeus wrote the book on counterinsurgency tactics, Field Manual FM3-24-MCWP 3-33.    A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, for his doctoral thesis he examined why certain strategies fail.  He studied wars in Oman, Millay, Indochina (when it was held by the French), El Salvador and Vietnam.  Vietnam was fought as a “big war” instead of a counterinsurgency.  There were no large North Vietnamese units to go to battle with until the end when the North had built up its forces.  By then it was too late.  Support for the war had collapsed in America.   The wrong tactics lost the conflict.

When he was asked by President Bush to command the coalition forces in Iraq, Petraeus knew it would take a surge, some 25,000 troops along with what he called a surge of ideas to win. 

Detainees were being released and were heading back to the battlefield.   Our troops had been removed from the cities and setup in bases isolated from the population, and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party had been purged.  Petraeus reasoned these tactics, were the wrong ones for the conflict and actually fueled the insurgents.

Petraeus set up military posts in the cities, seventy seven just in Baghdad.  He stopped the release of detainees and isolated extremists inside of the detention camps, which had become recruiting grounds for jihadists.

Violence dropped. 

But Petraeus admitted there were, “very few good days.” Any time he had to write to the parents of a soldier who was killed, it was a bad day.  He wrote personal letters to each family.

As to the post Arab Spring world he stated five points to consider.

First, a huge swath of “ungoverned” land from the middle east into Asia, is being exploited by the jihadists.

Syria is melting down and is the crucible of extremism.

The United States must lead and cannot be weak.

There must be a comprehensive plan. He sees the troop withdraw from Iraq as a major mistake.  Blood feuds between Shia and Sunni sects undermined the country, starting with its president.  But he said, “We will defeat the Islamic State in Iraq.”  However the ground forces will be Iraqi, not American.

Finally, it will be a long endeavor, generational in scope.

He closed by saying that when you’re down range nothing is more important to know than that you are supported back home.  

Perhaps that’s one more lesson he gleaned from Vietnam.

Video from the Event:


Debra Tash is Editor-in-Chief of, past president for Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, business executive and award-winning author, residing in Somis.

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