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Petraeus: Can't kill your way out of war

Published March 25, 2010 11:12 pm

Military » At BYU, general emphasizes need not to create enemies while fighting enemies.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Americans must go to war to defeat old enemies -- not to create new ones.

That was the message delivered by Gen. David Petraeus at Brigham Young University on Thursday evening. The commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, delivered only a few minutes of prepared remarks, choosing instead to field a diverse and complicated array of questions from BYU students.

But in answering the students' queries, Petraeus turned repeatedly to a central theme.

"You cannot have tactical successes that are strategic defeats," he said, arguing that a successful counterinsurgency operation requires U.S. troops to be mindful not to create collateral damage when pursuing terrorists, insurgents and rebel fighters.

And while that certainly means avoiding civilian casualties, Petraeus said that wasn't enough. Even the way U.S. military members drive in Iraq and Afghanistan can cause anger and resentment among civilians, he said, noting that U.S. troops driving "in an egregious manner," on their way to tactical engagements, "were making far more enemies on our way" than they could possibly destroy once they arrived.

In similar fashion, Petraeus defended the decision to halt eradication of opiate drug crops in Afghanistan, saying earlier efforts to destroy poppy fields were targeting the wrong people. U.S. forces, he said, need to be "going after the big guys rather than taking away the fruits of the little guy's labor."

In Iraq -- where Petraeus presided over the "surge" of U.S. forces credited with helping reduce violence and improve security -- "I used to challenge our forces to say, 'will this operation take more bad guys off the battlefield than it creates by the way it is conducted?' "

Now, in Afghanistan -- where Petraeus leads an effort to stem the violent resurgence of insurgents and Taliban rebels -- "one of our efforts has to be to help Afghans achieve legitimacy" in the crops they farm, by providing seed, fertilizer and know-how.

But that, he lamented, is a job ill-suited for the military. Although the National Guard has fielded agriculture development teams, he said, the U.S. Department of Agriculture should be given greater resources so that it can contribute manpower and expertise.

Likewise, he said, the Department of State needs to continue to grow so that it can contribute to "a surge of ideas."

That, he said, is the only way to win over a population -- which, in turn, is the only way to defeat an insurgency.

Petraeus was the third speaker of international renown to lecture at BYU's relatively new Wheatley Institution, following a January speech by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, and a February address by James Schlesinger, secretary of Defense for President Richard Nixon.

The Army four-star's lecture filled up the auditorium at the Joseph Smith Building and numerous adjacent rooms reserved for overflow seating.

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Top 10 reasons why BYU students make good soldiers

10 » They have already been on many a mission

9 » Army chow is no problem for folks accustomed to eating green Jell-O and shredded carrots.

8 » It's no problem if they don't know what rank someone is. They can just call that person "brother" or "sister."

7 » They never go AWOL -- the prefer to call it "less active."

6 » They will seize any objective swiftly if you tell them refreshments will be served.

5 » They know how to make things happen. If you ever need a base built quickly, you need only to plant a staff and say, "This is the place."

4 » They have innovative ideas for handling insurgents -- like assigning them as home teachers.

3 » They always have a year's supply of provisions.

2 » They are the world's most reliable designated drivers.

1 » They understand how far Iraq has come over the past 7 years -- and they believe that Iraq's old spot in the "Axis of Evil" can now be filled by the University of Utah.

Gen. David Petraeus