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Petraeus: What I learned in Iraq, and how it applies to Afghanistan

The US general credited with turning around a bleak war effort spoke yesterday to Harvard students, who forgave the one ‘blemish’ on his record: a PhD from Princeton.

By Christa Case Bryant and Carol HuangStaff writers / April 22, 2009

Gen. David Petraeus is known for running a 'flat' organization, one where communication can run up and down the chain relatively unfettered.

Steven Senne/AP


CAMBRIDGE, MASS. – As the US shifts focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, much attention has been given to how counterinsurgency strategies honed against Al Qaeda in Iraq may be applied to a resurgent Taliban.

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If one man has the answer, it just might be Gen. David Petraeus.

Credited with turning around a war in Iraq that many considered hopeless, the four-star general has since become CENTCOM commander – putting Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran under his aegis as well. In a speech Tuesday at Harvard University, he laid out the elements that helped reduce violence in Iraq to its lowest levels since 2003. Many aspects of those counterinsurgency efforts, he said, can be successfully applied in Afghanistan – if they are applied in “culturally appropriate” ways.

"We don't move into a village in Afghanistan the way that we were able to move into neighborhoods in Iraq. You have to move on the edge of it – or just near it – but you have to have a persistent security presence," said General Petraeus, who emphasized the need for fierce persistence. “When you get teeth into the enemy, you can’t let go.”

That leadership has inspired not a few, including Harvard graduate student Seth Moulton, who introduced the general. After serving three tours in Iraq, Mr. Moulton petitioned to go back for a fourth when he heard that Petraeus was named as top commander. Petraeus was visiting the school to honor Moulton and other students who served in the military.

'Be first with the truth - even on bad days'
A man who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the US military and lessons learned in Vietnam, Petraeus is intimately familiar with the dangers of quagmire-like conflicts. (Read his dissertation here.)

But he said he was convinced that the surge could work in Iraq – and most agree it has.

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