Who Could Have Guessed ?

On May 18th of this year, I went to a talk at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs by General David H. Petraeus. It was entitled AN UPDATE FROM U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND.

And then: an article in Rolling Stone appears all over the internet before the hard copy even hits the stands, there is a MEDIA-PUNDIT-INTERNET uproar (with some justification) followed by the stepping down of one General, a stepping into a different role by another, and a new Commander of U.S. Central Command. The new Commander is General Mattis – another pretty quotable guy.

Life. Unpredictable, eh?

If any of you are still interested, I’ve translated some of my “worse-than-chicken-scratchings” notes of the event below. Have a look, if so inclined (and hey, I’m not a professional journalist so it’s not like my notes are the gospel or anything).

– The talk was held at the Fairmont Chicago Millenium Park Hotel which has an oddly nightclub-like lobby. Before and after the talk, well-heeled Chicagoans mill around in the near dark as if at a party.

– The “talk” is really a sit-down interview of the General with some questions submitted from the audience. The interviewer is, apparently, one of the General’s former thesis advisors at Princeton.

– There are about 1500 people attending: “more than Tony Blair, I’m told.” Mild jokes follow about the competitiveness of the General.

– Something about the General’s favorite baseball player and the Chicago White Sox (?), but I don’t do sports so I have no idea what he said here. Maybe it was hockey. I can’t be expected to know.

– “PowerPoint is a weapon only if another officer is pointing it at you.” I think that’s what I wrote. It’s either that or: “Pswkitua touthourt ooutiaci.” My handwriting is really bad.

– “Real surge is a surge of ideas, not people.”

– “We spent the last year getting the inputs right.” And then something about only just starting to see the “outputs.” I pray that is so. Godspeed, General.

– And then a bunch of stuff on leadership: “right organization, get the all-star team there, get the best people and the big ideas right, we now have ‘pentathelete’ leadership” – because of all the tours that people have been on.

– And finally, the following anecdote:

At the end of the talk as the General is being ushered out of the room, surrounded by all sort of giants in uniform (well, some of them are really tall), a woman sitting next to me dashes up to the General and asks him to sign a book that she is holding. He graciously agrees to do so. It is a dog-eared copy of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. I know this because I ask the woman, “did he sign your book,” as she walks back to where we all are sitting. She is accompanied by a man I assume is her boyfriend or husband and she seems a bit shy now – abashed. “Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.”

But I like her for it even as jokes about “celebrity generals” are likely running through the mind of some of you. It seemed natural and unaffected compared to the kind of stiffness and formality I note in other attendees. Many local academics and students, probably, and different citizen groups supporting our troops abroad (the General states that he is at the Chicago Council partly on the invitation from just such a group. Unfortunately, I did not catch the name.) As we file out of the conference room after the talk, little groups break off and everyone is abuzz with ideas about Afghanistan (not so much about Iraq except for the part during the question-and-answer session when the General is asked if he thinks Iraq is a success. He gives a very general non-answer answer – well, I can’t quite remember what he said, but that’s what I thought at the time. It’s not really an answer.) People seemed worried, in general, about the Afghanistan mission but not yet ready to give up on it.

I’m sorry if this all seems sort of superficial and light, but it is the first such talk that I have attended and I paid a lot more attention to the atmosphere than the specific discussion. To be honest, after all my online blog and journal reading about Afghanistan and Iraq I didn’t learn all that much that was new to me. If you were at the talk and think I missed anything important, please leave your comments below.

3 thoughts on “Who Could Have Guessed ?”

  1. Another anecdote from the talk that is more serious and substantive:

    The General stated that “today was not a good day” in Afghanistan. Five soldiers had died near Kabul that day. The audience got very quiet at that point and serious. It was a somber moment and then the talk continued.

    – Madhu

  2. To understand Afghanistan, I think you have to read “Accidental Guerillas” by Kilcullen. I am not optimistic about Afghanistan because I don’t think Pakistan wants us to win and we are too dependent on them. The day may come in the not-too-distant future where we will have to flatten Pakistan. It is a lot more like Vietnam than Iraq was.

  3. I have that book by Kilcullen on my shelves and I’ve never really read through the whole thing properly, although I have in bits and pieces.

    – Madhu

    (I agree that our initial strategy relied too heavily on allies that have a different goal and objective than we do in the region. This is problematic and doesn’t end with Central or South Asia. It is a flaw of our entire FP and both right and left fall into the “proxy” trap, I think.)

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