In a new interview with the New York Times, former CIA director David Petraeus talks about his time in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The interview has been criticized for its lack of nuance and for not addressing the criticism that he was too quick to advocate military action.

The vietnam and afghanistan war similarities is a blog post by David Petraeus. He talks about the similarities between the Vietnam War and the Afghanistan War.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, hailed as one of the greatest combat commanders of all time, became interested in the Vietnam War as a cadet at the United States Military Academy and studied the war’s impact on the Army’s top leadership in his doctorate dissertation at Princeton. When he took leadership of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he carried those lessons with him. 

Petraeus spent the greater part of the following four decades climbing through the ranks of the Army after graduating from West Point in 1974. During the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he led the 101st Airborne Division and was subsequently assigned to the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq, where he was in charge of organizing, training, and equipping Iraqi security forces.

Petraeus was named commander of the Multinational Force-Iraq in 2007 and oversaw the “surge” tactic used to pacify the country and prevent a sectarian civil war. Before resigning from the Army in 2011 to become the CIA director, he previously served as the commander of US Central Command and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

Petraeus addressed the Vietnam War, its impact on the postwar military, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in an interview with Vietnam contributor Warren Wilkins.

What was it about the Vietnam War that attracted your interest?

The Vietnam War was the pivotal event of the 1960s and early 1970s. I was in high school and then at West Point during the last ten years of the war, so they were formative years for me. I suppose it felt natural for me to research the war that had seized and roiled our nation at the moment.

Aside from that, it seemed to me that Vietnam had a significant effect on senior military thinking on the use of force. Given that providing advice on the use of force is arguably the most important task of senior military leaders, I thought I’d look into what they learned during the war, how it influenced their thinking and advice on the use of force, whether that influence was fully justified, and what the implications of that influence were for our military forces.

I reasoned that such an investigation would be both educational and exciting, as well as offer intellectual capital from which I could draw if I ever had to provide advise on the use of force. Needless to say, that scenario arose, and the study and thinking that went into my Ph.D. dissertation provided me with a significant amount of intellectual capital that came in handy when I was one of those giving choices and suggestions to the president.

Do you think your selection to lead the surge in Iraq puts you in the same position as Gen. Creighton Abrams in 1968, when he was sent as a “savior general” to turn around a war that many thought the US was losing?

I envisioned my role as being more akin to that of Gen. [Matthew] Ridgway, who took command of the embattled and retreating 8th Army in Korea, halted the enemy’s momentum, restored morale and confidence in the American forces, and then launched an aggressive counteroffensive campaign that established the war’s front lines roughly along the 38th parallel, north of Seoul. Ridgway’s leadership turned around a failing operation and produced a result that was widely acceptable to America’s leaders and people, although short of the sort of triumph previously believed probable.

Gen. Abrams’ primary job in Vietnam, on the other hand, was always to find out how to draw down US troops, hand over the battle to the South Vietnamese, and start on a road to an American departure without the South Vietnamese forces collapsing in the process, whether fair or not.

Of course, some historians have said that Abrams boosted focus on a genuine counterinsurgency strategy and decreased what was referred to as Gen. [William] Westmoreland’s “attrition warfare” strategy. To be sure, there is some validity to that. However, as your excellent article on Gen. Westmoreland’s command [“When Strategy Isn’t Enough: General Westmoreland and the War in Vietnam,” On Point—Journal of Army History] demonstrated, there was a reasonable amount of emphasis on a counterinsurgency approach during Westmoreland’s command, albeit with South Vietnamese forces and U.S. advisers—rather than with U.S. combat forces.

Those activities, together with a relentless pursuit of “irreconcilables” and the promotion of reconciliation with rank-and-file insurgents and militia members, were the most important elements of our strategy with US and Iraqi troops during the “surge” in Iraq.

David Petraeus on the Vietnam War, Iraq and Afghanistan During a press briefing on March 8, 2007, Gen. David Petraeus addresses militants in Iraq. Petraeus’ graduate school studies of the Vietnam War impacted his Iraq approach. Photo courtesy of AP

Of fact, the CORDS [Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support] pacification operation in Vietnam started a full year before Gen. Westmoreland was replaced by Gen. Abrams. I should mention that during Brig. Gen. Bill Knowlton’s first year in Vietnam, his daughter, whom I would marry in 1974, was the deputy to CORDS commander Bob Komer.

And, at the very least, Gen. Abrams’ attitude to US troops did not alter significantly from when he took command during the Westmoreland period, even though the primary enemy danger during his tenure was increasingly North Vietnamese forces rather than the Viet Cong.

In reality, approximately 11 months after Abrams gained command in Vietnam, the Battle of Hamburger Hill, one of the most intensive and contentious of the war’s search-and-destroy operations, took place. Sadly, only weeks after the fight, the hill on which so many lives were lost was surrendered. To be fair, the 101st Airborne Division commander stated that he battled for the hill because it was where the enemy was, not because it was strategically important.  

In any case, when I learned in late December 2006 that I would be nominated to lead the “surge” in Iraq, which was set to start in a month or a month and a half, I asked one of the many outstanding military historians at Fort Leavenworth, where I was stationed at the time, to look into Gen. Ridgway’s assumption of command in Korea rather than Gen. Abrams’ assumption of command in Iraq. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Gen. Ridgway and I are two of the five people included in Victor Davis Hanson’s 2013 book, Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Lost Wars—From Ancient Greece to Iraq.

You said that Vietnam had a significant impact on the military’s postwar mentality. Some top commanders came to the conclusion that low-intensity “irregular conflicts” should be avoided at all costs. The institutional prejudice seemed to be confirmed during the Gulf War in 1990-91. However, you decided that the United States would be more likely to be involved in such wars in the future, and that the military would need to be better equipped to combat them. Do you still have that feeling?

I understood why senior military commanders would be hesitant to engage in irregular warfare after Vietnam, preferring the tank-on-tank fighting in the desert—in mostly open territory free of civilians—that typified the majority of the engagements in Operation Desert Storm.

However, I was concerned that we would not have a choice, and that politicians would commit American troops to irregular wars despite our reservations about them and our degree of preparedness. That turned out to be a legitimate worry.

In fact, we were already engaged in such warfare in the 1980s, supporting counterinsurgency campaigns in El Salvador and Colombia, which I visited twice during a summer temporary duty stint in 1986 as a special assistant to Gen. Jack Galvin, the commander of US Southern Command and my most important mentor. In addition, we were secretly funding rebels in Nicaragua.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, we would undertake irregular operations in Somalia as well as peacekeeping missions in Haiti, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. After that, we launched operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. When the decision to go to war in those nations was taken, policymakers didn’t question whether we were prepared for the operations in which we eventually got deeply involved.

Finally, we are still engaged in irregular warfare today, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Syria, various African locations, and a few other places, though in much smaller numbers and in operations that primarily consist of advising, assisting, supporting, and enabling indigenous, rather than American, forces to take responsibility for the fighting on the ground.

Beyond that, I am certain that we will be required to participate in different irregular warfare activities, even as our military’s primary emphasis rightly turns to the efforts needed by revived great power rivalry, particularly in the so-called Indo-Pacific area.

You oversaw the development of a new counterinsurgency handbook for the Army and Marine Corps in 2006. Was the Vietnam War a beginning point for the manual?

During the drafting of the new field manual, we certainly revisited US operations in Vietnam; however, the more important experiences from which we sought to distill lessons were our ongoing operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines, as well as the US’s experiences in El Salvador, which featured an especially impressive comprehensive civil-military campaign.

The British, particularly T.E. Lawrence, in the post-World War I Arab world and Iraq, Britain’s post-World War II operations in Malaysia, Oman, and Northern Ireland, and the French experience in Vietnam and Algeria were all examined. We also looked at the United States’ attempts to fight communist forces in post-World War II China under Mao Zedong.

Did the deployment of nearly 25,000 US soldiers in Iraq in 2007 resemble Vietnam counterinsurgency operations?

In general, Iraq’s position was quite different from Vietnam’s. However, there were some parallels between Vietnam and our operations in Iraq, in that we enjoyed air superiority over the ground operations in Iraq and over South Vietnam, albeit not over the North.

The dangers to helicopters in Vietnam were much higher than the threats to our aircraft in Iraq, despite the fact that several were shot down there. Overall, our technology, equipment, weapons systems, and troop kit—including night vision goggles, body armor, armament, and optics—were much superior than our opponents’.

Nonetheless, our adversaries in Iraq made excellent use of sophisticated improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers, snipers, rockets, and tenacious fighters—just as the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese made excellent use of mortars, RPGs, booby traps, mines, and snipers while fighting with great determination and courage.

What was the difference between them?

There were a lot more disparities, and they were a lot bigger. First and foremost, there was President Bush’s mentality. Unlike what I think became more apparent in Presidents Johnson and Nixon’s minds over time—that the Vietnam War was unwinnable—President Bush rejected the judgment that we couldn’t accomplish our goals, even though the majority of his advisors agreed. He made the decision to surge, and his decision was backed up by the excellent efforts of our troops and their coalition and Iraqi colleagues.

Iraq’s adversary scenario was likewise very different from Vietnam’s. When the surge began in early 2007, the situation in Iraq was no longer simply a Sunni Arab terrorist and insurgent war against the Shia Arab-led government, which the Sunnis felt had disenfranchised them. By that time, Iraq had devolved into the early stages of a Sunni-Shia Civil War in mixed regions where the two faiths coexisted, such as Baghdad and its environs.

Of course, the conflicts in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s were increasingly fought with North Vietnamese regular troops, which Iraq lacked. Of addition, the geography and population density in Iraq were drastically different. Unlike Vietnam, which has a significant rural population, thick jungle, and a mountainous border, the majority of Iraq’s population lives in cities and towns along and between the Tigris, Euphrates, Diyala, and other rivers.

While some operations took place in remote communities in the desert, the majority of our actions in Iraq took place in densely populated regions. Our most important engagements took place in major cities, comparable to the fighting in Hue and Saigon during the Vietnam War.

Furthermore, unlike Vietnam, we fought the war in Iraq with a professional army rather than a draftee-dominated force. Our men and women in uniform had all volunteered for at least a year of duty. Many of us, regardless of level, completed numerous tours in Iraq and had a thorough understanding of the situation. We learnt how to build crucial connections with our Iraqi colleagues and partners, for example. This was very helpful.

Westmoreland wanted to entrust the protection of the civilian population to local troops. You claimed in Iraq that US troops could not simply “commute to the battle,” therefore you chose to station them in civilian areas. Why?

The decision to use U.S. and, to a lesser extent, coalition forces to secure the people by “living with them” and conducting clear, hold, build, and gradually transition operations reflected the unique circumstances and situation in Iraq, which was on the verge of a full-fledged sectarian—Sunni-Shia—civil war.

Nothing else would be possible until we broke the cycle of sectarian bloodshed and improved people’s security. As is usually the case in such situations, security is the cornerstone around which everything else is constructed. Military action was insufficient in and of itself, but nothing else could be done without it. As a result, we needed to drastically decrease violence and significantly enhance people’s security, and only our troops could do so.

In addition to that fact, I understood that if we didn’t have verifiable outcomes to present to Congress six months after I assumed command, the war in Iraq’s residual support in the United States Senate, in particular, might limit our campaign and, potentially, lead to a defunding effort. Given that reality, and the fact that many Iraqi Army and police units had been severely damaged by the fighting and were no longer completely functional, our troops were forced to assume the lead in security operations. And in order to do so, we realized that we needed to abandon our prior strategy of concentrating US troops on big bases and instead return to the communities.

The human landscape, as my guide emphasized, was the important terrain. People needed better security, so we had to give it. And the only way we could accomplish it was to live with them. To provide greater security for Iraqis and stop the cycle of sectarian violence, we built 77 new sites throughout Baghdad, including Joint Security Stations, Combat Outposts, and other bases.

That strategy worked. Iraqi violence has decreased by 85 percent at the conclusion of the surge in the summer of 2008. Sensational assaults, like as vehicle bombings and suicide vest explosives, had also been drastically decreased, as had all other security indicators, such as civilian fatalities, Iraqi and coalition casualties, and so forth. As a result of this improvement, Iraqi security forces were reconstituted and expanded, damaged or destroyed infrastructure was repaired, markets were revived, schools and health facilities were reopened, local governance was established, business was developed, and even the Baghdad amusement and water parks and soccer leagues were reopened. It also aided the approval of several important legislation in the Iraqi Council of Representatives, but accomplishments in that area were more difficult to come by than those in the security sector.

Who from the Vietnam War period military do you admire?

Those I respected most during the Vietnam era were, first and foremost, the young men who were conscripted to fight a war about which there were growing doubts, but who served honorably despite this and were treated brutally by their fellow Americans when they came home. That was a terrible chapter in our country’s history, and I’ve made it a point to thank Vietnam soldiers whenever I’ve seen them in public.

Surprisingly, Vietnam veterans fought harder than any other segment of our population to guarantee that those who returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan got the same level of respect and gratitude as those who returned from Vietnam.

Beyond respect for those who carried a backpack on the ground in a difficult battle against a determined opponent in challenging terrain and weather circumstances, I was most impressed by those who commanded platoons, companies, and battalions, especially those who did it courageously. This was most likely due to the fact that when I studied operations in Vietnam, I was a cadet or a young commander. Books on both the French and American experiences on the ground piqued my interest. I studied all I could about such missions and acquired a deep respect for people in charge of tactical operations.

Seven Firefights in Vietnam, for example, was one of the books I read and reread about Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, and its combat in the Ia Drang in late 1965. Moore’s excellent book, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young: Ia Drang-the Fight that Changed the Vietnam War, was inspired by the battle. When I was commander of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth in 2006, I was so impressed by Seven Firefights in Vietnam [published by the Army’s Office of the Chief of Military History] that I asked the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth to produce a similar product on Afghanistan and Iraq.

In conclusion, perhaps because I was a company and field grade officer when I was most interested in Vietnam, I admired those who led tactical units the most—especially captains Paul Bucha, Bill Carpenter, and Jack Jacobs, each of whom had received the Medal of Honor or Distinguished Service Cross and were assigned to West Point when I was a cadet.

Finally, I studied the senior military and civilian leaders of the time, and I’ve been debating what we could have done differently and better ever since, particularly whether geographic considerations and various characteristics of the forces and leadership of North and South Vietnam meant that our effort there was, at the end of the day, u

What are the lessons that Vietnam has taught us?

One lesson to be learned is to fully comprehend the strategic importance, context, and character of a potential military commitment. Similarly, we must appreciate the country where the commitment will take place in a nuanced way—something we lacked for years in both Iraq and Afghanistan—undertake very thorough preparation of the units and individuals deploying for a particular campaign, and pursue personnel policies that allow those fighting the war to develop understanding.

The fact that we fought Vietnam every year for almost a decade as a consequence of our draft and individual personnel replacement system has been well documented. Beyond that, we must understand when our partners’ actions may endanger progress and a desired result, among other things.

Of course, we had to relearn many of those lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I’d like to believe that we have proven to be a learning organization over time by significantly improving how we prepare commanders, units, and troops for deployment to both conflicts. In addition to those efforts, we gained a deep knowledge of the issue and significantly improved our organizational skills and structures, particularly in the intelligence area.

Similarly, we upgraded our equipment, weapons systems, and individual gear over time, and we altered how we fought conflicts, especially with advancements in drone technology, precision air bombs, and information fusion, among other things. Together, these efforts enable us to assist our ground partners in combating their adversaries, allowing our troops to avoid fighting on the front lines. 

Beyond that, when we started the surge, we had to drastically alter how we functioned. I’ve long said that the surge in Iraq that mattered most was the surge of ideas—specifically, the 180-degree shift from concentrating American troops on large bases and passing off security duties to our Iraqi counterparts to returning to communities and taking responsibility for protecting the people. Providing security also included actively encouraging reconciliation with Sunni insurgents and Shia militia organizations’ rank-and-file members, while stepping up efforts to arrest or kill their irreconcilable leaders. 

Our young men and women, as well as their coalition and Iraqi colleagues, accomplished remarkable achievements. Indeed, despite our troops being gradually pulled down, our efforts resulted in a significant decrease in violence, which only improved in the three and a half years after the surge.

This good trend continued until, unfortunately, just after our last combat troops left in December 2011, the prime minister with whom we had worked to restore Iraqi society’s fabric started pursuing extremely sectarian policies. This tore the fabric apart once again, alienating the Sunni Arabs. As Iraqi forces concentrated on dealing with massive Sunni demonstrations, they turned their attention away from the Islamic State, which was able to regroup, move into Syria, and exploit the civil war there to build the kind of strength, numbers, and capabilities that allowed it to establish a caliphate on the ground in northeastern Syria and northern and western Iraq. Seeing all of this from my position as Director of the CIA at the time was heartbreaking.

I should also mention the most essential thing I learnt about “people’s wars.” It was recorded on a sign that was always displayed on the front wall of the 101st Airborne Division’s operations center in Mosul, as well as each succeeding ops center. “Will this operation remove more bad people off the street than it generates by its conduct?” the billboard questioned. If the answer was no, we were expected to go sit beneath a tree until the idea of the surgery faded from our minds. About course, the same question should be posed of policy.

In any case, I believe that a number of incidents—both operational and policy choices, such as dismissing Iraq’s army without informing them of how we would allow them to continue to care for themselves and their families—have confirmed the significance of that issue. Many more actions and policies in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan helped to confirm the idea that that question encapsulated.

It is, in fact, the most essential question we should ask when considering sending America’s boys and daughters to battle, and one we should ask again and again after they are in combat. V

This interview was published in Vietnam magazine’s October 2023 edition. Subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook for additional updates:

David Petraeus on the Vietnam War, Iraq and Afghanistan

The what caused the vietnam war is a question that has been asked for years. David Petraeus, former CIA director and general in the US Army, provides his insight on what caused the Vietnam War.

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