Andrew Neil talks to the former CIA director about Ukraine, America’s role in the world and its politics at home
Each Friday we’ll be publishing Inside the Interview, an exclusive episode for Tortoise members in which Andrew will dissect his most recent interview and reflect on his time with the guest.
Inside the Interview: General David Petraeus
In a bonus episode for Tortoise members, Andrew Neil reflects on his interview with former CIA director and commander of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, General David Petraeus
Andrew Neil, narrating: Hello, I’m Andrew Neil. Welcome to a new podcast from Tortoise called The Backstory. A series of in-depth interviews with interesting or powerful people that explore what’s driving events around the world. In this episode, I’m joined by a man who once ran the CIA, commanded the US army in Iraq and went on to lead Central Command before ending his military career as America’s top officer in Afghanistan.
During those conflicts, much was made of General Petraeus’ intellect. He wrote his PhD thesis about the Vietnam war. Some in the media called him a warrior scholar so he’s not a bad person to help us make sense of the war in Ukraine. During the interview, we explore why Russia’s military might didn’t lead to the swift victory many expected, how his experience in Iraq and Afghanistan informs his view of this invasion, and its impact on American politics.
This is The Backstory from Tortoise.
Andrew Neil: General Petraeus, you said recently that Russia has failed in Ukraine, but has it failed or has it just not yet succeeded?
General David Petraeus: What I said was it failed in its main effort. The main objective of the invasion of Ukraine was of course to topple the government of President Zelensky, to take the capital, and to replace Zelensky with a pro-Russian figure.
And it’s very clear that that is not going to happen and I think the shift in focus to the east, the southeast, is really more of a necessity than the intended direction of the campaign at the outset. So certainly it failed, it lost the battles of Kyiv and also of Chernihiv and Sumy, two other major Ukrainian cities in the north, from which after enormous loss of personnel and vehicles and weapons systems, it has withdrawn and shifted its focus to the southeast where it is trying to expand the amount of territory it controls in the Donbass, the two oblasts or provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in southeastern Ukraine.
And to maintain what it now has achieved almost albeit with the remaining resistance in the port city of Mariupol in the southeast really coming to an end, to maintain the land bridge that it has achieved between the Russian-supported separatists in that southeastern portion called the Donbass and the Russian-occupied peninsula of Crimea.
There are those who think that Russia is trying to achieve this by May 9th, which is the date for the annual victory in World War II celebration through Moscow. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case, although I think in a perfect world President Putin would love to have a success to announce then but this is certainly a pivotal moment in time, it could again be the decisive moment in the war in Ukraine.
Andrew Neil: What do you think now is President Putin’s main war aim given that his original war aim, as you say, has failed. Is it to reinforce the occupation of land it already controls in the East and has for about eight years now? Is it to take all of Donbas then mount a fresh attack on Ukraine from an Eastern redoubt? Or is it to conduct a war of attrition to wear Ukraine down?
General Petraeus: Whether or not there is a longer term objective I think is unclear at this point in time because at the end of the day, this is a, in a sense, a contest of wills between President Zelensky, the Ukrainian forces, and the Ukrainian people, and they have done extremely well, much, much better than most analysts thought, and certainly better than the Russians apparently assessed that they would do but each day there’s a toll in terms of loss of soldiers, civilians, and critical infrastructure in Ukraine.
And then on the other hand, you have President Putin who has watched his military be beaten, who has seen the flagship of his Black Sea fleet be sunk, and he’s watching as his economy, financial system, business community, and his own inner circle are all being damaged very, very severely and as there is a bit of a haemorrhage of talented Russians, over 300,000 of them now probably in that area at least, who no longer want to live in a country whose president is doing what Russia is doing to its neighbouring country Ukraine.
Andrew Neil: You mentioned the degradation of Ukraine’s fighting abilities though they still seem up for it. I see reports though that it hasn’t been a walk in the park for Mr. Putin to move his forces to the east, he’s having trouble reequipping them, the morale we are told is pretty low, he’s even been slow to move them as they’ve got bogged down.
Western intelligence seems to estimate that he can deploy around 65 operational battalion tactical groups, the BTGs in the east, that’s about 65,000 men. Doesn’t that limit what he can do in the east?
General Petraeus: Yes. That is not an overwhelming number if Ukraine can reposition its forces and support them adequately. And a lot of this is about supporting them, it’s about the enablers, it’s not just about the infantry or armour on the ground. It’s about the artillery, the multiple launch rocket systems, the drones, the aircraft, all of this and Ukraine is on the receiving end of an extraordinary amount of assistance.
The US alone, depending on if you start the clock fairly early on, I think is up to $3 billion, or certainly approaching that number in the assistance provided and that’s just again one country. There are not insignificant numbers and capabilities being provided by other countries, I would single out the UK as a matter of fact, which was the first with the shoulder-launched guided anti-tank missiles, the first with anti-ship missiles, the first with some of the sanctions still has the most sanctions.
And then you have a country like Slovakia which gave up its Eastern block air defence system, the S-300, as it’s called to reinforce the S-300 system that Ukraine has. I think that Ukraine can withstand what Russia is going to throw at them, but this is not a certainty by any means.
It depends a great deal on certain factors. One of those is whether or not the fields are trafficable or not. The fact is that Eastern Ukraine is more suited to what Russia plans to do than was Northern Ukraine. To get to Kyiv there were river obstacles, you have the Dnipro that goes through there, you have very heavily wooded areas, you have urban areas, villages, cities, and so forth all outside Kyiv.
All of those are ideal for the defenders and the attacker had to stay on the roads at that time because the fields were very untrafficable. In the east, you do have some cities without question but they are much more modest than the metropolitan area of Kyiv and you have much less in the way of wooded areas so the terrain is not as ideal, it’s much more rolling and open. And if the fields are trafficable, if they’re not too muddy and tracked vehicles and tanks can move through them without becoming mired, then that could be a problem for the Ukrainians.
On the other hand if the rains continue, it is muddy there now, if that continues it will be much more difficult for them to get off the roads and that means that the Ukrainians can block them because again what you have to do with an armoured attack is you must blunt it, you must block it, you must slow it down, you must stop it. You have to have obstacles and those obstacles are only effective if they are over watched by observation and fire.
You want to force them to dismount their inventory, to get their engineers out on the ground, then you can take them out with artillery, perhaps with some limited drone lethal activities as well. So you can see the challenges that lie ahead for Ukraine.
Andrew Neil: When I listen to you, a situation in which the Russian troops are digging in in the east, shorter supply lines back to Russia itself because of the east borders on Russia… it is terrain and war, battle tactics, more suited to what they want to do but a Ukrainian army being re-equipped with a lot more modern equipment and heavy armour and all the rest of it, one word comes to mind… Stalemate. Isn’t that the likely outcome in the East?
General Petraeus: It could be. I don’t know that’s the likely outcome. The truth is that there was a stalemate in the north until the Ukrainians started to counter attack and then ultimately the Russians withdrew and so again it is uncertain I think.
There is a prospect actually that the Russians could break through and that they could get in the rear of Ukrainian forces defending in another direction against other Russian forces coming out of the southeast or out of the south.
You could have a scenario where the Ukrainians successfully block them, destroy a huge number of their armoured and other weapons systems, take a huge toll on the Russians. You can have a scenario where the Ukrainians are counterattacking successfully. There are some limited counter attacks ongoing already to the east of Kharkiv because of course that’s the major city in the east, it’s been under siege really by Russian forces since the very beginning but Russians have never been able to encircle it much less to take it.
They’ve done enormous damage to it but again I think the outcome is uncertain and that is why, as I mentioned earlier, this is a pivotal moment, it’s a perilous moment for Ukraine, it could be a decisive moment but that remains to be seen.
I think there’s one other factor we should take into account here, beyond just the sheer ineptitude of the Russian logistics so on top of everything else that they’ve demonstrated because the further they get into Ukraine the more difficulties they’ll have in resupplying in their forces, a task that they proved pretty inadequate in performing in the north.
But there’s another factor here and that is the determination of the Ukrainians, the sheer heart that they have. I’ve been to the eastern part of Ukraine, the southeastern part down to the front lines of the Donbas and hat I saw then, this was several years ago before Covid, was a force that was really, really determined.
My sense was that these soldiers had enormous heart and have they ever shown that? Obviously. And you recall Napoleon’s observation that the moral is to the physical is three is to one, certainly the Ukrainians have that particular edge. They’ve also shown themselves to be incredibly resourceful, to demonstrate initiative at small unit level and individual level – something you haven’t seen again in the Russian system and you’re seeing them realise, of course they’re fighting for their very survival, their national survival, and fighting for their homeland. So again that intangible element also has to be considered here as well I think.
Andrew Neil: When we look at what went wrong for the Russians and the battle of Kyiv and other battles in the northwest, so much went wrong. Why did our military and intelligence specialists fail to spot it?
General Petraeus: I think not everybody, by the way, you can go back, I’m on the record in the Atlantic saying that I didn’t believe that they would take Kyiv, much less be able to control it but I’ve had some experience in urban combat and I realised how challenging it was going to be, even if they could get to the outskirts of Kyiv and they barely did really, they were barely within artillery range of the centre part of the city.
But there were so many challenges that they had. What we didn’t realise is that the equipment advances that they had in the sense advertised, they’ve talked about the secure communications capability that they have, or the drones or the cyber, all of these different capabilities, and it turns out they just don’t have that many of them.
The communication system failed, which meant that generals had to move in their vehicles up to the front or get out and walk up to the front to find out what’s going on. Why are we stopped? What’s happening? And that’s when very skilled Ukrainian snipers developed by US Special Operations forces and some other government agencies personnel, just pick them off one by one, I mean the number of generals they’ve lost is staggering, not to mention the number of battalion and brigade and regimental commanders.
The individual soldiers just haven’t been trained all that well. Very basic tasks such as staying and disperse during movement, moving into woodlines very quickly, when you stop, that hasn’t been present and of course we can see all this for ourselves because individuals are taking videos of this with smartphones and with drones and then putting them on social media.
So the context, this is I think the first war in which almost everything is videoed and uploaded to open source platforms and that is quite dramatic and it puts it on display but the bottom line is that we had not seen the Russians really do any large operations in recent memory. They did do the operations against Grozny in Chechnya near the end of the previous century but if you really look back at that, what they essentially did was after losing in their initial encounter, they would just destroy entire blocks of Grozy.
I mean they basically destroyed Grozny and depopulated it to take control of it. In Syria, they did indeed help the murderous Bashar al-Assad stay in power but they did it with air power in a situation where there was very little opposition to them, virtually no air defenses on the side of those they were bombing to smithereens in Aleppo, and again what they did in Aleppo is essentially destroy huge parts of the city, depopulating them of those that were opposing the Bashar al-Assad regime. It was not their soldiers on the ground in that case, it was Syrian forces, Hezbollah, and some Shia militia that Iran had trained, equipped, and funded to fight in Syria.
So we’ve not seen them perform big operations and yet we knew that they had “modernised” their force very substantially, literally on display at various junctures over the years only to find out that they really didn’t modernise all that much of their force.
When you look at the sinking of the Moskva, for example, it’s very clear that the kinds of upgrades that are necessary for fire suppression, for shutting off portions of a ship that are flooding, in the training of their sailors to combat that kind of challenge, all of that was lacking and that’s why their flagship is now at the bottom of the Black Sea.
Andrew Neil: Indeed. Well, let me jump in then and ask you this. How big is the danger now that if Russia’s conventional forces continue to perform badly, and I think there’s a fair chance that they will continue to perform badly, then Mr. Putin resorts to battlefield nuclear weapons to defeat Ukraine? How frightened of that should we be?
General Petraeus: I tend to think it is a threshold that he will not cross because of the enormous response of the world. You know, I’m not going to try to define what severe would mean, that’s what the US administration has said, the way it has characterised the response that would follow such use of nuclear weapons but it would be very, very substantial.
If he thinks that his economy is under enormous pressure now, it’s already essentially in default on the foreign debts that it owes, if he thinks his financial system is in trouble, his inner circle is under pressure, and the business community shutting down, just wait until he tries that. And that’s what we have to make sure that he understands would follow crossing the nuclear threshold or perhaps even use of chemical weapons.
And again, it’s hard to say whether he has the capability to use effective or tactically significant chemical weapons. We know he has no compunction about using them because of course he’s used a nerve agent on Navalny, tried to kill Skripal that way in the UK and did indeed kill someone in the UK in the years preceding that but whether he has that capability militarily is not certain.
Andrew Neil: So if President Putin turned to you and asked you a famous question from Iraq, tell me how this ends, what would you say?
General Petraeus: Well, it ends with enormous damage having been done to Ukraine and with Ukrainian nationalism at an all time high. The irony here is of course that he has done more to be a catalyst to stoke Ukrainian nationalism than any other developments since the end of the Soviet union.
In trying to make Russia great again, he’s actually made the Ukrainians great. He’s also made NATO great again in a big way. I mean, now he even is faced by the prospect of two countries that have never joined NATO, Finland and Sweden, potentially joining NATO.
Beyond that of course he’s done enormous, perhaps irrevocable damage to various sectors of his economy, to his financial system, to the best and brightest in his population, and to those most indebted to him, his inner circle.
You know, how does he get out of this? Presumably he’s going to declare victory at some point and go home and he’s trying to achieve something in the southeast that might enable him to do that, but it ends badly is the bottom line. There’s no happy ending here whatsoever.
It’s just how bad will the ending be for his neighbour and a former republic of the USSR and for his own home country, which is now a pariah in the rest of the world.
Andrew Neil: Let’s look now at some of the lessons that we may learn in the months and years ahead as a result of what’s been happening with Ukraine. You played a significant role in the configuration of US forces in this century. What lessons have you learned from Ukraine that should inform the configuration of forces going forward?
General Petraeus: Well, first of all, I don’t know that what we’re seeing in Ukraine is necessarily the conflict of the future at all. In fact, arguably it’s more of a conflict of the previous century than it is of this century, albeit with certain capabilities present in greater numbers and in greater significance than in the past.
But at the end of the day, what the experience in Ukraine is validating I think, are lessons that we have learned in the past about the importance of getting the strategy right. [The Russians] didn’t have unity of command, they had three different commanders, all fighting for resources. They didn’t have units that were actually trained well, it’s a mystery to me what the Russians were actually doing during these endless manoeuvres and training exercises that they were having on the borders of Ukraine for so many months leading up to the invasion.
It’s very clear they didn’t train to the kinds of standards that we would expect our forces to train to. Their command control communications broke down, the logistics were wholly inadequate once they are away from the real system that is the backbone of their logistics.
Again, the shortcomings are just manifest and they have completely underestimated their adversity.
Andrew Neil: I take the point that a lot of what’s happened in Ukraine is perhaps unique to Russia for all the reasons that it’s underperformed, badly trained, the equipment wasn’t great. But have we learned for our forces in the West that conventional power projection, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, ground forces are very vulnerable to unconventional responses. Is the day of heavy armour coming to an end in an age of drones and autonomous weapons and AI and other standoff systems?
General Petraeus: Well, I don’t know that the future systems number one will be manned. I don’t know that they will be as vulnerable as these are. There are many, many, mechanisms to defeat the systems. It’s just that Russia doesn’t have any of these. What we will see in the future will be, you know, a constant back and forth.
We’ve written the tank off many times before, as you know, only to find it has it’s place. You know, there were those that said that the tanks don’t have any place in Iraq. Well, tell that to the guys that were taking down the insurgence, the Shia militia supported by Iran, in Sadr City in the spring of 2008 because they found that they were very, very useful.
Andrew Neil: So you wouldn’t write the tank off?
General Petraeus: I would not write it off. I would ask how do you improve its survivability? What systems can you enable it with? Does it need a person in it anymore? I think in the future what you’re going to end up with in this kind of warfare, if this is seen again, will be unmanned systems. Maybe remotely piloted, maybe actually not.
Maybe the human in the loop was in the construction of the algorithm that allows this system to take action on the battlefield and when it checks off all the blocks in certain algorithms, it can then actually pull the trigger for itself.
Andrew Neil: Let me ask you about the geopolitical fallout from this. This was meant to be the century in which America pivoted to the Pacific to deal with the rising power of China. Ukraine has dragged America back into Europe big time, there are now over a hundred thousand US forces in Europe again. Can America afford to remain fully engaged in Europe and have the forces to deter China? Can it do both?
General Petraeus: The short answer is that I believe it can. The US together with its allies and partners around the world uniquely has to keep a whole bunch of plates spinning to use the metaphorical image of the guy in the circus tent to put a plate on a stick and gets it spinning and gets another one and the US often, with its allies and partners, is keeping more plates spinning around the world than any other country and it has to.
The biggest plate without question, bigger than all the other plates in that tent will be the one that represents the relationship between the US, and the West, and China but there will be many, many others. Keep in mind that we still have to keep plates spinning and a host of different countries where we are helping host nations combat Islamist extremists.
We can’t pull out of Syria for example. We can’t pull out of Iraq without allowing that plate again metaphorically to fall on the ground, in other words to fail to keep an eye and pressure on Islamist extremists. Something we have learned in the world of the post 9/11 attacks is a necessity. We have to keep an eye on them but to list the challenges that we confront right now alone, obviously you have the relationship with China, you have North Korea, you have Iran, Russia now.
So in a sense, the Russian plate, the NATO plate has grown considerably and all of NATO’s nations will need to do more to keep that particular plate spinning but there are many, many others. Again I mentioned the numerous Islamist extremists threats around the world, and I think the U S can do it.
The question really, I think Andrew, is how to do it as efficiently, as effectively, and as sustainably as is absolutely possible. And if you can achieve a sustainable solution, and that usually is measured in terms of blood and treasure, then you can sustain it. I do think that that is possible but there’s no question that the renewed threat of Russia will require considerably more resources in Europe and considerable more expense and attention than was the case prior to the invasion of Ukraine.
Andrew Neil: And there you have it because even American defence spending is now being squeezed somewhat and to build forces in Europe, they are a different kind of military force from what America needs in the Pacific, which is overwhelmingly amphibious and air, that’s big spending on both sides. Again I just wonder, does even America have the resources to be deployed in a huge military presence and balance on in both Eastern Europe and in the East Asia Pacific?
General Petraeus: Well, again, I think that that is possible. It has to be done very efficiently, very effectively, always together with allies and partners.
I think one of the real areas of emphasis of the Biden administration has been indeed to renew, to strengthen, to augment the relationships that we have around the world so that we’re not keeping all these plates spinning ourselves, but that we’re doing it together with, with our allies and partners.
I think again that that is doable. It is not cheap by any measure but it’s even more than what you say because again keep in mind you have all these other tasks. So the US uniquely has to still have some armoured formations in Europe, certainly air and maritime in the Indo-Pacific, but certainly special operations forces, ground forces and others there as well.
There are still places where we’re helping host nations, combat and surgeons and extremists so again, we have to have a capability that is full spectrum. Uniquely again, we have to have this and we can, and we do.
Andrew Neil: If you are to pivot to the Pacific but retain a huge presence in Europe as part of NATO commitments, you will need, you’ve been talking about plates, you’ll need your allies to step up to the plate as well. Now Germany says it is now serious about defence spending, we’ll see, it says it is but don’t you need Japan? It’s the second largest economy in the East Pacific region now. Don’t you need it to do the same to be part of an effect of counterweight to China?
General Petraeus: First of all, let me just clarify what we’re doing. We’re not pivoting. Pivoting implies that you’re pivoting away from something to something else. What we are doing is rebalancing. We are going to keep assets in the Middle East, for example. We’re going to certainly have to augment them in Europe and we are indeed trying to make the main effort, the main focus of our forces, to be able to achieve our objectives of deterring action in the Indo-Pacific as it’s termed, that could result in actual conflict, especially between two superpowers.
Yes, we need Germany to do what it has committed to do which is really quite revolutionary. Again, no one did more for German defence spending than Vladimir Putin. Even in 16 years of Chancellor Merkel’s time as the Head of Government, they never even got the 1.5% of GDP on defence, much less the 2% that was agreed at the Wales summit some years ago by all the NATO nations. Now the new Chancellor, brand new, immediately commits in the first weekend of the war to spend 2% of GDP on defence.
That’s significant because that GDP is a good bit larger than the next two or three NATO countries, the UK, France or Italy. And he committed $110 billion equivalent just in a one-time spending it’s almost twice the annual defence budget for improved readiness of German forces.
Andrew Neil: I know. Well, I know what the Chancellor announced. My question was about Japan, Japan is still only spending 1% of its GDP on defence. Doesn’t it need to do more? That was my question.
General Petraeus: Well, I think Japan recognises that it needs to do more and it has been doing more. It has also, for example, advanced the issue that it can actually respond as an ally, if we’re attacked they can respond as opposed to only if they are attacked directly. There’ve been a number of advances in Japan and their forces are really very, very good.
Andrew Neil: How would you mark the Biden administration’s handling of the Ukraine crisis so far?
General Petraeus: I think the administration has done quite impressively. And I say that as someone who you may recall was very critical of the administration over the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Andrew Neil: Indeed.
General Petraeus: The lack of a true consultation with our NATO allies and partners.
Andrew Neil: Indeed.
General Petraeus: Most, if not, all of whom wanted to stay in Afghanistan and then obviously the way in which the withdrawal was conducted.
I am, I should tell your audience, I am completely nonpolitical. I don’t even register to vote, much less actually vote or affiliate with a party, provide, support or contributions and I do talk to members of either party and have throughout my career.
So in this case, I think they have done an impressive job. I think they have led the world from way before the invasion began in a variety of different ways.
One in coming together in advance to determine the kinds of sanctions that could be imposed on the economy, the financial system, the inner circle, and also in very skillfully taking finished intelligence products and turning them into publicly releasable information without exposing sources and methods, and showing way in advance this is what the Russians are doing and eventually predicting they are going to invade and predicting a number of other actions that have been proven to have been correct analyses of what was going to happen in the future.
This is really path breaking. We’ve never done this before and I think it has proven very, very skillful on the part of the administration because it has bolstered their credibility.
Beyond that, I think again that with each development they have increased the support that’s been provided. Again, the enormous amount of money. Happily, this is an issue on which there is bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill. Certainly there are those who would say we should move faster on this or that.
Others who say we should be more cautious about this or that but by and large, I think that the administration has very much hit its stride with this particular challenge and has done so quite impressively.
Andrew Neil: You could argue that Russia would be suffering an even bigger bloody nose if we’d armed Ukraine with heavy and advanced weaponry before the invasion. Isn’t there maybe a lesson there for America when it comes to Taiwan?
General Petraeus: Well, first of all, we were arming Ukraine. We have been doing so for many many years since the occupation of Crimea and the southeastern part of Ukraine in the Donbas and all the way since for a good seven or more years.
Could we have done more? Yes, certainly but again, you’ve always got to get that through Congress and, you know, nothing succeeds in generating bi-partisan support on Capitol Hill like invading a country. That is exactly what has happened.
Andrew Neil: Failure in Vietnam haunted American foreign policy for years after the withdrawal. Is failure in Iraq and Afghanistan still haunting America?
General Petraeus: Well, first of all, I don’t know that I would characterise Iraq as failure frankly. There were many instances of mistakes. You shouldn’t go into a country and immediately fire on its military without telling them what their future is. You shouldn’t do De-Ba’athification of the whole swath of people that run the country.
I’m not talking about Saddam and his sons and all the other evil people at the top but all the rest of the individuals, tens of thousands without an agreed reconciliation process. I mean, those were huge mistakes and I was on the ground as a young, two star general division commander when that happened.
It cut us off at the knees at a time when we actually had things going quite well so certainly we made tons of mistakes along the way, but I would contend not just because I was privileged to command the surge, but because the surge succeeded that we ultimately achieved a degree of success in Iraq, we drove violence down by 85 per cent and we kept it down for three and a half more years and it was mistakes by the Iraqis in the wake of the departure of our final combat forces and General Austin, now our Secretary of Defense, that led to the challenges of the reconstitution of Al-Qaeda in Iraq as the Islamic state and all the problems that befell Iraq in the wake of that.
Andrew Neil: But there hadn’t been Al-Qaeda? Al-Qaeda hadn’t been in Iraq until we invaded?
General Petraeus: Can I kind of finish what I was saying? I’m not talking about the decision to invade, obviously, Andrew. I’m talking about what happened in Iraq and what happened is we went back in with a very relatively small number of troops, never more than about 5,500, and we enabled the Iraqi security forces to defeat the Islamic state in Iraq. We did the same for the Syrian democratic forces in Syria. The caliphate is no more.
The virtual caliphate is not what it was and although there are certainly remnants of the Islamic state and some very serious challenges, not the least of which are these major detention centres that have to be dealt with if European countries would help with the return of citizens to them but again, I think Iraq is, you know, it is not certainly a failure.
Look, you can argue as you wanted to about the decision to invade. That’s something for other people to engage in, not me.
Andrew Neil: Was that a mistake? The original decision.
General Petraeus: There is, there is one question that I will never answer for any interviewer because I wrote more letters of condolence to America’s fathers and mothers than any other commander. And that’s that question. So I will leave that to others. But the fact is that again I would not characterise what happened in Iraq as a failure. Afghanistan was a failure of strategic patience, of will, on the part of the United States. It did not have to end that way. When I heard that that decision to withdraw had been made, I said that I feared that we would come to regret that decision and I believe we have.
We could have easily kept 3,500 troops there, augmented by the number of drones. 8,500 coalition forces were happy to stay and we could have been kept by the contractors there who kept the sophisticated helicopters we insisted on providing to the Afghan forces that were the linchpin of their defensive concept.
All that was possible. We had not lost a soldier in Afghanistan prior to that tragic, horrible suicide bombing at the entry control point of the International Airport in Kabul for 18 months. That was sustainable in terms of the expenditure of our blood and treasure. It was not satisfactory. It wasn’t by any means a win but it was certainly in my view better than the likely alternative.
Frankly, I think that the likely alternative has proven to be not just heartbreaking and tragic but disastrous for the United States and perhaps more importantly for Afghanistan and the Afghan people. So again, the lesson there, I think, has to be that there are times where you have to recognise that you cannot win, you can’t defeat the enemy. You can’t achieve what you’d really like to achieve, but you might be able to manage the situation. Candidly, that’s what we’re doing in a number of countries in Africa.
Andrew Neil: You’ve served in both Republican and democratic administrations, given the increasingly polarised state of American politics now, does that make you an endangered species?
General Petraeus: Well, it makes it more challenging without question. And I think that what has to happen is that military leaders in particular have to try to be nonpolitical. I’m not talking apolitical or bi-partisan, I’m just saying not political whatsoever and ideally the retirees would do the same thing.
That’s part of the problem is that a number of my retired counterparts have participated very actively in politics, which then makes those in power suspicious of those who are still in uniform so it’s very unhelpful to those that I was privileged to have as the one, two, three star officers when I was in three and four star commands, to then have those who leave attend a party conventions and support one candidate or another often quite aggressively.
I would like to see us go back to a more nonpolitical participation as retired senior officers. That’s probably naive and therefore I think it just has to be incumbent on those who are in uniform still to be even more scrupulously nonpolitical in their activities and to build relationships with both sides of the aisle and I think that the effective leaders have continued to do that.
Andrew Neil: You see many people in Europe will look at the timing of the invasion in Ukraine, and they say Russia invaded Ukraine when there was still a conventional Atlanticist President in the White House, a lifelong supporter of NATO, the importance of the Atlantic Alliance and we were lucky that it happened when we still had the someone liked that, they may be a dying breed in American politics now if there’s a generational change. I mean, what would have happened to our response to Ukraine if Mr. Trump had still been in the White House?
General Petraeus: I think this hypothetical isn’t particularly productive to explore in all honest, Andrew. In part because on Capitol Hill there is absolutely bipartisan support for NATO.
I was at the Munich security conference, not only was there a greater unity among all the countries that were there from the NATO nations, the greatest unity I’d seen since I was a speechwriter for the NATO Supreme Allied Commander back in the final years of the Cold War but there was also a very large, maybe the largest of all time, delegation of Americans who were there from Congress also our Vice-President, Secretary of State, I believe Secretary of Defense and others, all were there to show supportive NATO. This was before the invasion of Ukraine, not after, so I think that bipartisan support still very much exists, Andrew, and I think it will continue to exist and if anything, again, Vladimir Putin, we should thank him for that. You know, there’s no greater gift to NATO since the end of the Cold War than Vladimir Putin.
Andrew Neil: So NATO would survive another Trump presidency?
General Petraeus: Again, I don’t get into hypotheticals, Andrew. It’s part of my routine.
Andrew Neil: Well, let me just finish up with this because in that period between November 2020 and the inauguration in January 2021, there was real concern about what politicians might expect the US military to do in almost a sense of constitutional crisis. Did that worry you too?
General Petraeus: No, not at all. No. I knew the commanders. I know the commanders. I served with all of them in combat, most of them in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I know their capabilities, their fortitude, their commitment to our constitution and the place of the military in it. I saw no threat of a man on horseback or any of these other hypothetical concerns at that point in time.
Andrew Neil: So even in this highly charged American polarised situation, with FBI intelligence reports worried about civil strife and all the rest of it, we can count on the US military to stay out of politics?
General Petraeus: I very much believe we can.
Andrew Neil: General Petraeus, thank you for joining us.
General Petraeus: It’s a privilege, Andrew. Thanks for having me.
Andrew Neil, narrating: Thank you to General David Petraeus. Tortoise members and subscribers on Apple+ can hear my reflections on that conversation in a bonus episode called Inside The Interview, which comes out every Friday during this series.
Research for this episode was by Ellen Halliday and Robert Jackman. It was mixed by Studio Klong with original music by Tom Kinsella.
The executive producer is Lewis Vickers.