The David Petraeus I Know

The general’s former executive officer tells FP what to expect in Afghanistan.

From February 2007 to May 2008, Peter Mansoor was Gen. David Petraeus's right-hand man in Iraq. Now a retired U.S. Army colonel teaching at Ohio State University, Mansoor worked closely with Petraeus as the general's executive officer, assisting with the implementation of the "surge" strategy and preparing his congressional testimony -- including the grueling hearings in September 2007 that Petraeus later said were "the most miserable experience of my life." FP senior editor Benjamin Pauker caught up with Mansoor in the wake of Petraeus's dramatic nomination to take over command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was fired by President Obama in the wake of a Rolling Stone profile gone wrong.

Mansoor describes his former boss as "a very hard man to keep up with" who will do whatever it takes to succeed. As for the mission, Mansoor worries about a divided team on the ground, declining morale among U.S. soldiers, and a poor understanding of counterinsurgency warfare. "Hearts and minds have nothing to do with it," he says. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: Having served under Gen. David Petraeus, how would you describe him as a leader?

Peter Mansoor: General Petraeus is a very focused, intelligent leader. He drives himself hard and he expects the people around him to put everything they have into the mission. And he also cares for the people around him. He takes care of them, both in the current assignment and future assignments. He is a very competent leader, and that's what he looks for in the people around him. My experience was very positive. He's a very hard man to keep up with [laughs] given the pace he keeps. It was very refreshing to be around an intelligent leader who was in this war to win it, and not just managing his way through the conflict.

FP: How is his health?

PM: He had a bout with prostate cancer, which was treated with chemotherapy, and supposedly that has been completely cleared. Then there was the episode where he fainted when talking to the Senate Armed Services Committee. I don't think it was so much exhaustion as it was coming back from a long, overseas trip where he was dehydrated already, given the plane travel; he was suffering from some sort of bug, and then he failed to eat breakfast the morning of the hearing and didn't drink anything, because as you know -- or maybe you don't [laughs] -- they don't give you bathroom breaks during those Senate hearings. As a result, he was dehydrated, lacked fluids, hit a wall, and fainted.

FP: Is there a concern about his stamina given the requirements of the job?

PM: No, General Petraeus has done more than any other general -- maybe except for Stan McChrystal -- to ensure that he keeps in good shape. He's very attentive to his health. Of course, this is going to be very difficult for his family; this is his fourth combat tour since 2003 -- and two of them were at the four-star level -- which is very psychologically and mentally challenging. So this is not going to be an easy assignment. But physically, he'll be up to the task. It will be important for the folks around him to make sure that he gets the sort of rest and exercise needed to keep him mentally engaged at a top level.

FP: What kind of hours does he keep?

PM: This was part of my role, because his natural instinct is to drive himself into the ground and, as his executive officer, I worked to readjust the battle rhythm to make sure he got eight hours of sleep a night, and that he got to run and do physical training at least three times a week. These are the kinds of things that keep a senior commander going. You could just see him emerge refreshed in the morning, after he had a good sleep or a nice run. It would help the clarity of his thinking.

FP: Do you think General McChrystal's reported four hours of sleep might have affected the clarity of his thinking?

PM: You know, he's a different person, so I can't really speak for General McChrystal, but I do know that General Petraeus did much better when he had eight hours of sleep.

FP: As you've said, it's not an easy assignment. Certainly, Iraq wasn't easy either, but if anything, Afghanistan seems even more complex.

PM: People tend to forget just how complex and difficult Iraq was at the end of 2006. The success of the surge was not preordained. Those who say the Afghanistan war is lost without even implementing the chosen strategy fully reminds me of a comment by Sen. Harry Reid in April of 2007 when he said that the surge has failed and the war is lost, when we hadn't even gotten all the surge troops on the ground yet. I think we're at the same stage right now in Afghanistan. The surge troops haven't arrived and the operations in Kandahar haven't yet begun. It's also unclear what sort of relationships General Petraeus will be able to build with President [Hamid] Karzai and the other leaders in the region. So, I think it's far too early to tell. We'll be in a much, much better position in July 2011 to determine how the strategy has succeeded or not and then to determine the way ahead, whether that be a drawdown, as is currently planned, or something else.

FP: In terms of troop levels, it's widely known that McChrystal wanted more than the 30,000 that have been allocated in the surge. Does General Petraeus think that that's a sufficient number, or is he likely to use his leverage with the Obama administration to push for even greater numbers?

PM: It would be very unlikely at this point, I think, for General Petraeus to say, ‘Well, the strategy that I helped formulate now needs more resources for its execution.' It could happen, though. I mean he could get on the ground and realize, as we did in [in Iraq] in January 2007, that things were much worse than he had realized. But he has had a number of trips to the region and he's had constant contact with General McChrystal, so I think it'd be highly unlikely that he would ask for more troops.

FP: Some people have called for General Petraeus to come in and make a clean sweep of the team that was around McChrystal. Do you have any sense of who he will bring in?

PM: You know, they're all folks well under the radar. I don't think there'll be any famous names in there. But again, what I think he'll do when he gets to Afghanistan is forge relationships with the folks that he needs to forge relationships with, and that includes Hamid Karzai, it includes Ambassador [Karl] Eikenberry, and he already of course has a relationship with Ambassador Holbrooke, which, by all accounts, is fairly good. I think President Obama should be very clear that if the team can't work together that more changes will be made. He's already made the change in the military side that would suggest that if Ambassador Eikenberry is not supportive, or if the president feels that Ambassador Eikenberry's relationship with Karzai is damaged to the point where he's ineffective, he may have to change him out.

FP: As Petraeus takes over command, what do you think some of the critical factors are in turning the war around and making sure the strategy can be successfully executed? If you could point to three things, what would they be?

PM: I think the first thing would be developing a solid relationship with Hamid Karzai, and a solid relationship with Ambassador Eikenberry, or whoever fills that position. It is that triumvirate -- the U.S. ambassador, the senior military commander on the ground, and the president of the host nation -- that have to develop the kind of relationship that will lead to success and unity of effort in the counterinsurgency we are waging.

The second thing is that he has to continue to engage the Pakistanis. He has forged relationships with them already, and he should leverage those to ensure the Pakistanis do whatever they can to reduce the insurgent sanctuaries along the Pakistani side of the border. As long as those sanctuaries exist, the Taliban will have a life left.

And then the third thing I would say is that he needs to reinstill confidence in the troops: confidence in the strategy, confidence in the leadership. I think one quick thing he could do is to readdress the rules of engagement. The rules should be permissive enough to allow the troops to fight the enemy while being very cognizant of collateral damage. But perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of risk aversion and as a result we're not engaging the enemy effectively. I think the troops sense that, which is why we saw those comments by the platoon in Rolling Stone, and I don't think you can ignore them just because they're in a magazine .

FP: Have you gotten a sense that there is a morale issue for U.S. troops in Afghanistan?

PM: I think there is. The folks coming back from the region tell me they feel like their hands are tied; they capture insurgents and they have to free them for lack of substantial evidence. We're not keeping people locked up. At the height of the surge in Iraq, we had 25,000 people in our detention facilities. We have less than 1,000 in Afghanistan. That doesn't make sense to me. The troops feel as though their hands are tied in terms of the use of firepower. That's going to be part of a natural pushback to the rules of engagement, but part of it might be an accurate description of commanders who are too risk-averse. It's very difficult for soldiers to go into combat and then feel as though they don't have the tools to do the mission, and rules of engagement are one of those tools.

FP: That brings up an interesting point. Is there a concern that this is becoming more of a drone war rather than by troops on the ground? Much of the surge in Iraq was successful because there were troops in neighborhoods. There was a presence on the ground that people felt.

PM: And by the way, there was also a lot of fighting! Folks forget that 2007 was the bloodiest year of the Iraq war. And now we get comments from troops preparing to go into a village along the lines of, ‘OK, we're going to go into that village and do some of that COIN shit.' That shows a fundamental misunderstanding of counterinsurgency warfare and the role of security operations within it.

FP: Does that mean there's a sense that COIN has become too civilian-focused? They're just playing too nice?

PM: No, just the sense that counterinsurgency is nothing more than handing out goodies to the population and trying to win their hearts and minds -- and really, hearts and minds have nothing to do with it. It's about earning the trust and confidence of the people and controlling the population so that the insurgents can't survive among them. And I don't know what we've done to control the population in Afghanistan. We certainly have not instituted measures to the extent that we did in Iraq with the extensive blast barriers, checkpoints, and biometric identity devices. We haven't held a census. There's a lot of standard counterinsurgency tools we haven't deployed in Afghanistan, and until we do, we are not going to be successful. Some of them are going to be disagreeable to the population but we have to go there or we're going to lose the war.

FP: As his former executive officer, would you consider joining General Petraeus again, if he asked?

PM: Well, I'd have to consult with my family but it'd be an honor to work with General Petraeus again. Again, he surrounds himself with really talented people, and I'm sure he'll make a clean sweep of General McChrystal's personal staff and bring in his own team from Tampa. So, I doubt they'll need someone off the bench from Columbus, Ohio.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


Locked Up in Rwanda

An American lawyer is arrested in Kigali for genocide denial. Is it a sign of President Paul Kagame's creeping authoritarianism?

On Friday, American lawyer C. Peter Erlinder was arrested by the Rwandan government for allegedly denying the country's 1994 genocide. He had come to Kigali to meet with his client, opposition leader and hopeful presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, who had been arrested on similar charges of negationism earlier this year. Many have speculated that the government is turning up the pressure on the opposition in advance of presidential elections, scheduled for August 9, 2010, which incumbent President Paul Kagame is widely expected to win.

Erlinder had caught the attention of the government far earlier than this most recent trip, however. A professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Erlinder first began working on Rwanda in 2003, when he took up the case of Aloys Ntabaluze, a defendant accused of crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania. After intense investigations, his defense team drafted what court documents call an "alternative explanation of the tragic events in Rwanda during the four year war." The defense's trial brief includes a section linking then-General Kagame to the shooting down of a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira in 1994 -- an assassination that triggered the genocide. "[I]mportantly from the standpoint of fixing central responsibility for the massacres that the assassination of President Habyarimana touched off, these acts were undertaken with full knowledge on the part of Gen. Kagame that resumption of the war would cause massive civilian casualties," the defense states (italics from original text).

There has long been ambiguity surrounding the downing of Habyarimana's plane and the events that precipitated the genocide. And though ordinary Rwandans and international conspiracy theorists have long debated the mysterious and cynical assassination, any attempt to investigate or prosecute the facts under the current Kagame government is a non-starter.

So it was little surprise that Erlinder's digging put him on the Kagame government's bad side, says the lawyer's daughter, Sarah, in an interview with Foreign Policy. And Erlinder did more than dig: In late April, when Kagame visited the United States to offer a commencement address at Oklahoma Christian University, Erlinder and several other American lawyers attempted to serve the Rwandan president with a lawsuit brought by the widows of Habyarimana and Ntaryamira, alleging his involvement in the 1994 assassination.

Sarah Erlinder argues that her father's incarceration is unjust and shines a light on a county far too long believed to be democratic -- a darling of foreign donors for its recovery from genocide. Instead, she says, this confirms what many of Kagame's critics have long said: that this champion of democracy has an authoritarian side, now becoming all the more apparent.

Foreign Policy: Take us back to how this started. When did your father arrive in Rwanda on this most recent visit?

Sarah Erlinder: He [headed to] Rwanda from Brussels on Sunday [May 23], where he had been at a defense conference that they'd organized for the people working with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda [ICTR]. He arrived in Rwanda with the intention of visiting his client, Victoire Ingabire, and joining her legal team. Ingabire [an opposition candidate] had previously been arrested and accused of [denying the genocide].

FP: How did you hear about the arrest?

SE: There was an email list that my dad was using to send updates on work. We woke up on Friday morning to an email from someone that we didn't recognize saying that he had been arrested. I did a quick Google search, and there were already a couple of articles from the African press. I then called my dad's wife, who had also gotten the e-mail and was also confused.

We got on the phone to the embassy and then to the State Department trying to figure out [what happened.] The first step was just ensuring that they knew, and they had [indeed] been aware. We have also received an update from an American lawyer who wasn't there for the arrest but has met with my dad [since], and who [asked my father] what happened.

The two of them [my father and the other American lawyer] were supposed to leave on Thursday, but the prosecutor summoned Ingabire for questioning on Friday, so they extended their trip.

On Friday morning, the police came to the hotel [where my father was staying] and it sounds like they came to his room and arrested them there. They've kept the room sealed and have inventoried some of his personal belongings. The embassy told us that someone from the embassy was present with him when he was arrested.

The American lawyer and a Rwandan colleague were able to meet him on Saturday. But they were denied access on Sunday. On Monday, two Kenyan lawyers were able to get credentials, so they will be able to go back in and see him. They weren't able to get into the interviews [that the Rwandan police were doing with my father before]. The American got credentials today.

FP: What has been the response of the State Department to the case so far?

SE: The first response from the State Department was that there were certain steps that they follow to make sure that he is physically safe. But after that, Americans are arrested abroad all the time, and they have to let process play out -- which we found unacceptable. This isn't a college kid who got in a fight on spring break in Cancún; this is much more serious. And there is not really a fair, open, judicial process. He's really being held based on statements and writings that he made in the courts representing his client at the ICTR.

The embassy has been responsive to general updates on his well-being. He was brought to the hospital and spent the night there [for high blood pressure] and is back in the jail there now. The embassy sent someone to be with him at the hospital for a while.

FP: Tell us about his client, Aloys Ntabaluze, who he has been representing at the ICTR.

SE: He's been representing [this client] since 2003. He had a friend and colleague who was involved in the ICTR [back then] and suggested that he might be interested. So, my father put his name on the list and got assigned to a case. He went to Arusha in June, 2003, for the first time and saw that the trials had already started and that he wasn't the second-chair counsel but the lead.  

He didn't know a lot more than the average interested person about Rwanda or what had happened there. That's the other thing that's poignant about situation: The Rwandan government has made it sound like he has this agenda, as if he didn't go there as attorney but rather only trotting the globe for his agenda. But everything he's talked about, he uncovered while investigating the case.

[In fact, he began the] Rwanda Document Project online, where anyone can see the documents that he's found. He was trying to make this as open as possible and really shine a light on a closed society and on a very taboo topic. He was putting real hot-button issues [out there]. And if you say, "perhaps the Hollywood Hotel Rwanda narrative that everyone thinks was the way that things happened -- it didn't happen exactly that way," then you're a genocide denier.  

I was so surprised the first time a reporter asked me whether he denied the genocide. This is obviously someone who doesn't know him. He would never do that to the victims, to their families. But is he trying to get information that hasn't been available before to the public? Yes, and that's obviously what's put him in danger now and on the bad side of the Kagame government.

FP: In speaking with the lawyers on the ground, is there speculation that his arrest could be linked with the upcoming presidential elections?

SE: They definitely think so. Timing wise, it's a perfect storm. Leading up to the election, the government is really continuing to tighten down. Even charging the opposition candidate in the first place -- in a free society, we let someone vote for who they want.

Also, Paul Kagame was in Oklahoma last month and my dad and a couple of other lawyers [tried to serve] him a lawsuit under the Alien Torts Claim act on behalf of widows of Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, both of whom were killed in the plane crash that touched off the genocide there. There are definitely things you can trace [that he did] that would make the Kagame government angry.

My dad was aware of this risk when he went there. He contacted his congressional delegation, the State Department, and the embassy before going to draw attention to his safety. From what we've heard from the attorneys [in Rwanda who had seen him,] he was preparing for the worst, but he can't believe that they did this.

FP: The lawsuit against Kagame -- was that something that your father began working on separately in the United States?

SE: He was working on that on a different front. The things that he had uncovered through his representation at the ICTR -- he kept meeting and talking to more and more people who had known these things for a while and who couldn't talk about them or bring them to light.

The Rwandan government has used intimidation and violence against its own people for a long time, and so the one bright side of this situation is that there are a lot of people who wouldn't ordinarily be paying attention [who are listening now] -- because they've gone far enough this time, and with a U.S. citizen, that people are rightfully outraged. [It is] not acceptable that a local [judicial] process [against my father] would play out there. He's [been arrested for a] speech crime allegedly committed as an attorney. This is not what a free and open society would allow.