By David Petraeus April 15
The formulation of sound national policy requires finding the right overarching concepts. Getting the “big ideas” right is particularly important when major developments appear to have invalidated the concepts upon which previous policy and strategy were based — which now appears to be the case in the wake of the Arab Spring. To illustrate this point, I have often noted that the surge that mattered most in Iraq was not the surge of forces. It was the surge of ideas, which guided the strategy that ultimately reduced violence in the country so substantially.
The biggest of the big ideas that guided the Iraq surge included recognition that:
●The decisive terrain was the human terrain — and that securing the people had to be our foremost task. Without progress on that, nothing else would be possible.
●We could secure the people only by living with them, locating our forces in their neighborhoods, rather than consolidating on big bases, as we had been doing the year before the surge.
●We could not kill or capture our way out of the sizable insurgency that plagued Iraq; rather, though killing and capturing were necessary, we needed to reconcile with as many of the insurgent rank and file as was possible.
●We could not clear areas of insurgents and then leave them after handing control off to Iraqi security forces; rather, we had to clear and hold, transitioning to Iraqis only when we achieved a situation that they could sustain.
Now, nine tough years later, five big ideas seem to be crystallizing as the lessons we should be taking from developments over the past decade.
First, it is increasingly apparent that ungoverned spaces in a region stretching from West Africa through the Middle East and into Central Asia will be exploited by Islamic extremists who want to establish sanctuaries in which they can enforce their extremist version of Islam and from which they can conduct terrorist attacks.
Second, it is also apparent that the attacks and other activities of such extremists will not be confined to the areas or regions in which they are located. Rather, as in the case of Syria, the actions of the extremist groups are likely to spew instability, extremism, violence and refugees far beyond their immediate surroundings, posing increasingly difficult challenges for our partners in the region, our European allies and even our homeland.
Third, it is also increasingly clear that, in responding to these challenges, U.S. leadership is imperative. If the United States does not lead, it is unlikely that another country will. Moreover, at this point, no group of other countries can collectively approach U.S. capabilities. This does not mean that the United States needs to undertake enormous efforts to counter extremist groups in each case. To the contrary, the United States should do only what is absolutely necessary, and we should do so with as many partners as possible. Churchill was right when he observed, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” And, if one of those partners wants to walk point — such as France in Mali — we should support it, while recognizing that we still may have to contribute substantially.