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Published: 12 October 2009 from Nargarkot, Nepal


Conversation with General Petraeus

After all that and lots more, the bus took us to a reception at the town hall where food and drinks were served and there were loads of soldiers, including Brits who were about to head over to Afghanistan.  Some German veterans were there and Americans pulled around them for translated accounts.  One Panzer veteran said his outfit was the best in the world, even better than Patton’s that had beaten them.  He must have been ninety years old but he was drinking beer and showing an American veteran of the similar age how to prost, German Army style.  He said that for decades it had been “streng verboten” (Strongly Forbidden) in Deutschland to talk about war experiences, and especially not so in any proud light.

Time and conversations melted by until there was a tap on the shoulder, asking if I wanted to talk with General Petraeus.  We were staying at the same hotel but I wasn’t going to bug him; there was too much going on.  But the tap on the shoulder was opportunity knocking, and soon I walked upstairs where General Petraeus had a little command center, where he was running CENTCOM.

I asked General Petraeus about his dad, and he said his dad was a Dutch ship captain and was at sea when the Germans invaded Holland.  And so he sailed to New York and there eventually met his American mom.  (Touchdown for the United States.)  His dad joined the Merchant Marines, who suffered more casualties per capita than any other service during the war.  I asked General Petraeus what he thought about all these incredible remembrance ceremonies, and he talked about the Margraten Cemetery, saying a Dutch family had adopted every single grave.  General Petraeus was struck by the Dutch gratitude and talked about it for some minutes, saying in part, “This is a country that makes an enormous effort to remember and honor those who liberated them.”  “Symbolically,” he said, “in saving a bridge, we strengthened enormously a bridge between two countries.  That relationship is exceptional.”  “I am struck by the sheer sacrifice that was made,” he said, “Just the river crossing, there are 47 names on that plaque.”  General Petraeus had long-commanded the 101st, including in combat in Iraq, and had briefly been acting commander of the 82nd, the two principal divisions being honored today.

General Petreaus recounted working with the Dutch in the Cold War, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, and now on counter-piracy efforts off of Africa, saying of Holland, “This is a country that punches above its weight class.”

On Afghanistan, I brought up the severe shortage of helicopters, saying this shortage is hampering our ability to fight, and at one point I said, “But I am talking to the choir,” to which General Petraeus answered, “Yes you are.”  He said we had doubled our helicopters in the last four months and that we are about to add a couple more “fistfuls.”  I asked how many we have and how many we need but he would not go there, which was understandable but it doesn’t hurt to ask.  I told him about the pathetic helicopter debacle unfolding with the British and mentioned that the British MoD had recently kicked me out, apparently for reporting the helicopter debacle.  The MoD screams bloody murder at papercuts, I said.

General Petraeus said that he watches the helicopter and other statistics very closely (and I know they do, having sat in on many briefings at lower levels), he said, “What we watch very closely is medevac—I specifically watch that closely,” and he said “average medevac time is about 50 minutes.”  I told General Petraeus about the U.S. Air Force Pedros, saying they are beating the clock and doing stellar work, which brought a smile to the General’s face.

(General Petraeus’s words are a fact when it comes to U.S. medevac.  But I am very uncomfortable if our soldiers operate in areas that are not covered by U.S. or British medevac; I am not confident in some of the other partners’ willingness or ability to go into crucial situations.  For example, one U.S. captain told me about a U.S. soldier who died because a non-U.S. non-British partner failed to extract him in time.  I continue to hear similar reports from U.S. officers and NCOs.  I did not ask General Petraeus about this but should have.  Our folks need an American or British medevac umbrella.)

Questioned about national commitments of various countries, the General wasn’t going to touch that for obvious reasons, but again it doesn’t hurt to ask.

I asked General Petraeus about troop levels and he said he was waiting for General McChrystal’s report.  General Petraeus said he had not yet seen the report but that it should be out in a couple of weeks.  (Hours later the “big memo” was leaked by the Washington Post, which I first heard about the next day from General Petraeus.)

I’m as confident in General Petraeus today as back in January 2007 when we were on the brink of losing the war in Iraq.  Afghanistan is looking like Humpty Dumpty, though.



The next morning, Maggie and General Petraeus were scheduled to give a Freedom Lecture at a local university.  Word had come that protestors of some species or another were using SMS and emails trying to make a “flash protest,” to yell about something.  It was unclear what they were going to protest.  Some guy had run out in protest at one of the parades, in front of the stands where General Petraeus was standing, and everybody just laughed at the guy.  I didn’t even bother to make a photo.  Apparently sensing he did not have any popular support, the guy disappeared and the cops didn’t seem to bother going after him.  (Maybe they did, but I didn’t see.)  If any protestors arrived today, they remained invisible.

Before the talks began, distinguished folks talked by the stage.  The man behind General Petraeus who is shaking hands with Maggie is Captain Marco Kroon.  Alex Omhof told me that Cpt Kroon resisted coming today because he is uncomfortable with all the attention.  He would rather be back in Afghanistan, but was in essence ordered to come.  Captain Kroon had been awarded the Dutch Medal of Honor for his actions in Urozgan Province, Afghanistan.  Alex Omhof would later write me,

“Regarding CPT Marco Kroon, he didn’t want to receive the Dutch Medal of honor because he wanted that his buddies who he fought with should have been honored too.  Maggie had met Marco before during and after the Dutch Medal of Honor ceremony. The Dutch MOD had flown [Maggie] over for this ceremony because Maggie received the Dutch Medal of Honor on behalf of the 82d Airborne Division in 1945. He was hereby the first American to be decorated by the Dutch Government.”

The speeches began and when Maggie got there, he went for maybe an hour without a single note.

General Petraeus, of course, brought PowerPoint and a laser pointer, as do U.S. Commanders.  He talked about the challenges of the CENTCOM AOR (Area of Responsibility) and focused some time on Iraq.  Progress is unfolding in Iraq and despite the problems, progress is undeniable.

Examining the graph closely, violence was at an all-time high in about June 2007, right when I reported on the Hugh Hewitt radio show that the Surge was working.  Needless to say, a lot of people said that was crazy.  (Just look at that graph!)  During a more recent interview with Hugh, we remembered that interview in 2007.  But look what started to happen in July.  When I was reporting the growing civil war in 2005, the civil war was not yet showing itself in the statistics but I could feel it growing.  By 2006, Iraq was starting to burn down, but by June 2007 the Surge obviously was working even though Iraq was mad with violence at that time.

In this type of war, as with Afghanistan, the statistics lag behind the realities.  This month’s statistics are ancient news even though the events that underpin the graphs just occurred.  A witness must be on the ground and know what to look and listen for, and be willing to disregard what the crowd is saying (unless they are right). The witness must be politically tone-deaf.

If General Petraeus did not take the Iraq reins in early 2007, I would say there would have been maybe a 90% chance that genocide would have occurred.  Of course Petraeus never said anything like that during today’s talk, nor did he tell the audience that he had taken command in late January 2007 and that by July 2007 violence began to subside.  Those are the facts.

General Petraeus mentioned during the talk that the Washington Post had just released the classified message from McChrystal to the White House.  The memo has since set Washington ablaze, yet the McChrystal document delivered news so old and parched that Indiana Jones might find it more useful for finding hidden treasures.  That Washington finds the ideas new or shocking only shows that Washington is shot full of painkillers and can’t feel a thing.  The report should have been submitted by the Commanding General in Afghanistan in 2006.

Petraeus’s talk included a description of good progress on the Pakistan side, which looked pretty doggone bad earlier this year.  Back in December in Bahrain, I had put General Petraeus on the spot about Pakistan and our supply routes.  His descriptions back then actually are coming true, though at the time it had been doubtful.

His descriptions about Afghanistan were accurate in fact and in tone.

Last year I said during an interview with Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit that we need tens of thousands of more troops.  What is coming on the radar these last couple weeks is ancient history and in fact the war at this rate is tantamount about lost.  General Petraeus did not say this, but it’s true.  My instinct is that if the President does not make a quick decision to send those troops and resources, the war certainly will be lost.

General Petraeus talked about the trends.  In April 2006, I told Hugh Hewitt on air that we were losing Afghanistan, and then wrote twelve dispatches that we were losing.  The statistics flew in the face of the claims and, ironically, the statistics seemed to be reasonably accurate.  I never disputed the statistics that appeared to shoot down the claims.  The violence, or lack thereof, lags behind the causes.  Violence is not the disease but a symptom that changes post facto.

Despite all that, morale remains good, and General Petraeus’s slide showing the July 4th reenlistment ceremony is an accurate reflection.  We can still make success in Afghanistan, but time is just about gone.

The speeches were over and we headed to a big lunch with the veterans who liberated the Netherlands and other places.

At the lunch, General Petraeus walked over to Captain Marco Kroon, Dutch Medal of Honor recipient, and they stepped out of the main hall to a quiet spot, but I spoiled the moment for a photo.  General Petraeus said, “Michael, do you know who this is?”  “Yes Sir, I do,” and I snapped a photo that didn’t turn out so well.

And that was it.   A remembrance during a time of war, and now it’s time to move back to the war.


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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