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Former CIA Director David Petraeus spoke about current events in the Middle East to a crowd of nearly one hundred in a packed Horchow Hall Tuesday evening.

During the talk, foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius asked Petraeus questions about the recent assassination of the Islamic Revolutionary Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the soon-expected Afghanistan peace plan. The event —  titled “The Middle East in Crisis: A Role for America?” —  was sponsored by the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs as well as the nonprofit advocacy group Justice for Kurds. Petraeus, who served 37 years in the U.S. military, assumed command of coalition forces during the surge in Iraq and Afghanistan. He then served as director of the CIA, attended graduate school at Princeton University and after various academic positions, now serves as chairman of the KKR Global Institute, an investment firm.

“Las Vegas rules don’t apply in the Middle East,” Petraeus said in response to Ignatius’ opening remarks. “What happens there doesn’t stay there.”

Ignatius opened the talk by asking how Americans can view ongoing war in the Middle East given that it has lasted 20 years, costs trillions of dollars and that it has taken thousands of lives.

Five thousand troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan, and questions about ways to reduce the number of troops deployed continue to emerge.

“The war in Iraq is still going on, and no one wants to end endless wars more than those fighting them,” Petraeus said. “But if you take your eyes off the enemy, they will come back.”

At the talk, Petraeus said that replacing U.S. soldiers with advisors is a possibility, though a careful scrutiny of the cost and the motivation behind such an initiative would be necessary.

Petraeus suggested that ungoverned spaces will be exploited by Islamic extremists and that the U.S. must lead and do something of value. He stated that military response requires a “civilian military campaign” against their “industrial strength insurgency” and that the commitment must be sustainable in “blood and expenditure.”

Ignatius also brought up the soon-expected peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban regarding the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. While this agreement would start the process of withdrawal, Petraeus emphasized the complexity and number of parties involved, including nearby actors like Pakistan.

Still, Petraeus said that “no wants to end endless wars more than those fighting them.”

Ignatius then turned the conversation to the recent assassination of Soleimani, Petraeus’s adversary in Iraq.

The two discussed why Soleimani was not assassinated earlier and the precedent set by President Trump’s decision to kill him. Petraeus, who saw Soleimani as a “military target,” suggested that he may have done the same “if we could have gotten the X on him.”

Although the talk was mainly attended by graduate students and faculty, a number of interested undergraduates were also in attendance.

“Even though the talk was not catered to an undergraduate audience —  with a lot of prominent ambassadors and global affairs master’s students there — I was really impressed by it,” Zach Zabib ’22 said. “It was such a cool opportunity to hear from someone who had so much influence in the [Middle Eastern] region.”

Some students said they particularly enjoyed Petraeus’ comments on the future of warfare in the Middle East.

Brigitte Fink ’20, for example, noted that ISIS’s efforts in online propaganda have persisted, despite territorial loss.

“In the talk, Petraeus highlighted one of the biggest emerging issues in the future of modern war, the use of social media platforms by extremist organizations,” Fink said. “It was interesting to hear Petraeus’ thoughts on this emerging and challenging threat, and how social media companies need to do more to address extremist content on their platforms.”

Petraeus served as director of the CIA from 2011 to 2012.

 

Samuel Turner | samuel.turner@yale.edu