ATLANTIC MAGAZINE INTERVIEW OF GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS
Thursday, October 1, 2009
P R O C E E D I N G S
MR. WILLIAMS: (In progress) -- all three awards that were given out that year for academic and physical achievement. We are awfully fortunate to have you here and we know what you're in the middle of.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: This seemed like a great idea a couple of months ago.
MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah, I know. You know what, General? It still is.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: I've been telling myself that all the way up the stairs.
MR. WILLIAMS: Let's get into this. You have a country in Afghanistan the size of the States of California and New York combined. To go big, to flood the zone, to feel like U.S. military presence, don't the numbers kind of have to be alongside the height of the LBJ years in Vietnam?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Thanks for starting me off with an easy one, Brian. That's kind of you. Actually, let's come up and provide a little bit of context for what we're engaged in right now which is some very good and very serious discussions. I think it's well known that yesterday, there was a 3-hour session with the President. Less known is that the day before that was the warm-up session for that with General Jones, the National Security Adviser, all the principles, also Vice President Biden, and the day before that the deputies' committee. So we've been easing into this, and yesterday as I said, was very good and quite long discussion going back and looking at the goals and objectives and assumptions and so forth and what's transpired since those were established with the President announced the Afghanistan-Pakistan Strategy at the end of March.
And then of course General McChrystal when he went out several months ago was given a couple of months to get his feet on the ground and come back to provide an assessment. He was tasked by both the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary General of NATO, of course he is dual-hatted as the NATO and U.S. commander in Afghanistan. And he worked off those existing goals and objectives from the NATO comprehensive approach as it's described and from the President's Afghanistan-Pakistan, provided an assessment of the situation, laid out what he believes is the military implementation plan that is appropriate to achieve the goals and objectives that were laid out back in the end of March in that particular situation, sent it all up and of course it was leaked and that is out there now. And now there is again as I said very good energy in the discussion and I think it is always appropriate to go back to what's the mission and what is it that we want to accomplish, and that is what is being discussed right now.
We're not yet at the point of talking about resources or numbers or what have you. In fact, I have not yet endorsed the resources. That is something that I can assure you has not leaked and is exceedingly closely held, although that is about to be introduced into the equation because obviously at a certain point once you've talked about goals and objectives and then discussed various options for achieving those goals and objectives, you've got to put a price tag on it and that price tag eventually of course will have numbers of troops possibly associated with it, it will have numbers of dollars associated with it, numbers of civilians associated and numbers of other initiatives associated, and a good bit of that hopefully will be coalition in terms as well. But right now we are literally at the point of still discussing again the up-front items to that. There will be two more sessions with the President next week, two 3-hour sessions, that's an extraordinary commitment of his time, and prior to each of those presumably there will be the preparatory sessions as well. And we're going to start to get into more of the specifics for Afghanistan and also for Pakistan because, again, this is about a region, this is not just about one country, although there has been a great deal of focus on that because of course that's where General McChrystal is the commander and that's the assessment he provided was appropriately for.
MR. WILLIAMS: We've got a room full of taxpayers and voters here and concerned Americans. As of today, what is the mission?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, first and foremost, there's a reason why we went to Afghanistan and it was 9/11, and the reason we went there, the reason we're still there certainly is to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a sanctuary for al-Qaeda and other transnational extremists because there are some other elements out there that have similar aspirations, to ensure that there are not sanctuaries as existed before there. There is some discussion about, gosh, 9/11 was really planned in Hamburg or U.S. flight schools. It started in Kandahar which happened to be also the Taliban capital of Afghanistan, and anyone just looks at the 9/11 Commission Report can find ample evidence of the very clear links to the 9/11 actions that date back to activities that took place in Afghanistan.
MR. WILLIAMS: What's victory?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Victory is going to be ultimately similar to what we have achieved in Iraq, a situation in which we can hand off to Afghans the responsibilities for security and for governance, keeping in mind very much that Afghanistan is not Iraq. It has a completely different context to it, if you will, very different histories, very different levels of human capital, very different levels of resources and so forth. So again there has to be a very clear awareness and appreciation for the context in which this is being conducted, and that is something that we've worked very hard to achieve. I will say frankly that one of the revelations, if you will, the big ideas that came out of the strategic assessment that was done when I took over Central Command a couple of months into it was that we need to build a considerably larger group of intelligence analysts and other experts on real locales in Afghanistan and also frankly in Pakistan. We did build this up as you know having visited us many times in fact in Iraq during the surge and so forth. We had a very granular understanding for the situation there. If you're going to do reconciliation, for example, which we did in Iraq, and by the way, let's remember there were other opportunities and efforts at reconciliation prior to the Anbar Awakening, and it wasn't until we embraced the awakening that it really took off. It wasn't until we did that in Ramadi that we achieved the critical mass that set off a chain reaction first up and down the Euphrates River Valley and Anbar itself and then eventually jumped a little bit of a political fire break into Baghdad and then on up the Tigris River as well.
We have to do this in Afghanistan clearly. We have not been able to achieve much in the way of what's their term, local reintegration of reconcilables. I'm not talking about now some grand bargain with Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura. We're talking about understanding at local levels who the reconcilables are and the who the irreconcilables are in a local context which takes into account the tribal leaders, the mullahs and all the rest of that, because you have to use existing and traditional social organizing structures as you seek to make progress and even as you're trying to create governance that comes out from Kabul that is seen as legitimate in the eyes of the people, which is not the case right now by and large in many areas. President Karzai himself, in fact, I met with his Foreign Minister yesterday, would be the first to say that there has to be a substantial effort to combat corruption and to achieve again this sense of legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and obviously the election was not an experience I think that many observers would judge to have contributed, although the sense is that the Afghans are a little less exercised about this than perhaps some others.
MR. WILLIAMS: As a statement of legitimacy, I think that may be very much an understatement. You've given me so many places to go here. During our travels together in Iraq, I watched you drink a lot of tea, and I don't mean that in a flip way. You have said yourself there is such a keen difference between the peoples of both lands. You brought up the comparison a moment ago, in Iraq you could sit down in a living room or a meeting house, drink numerous cups of tea and hope to emerge with a brotherhood, a partnership, a working agreement to go forward, as you said, at the granular level. The Afghan people aren't like that, General. You've said this over and over.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: It took us a while to get to that point in Iraq as well, frankly. There were some opportunities along the way that perhaps we might have capitalized a bit more on as well. There were earlier awakenings. The sheikhs in Alkima and Usava and Western Anbar as you recall in early 2005 stood up and tragically many of them ended up with their heads cut off because we weren't able at that time to come to grips with that and support it the same way that we might have. There is no question that the number of cups of tea that are required to be had or drunk together with again surahs or what have you in Afghanistan is probably more. This is a land in which time is longer. There's the great saying about the Pashto waited 99 years to take his revenge and cursed himself for his impatience. So again this is a country in which you have to have some degree of patience. This is the importance of the Greg Mortenson's book, by the way. It is extraordinarily really. By the way, we were at CENTCOM with him the other day and there's another book coming out by the way which I think also again will be a very, very instructive one. But the work he's done has been painstaking, patient, determined, persistent and so forth, and at the local levels that's the kind of approach that we have to take.
The other day I took a briefing, actually General McChrystal and I sat in on it virtually by video teleconference, took a briefing by a battalion task force commander the subject of which was the extreme makeover of Task Force Titan which is the name of his organization. It was extraordinary what they have done. So we have this sense of leaders at local levels who get it for Afghanistan. It's one thing to get it for Iraq. You cannot transfer everything that we learned in Iraq by any means to Afghanistan without again applying it with a very, very careful and granular appreciation of local circumstances.
MR. WILLIAMS: If you drive with me 5 miles outside Kabul, you and I could virtually use as stepping stones the rusting hulls of Russian tanks. Does that mean anything to you?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: It does. It certainly means don't try to do what the Russians did which was a very oppressive and very brutal occupation. There has been legitimate concern about our footprint and we should be concerned about that. But what we have to do is make sure that the reason that there could be concern for that is mitigated by our actions. The Afghans will be welcoming or not to foreigners if those foreigners are seen to improve their lives or not. If those foreigners distribute toys that are explosives as the Russian did, needless to say they will over time certainly wear out their welcome. If on the other hand we are seen to be supporting the aspirations of local Afghan people and helping to improve their lives and then helping create or establish if you will along with very much our civilian partners Afghan structures that carry that forward, that help improve their security and so forth, that give them access to education and medical care and all the rest of this, areas in which by the way there has actually been considerable progress over the course of the last 5 or 6 years. You can show statistics for all of these, albeit against a backdrop in the last 2 years or so in which security has deteriorated. The fact is that the level of incidents is some 60 percent higher of late than it was during the similar period last year, and that obviously is a cause of concern and that's what came through I think very clearly in General McChrystal's assessment.
MR. WILLIAMS: There is one working theory and a hot one around here that if you're McChrystal you send that memo in to Casey and you're not it to get approved, and I won't ask you to comment because you won't anyway. But if the President comes to you and says, Dave, here's what I'd like to do. I'd like to go small. I'd like to go SF, Special Forces, Predators, air support. I want to go small because we're really in this to find some people. We don't want to own the place. We can't convert a land without banks or social structure in the Western way as we know it. We went over there because of the reaction to an action on our soil. Could you do that? Could you carry that out?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: What I think we would go back to I think is let's talk about again what are the goals and objectives. This is why this is a hugely important and hugely valid conversation to have, and that is what we spent 3 hours yesterday doing, several hours the day before doing, and will do some more of over the course of the next week or presumably more. Again it has to do with discussions about ensure that again Afghanistan does not become a sanctuary for transnational extremists, talking about what the impact of Taliban activities might be not just in Afghanistan but regional security, what the impact would be on Pakistan of course which is next door, 175 million Muslims, nuclear weapons and a host of extremist elements that are in the border areas there. So again I'd come back and let's review what it is that we want to accomplish, and again until you've reaffirmed that if you will, and that's the process that we're going through right now, I think then it's premature to start talking about what military implementation plan might be best suited for that, and what number of resources would be necessary to make that implementation plan feasible with a certain level of risk.
MR. WILLIAMS: On your top ten list of military goals going forward as head of CENTCOM, where does bin Laden fit on those?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Bin Laden obviously has enormous iconic importance and also still has a degree of operational importance, although it's really his deputy of course who's typically the one who's issuing the instructions. So the top two are of significant importance, and it is obviously the focus of an awful lot of folks in the Central Command Area of Responsibility and a number of partner agencies eventually to locate these individuals and then to kill or capture them of course.
MR. WILLIAMS: When was the last time you thought you might know where he was?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: I think it's pretty well known that there have been a number of years without a hard location on either of those two. Having said that, you're also keenly aware that over the course of the last year or less, there has actually been significant progress against top 20 level leaders in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in particular, but also elsewhere in the greater Central Command region and even beyond that, Indonesia most recently, Somalia and in a number of other countries. If you look region-wide actually or perhaps even globally I think, it's safe to say that there has been a degree of progress against al-Qaeda and other transnational extremists and that has come about from a very comprehensive effort. One of the biggest of the big ideas that came out of the Central Command Strategic Assessment was the proposition that countering terrorism requires more than counterterrorist forces. Don't misinterpret this. This is not to now be applied to the ongoing debate about Afghanistan. This is a region-wide assessment and a region-wide conclusion. I had made that point you will recall in the September 2007 testimony with the Anaconda slide where we sought to show that doing in al-Qaeda in Iraq and the associated extremists and insurgent Sunni extremist elements required more than just Joint Special Operations Command forces, it required more than even conventional forces which are necessary to clear and hold I that environment, it requires more than local forces, it takes political activities, intelligence fusion, reformation of your detainee operations and rehabilitation efforts, getting at the root causes of why individuals might want to consider extremism to begin with and then looking outside the particular country as well to get at source countries for foreign fighters and suicide bombers and so forth. The point is again that it takes a comprehensive approach. We have been applying a comprehensive approach. Again in most countries, the comprehensive piece if you will comes from the host country. Actually in Pakistan, the fighting in Pakistan is being done by Pakistanis. We're providing material assistance, we're providing some training assistance and we're obviously providing some financial assistance, but by and large that effort is being carried out in Swat Valley, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas with certain exceptions that are well known that we never talk about, but overall again there has been a degree of progress against al-Qaeda and the transnational extremists and we need to keep the pressure on.
MR. WILLIAMS: No disrespect intended, but what category do you put the missile that comes off the rail of a Predator and lands in the middle of a camp?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: I said with some obvious exceptions.
MR. WILLIAMS: Okay. What would be the obvious exception?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Because again as I said, with the exception with operations that we never talk about.
MR. WILLIAMS: The Afghanistan conflict may be a misnomer by name. The border is so porous to the enemy. How sacred is it to our fighting forces these days?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: It's very sacred to our fighting forces. That's a pretty short answer.
MR. WILLIAMS: You can't see it from the air. I've looked.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: No, we know where the Durand Line is very clearly, and you can see it from the air and I have done that.
MR. WILLIAMS: There's a red line on the map, I can't see it on the --
GENERAL PETRAEUS: I can point it out to you. It's something called the watershed. It's reasonably easy to see. Now having said that --
MR. WILLIAMS: It's my way of saying the fight isn't in Afghanistan that we're --
GENERAL PETRAEUS: The fight is in many countries again. Nor is it just in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are concerns in one area if you will in which we have had growing concerns in the Central Command area when it comes to al-Qaeda is Yemen, and Yemen of course also faces the Huti rebellion in the north, southern separatist movements, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula having established its headquarters there. So that's an area where we've got to work again without question, everyone recognizes that, there is assistance from countries in the region and there are efforts that we will undertake as well.
MR. WILLIAMS: Let's back up for one second. Give me one paragraph. You're the head of CENTCOM. What does that mean? And CENTCOM's brief history.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Central Command is the smallest of the six geographic combatant command areas and it has the most problems. It's 20 countries -- Egypt in the West to Pakistan in the East, Kazakhstan in the North, down to the waters off Somalia. So we include piracy in this as well, which I would be happy to talk about too.
MR. WILLIAMS: You must have a lot of friends.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: We have. You know, there's always a question that, you know, the bright guys prepare me for. You know. What keeps you awake at night? And, I usually ask, what night?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: But, no, there's a lot. Or, the other one is the image, if you will, of the man in the circus who gets the plates spinning.
MR. WILLIAMS: The old Ed Sullivan show.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: That's sort of the way I feel. But there is no shortage of challenges out there in the 20 countries that comprise that region. We haven't mentioned Iran once nor Iraq once so far.
MR. WILLIAMS: I'm about to.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Please.
MR. WILLIAMS: Lindsey Graham just said, of all the things that keeps him awake at night -- and we saw a schematic by Tony Cordesman in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend, of just three attack options for the Israeli Air Force -- it's Israel's attack of Iran.
You know you could put together, obviously, a target list and a bunch of aircraft -- 15, 16, 3 fuelers. You could go in, jam the electronics, drop a lot of ordinance. You could drop some deep ordinance.
You leave a large part of the target list on the table. By most models, you have to go back in a few years.
On your stay-awake-at-night list, where is an Israeli attack by air against Iran?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, I think, in general, Iran is pretty high on the list because it is not just in fact the activities connected with most folks assess to be pursuit of nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them and the rest.
It's also the support for Shia proxy elements that does continue in Iraq. They did indeed get defeated. They were defeated by Iraqi and Coalition Forces in March and April of 2008 in the Battle of Basrah and Sadr City, but they are still there.
And so, just as in Iraq, Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni extremist elements are still there, at much lower levels, as General Odierno testified yesterday before the House Armed Services Committee -- levels of violence down by 85 percent over the last 2 years, 160 or more attacks back when you were visiting us in late spring of 2007, now typically less than 20 attacks in a given day. But there still are attacks, and some of those certainly are still from Shia extremist groups.
And, we are concerned about the latent presence of those groups, the continued arming, training, funding and, to some degree, direction of those groups as well, and just the sheer intrusion of Iran in soft as well as hard power into Iraqi politics as the elections of mid-June next year approach as well.
So, again, there's package there.
And then you add on top of that, really quite extremist rhetoric I think is accurate to describe statements by Iranian leaders, and it's no surprise that they have become the most important recruiting agent for Central Command.
We have been embraced in recent months in a way that has not been seen probably since the end of the Gulf War. It is no secret that there are eight Patriot missile batteries up and radiating in four different countries on the west side of the Gulf, two Aegis missile cruisers in the Gulf. These were not there two years ago, and they are there at the invitation of the countries as are a number of other activities.
You know our job is to be prepared for anything. I mean that is the responsibility of a combatant commander, and we are trying to discharge those responsibilities.
MR. WILLIAMS: And so, if the Israelis see it as essential to their survival to launch a multi-faceted air attack, and we could talk forever about which route they take in and out because of airspace and permission and angering one country or another, what would your reaction to that be?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, that's a pretty big hypothetical.
MR. WILLIAMS: It's on the list of possible.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Yeah, that's one of those that falls into the category, in a conversation like this, of a minefield that you tend to go around rather than through, if I could.
The focus right now, frankly, I think it has to be, given the second and third and fourth order effects of some of these kinds of activities, as you think through them. I mean Secretary Gates has been quite open and forthright, I think, in voicing his concerns over the years actually about some of the different contingencies that are painted.
And, I think indeed the pressure that is being exerted right now. You know it's so coincidental that Iran mentions the new nuclear refining facility or the construction that's been going on -- you know, visible on Google Earth for some time -- right before, of course, the three leaders, President Obama and his British and French counterparts announce it to the world.
The discussions held today, termed a wonderful term. They were described as significant by Ambassador Bill Burns, Under Secretary of State who was the lead negotiator on the U.S. side. There will be more talks. We'll see if this is just talking for talking or if there could actually be a moment here where Iran realizes the enormity of the -- what could face it, based on the unity of the various nations that are out there. And, of course, at this moment, you have Russia seeming to edge closer toward the sanctions side of the ledger as well.
MR. WILLIAMS: I have a question for you as combatant commander, and it's a tough one. It's about hardware. What would you say to a father who came to you and said, General, I lost a boy in Iraq because he was in a thin-skinned Hummer, because the Army in my country sent the equipment used to fight the last war?
What would you say to a father who lost a boy who was a roof gunner in a Hummer before we figured out that if we put bulletproof turrets around them we could save lives, and our guys were getting picked off?
To anyone who lost a child in an unarmored vehicle, even the ones I saw where guys were using unused vests draped over the doors, Kevlar over steel, to give them protection against a war that we didn't quite count on going in, to paraphrase General Wallace.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, you know, I might point out, I guess, that I spent the first year of Iraq driving around in an unarmored Humvee and that it did take us too long to make some of these changes.
And, I think hats off to Secretary Gates for pushing through the need for a V-shaped hull, the -- what came to be known as the MRAP. I think that stands for Mine Resistant Armor Protected vehicle.
MR. WILLIAMS: Five years?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: It -- I think it's accurate to say it did take us too long, but once again there was that push at that level, with the active support of Congress and the White House, that it was very, very rapidly fielded.
There has certainly been very rapid response. I can tell you that during the time that I was the Multi-National Force - Iraq Commander, for that final 19 and a half months there in Iraq out of about 4 years total, that industry and our services in the Pentagon and Congress and the White House could not have been more supportive. I mean the only limiting factor during the last several years has been the sheer ability to tool up and make whatever it is that we have identified as a new need.
The very latest -- in fact, we're already shipping them -- we're actually en route to Afghanistan -- are what we call the All-Terrain MRAP vehicles. These are lighter versions of the MRAP, which is quite a heavy vehicle because of all the armor protection, the high design and all the rest. And, in fact, we had those down at Central Command the other day.
By the way, about three or four weeks ago, Special Operations Command and Central Command both identified some changes that need to be made. I called the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Technology. The next day, he went to Aberdeen Proving Ground -- the next day -- and personally drove each of them. They lined them all up, and on the spot he directed changes.
So, what I can say is that for the last, again, really several years, I think, once we recognized that this is going to be a long endeavor, that we completely started providing the things that, frankly, we fought to get in the beginning. I was a division commander. We identified the need for some cupolas and just some simple devices and so forth, but you know there were assumptions at that time that were disproven.
But I think our country has done an extraordinary job. We are the envy of the world, in every other country that is out there in Afghanistan and every country that served in Iraq, for how we have equipped our soldiers. There is not a need to go to Ranger Joe's or the Cav Store or anywhere else at this point in time, and there hasn't been for several years, given all of the equipment that is issued to them.
Now the folks still want to do that. You know.
MR. WILLIAMS: Sure, they do.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: I got a son who is in the Infantry Officer Basic Course, and they still have to have their own individual kit. You know. This is part of the rite of passage.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right outside the gate at the 101st.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: So you can still spend lots of money on that if you want, but it's not necessary.
MR. WILLIAMS: Back to the question, what do you say to that parent, for that period of let's call it five years, when equipment-wise we weren't the envy of the world and we were getting schooled in local warfare, having brought one set of equipment and learning on the fly what was required?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, let me be very clear. I mean -- you know. I'm the guy who had the admonition, be first with the truth, as one of our counterinsurgency principles. And, being first with the truth is to say that we did not change rapidly enough. There were needs identified, and they were not met as quickly as they should have been.
MR. WILLIAMS: Are we still -- and one more equipment, about materiel, we'll move on.
I get that we're modifying for the other fight in Afghanistan. Are we still shrinkwrapping gear in Iraq and moving it to the other fight?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: We're still moving both forces and equipment that is needed in Afghanistan as it's identified, from Iraq. And, we're also, in some cases, diverting elements that would have gone to Iraq to go to Afghanistan as we are in the course of this drawdown, and we continually review. Today, for example, I just did the monthly intelligence surveillance reconnaissance review that we go through. This is all of the unmanned aerial vehicles and a whole host of other assets and platforms that fit into that category.
And, we have been shifting the focus. The main effort is and has shifted to Afghanistan in many respects. But let's not forget, we still do have 124,000 troops in Iraq. It is coming down rapidly. It will be down to under 50,000 by the end of August next year. In fact, as General Odierno mentioned, we'll take another 4,000 out this month.
But, as part of that transition, when we identify a need in Afghanistan, if it's in Iraq, we weigh the respective levels of risk, and we shift it if it's not available somewhere else in the force, and we deem that necessary.
MR. WILLIAMS: I'm not asking what you tell them, but judging by what they ask you, difference in style in Commanders-in-Chief between Bush and Obama.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: I would just say that both of them are absolutely intent on understanding situations and on doing the absolute best they can for our men and women in uniform and for their families and, obviously, for our country.
MR. WILLIAMS: President Bush was all about -- we heard him say it hundreds of times -- the commanders in the field, the generals in the field. Is that style similar?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, if you looked at my calendar and the amount of time I've spent in Washington in the last, what is it now, eight months or something like that, I think you'd find that there has been an extraordinary amount of contact at that level.
MR. WILLIAMS: You're -- famously, you have a Master's and Ph.D. from the Wilson School at Princeton and, famously, for your Ph.D. you wrote about Vietnam. How often is that in your mind? How often is it referenced as you sit down now to talk about the fight in Afghanistan?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Very little in our internal councils, frankly.
MR. WILLIAMS: Should it be?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, I think, you know, again, this is one of those cases where Afghanistan is not Vietnam; it's Afghanistan, and that's hard enough.
Iraq was not Vietnam. Iraq was Iraq.
In some cases, you can say, well, the context is different because we went through Vietnam or we went through some other experience.
And, in fact, if you will, one of the -- one of the biggest lessons out of the work that I did on my dissertation, some of it had to do with lessons of history and making sure that you are not a prisoner of the most significant lessons that you learn.
So, in my case, I'm actually much more sensitive to trying to resist the notion that what worked in Iraq will work in Afghanistan. You've heard me say repeatedly that, in fact, within Iraq, what worked in Baghdad won't work in Ramadi and what works in Baghdad today may not work in Baghdad tomorrow.
So, again, it is hugely important not to just take the counterinsurgency principles that ultimately were enabled by the surge, but that was what made the difference. It was a surge of ideas as much as it was of forces -- but as we focus, if you will, the main effort on Afghanistan and Pakistan, making sure that there is a keen understanding of the circumstances on the ground in which we are applying broad principles and concepts.
MR. WILLIAMS: Be candid. How important were two things in the latter-day battle you waged in Iran: cash --
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Iraq.
MR. WILLIAMS: Iraq, I'm sorry. Cash, walking around money, and cement in the form of Jersey barriers and blast walls.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: All key elements of it, certainly. Cement enabled population protection and, if you will, population control because what we had to do, our focus with the surge. Again, the biggest of the big ideas that governed how we employed all the forces that enabled the surge -- the 30,000 extra U.S. forces over time, 125,000 extra Iraq forces, 130,000 Sons of Iraq's additional Coalition forces -- all of that was focused on securing the population and serving the people.
Then there was also promote reconciliation, a key element as we realized the important component that the Anbar Awakening, if it became an overall Sunni Awakening, and so forth.
But what we had to do to secure the population was live with the population. So we moved out of our large bases -- in Baghdad alone, 77 additional locations in which we put our forces together with Iraqi troopers, in joint security stations as they were called, JSSes. And, in each case, we'd move into an area in a neighborhood, many of which were literally ghost towns because of the damage done.
Let's not forget, there were 53 dead bodies every 24 hours in Baghdad in December, 2006. Every. That's average. Just from sectarian violence, by the way. And, we were asking why they weren't passing legislation.
So we would move into a neighborhood. We would then, over time, establish a security perimeter for that neighborhood.
And, if it was a really, really tough neighborhood, like Fallujah, we actually created gated communities within the overall, in an overall gated city. You actually had biometric ID cards in the most extreme cases, and you have to control entry and access and egress.
As you do that, the people develop confidence. They come back to their houses. They start to give you intelligence. They want to get rid of the bad guys now, with whom they may have had to cut a deal when they didn't have a choice.
And, one thing leads to another, and you have an upward spiral where now you can get one marketplace open, and now a few more people come back. You get more intelligence. They realize you're going to stay with them and not go back to your base each night. You're going to share their risk, and so security improves.
As you do better targeted operations, you now can identify who the true irreconcilables are, who might be reconcilable, and this whole spiral upward begins as opposed to a continued death spiral or a spiral downward.
MR. WILLIAMS: But it can spiral down. You know --
GENERAL PETRAEUS: We've seen a downward spiral in Afghanistan, in certain areas.
MR. WILLIAMS: How do you look at Mosul these days?
I was with you in Mosul. That was your AO, your area of operations. That was your job and your pride and joy for a time, and I could argue that places you and I walked in Mosul, we would get killed today -- a hot bed of AQI, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. How do you look back at that, because it took up so much of your life and so much blood and treasure?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, there were certain actions that undermined what we did, frankly, and the inability to do reconciliation as well as de-Baathification, which was Ambassador Bremer's intent, by the way. But -- and as he said in a speech in May of 2004, he regretted deeply the prevention of doing reconciliation by the head of the reconciliation commission.
That undercut our entire effort because we had tens of thousands of former mid to lower, upper level Baathists. We're not talking about Saddamists. But when you throw them out of work, when you take 120 tenured professors out of Mosul University, for example, and say you no longer have a job, nor a future, I mean what do you expect them to do?
We had a reconciliation process that we supported with the Iraqis. Ambassador Bremer underwrote it for us. We took all the paperwork to Baghdad. It sat for several months on the desk of the reconciliation commission, and it was slow-rolled to death. And, ultimately, that kind of activity, the -- Iraq didn't need that military. It did not need Saddam's army, but it also didn't need it unemployed, disgruntled, angry, disrespected and uncertain of its future.
So some of these activities which we, in Mosul, were able to string out longer by, frankly, some creative activities -- you know we had Baath Party renunciation ceremonies. We had the Reconciliation Commissions and all the rest of that. But, ultimately, if you couldn't capitalize on those, then you had a problem on your hands.
And, that problem went into the next year. Months after we left, the governor was assassinated, and the election of the next governor was tragic because the Sunni Arabs walked out on the party. You can't have the largest, arguably most important Sunni province in Iraq without Sunnis on the provincial council, and so it became a political challenge beyond belief.
And, it's only with the elections this year, in January of this year, judged by the U.N. as free and fair, that you see Sunnis once again in an appropriate number at the provincial council table although there is so much friction now with the Kurds that that causes real challenges.
And, what Al-Qaeda is trying to do, and others -- there's Nakshabandi a couple of others. What they're trying to do -- and some Saddamist organizations -- is to exploit the fissure, literally the boundaries in fact, between different ethno-sectarian groups, all of which are represented in the ethno-sectarian soup of Ninawa Province, of which Mosul is the capital.
So you have Arabs and Kurds. You have Sunni and Shia. You have Turkmen. You have Christians, you have the Azitis, you have a variety of others, all in that one very significant and very prominent province. And that's the source of the challenges. Now the other issue is that, of course, al'Qaeda's has been largely run out of a lot of the other areas. Yes, they can carry out horrific bombings periodically in Baghdad. We will see some of those. But as I mentioned, you're at a level of violence now that is again some 85 percent less than what we saw during the height of the violence, which was horrific. That level, if it can be maintained without too many sensational attacks, is one that does not at all prevent all kinds of reconstruction and exploitation of the extraordinary blessings that Iraq has.
MR. WILLIAMS: But that was about a quadruple negative, and it doesn't always add up to a positive. So with respect --
GENERAL PETRAEUS: What doesn't add up to a positive? I mean because I thought I explained pretty well the dynamics there --
MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah, you did, with a lot of caveats.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: I don't accept your characterization with respect --
MR. WILLIAMS: I need -- I need a more simple definition from you.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Of what, in particular?
MR. WILLIAMS: The story -- the story about the framers in Philadelphia and the carving of the sun on the back of the chair. Is it rising or setting? Make a prediction here today. Iraq is now -- as a combatant commander in your rearview mirror --
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Oh no, not at all. Not at all.
MR. WILLIAMS: As an on-the-ground commander --
GENERAL PETRAEUS: No, not at all.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, you're not there anymore.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, no, but I --
MR. WILLIAMS: It's part of your --
GENERAL PETRAEUS: It is. It is. Very much front and -- it's right in the windshield. Now you also have Afghanistan and Pakistan and you have Iran --
MR. WILLIAMS: It's going to be a disaster for the rest of our adult lives.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: I don't think so. Touch wood as I say that. As you know, I have refused for some years to be labeled as an optimist or a pessimist, and have rather opted to be a realist. And reality is that Iraq has made significant progress -- enormous progress -- since the height of the ethno sectarian violence of 2006 into 2007, but it faces enormous challenges. It has elections coming up in mid-January of next year that will be very contentious; lots of outside countries again maneuvering; lots of forces inside maneuvering. The political speed dating as they call it that's going on is breathtaking. In some respects it's interesting to watch "Iraq-racy," if you will, the Iraqi form of democracy. In other cases it's worrisome and concerning. There are continued impasses between Arabs and Kurds on provincial boundary disputes, Kirkuk. There are disputes between Sunni and Shiite. There are even intra-Shiite and intra-Sunni disputes. So it faces a lot of challenges, but I think it has a degree of hope now that it has not had for a number of years. And I think that's very important, and I think frankly that it is a tribute to a lot of heroic Iraqis and a lot of heroic U.S. and coalition troopers who helped get it to that point.
MR. WILLIAMS: What was the quote by General Wallace more or less at the height of the invasion? Now retired, General Wallace said "We knew they'd fight. We just didn't know how hard or that they'd fight this way." He was attacked for it by, as I recall, most of the Pentagon structure. He was right. And instead of being attacked for it, why wasn't that quote emblazoned on the side of the Pentagon? Wasn't that the plotline of the first five years of the conflict? We knew they'd fight, we kind of thought they'd fight. We didn't know how and how hard.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well -- this is where I take refuge in being a mere division commander at the time although it took place at my actual command post. As you may recall, it was Rick Atkinson, I think, who happened to be riding in the back of my Humvee for the fight to Baghdad. And it was unfair, frankly, because I think his characterization proved accurate over time. And I think, again, as with a number of different developments in the early years in Iraq, there was a certain sense, a certain expectation, certain assumptions that we tried to mold Iraq to rather than realizing that it is different than perhaps what was predicted or what we'd like it to be.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: This is, by the way, why I will not be an optimist or a pessimist. It's I don't want to be, you know. In fact, I used to be a qualified optimist at one point in time in the 2005 timeframe when things were going touch -- you know, that time -- reasonably well before the sectarian violence took off. And even that would be dropped, you know, they'd just say he's an optimist. Well, I wasn't. I was a qualified optimist and here were the qualifications. So I think you have to be, you know, just bluntly realistic about the situation. Another again, as I mentioned, you know, "Be first with the truth" is what we adopted during Iraq. I remember there was a mentor of mine who came in one time in the summer of 2007. It was a tough period, and he said "Dave, you know, you guys have a message problem out here." And I said, "Sir, with all due respect, we have a results problem out here. And when the results turn around, the message will be okay. But until that time, we're not going to put lipstick on pigs." And I still won't.
MR. WILLIAMS: Where have I heard that before? One more question about Iraq because I believe this in part speaks to a dynamic going on on the battlefield in Afghanistan. You know the story. I've asked you about it before. Our late mutual friend, retired four-star, head of Special Operations, General Wayne Downing was flying as a consultant to us with me. We were on a Chinook -- and at that point, we were really north of the Third Infantry, further north than we should have been -- and we were hit by a farmer with an AK, and another guy in a Toyota pickup truck who fired an old dry-rotted Russian RPG. And they weren't -- they were farmers. They had farm animals with them. I remember looking out of the lexan bubble window and seeing them. They weren't yet insurgents. They weren't al'Qaeda in Iraq. How did they -- how does that work? Were those labels, insurgents, AQI -- do you think they were unfairly thrown around because they were convenient labels? And how much of the fight was about landowners, Iraqis --
GENERAL PETRAEUS: I'm not sure I buy that.
MR. WILLIAMS: -- see these colors come back --
GENERAL PETRAEUS: As the commander of the division that ultimately liberated Najaf, which is where you were at that time, and Kilfa, Kufa, Karbala, Hillah, and other places in between, that whole area right there. I can tell you that we actually were greeted with applause by the local citizens, by the local farmers. Now having said that, there clearly were a whole variety of irregular outfits that were actually the ones who were really doing the fighting. The Saddam Fedayeen was what we ended up -- now, don't get me wrong. There were some entrenched Republican Guard units that we ran into, Third Infantry Division certainly ran into some very tough fighting at various points. We did, as well, on a battle in South Hillah, certainly in a variety of the different activities that we had. But it tend to crumble after, you know, day two, three days of fighting. I did not see that kind of resistance. And, frankly, in the Sunni -- those are all Shiite areas, of course -- so they were actually delighted to be liberated. Frankly, the entire country we found, the Sunni areas as well, were delighted to be liberated from Saddam, but I wouldn't say that the Sunnis necessarily wanted to give up their role, their historic role, of running the country. And, of course, that was a reality setting in experience for them. But still, there was no love lost for Saddam and for his regime which had touched every family in that country in some fashion in a brutal way.
MR. WILLIAMS: Where did you hear applause?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Oh, we had all the way up when we were going into Najah. Once -- and especially once -- it was clear that the opposition had collapsed. You can read Rick Atkinson's book. I mean, and it would happen like that by the way. You would literally be fighting pretty fiercely, and then within a matter of a short period of time -- and Najah if I remember the sense -- it was the first time, you know, I realized we'd just taken Najah. I mean, there all of a sudden everybody's out on the streets thanking us rather than fighting us. And what you had was a situation where the Fedayeen and again some other probably Republican Guard remnants and perhaps regular forces were doing some fighting, although there were a lot of those that were deserting as well at that time. But again, resistance would literally sort of collapse and all of a sudden you're on the street and you're surrounded by Iraqis and, you know, they're already asking you to do things frankly.
MR. WILLIAMS: How tough is it with four stars on your shoulder -- let's go back to the dynamic between you and the President and where we are in history right now. How tough is it to admit that maybe in some circumstances, especially if it's his idea, the best thing is not to do what you've been trained to do?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, you know this is -- these are moments where you have to recall I think what your obligation is to your troopers, to your country, and to your commander in chief. And that obligation is to provide our best professional military advice. And that is what we are seeking to do. It's what I've always sought to do. When I went into Iraq the last time as the commander there, again you know, it seemed as if we're -- sometimes, you know, there's resistance in all directions candidly. You know, there were some of those what you call army-of-one moments at various points in time, particularly in this fair city. So you know, all you can -- and I remember telling my wife one night, you know, I said "Look, all I can do is the best I can do. I'm going to give my best professional military advice. It's up to others to factor in all the other issues that should be considered" and rightly should be considered, such as public opinion and fiscal issues and costs and causal -- all this without question, strain on the force. Although again, you take these into account, and you'll recall in my testimony I enumerated these. I said "I am aware of these. These did inform my advice to the President, but they did not drive it." What drove it was my best effort to provide my best professional military advice. And I think that's what you have to do and then you let it go from there.
MR. WILLIAMS: Final questions come from our host and sponsors today who want me to ask you the following: "What issues and events will dominate the Obama Presidency for the next two to four years, and what do you think it is that history books will record that those of us in my line of work, daily news media, are ignoring right now?"
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Gosh, I don't think you're ignoring anything in the Central Command's responsibility. But thank you for asking.
MR. WILLIAMS: No problem. I wanted to check.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Yeah, I know. I think you've pretty much got the lens and the focus about right. I mean, obviously again, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- they are a region, if you will, or part of a region. They have to be treated as such, but there are also discreet cases that have to be treated as such as well. So those two clearly are going to occupy a great deal of time, attention, effort, and so forth. We cannot take our eye off the ball with Iraq, and that's why I pushed back candidly a bit. Because there is a concern I think among many who have done so much there and have given so much and sacrificed so much, invested so much, that we continue to focus on. I was very heartened, for example you know, when Vice President Biden made yet another trip there the other day and had a number of good meetings. So again, there is a good focus on that I can assure you. Iran without question. Iran is sort of the overarching influence, if you will, in much of this. And then, frankly, although we didn't mention it because artfully in the unified command plan, Israel is not part of the Central Command region, and I'm not raising my hand for that, but the Mid East peace process and the Israeli/Palestinian issues and so forth tend to dominate that part of the conversation that's not occupied with Iran. In fact, I had the privilege the other night of -- had a meeting with all of the ambassadors -- most of the ambassadors from Arab countries who are here in Washington, and again, much of the topic is about obviously the whole Mid East peace process, but much of it also about Iran.
MR. WILLIAMS: Final question. As a student of history and a lover of history, as the President goes about making this decision with everything else he has, how big will this loom in the foreseeable decisions of the Obama Presidency of four years -- how big will this one loom in or out and by how much in Afghanistan?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, I think this is going to be a significant decision that lies ahead, without question, but again I think there are some others out there as well. You know, there is a lot of focus on Iran. There should be a lot of focus on Iran. It could unhinge a great deal of activities in a region that has an extraordinary influence on the global economy just for starters. And then, again, this Mid East peace process as well. So again, you've got some really big ones. Those are just the ones in the Central Command area of responsibility, and I haven't talked about the economy or health care.
MR. WILLIAMS: With that, Neil Ferguson is next. On behalf of our hosts and sponsors, General, it's always a pleasure.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Great to be with you. The pleasure's mine.
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