Partial transcript of Gen. David Petraeus' interview
September 15, 2008
Stars and Stripes interviewed Gen. David Petraeus in his office in the Green Zone in Baghdad on Sunday. Petraeus takes over Central Command on Tuesday. Below is a partial transcript of the interview.
STRIPES: Thanks again for sitting down with us before you leave. We’d like to both look back and forward, so in that vein: What did Gen. [George] Casey say to you when you took over for him, and what are you going to say to Gen. [Ray] Odierno when you pass him that flag on Tuesday?
PETRAEUS: First of all, Gen. Odierno has a very good feel for Iraq, and he’s only been gone for seven or eight months. He has stayed current on Iraq and we’ve had him participating in the [video teleconferences] that are done with the president and the National Security Council, with the secretary of defense. He’s been briefed by members of the staff. So an awful lot of the in-briefing – refreshing his memory, bringing him up to the current situation – has actually been done already. The transition should truly be seamless.
I’m going to sit down with him [Sunday night] and talk through what we identify as the top 10 issues or areas on which we need to focus on in the beginning. There are no surprises. There are areas in which security threats exist or can re-emerge or emerge. Because as I’ve said on numerous occasions, there has been very significant progress. Most metrics are down from their height in 2007, somewhere around 80 percent, most of them. Al-Qaida is in relative disarray and the militia presence is much diminished. However, having said all of that, Al-Qaida very much remains lethal and dangerous. We’ve seen that in recent days. It is still capable of carrying out barbaric, sensational attacks in an effort to reignite sectarian violence, or ethno-sectarian violence in some cases – Kurds and Arabs. It is operating in much smaller areas, but again, it can cause very serious problems in those areas, in particular Mosul in the north.
STRIPES: A former staffer of yours in Iraq, Pete Mansoor, said one of the biggest challenges was that "American and Iraqi politics pervaded everything." What was more difficult, American or Iraqi politics?
PETRAEUS: Well, my focus was on the security situation in Iraq, actually. I would have phrased it that sectarian and ethno-sectarian interests had influenced everything in Iraq, often in bad ways. For example, the hijacking, literally, of certain ministries by the Jaish Al-Mahdi: the Ministry of Health, the Sky Marshalls at the Baghdad International Airport, the Facilities Protection Security Forces, the Ministry of Transportation and to a lesser degree the Ministry of Agriculture. And various other elements of the security forces, particularly the National Police in which virtually all of the leadership was changed over the course of the subsequent eight months after taking command. And that took a huge effort to overhaul. But that was present in everything. That has certainly been removed to a significant degree from the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi Police, and the Iraqi National Police, although there still is certainly some of that present. It’s of particular concern when it is near ethnic or sectarian fault lines.
STRIPES: The National Police in particular – this was a group that up until a few months ago, we’d always hear the worst things about them from the Iraqis we talked to. That’s changed dramatically now.
PETRAEUS: It’s very interesting that they were singled out by the Gen. [James] Jones commission in the summer of 2007 – rightly perhaps – for their sectarian biases and malign activities. And the recommendation was that they should be disbanded. In fact, now, 15 months later, they have become a generally quite responsible and competent element that is welcomed by virtually all coalition commanders. The Iraqi Army has made great strides. It has over 110 combat battalions that are assessed to be "in the lead" – that’s over 70 percent of its battalions. The Iraqi Special Operations Forces continue to do very impressive work, as does the Ministry of Interior Emergency Response Brigade, and a variety of other smaller teams around the country. Many of which are partnered with our CJSOTF elements. But again, the ethno-sectarian aspect, or ethno-sectarian interests, had pervaded just about every aspect of Iraq. And that presented enormous challenges.
STRIPES: Going back for a minute to the Jaish al-Mahdi. Where is Muqtada al-Sadr now and what is his influence? Is the big worry that groups like JAM will evolve into something like Hezbollah?
PETRAEUS: Well, that has always been a concern. In fact, Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker has always noted that he had a sense that Iran was, in fact, trying to "Lebanonize" Iraq, and that the Hezbollah-like entity was either the JAM or possibly the "Special Groups." As you know now, the Jaish al-Mahdi is being transformed into a social service organization, and I don’t see how that can be anything but positive. When you have a militia that was responsible for extorting money from shopkeepers, kidnappings for ransom, targeted assassinations and killings, and innumerable attacks on coalition and Iraqi security forces as well as civilians – that [change] has to be seen as positive.
Muqtada al-Sadr has been in Iran virtually all of the time I’ve been MNF-I commander. I think he’s returned twice during that time after he left, which was fairly early on. There are rumors he may come back again in the near term, but we’ll have to see if that’s the case.
STRIPES: What do you think of the idea that al-Sadr has a switch he can turn on and off, and control the violence? Do you think that time has passed?
PETRAEUS: Undoubtedly, he could be a catalyst for violence if he chose to do so. But it’s because of the tarnishing of the reputation of the Jaish al-Mahdi that he decided to declare the cease-fire the first time, back in August 2007 – after the Jaish al-Mahdi were determined to be responsible for the violence in the holy city of Karbala during one of the holiest Shia celebrations of the year. And he reaffirmed the cease-fire after what MND-Baghdad calls "March Madness," the enormous increase in militia activities, indirect fire and other attacks on coalition and Iraqi forces, as well as against the International Zone, during the March-April timeframe when the Basra operation was launched by Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki. The militia took quite a pounding during that. We assess, for example, that we destroyed over 75 mortar and rocket teams alone. And we killed or captured hundreds of fighters. There was a recognition there and in Basra that they were not going to prevail. And therefore it would be wise, again, to resume the cease-fire. Which is what he did. Again, you have to realize as well, that what’s most important to an organization like the Sadr movement – and, by the way, Iran – is the degree of popular support. And the Achilles heel for them is popular rejection. The JAM was no longer seen as required, as a positive element, in Iraqi neighborhoods once the al-Qaida threat was reduced significantly in Baghdad, in particular. That’s not to say there’s not an al-Qaida threat, because there still are al-Qaida elements and extremists in Baghdad.
Typically on every given day, it’s been under five or so – the combination of al-Qaida or Special Group or criminal attacks in a given 24 hour period. But that is substantially reduced. The month I took command, February 2007, there were 42 car bombs just in Baghdad. And a number of those were right in the major markets. The Shurja market attack, for example, in which I think it was 170 killed and over 170 wounded – just horrific attacks. Following those, we began the hardening of markets, the hardening of neighborhoods, the T-walls, the creation of gated communities. We’d already begun the establishment of Joint Security Stations. The first one of those went in just before I got here.
STRIPES: Mansoor said the key of the "surge" was getting forces out into the public, not just adding troops. Do you agree with that?
PETRAEUS: It was not just the additional forces, not at all. It was the employment of those forces to focus on security for the people, with our Iraqi partners, by living with the people. It’s the only way you can provide security. And once you’re in the neighborhood, then the presence leads to a vast increase, typically, in information provided to our units. And as you get more and better intelligence, that improves your ability to identify and target the bad guys. As that happens, you get less violence, which means there’s a potential of revival for local markets and the resumption of local services. Which leads to greater support by the people, which means yet more information. And of course now, Iraqi security forces can stand back up in those areas which had fled or in which they were not present. You have a spiral upward instead of a spiral downward. One factor reinforces the other. And in many of the cases, at some point in that process, Iraqis stood up and said ‘We’ll help you maintain the security our neighborhood.’
So the Iraqi surge was also hugely important. But they used their forces the same we did – we used them together to focus on security of the population. And then over time, as the violence was reduced substantially, we were able to continue to process of transitioning security tasks to Iraqi forces, most recently in Anbar province. So, interestingly, the concept of "us standing down as they stand up" has actually happened. But it took the "surge" and the Iraqi surge – which was around 135,000, just in the course of our surge of about 30,000 or so.
STRIPES: Well, with part of the SOFA negotiations focusing on moving U.S. forces back out of the cities as early as next summer, what gives you hope that a return to the violence not likely to happen?
PETRAEUS: It’s combat forces, first of all. But you have to recognize that we’re out of the cities with combat forces in about 14 of 18 provinces. It’s really just Baghdad, Diyala, Salahuddin and Ninevah in which we have substantial combat forces in the cities. Now, you have a lot of cities in which we have transition teams with Iraqi Police or Iraqi Army, or provincial reconstruction teams. Throughout the southern provinces, there’s actually one province in which we have no forces whatsoever. There are others where we just have a small base which is essentially there to secure a PRT or an Embassy Regional Office, or a Special Operations Forces team which is partnered with Iraqi security forces.
So progress continues. We’re in the process of moving slowly into tactical overwatch in Baghdad. We do want to thin out rather than hand off. We want to maintain our situational awareness as long as we can. We do want to continue to continue to partner certainly, but you can partner with transition teams and robust mentor elements and advisers that can facilitate the capacity-building and capability development that’s becoming so important as well. In Basra for example, the combat elements were Iraqi. And indeed they had a shaky start. And it was coalition enablers over time that helped them to turn the tide, although they did some very serious fighting reinforcing Iraqi units with coalition embedded transition teams. But it showed the value of the enablers, the assistance provided in terms of ISR, close-air support, attack helicopter teams, intelligence, command and control, and logistics.
STRIPES: If we can shift gears and look forward a little bit. Retired Gen. Jack Keane, in supporting the surge, wrote that the "essential precondition" for moving forward in Iraq was security in Baghdad. What’s the essential precondition to move ahead in Afghanistan?
PETRAEUS: The first essential precondition, at least from my perspective, is to truly develop the kind of nuanced understanding of Afghanistan that I was able to bring when I came back here for a third tour. Because the biggest lesson you take from Iraq, or any case like this, is that every situation is truly unique. Each has its own context, its own specific set of circumstances and factors. And a counter-insurgency force, counter-insurgency leaders, have to have the kind of nuanced understanding of that situation that is necessary to help craft a strategy on the ground.
The fact is, first of all, that’s not my job. Gen. McKiernan is leading the way on that. He has already made a number of changes. But there’s no question that the trends in Afghanistan have generally been in the wrong direction. There has been continued progress in certain reconstruction areas, but there has clearly been a deterioration of the security situation and a substantial increase in attacks and a variety of other metrics that we use to measure. He has of course asked for additional forces, and generally the Joint Chiefs and secretary of defense have agreed with that request, as has the NATO secretary general. Some NATO countries have pledged additional forces. And of course, the other day, President Bush announced the deployment of a Marine battalion that in fact would have come here, and also an Army brigade that would have come here as well. Those are the initial steps by the United States in response to the request for forces. The U.S. and NATO countries will have to work on determining the sourcing for the additional requirements that have been identified.
STRIPES: Where do you the US have a greater strategic interest – Iraq or Afghanistan?
PETRAEUS: I don’t think it’s an either-or. They’re both hugely important. Afghanistan includes Pakistan – those are indivisible in the sense that we look at it through our security lens. It is, of course, in western Pakistan that we believe are located the senior leaders of al-Qaida. And the extremist elements that are exporting violence into Afghanistan and, in some cases, are certainly trying to do the same to other countries around the world.
Iraq, however, still appears to be the "main effort" for al-Qaida. Although, a number of us have noted recently that there may be a reassessment ongoing by al-Qaida’s senior leaders as they see the reversals al-Qaida has suffered in Iraq. And there appear to be some indicators that some resources at least have been sent to western Pakistan, Afghanistan, rather than Iraq. Although some of that might just be due to the problems they’ve had getting foreign fighters through Syria into Iraq, because of the damage done to foreign fighter networks inside Iraq. But Iraq is still a location in which al-Qaida is able to generate significant resources through Mafia-like activities that fund extremists beyond the boundaries of Iraq – the Levant and elsewhere in the region. Obviously, the countries to which al-Qaida would like to send operatives are much more accessible from Iraq, from this region, if you will, than they are from the very remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Were they able to achieve the onetime goal of a Caliphate here, that would be very significant. There’s an enormous amount of money that can be generated here because of the vast oil resources and other blessings that Iraq enjoys. And the transportation infrastructure is so much more advanced here than in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
STRIPES: Do you Iran also shifting some of their activities from Iraq to western Afghanistan?
PETRAEUS: Well, there have been Iranian activities in western Afghanistan, as with Iraq. Afghan leaders, like Iraqi leaders, would like to have a constructive relationship with their neighbor, from whom they import a number of goods and services. And with whom they have a number of strong business ties. But as an Iraqi leader said during President Ahmadinejad’s visit, Iraq welcomes Iranian goods and services and religious pilgrims, but not Iranian explosively formed projectiles and rockets. The same is true, I’m sure, in Kabul. The level of malign Iranian activity in western Afghanistan has generally been fairly low compared to the level that used to be seen in Iraq before the quieter period of the last several months here.
STRIPES: We asked some of our readers, troops in the field and some company commanders, what they would ask you. The most heard question was, with whatever a "surge" would look like in Afghanistan, do you see any scenario in which you would support another change in tour lengths?
PETRAEUS: I’d be hard-pressed to see that, I think. I think everyone is keenly aware of the strain on the force, the sacrifices that we’ve asked of our troopers and their families, and that awareness very much informs recommendations that we make on force requirements. Obviously, force requirements should be based on the situation on the ground. And that’s what drives them. But there clearly has to be an awareness of the context in which those recommendations, those request, are made. The strain on the force has to be among them, and I think that’s something I’m qualified to assess, having deployed for nearly five of the last seven years. We’ve walked our share of patrols, I can tell you that much.
I sit down with captains, company commanders whenever I can. Sit in whatever local chow and have lunch or dinner. And the three questions I always ask them are: What’s the biggest lesson they’ve learned on this tour? What it their biggest obstacle? And what are their future plans? And you get very valuable responses. They often identify issues that we can turn a four-star action officer loose on.
STRIPES: In talking to some of your staffers, they said one of the first things you did when you got here was take patrols in some of the worst neighborhoods of Baghdad. In a broader sense, what are the first "neighborhoods" you’re going to patrol in getting started at your new job?
PETRAEUS: If you put yourself in my situation at that time, and accept that I’ve got a reasonable understanding of the situation in Iraq – although I’m keenly aware of how quickly the situation can change and how often you’re surprised – that’s one reason that we are cautious in our assessments and public discussions. You don’t hear us use words like "victory" or even "success" that often. I don’t use the words "optimist" or "pessimist." I’m a realist at this point, as is Ambassador Crocker. Certainly there’s been very significant progress. But we’ve sought to point out repeatedly that it’s still fragile and still reversible. Each passing day perhaps adds a tiny bit to its durability. But again, Iraq has been one surprise after another to us, often unwelcome to us.
So, assuming that a new commander at CENTCOM at that point has a reasonable understanding of the situation in Iraq – and obviously, I’ll try to keep up with it, needless to say – then my early focus has to be Pakistan and Afghanistan. Then, areas in the Gulf States, the Levant and Yemen. The travel schedule is set up to do that.
As the MNFI commander, I did do a fair amount of travel in this particular region. The regional leaders were very interested in the situation in Iraq. I’ve been to Jordan a couple of times in the past six months. I’ve been to Lebanon, Saudi Arabia twice in the last six months, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Turkey as well. I’ve built some relationships in those countries, and relationships are hugely important to a theater commander. I did go to Afghanistan for several days about a month or so ago. I did get to spend the better part of the day with [Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani] on the carrier Abraham Lincoln out in the Arabian Sea, when the chairman and the SOCOM commander and acting CENTCOM commander and the ISAF commander all converged there.
STRIPES: Sorry to interrupt. But that brings up something. How as CENTCOM commander are you going to weigh what the U.S. sees as a military or security necessity – cross-border raids into Pakistan, which they obviously don’t like – with keeping those relationships?
PETRAEUS: That’s a wonderful question, actually. If I could come back to what are the big lessons learned from Iraq. The first big lesson is every situation’s unique. And you really have to get an understanding of it and craft a strategy that is appropriate for that situation. The point there is that you can’t take a template of what worked here and lay it down on Afghanistan and expect it to work. Nor is that my job. Again, that’s Gen. McKiernan’s job. My job is to help him in a regional perspective. To enable him, to assist him, to support him. But he’s keenly aware also that what worked here might not work there. What works in Anbar doesn’t work in Baghdad, what works in Anbar today might not even work in Anbar tomorrow. You’re constantly trying to learn and adapt and refine what it is that you’re doing.
But the other big lesson is that the strategy for any of these complex situations has to be a comprehensive one. It has to embrace all of the lines of operation. It can’t just be about security. Military action is absolutely necessary. Without security as a foundation, of course, little else is possible. But military action is not sufficient. It is necessary but not sufficient. You must also have political development, economic progress, diplomatic initiatives, rule of law, and so forth. And all of those are related. [MNF-I spokesman Col. Steve Boylan] briefed you on the "Anaconda" strategy for al-Qaida in Iraq. We really have Anaconda strategies for everything, including overall for Iraq. That would be the Joint Campaign Plan that Ambassador Crocker and I signed. He and I worked very hard to achieve a unity of effort. You can’t have a unity of command – obviously his chain of command is the U.S. State Department, and mine is up the military chain of command – but you can achieve unity of effort, and we sought to do that quite aggressively. That’s one reason I’m in this office and his is just across through the waiting room. We share the waiting room. We share a lot. My next session is with him, and then we go over and see Prime Minister Maliki for the Iraqi National Security Council meeting.
STRIPES: A couple more reader questions. Would you as CENTCOM commander see any scenario of a Status of Forces Agreement that would not include immunity for U,S. troops?
PETRAEUS: Well, we have to ensure appropriate safeguards for our troops. That goes without question. And it’s not immunity – when it comes to jurisdiction, we have to ensure appropriate safeguards for our troopers. And everyone is keenly aware of that, to include the Commander in Chief.
STRIPES: In southern Afghanistan in particular, trainers see the most pressing need as more trainers for Afghan security forces. Do you agree?
PETRAEUS: I agree with that. And again, the Joint Staff and service staffs are working to figure out how to provide additional trainers and whether to do that as a combination of units that are devoted to that and transition teams specifically configured to that. They’re working that out now. Those are very challenging, as they’re very leader-intensive and a huge drain on the Army and Marine Corps in particular. But I clearly recognize the importance of those elements. We are increasingly shifting the tasks of our combat formations to provide more and more "internally-sourced" transition teams. In other words, they’re converting platoons into transition teams, partnership elements and so forth. As we move slowly but surely to tactical overwatch – from leading to partnering to tactical overwatch – that process has played out.