Gen. Petraeus: ‘The Enemy Remains Lethal, Resilient, and Very Dangerous’
General David Petraeus, the commander of the U.S. mission in Iraq, sits for an exclusive interview with PJM's Austin Bay.
August 7, 2008 - 12:00 am
Austin Bay’s Deep Background podcast series resumes with an extended 30-minute long interview with General David Petraeus, who called Austin from Baghdad on Monday. An edited version of this interview was also featured on this week’s edition of PJ Media’s PJM Political, on XM Satellite Radio’s POTUS ’08 presidential election channel.
A transcript of the interview follows:
AUSTIN BAY: Welcome to PJMedia.com’s Deep Background.
I’m Austin Bay, your host. You’ll find my website and blog found at austinbay.net. You’ll find PJ Media at pjmedia.com, the blog collective of over 100 of the most active and interesting web logs on the Internet, and linked to XM Satellite Radio.
This special edition of Deep Background is also linked to The Arena USA.com and its Austin Bay channel found at http://austinbay.thearenausa.com/insight/
Let’s go straight to our guest, General David Petraeus, Commander of Multi-National Force – Iraq. And later this year, General Petraeus will become commander of U.S. Central Command.
A graduate of West Point, he also holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Princeton in international relations. And he commanded the 101st Airborne Division in Operation Iraqi Freedom I in 2003.
General Petraeus, thank you for joining us.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Good to be with you, Austin. Thanks.
MR. BAY: Sir, I also noticed that you commanded Multi-National Security Transition Command – Iraq, MNSTC-I, as we call it, in June 2004 through September 2005. What is MNSTC-I, sir, and what part does it play in the Coalition operation in Iraq?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, the Multi-National Security Transition Command – Iraq is the ‘train and equip’ organization, to use the shorthand. It is the organization that has been charged with helping the Iraqi Ministries of Interior and Defense to organize, train, equip, build, in the form of bases and infrastructure, and advise the Iraqi army, navy, air force, marines, and, on the Ministry of Interior side, the Iraqi regular police, station police, patrol police, national police, emergency response unit, and, also on both sides, a variety of special operations forces, these elements and so forth. It’s a very, very large mission.
MR. BAY: So it plays an absolutely fundamental role in the transition to Iraqi control and with Iraqi security forces.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: It does indeed. It helps the Iraqis perform that mission of standing up. And, of course, that enables us, over time, as the enemy’s situation is improved, in other words, as Al-Qaeda, as Sunni extremists and as the Shia militia are reduced in capability, it allows us to reduce our forces and to transition to more of an advisory role and to allow the Iraqis to increasingly take the lead. And that’s something that’s been going on really for quite some time.
MR. BAY: Well that that leads to my next question. It does strike me that we are in a moment of – strategic change. The military uses the term posturing reposturing–it’s a process but it’s a change from what coalition forces have been doing more of in the past to coalition forces doing less and Iraqi forces doing more.
In Iraq, are we at a time of strategic change?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, we’ve been at moments of strategic change. I don’t think — these are not light-switch moments, Austin, and what you have is more of a rheostat — many, many rheostat moments where, in small areas, local areas, districts and eventually provinces, there is an ongoing transition, and has been an ongoing transition, for the Iraqi forces to step more into the lead and for the Coalition forces to step back and to provide support and enablings. And this has been ongoing for some time.
In fact, there’s no way that we could have achieved, and by “we” I mean now the Iraqi and Coalition Forces together, that we could have achieved the security gains of the past year, eighteen months, but particularly since we began reducing the surge forces.
The fact is that we’re at the lowest level of security incidents, and have been now, for over two months, since March of 2004, despite the fact that we had drawn down our forces by the five army brigade combat teams of the surge and the two marine battalions and marine expeditionary units and a handful of smaller units as well.
And what has enabled that is the damage done to Al-Qaeda, Iraq and its extremist allies and to the militia and so-called special groups and the steady growth in not just number but capabilities of Iraqi forces.
And it’s very important to remember that the Iraqi surge continues, and their surge was many multiples of our surge. They’re at 140,000 additional soldiers and police since we began the surge back in early 2007, and continuing to grow, and, more importantly, growing in terms of professionalism, in terms of capability and so forth.
Again, I don’t want to overstate this at all. First of all, the enemy remains lethal, resilient and very dangerous, and we’ve seen instances of that in recent weeks. And Iraqi forces remain uneven in many respects. But, over time, that unevenness is, frankly, less so, and what you have is many more Iraqi units doing a credible job and many of them actually doing quite well.
In fact, our leaders assess that over 110 of Iraq’s army combat battalion, this is just the army now, but including their special operations forces, over 100 of those battalions are actually in the lead on the ground. And that’s quite a considerable change over the years.
(Transcript continues on next page.)
MR. BAY: Gen. David Petraeus, let’s pick up on your rheostat analogy. You’re giving us a conditions-based approach to assessing victory in a very intricate, complex and long struggle. Now this is an incremental victory–one step up; a half-step back. Enemy action results in a coalition response; coalition actions result in an enemy response. That’s war among human beings. It strikes me that some of those conditions include a sovereign Iraq that is largely responsible for its own internal security, but is also a United States ally. These are some of the conditions mentioned in the Update Strategic Overwatch video at the ArenaUSA.com. That said; if you would, please comment on a sovereign Iraq emerging as a US ally.
Did you get a chance to look at that video?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Just briefly, I’m afraid, Austin. But let me just come back to what you just said because the way you stated that is exactly right. It is incremental, and it does have fits and starts. It is this exercise of pushing the stone up a hill, a Sisyphean endeavor at times where you do make two steps up and one step back. Sometimes you get one step up and two steps back.
But, overall, over the course of the past year or so, really since the start of the surge of offenses in particular, that was the large comprehensive offensive launched in June 2007 when we had all of the surge brigades on the ground, since that time, there has been a fairly steady degree of improvement week in/week out, month in/month out. Certainly, again, there have been flare-ups at times. The militia counterattacks, when Prime Minister al-Maliki ordered Iraqi forces and the Basra, were really quite a substantial — more than a flare-up.
But, over time, those were dealt with, more than dealt with, in fact, and very severe losses inflicted on the militia.
MR. BAY: We’re dealing with conditions. We’re dealing with trying to achieve a certain state, a condition-based state. Defining victory is very, very tough. Now, approached as a historian, I think defining victory is hard under any circumstances.
Do you, General David Petraeus, have a definition of victory or an idea of what victory would be in Iraq or in the global war on terror?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, what we have is a comprehensive campaign plan. It is a plan that is joint. It’s between the embassy and embassies, because not just the U.S. Embassy, Ambassador Crocker and his great team, but also the U.K., Australia and other embassies of the Coalition and the Multi-National Force – Iraq have combined in a joint campaign plan. Very, very comprehensive. It has lines of operation that include not just security but also political, economic, diplomatic. Then there are other supporting lines, rule of law, governmental capacity, informational line, and so forth.
And for each of those lines of operation, we have objectives. And we had near-term objectives which were for the summer of 2008 time frame. And, frankly, we met those in the security line of operation. Very nearly met them. If they can pass a provincial elections law, I think that it could be declared that they have met them in the political line of operation.
There’s been very good progress in the diplomatic line, and actually in the economic line as well, all certainly founded on the progress in the security line.
We have similar objectives, or another set of objectives for the summer of 2009. And then there is an end-state as well. And the shorthand for the end-state is a country that is at peace with itself and its neighbors, a government that is represented of and responsive to people, a productive member, if you will, of the region and the global economy, and so forth.
But, again, we have considerable drill-downs, if you will, that describe the objectives relative to, in the security line of operations, relative to the enemies, the bad guys, if you will, relative to Iraqi forces, the different types that are here, and so forth.
MR. BAY: Well, we understand that the enemy always gets a vote, but what you’ve described is a situation where Iraq is not only, for the most part, defending itself and making its own sovereign decisions, but it’s also an ally of the United States. Am I getting that correctly?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: That is certainly one of the objectives. Again, Iraq — obviously, what we would want to see is an Iraq that is also an ally in the global war on terror. And it certainly is taking resolute action against the Al-Qaeda in Iraq elements and other extremist elements of that type, and more recently, in the past six to eight months, quite strong stands against the militia, the Shia militia, and also the so-called special groups, these elements supported by Iran that have caused such problems for Iraq as well.
MR. BAY: General Petraeus, you’re referring to Operation Knights Charge, in part, the Iraqi operation. Regard that Operation Knights Charge action against the Shia special groups, and perhaps the Madhi Army as well, was it largely successful as a security operation?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: I think that you have to judge that as a success over time. Again, having said that, we very much are keeping our powder dry and watching to see what Iran does and what the special groups do. Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia did cause such problems and really became a mafia-like element on the streets of Basra and in Sadr City and in some other areas of Iraq — those are going to be reinvented, according to Muqtada al-Sadr, as a social services organization. Again, everyone is waiting to see how that will go, and they’re waiting to see whether Iran is going to rearm and retrain and reequip the special group leaders, many of whom went back to Iran after the cease-fire after the pounding that they took some four to six months ago.
So, again, there’s a wait-and-see attitude with respect to the militia and the special groups.
MR. BAY: Well, let me move to another line of operation. You operate both operationally and strategically. You mentioned the diplomatic line of operation, and Ambassador Crocker. I’d like to come back and ask you a question about that in a moment. But rule of law is absolutely vital. And you mentioned gangs. That associates immediately with crime. And many terror organizations, rebel groups engage in criminal activities to fund operations. There’s often a fine line between smuggling and rebellion, and we’ve seen that in Iraq. We see that, to a degree, in Afghanistan.
How are the Iraqis approaching that component, rule-of-law component, not just through criminal rule of law but also dealing with corruption? I realize it’s a big question but it’s one that you must address every day.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, it’s a huge question. There a number of components to the rule of law. Obviously the police is one component. In that regard, there’s been good development in the area of the police, and especially the national police, an organization that many people, probably rightly so, some fourteen months ago, might ought to just be disestablished because they had become part of the sectarian problem instead of part of the solution.
As you’ll recall, the sectarian violence here was horrific, and it is very important to remember how bad it was. In the winter of 2006 and into the spring of 2007, there were periods when there were fifty five dead bodies a night on average, that was the average in December 2006, turning up just on the streets of Baghdad, just from sectarian violence, not including other forms of violence.
When you have such horrific violence day in/day out, fifty five dead bodies every twenty four hours, the security forces themselves start to take sides. They have to because their families are threatened, they are threatened, their leaders are assassinated, families are kidnapped, ministries are hijacked.
The Ministry of Health became a sectarian killing machine in many respects. The prime minister — one of the early tasks he asked me to help with was, of all things, to detain the deputy minister of health in his government and then the Ministry of Health facility protection security forces chief.
But, over time, and as the sectarian violence has receded, much has been possible in terms of reforming these different forces.
Now, in the case of the national police, it took replacement of every division commander and brigade commander and seventy five percent of the battalion commanders. But that has been done. There’s been retraining months long for each unit, and so forth.
So that is moving along reasonably well. There is some progress in the judicial arena as well. The construction of rule-of-law complexes, rule-of-law green zones, if you will, secure areas in which they can conduct the investigations and the trials, has helped.
But there is a lot of work that needs to be done in that regard. There’s still considerable intimidation of the judicial authorities. There have been assassinations and attempted assassinations of some of them. The militia and special groups have sought to strike fear in them if they take up those cases. And this comes back to the mafia-like activities and therefore the mafia-like actions of some of those elements that threaten security in Iraq.
We have, in fact, put considerable emphasis on how Al-Qaeda, in Iraq, generates resources. And they do it, again, like a mafia does, that we would be familiar with. It’s through extortion of successful businesses; extortion of money for protection rackets, or what have you; insisting that a cell phone business, for example, give them a cut of their profits or they’ll blow the cell phones down — cell phone towers down; taking a cut out of the cement business, the real estate business, the financial businesses, and so forth.
And you see the same on the militia side; although, again, much reduced now and they don’t control the port of Umm Qasr anymore. They don’t control various other elements that they did control until about six to eight months ago.
So progress there. And then beyond that, certainly corruption is a concern and a problem and one that the Iraqis have very much recognized and about which they’re very concerned. They’ve launched an anti-corruption program.
But this is going to be a serious issue. There is considerable money. There is a very young and still very much developing government largely led by individuals who — very good people and good leaders of opposition parties for many years but have not necessarily exercised strategic leadership in the past and very much growing into their jobs but with bureaucracies that are still very much developing as well.
So a lot of work to be done in the entire rule-of-law arena. Huge challenges to it. And it’s not a country that has had a tradition of strong-willed law, given the way that everything was, in a sense, perverted, if you will, by Saddam Hussein, twisted to his desires and basically responsive to the whims of the moment from Saddam and his regime.
MR. BAY: Let’s go back to the diplomatic line of action just for a moment, if you would. I have written extensively about you and Ambassador Crocker as an example of how to operate militarily and diplomatically; use the military and diplomatic elements of power in tandem. I think you two are an exemplary job, and it’s something I’ve certainly used in my university class.
How do we take the example of you and Ambassador Crocker working together and improve unified action in the interagency process?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, there have been quite a few lessons learned over here. And, first of all, let me just say that my predecessor and his ambassador, if you will, or the ambassador at that time, General George Casey and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, very much approached this as one team, one mission.
And Ambassador Ryan Crocker — and I just cannot imagine a better diplomatic wingman than Ryan Crocker. He is truly an expert and he’s an Arabist. He has taken one tough job after another. I think you know that he came here from Pakistan. He served in all the tough missions in this region.
We were determined to strive to achieve unity of effort. We don’t achieve unity of command, obviously. I mean, I report to the commander of Central Command and then to the chairman, to the Secretary of Defense. He naturally reports to the Secretary of State.
But we were determined to achieve unity of effort, and I think that that has been accomplished. The joint campaign plan is perhaps the most important manifestation of that. Although, arguably, then actually executing that in a unified manner probably is even more important.
But you have to start with a plan, and we, in fact, did do that. We have had several joint strategic assessment teams also to help us. They have always been a mix of uniformed and diplomatic and academic and think-tank personnel.
The key, again, is, first of all, a determination to work together, to work to a common purpose. And at various levels, there has to be that same kind of working together above us.
Now, in this case, I think the empowerment, if you will, of Lieutenant General Doug Lute in the White House, as the — I think they’ve called him the War Czar, or what have you, whatever the official title is. He’s an assistant to the President for Iraq and Afghanistan. And that has, indeed, helped to focus the efforts of the interagency of all the different elements that serve in Iraq, either with the Multi-National Force – Iraq or with the U.S. Mission – Iraq, and includes intelligence agencies, the Agency for International Development, Treasury, Justice, you name it. All the different elements are here.
And, again, what Ambassador Crocker and I have sought to do is to get everyone to link arms and to make way together. And then as we push up from here, others have sought to do the same thing above us. And, again, it has been helped by this position that was created on the MNC staff working for the President in the form of Lieutenant General Doug Lute.
MR. BAY: Gen Petraeus, I believe you’ve addressed this question in other venues, but I’d like to hear your opinion on disbanding the Iraqi Army. I know it was a done deal in some respects, but unemployed 19 year old males are a problem everywhere, in every culture, in every society. And I for one would rather have a hundred thousand 19 year old males on the payroll sweeping streets. Now, I know this reflects, to some degree, a demographic problem as well. Would you care to comment on that?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, in fact, you know, I’ve been asked, as part of the confirmation process for this job and then as part of the confirmation process for the CENTCOM job, I was asked for reflections, if you will, on some of the areas in which there were mistakes made. And I think this is one of them.
Now, let me qualify that because, to be fair to those who made this decision, Iraq did not need that army. It was, as you know, having served here, it was a bloated top-heavy force under Saddam. It was really a jobs program for generals.
There were supposedly — we were told that, in one of the provinces where we were operating eventually, Ninawa Province, one of the largest provinces in Iraq, with Mosul, the capital section of Iraq’s second or third largest city, in that province that there were over 1,100 brigadiers and above. And that sort of characterizes what kind of army Iraq had at the time.
Having said that, although it may not have needed that army, it also didn’t need its members who were, in truth, at the end of the day, still Iraq’s one national institution, many of whom had fought for Iraq and been wounded in the war in Iran, did not need them, unemployed, feeling disrespected and uncertain about their future.
And I don’t remember when you arrived but we went through a very tough, long, hot, five-week period between the decision to disband the armies, that announcement, and the announcement of the stipend program that would at least provide some finances to those who used to serve in the army but still, in the end, excluded a substantial number of its senior officers.
MR. BAY: I recall following your use of CERP funds up with the 101st, and it was — that’s a tremendous tool to be able to use the Commander’s Emergency Response Program funds for a variety of economic and political reasons.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, CERP is a very important tool, and Ambassador Bremer began that program in response to comments from division commanders that we had reached a point early on where money was becoming one of the most important elements of ammunition, and we didn’t have much.
In fact, we would point out that we could ask for and receive — you know, a several hundred thousand dollar missile would be launched downrange with a single radio call and, yet, to spend a few thousand dollars to refurbish a school or fix a water project required enormous bureaucracy and approvals and authorities and cash that just wasn’t available.
And, happily, he fixed that fairly quickly, and that program has since been one of the most important tools in the kit bags of our commanders.
MR. BAY: Just two more questions, General Petraeus. First of all, I realize you’re going to be — you’re not yet CENTCOM Commander but Afghanistan’s going to be going to your bailiwick. Do you have any thoughts about the campaign in Afghanistan right now?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Austin, I do but I think it would be premature to offer them candidly.
MR. BAY: All right. I’ve got one other one. Gen Petraeus, the Army’s Combat Action Badge is a relatively recent award. I see that you have received one.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Yeah. If you go to Rick Atkinson’s book, you can read about it.
MR. BAY: Okay.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: It was on the outskirts of Hila during the Battle of Hila, and you can look now. You can read it all there. But we got engaged, pretty stiff little engagement there, and hit by an ambush and so forth. And that was just — that was the first occasion in which that qualified, and then there were a few others since then, too.
MR. BAY: General David Petraeus, you have been so very generous with your time. Is there a topic or a subject that you would like to raise?
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, I can never end one of these, if given the opportunity, without talking about the magnificent work that is being done by America’s young men and women in uniform out here under exceedingly difficult conditions. It’s 120, 125 degrees here of late. Quite a few dust storms recently. Really resilient, barbaric at times, lethal and dangerous enemy facing us. Operating in a culture that is different from ours, a different language, different religion, tribal elements, and so forth. And absolutely performing magnificently, getting it about this very complex form of warfare that is called counterinsurgency, which entails offensive, defensive and civilian support operations, sometimes all in the same hour. And, again, could not be prouder to be soldiering with them, and can imagine no greater privilege than serving with them.
It has been said that they are the new greatest generation, and I absolutely buy into that and agree with it.
MR. BAY: General David Petraeus, thank you for joining us on PJ Media’s Deep Background and in The Arena. Any time you want to come back, we would love to speak with you, sir.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Thanks, Austin. Great to be with you.
MR. BAY: Once again, a special thank you to General Petraeus for joining us on Deep Background, from Iraq. And until next our next podcast, this is Deep Background, at PJ Media.com. And a special thanks to our producer, Ed Driscoll, another PJ Media blogger. Visit Ed’s website at eddriscoll.com.
For Deep Background and PJ Media.com, I’m Austin Bay.
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(Transcribed For PJ Media by Clara Rubin, eScribers, LLC.)