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General David Petraeus on the conditions on the ground in Iraq

Wednesday, July 18, 2007
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HH: Welcome, General. You took over command of the multinational forces in February of this year, February 10. In the past five months, how have conditions in Iraq changed?

DP: Well, obviously, we have been surging our forces during that time. We have added five Army brigade combat teams, two Marine battalions, and a Marine expeditionary unit, and some enablers, as they’re called. And over the last month, that surge of forces has turned into a surge of offensive operations. And we have achieved what we believe is a reasonable degree of tactical momentum on the ground, gains against the principal near-term threat, al Qaeda-Iraq, and also gains against what is another near-term threat, and also potentially the long term threat, Shia militia extremists as well. As you may have heard, that today, we announced the capture of the senior Iraqi leader of al Qaeda-Iraq, and that follows in recent weeks the detention of some four different emirs, as they’re called, the different area leaders of al Qaeda, six different foreign fighter facilitators, and a couple dozen other leaders, in addition to killing or capturing hundreds of other al Qaeda-Iraq operatives.

HH: Do you think al Qaeda in Iraq is buckling, General Petraeus?

DP: Well, it’s probably too soon to say that, but we think that we have them off plan. Now having said that, they clearly retain and have demonstrated, tragically in recent, the past week or so, the ability to continue to carry out sensational attacks. They continue to demonstrate the ability to counterattack against our forces, and those of our coalition partners. But the detention, or the capture or killing of the number of leaders that we have taken out in recent months, and weeks, actually, and the progress in terms of just clearing areas of them…as you know, Anbar Province has really become quite relatively clear of al Qaeda. Eastern Anbar still has some, and we are working in that area. We have recently cleared Western Baquba, which was almost al Qaeda central, the capitol of the new caliphate that they have tried to establish here in Iraq. So there has been considerable progress against them, but they do continue to receive foreign fighters through Syria, who become suicide bombers in many cases, and they do certainly have an ability to regenerate, to regroup, and to come back at us.

HH: General Petraeus, we’ve seen messages passed back and forth between al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and al Qaeda in Iraq. Do you consider them to be operating jointly?

DP: Well, there certainly is a level of direction that takes place, and there is a level of reporting from Iraq that goes back, and it does go back and forth. And periodically, you’ll see one of those released. More recently, as an example of the kind of direction, actually given by individuals coming into Iraq, there were the, we announced the killing of two, and it turns out three, actually, al Turki brothers. These are, not surprisingly, from Turkey originally, part of al Qaeda leadership, spent time in Afghanistan in past years, and were sent into Northern Iraq to help shore up the network up there after it took significant blows, particularly in the Mosul area. And we’ve managed to get the final fifty meters, if you will, on them after sort of pursuing them for some months, and did kill them several weeks ago.

HH: Do you see any evidence, General, that al Qaeda is now operating jointly with the Iranian regime? There’ve been some reports that in fact, they are now based, in some respects, within Iran and operating across the border with Iran.

DP: Well, there is an al Qaeda affiliate, I think is the best way to put it. Certainly, they’re under the overall banner of al Qaeda, an element formerly Ansar al Sunna, some of their members, another group affiliated with al Qaeda, that is located in Northwestern Iran, just east of the Iraqi border, east of the Iraqi-Kurdish province of Sulaymaniyah. They have come into Iraq. Our operators and Iraqi operators have conducted strikes against them. And we believe, in fact, that Iran may have actually taken some steps against them as well. They’re not sitting there at the invitation of Iran, but it’s a very, very rugged area, and a fairly substantial area as well.

HH: General Petraeus, some of your staff have talked in recent weeks about Iranian government support for various elements of the enemy in Iraq, in the form of sophisticated explosives, some training. Has the amount of material and training from Iran to the enemy in Iraq increased or decreased over the past half year?

DP: Well, it’s hard to say. It certainly has not decreased, and it’s hard to say whether it’s increased or not, but it has remained very substantial. It’s something we track, sometimes we’re able to interdict some of it, sometimes we capture it or literally stop it. We captured, for example the other day, several dozen rockets that were all set up on timers, and aimed at one of our bases, and some of our air assets happened to see them, and we were able to defuse them, all clearly from Iran. Iran has indeed provided substantial funding, training, equipping, arming, and even direction, in some cases, to what are called the special groups or secret cells affiliated with the militia of Muqtada al Sadr. We captured the heads of the secret cells, as you may recall, several months ago, the Khazali brothers. And with them, we captured a senior Lebanese Hezbollah trainer, the deputy head of the Lebanese Hezbollah department that was apparently created to help the Iranian Quds force, the element that does provide this training, equipping, money and direction to the Iraqi secret groups, or secret cells.

HH: General, what do you perceive to be Iran’s strategy in Iraq via that support and their other initiatives inside the new Iraq?

DP: Well, there are various theories on that, and one of those is actually that they may be somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, they should see a neighbor that is, that shares the same religious sect, fellow Shia, although Iraqis certainly are Arabs, and Iranians are obviously Persian. They should see a country that with which they actually already have considerable commercial trade and exchange, and great interest in, in that regard, but they also see a country that has certainly ties to the United States, and one whose democracy is very, very different from the form of government, of course, that you find in Iran, where the senior clerics actually run the country, as you know. And so they, there is discussion about whether they are trying, in a sense, to use certain elements to Hezbollah. Hezbollah is in certain parts of Iran. If they just don’t…or Iraq…if they just don’t want Iraq to do that well, perhaps, certainly want to give the United States a black eye, a variety of different motivations, we believe. And again, perhaps even a degree of confliction, given that a number of Iraq’s senior leaders has close ties to Iran in the past, located in Iran during Saddam’s day, and certainly have close relationships with various Iranian leaders, and share the religious sect of Shia Islam as well.

HH: Do you have the authority that you need, General, for hot pursuit, or to take the defensive actions necessary to protect American troops and the Iraqi government from Iranian intermeddling?

DP: Well, we certainly have the authority that we need to conduct operations in Iraq against anyone who threatens our forces or Iraqi forces. And in fact, we have done that, as I think you know…

HH: Right.

DP: We detained, for example, five members of the Iranian Quds force that were in Iran, and that we believe were tied into this greater network that has provided this arming, funding, training and direction to the secret cells or special groups associated with Sadr’s militia.

HH: General, I want to go back to the surge. About how long have you had the full complement of troops that were necessary for the surge in place?

DP: Well, it’s about a month now, Hugh. We received the final Army brigade, the Marine expeditionary unit, and the combat aviation brigade in June, and they all went into operation about the mid part of last month. So it’s about a month that they’ve all been on the ground, and all of our forces have been engaged in what is a pretty comprehensive offensive operation in just about all of the belts around Baghdad, as they’re called, and then in also several neighborhoods in Baghdad that are of particular concern because of the activities in those neighborhoods of al Qaeda, or in some cases, of militia extremist elements.

HH: Now you’re due to make a report back in September, I don’t know if it’s early, mid or late September, General Petraeus, is that enough time to really get a fix on how the surge is progressing?

DP: Well, I have always said that we will have a sense by that time of basically, of how things are going, have we been able to achieve progress on the ground, where have their been shortfalls, and so forth. And I think that is a reasonable amount of time to have had all the forces on the ground, again, for about three months, to have that kind of sense. But that’s all it is going to be. But we do intend, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the ambassador here, and I, do very much intend to provide as comprehensive and as forthright an assessment as we can at that time of the progress that has been achieved, and where we’ve fallen short.

HH: Now stepping back a little bit from the day to day, General Petraeus, how would you explain to the civilians listening, and hundreds of thousands of them at this moment, the strategic interest of the United States at stake in Iraq?

DP: Well, I think just first of all, we have an enormous responsibility, because of course, we did liberate this country. And so right off the bat, a lot of us feel, certainly, that degree of responsibility. Beyond that, obviously, Iraq has the second or third most proven oil resources in the world. It is blessed with other mineral wealth as well that is very substantial, and has enormous potential in the global economy. It sits astride several crucial ethno-sectarian fault lines, fault lines between Arabs and Kurds, fault lines between Sunni and Shia Iraqis, and also has substantial populations of other elements, Christians, Yazidis and some others. It is important in regional terms, needless to say, against surrounded by some neighbors that are Sunni, others Turk, and of course, they have, Turkey, they have a substantial Turkoman population as well. And then or course, Shia to their east. So there’s enormous potential implications for some of the courses of action that have been considered out there, and certainly, a precipitous withdrawal would have potentially serious implications for important interests that we have in Iraq, in the region.

HH: Some have warned that a genocide of sorts, or absolute terms, would follow a precipitous withdrawal of coalition forces. Do you agree that that is a possibility, or a…and a significant one?

DP: Well, obviously, it depends on the conditions when we withdraw. I mean, eventually, we are going to withdraw. We cannot maintain the surge forever, as everyone knows. There’s always been an intention that the surge would be a somewhat temporary endeavor. So it has to do with the conditions at that time. I mean, we saw the sectarian violence of late 2006 and early 2007, and obviously, that was very tragic, and really quite horrific in a number of Baghdad neighborhoods. It literally changed the face of Baghdad. It struck at the very fabric of Iraqi society in places like Baghdad, and in other mixed, sectarian areas. And again, unless the conditions are sustainable by the Iraqis, one would certainly expect that sectarian violence would resume at a very high level. That’s not to say there’s not still some going on right now, although the level in June was about the lowest in a year, and we’re certainly trying to sustain that. I don’t know this month whether we can, given the two horrific bombings that took place, however that is certainly what we’re trying and fighting to do.

HH: General Petraeus, you wrote your PhD dissertation at Princeton on the lessons of Vietnam, analyzing in part the aftermath of an American military defeat. And obviously, that was horrific in Cambodia, and awful in South Vietnam. What would you expect the consequences of the defeat of America in Iraq to be, both there and in terms of our military posture and position around the world?

DP: Well, to be candid, that’s a hypothetical that I’m just not prepared to address. We are determined to do all that we can, while we’re given the opportunity to try to bring this to as successful as reasonable a conclusion as is possible, and that is really what is just what I’m devoting all my intellectual energy and physical energy to at this point in time, not thinking about what the implications of not getting it right are.

HH: You and Marine Lt. General Amos coauthored the new field manual on counterinsurgency, and it talked about counterinsurgency has to adapt to local conditions. How long does it really take, in your estimation? I see you saw the BBC yesterday, telling them that it could take nine, ten years to put a counterinsurgency down in Iraq. Is that an accurate assessment, a decade to get this thing contained?

DP: Well, it depends where you are in Iraq, what you’re talking about, and so forth. What I was doing there was merely saying that historically, it’s taken about a decade or so for the average counterinsurgency to be sorted out. Sometimes, it’s taken longer. I mean, in fact, the British Broadcaster interviewer and I were talking about how long it took the UK to reach the position that they’ve now achieved in Northern Ireland, and that was actually several decades, as you know, In some cases in Iraq, the situation is somewhat resolved. Surprisingly, Anbar Province, all of a sudden, has become just a remarkable development, and a place where you can actually see how it could possibly evolve into a situation sustainable by the Iraqis. Other places remain very problematic, and there’s certainly neighborhoods in Baghdad where we are still trying to refine the vision of what would be sustainable, and then determine how in fact to get to that point.

HH: How are the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces? You spent a lot of time training them in the first part of the occupation, General Petraeus. What are their, what’s their effectiveness now?

DP: Well, frankly, it is uneven. There are some exceedingly good units. The Iraqi special operations force brigade, a commando battalion, a counterterrorist unit, some other elements, national emergency response unit, the intelligence special tactics unit, SWAT teams in just about each of the provinces, and a variety of other sort of high end units that we have helped develop, each of these is really quite impressive, and almost at the level, certainly in regional terms, of the special operations forces of our own country, again, in relative terms, speaking in regional comparisons. On the other hand, at the other end of the spectrum, there are still some units that have a degree of sectarian influence exercised within them, and some that are still being cleaned up after having suffered from sectarian pressures, and given into sectarian pressures during the height of the sectarian violence in 2006, and into 2007. There’s also, there’s a vast number of units, frankly, out there just doing what I would call a solid job, manning checkpoints, going on patrols, in some cases in the lead, in some cases alongside our forces, in some cases, following. But I can assure you that the Iraqi forces are out there very much fighting and dying for their country, They, in fact, their losses typically are some three or more times the losses that we suffer.

HH: General, what about the losses on the enemy? You mentioned that hundreds of al Qaeda fighters have been killed in the last couple of months, but are they suffering losses in the thousands every month? Or is it hundred, two hundred? What kind of force reduction’s going on there?

DP: Yeah, as you know, we try to avoid body counting, but inevitably, obviously, it is something we keep track of, because we’re trying to have some sense of the damage that we are doing to al Qaeda-Iraq, its affiliates, other Sunni insurgent groups, and also certainly to the Shia militia extremist elements. And the answer to that in a general sense is that they are losing many, many hundreds of their, of these different elements each month, certainly since the onset of the surge.

HH: And you mentioned foreign fighters infiltrating. Has that flow slowed or accelerated over the past five months?

DP: We do not think there has been much of a change in that. Again, it is something that is difficult to measure. Certainly, if you knew precisely how many were coming, or where they were coming, we’d obviously interdict them. And we do in fact interdict some, but not huge numbers. We do occasionally capture them in the act of preparing to, or trying to carry out a suicide attack or some other attack. In fact, we recently killed a fairly substantial element, 34 in one batch, some of which certainly were foreign fighters and had suicide vests and belts on, and we trying to re-infiltrate into Anbar Province and cause problems there. But we think the number of these foreign fighters, foreign terrorists who come through Syria, by and large, has remained roughly the same, and that is a big concern, because of those 60, 80, 90 or so who do come in per month, many of those end up being suicide bombers. And even though their numbers are relatively small in the grand scheme of affairs here, they can cause horrific casualties, indiscriminate death to Iraqi civilians, and really substantial damage, physically as well as psychologically.

HH: General, one of your colleagues, one of the high profile generals in this conflict, Marine Corps Lt. General Maddis, said in December of last year that the enemy had denied American media the battlefield, with some pretty damaging consequences. Is that still true? Are we getting an accurate picture of what’s going on in Iraq from the American media? Or can they just not get out where the fighting’s going on?

DP: Well, we have media out with us all the time. In fact, one of the items that I have certainly stressed in the commanders I’m privileged to lead here, and the troopers have all tried to do, is to be accessible to the media. I mean, that’s why I’m talking to you tonight.

HH: Right.

DP: And I think, I mean, we look on a daily basis at who’s doing what out there. I think you’ve seen plenty of our leaders and our troopers out there. I mean, all of our commanders, just about, go out in front of the press on a fairly regular basis. They have occasionally said things that seem surprising to some people. I mean, we’ve had commanders who’ve said they needed more troops. We’ve had commanders who said we could drawn down at some point. We’ve had commanders who’ve said good things about their Iraqi counterparts, and occasionally have expressed some reservations. So we are trying to present as forthright and balanced and accurate a picture as we can. Our job is not to put lipstick on pigs, or to spin. Our job is, again, to try to convey to the American public, and then the public of all the coalitions, and those who follow the media throughout the world, as accurate a picture as we can of what is going on here. It really is our view, you know, an informed population can make the best decisions at the end of the day.

HH: Is the media doing a good job of taking that ample amount of information and transmitting it in an objective fashion in your view, General Petraeus?

DP: I think they generally are. I think it is difficult, though, in a sense, to get past the soundbytes sometimes. It is difficult to convey a nuance sense of events. And certainly, look, at the end of the day, it is hard to get past the fact that a sensational attack is going to lead. And that’s just a fact of life. And I think that occasionally, you know, folks will wince over here and say gosh, you know, they didn’t get the ribbon cutting we did today, or nobody covered the job fair, or the opening of the new police academy, or whatever it might be, because a car bomb went off. Well again, that’s reality, and terrible loss of life, sadly but realistically, is going to bump some feel good stories. So I think that’s just something we have to come to grips with. It is again a fact of life, and such is life.

HH: Some of the arguments about Iraq in the United States argue that it’s possible for American troops to withdraw to their bases and just strike at al Qaeda, sort of an Anbar only option, I guess. Does that make any sense to you at all, General Petraeus?

DP: Well, first of all, al Qaeda-Iraq is throughout pretty substantial parts of Iraq, and it is a significant enough network in capability that it is not going to be dealt with just by certainly, if you will, classical counterterrorist operations. Indeed, we are doing those. Our best operators in America and in the world are here in the largest number of anywhere in the world by several multiples, and conducting a very, very high operational tempo, and doing extraordinary operations. When I think back to the operations that we did, for example, going after war criminals in Bosnia, or something like that, you know, and one of those would be a big deal, and you’d dine off that for the next several months. On a nightly basis here, you know, ten or twelve serious operations are going down by those forces.

HH: Wow.

DP: And any one of those is far more significant than we conducted for decades. They are very sophisticated, very complex, very lethal sometimes, and very effective. Having said that, although they may be the most important operations, because they can take down, as they did the senior Iraqi leader in al Qaeda-Iraq, or kill the three al Turkey brothers, or what have you, it is also the weight of the operations conducted by the, if you will, the regular special forces, the Green Berets and the others that make up the special operations task force, and operate throughout the country as a very high operational tempo, and of our conventional forces. I mean, it is conventional forces who cleared Western Baquba. Certainly, augmented by, again, our special forces and our special mission unit elements, but they’re the ones that, you know, killed the 80 or 90 confirmed kill, and perhaps another 80 or so more, and captured a couple of hundred in addition to that as well. And they’re the ones who will hold that area against attempts that have already taken place by al Qaeda and their affiliates to try to get back into those neighborhoods.

HH: You know, that…in the forward to that manual that you wrote with General Amos, it said you needed a flexible, adaptive force led by agile, well-informed, culturally astute leaders. You’re just describing that kind of a force. Is it increasing in its lethality and effectiveness on an exponential basis, General? Has it become a more…

DP: It has very much so, Hugh, yes, very, very much so. In fact, people ask, you know, what are the big changes during the sixteen months that you were gone from Iraq? I left Iraq in September, ’05, returned in February, as you noted earlier. And there were two really significant changes. One was the damage done by sectarian violence. It is undeniable, it was tragic, and it has, as I mentioned earlier, ripped the very society, the fabric of Iraqi society. It’s caused very significant fault lines between sects and ethnic groups to harden, and it has created an environment that is much more challenging that before it took place. Beyond that, though, I typically will note that our leaders and our troopers get it about what it is that we’re trying to accomplish here in a way that certainly was not the case at the outset, or even perhaps a year or two into this endeavor. The typical leader here now has had at least one tour in Iraq, some have actually had two. They have, during the time they’re back in the States, they studied this. Of course, while we were back in the States, we revamped the counterinsurgency manual, as you mentioned, published that, revamped our other doctrinal manuals, overhauled the curricula of the commissioned, non-commissioned and warrant officer education systems in the Army, Marine Corps and the other services, completely changed the scenarios at our combat training centers, the one in the Mojave desert, the one in Central Louisiana, the one in Germany, and also captured lessons learned, created the ability to virtually look over the shoulder of those who are down range through expanded pipes in the military secure internet, just a host of initiatives have been pursued, changed organizations, changed equipment, and have given us capabilities, particularly in the intelligence realm, and with the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles, much larger pipes, the ability to shoot much bigger data, if you will, down them, and so forth. All of this has enabled our troopers in a way that certainly was not the case when we did the fight for Baghdad, or even, frankly, when I was here for my previous second tour. And so again, our leaders get it, our soldiers get it, they are these flexible, adaptable, thoughtful, culturally astute, and by and large, leaders and soldiers and Marines, and they are showing that on a daily basis here. That is not to say that it is anything at all easy about this, that the complexity is anything but just sheer enormous, or that this situation is anything but the most challenging that I’ve ever seen in some 33 years in uniform.

HH: It sounds optimistic, General. I want to respect your time and close with just a couple of questions, one that Senator Webb this past weekend rightly denounced politicians who try and put words into the mouths of troops. So I’m going to ask you. What do you hear your men and women saying about this mission? Do they think it can be won?

DP: Well, I think they do. I mean, I think…nobody…look, everybody wants to go home. I mean, nobody was cheering when we extended from 12 to 15 months, and I wasn’t, either, you know? This is my fourth year of longer deployment since 2001. My family would love to have me back home, and I’d love to be there. But we want to go back the right way, if you will, so that although every soldier’s first right is to, you know, grouse a bit, and we all exercise that on occasion, I think everybody’s very determined to try to do the very best that we can to accomplish this mission. I was privileged on the 4th of July to swear the oath with some 588 soldiers in one huge formation here at Camp Victory, who reenlisted for another tour in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and so forth. And it was extraordinary. And I can tell you, you know, it’s not because of the bonus or anything like that. There is no bonus that can compensate for the sacrifices and the hardship in the selfless service that our soldiers are providing here. So again, I think individuals are doing all that they can to try to achieve success in this mission here, and that’s the focus of the folks with whom I’m privileged to soldier.

HH: Last question, General. How can the American public support these troops most effectively?

DP: Well, I think the American public has been doing that. I think actually, regardless of the views on Iraq, the American public has supported our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and the civilians that are deployed over here. And I think that that is wonderful. We all saw, some of us, you know, as we were growing up, a situation where that was not the case. And happily in this case, as I said, regardless of one’s views, regardless on where one comes down on the issue of Iraq, there is backing for those great young men and women who are putting everything on the line here on a daily basis, in right now, 125 degree heat and body armor and Kevlar, against a barbaric enemy, in an exceedingly tough and complex situation. I think I mentioned to you before that when Tom Brokaw was out here with us one time, he said that surely this has to be the new greatest generation. And I very, very much agree with that. And as I mentioned earlier, I feel very privileged to be able to soldier with these great young men and women here in Iraq again.

HH: General David Petraeus, thanks for your service, thanks for you time today, I look forward to talking to you again sometime.

DP: Thank, great to be with you.

HH: Thank you, General.

End of interview.

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