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New York Post columnist Ralph Peters on Petraeus and Fallon

Monday, January 8, 2007
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HH: To discuss that, as well as the new commanders in the field, I’m joined by Ralph Peters. Ralph, of course, a New York Post columnist, retired military officer and a return guest to the Hugh Hewitt Show. Ralph, good to have you.

RP: Hey, great to speak to you again, Hugh.

HH: Let’s focus on the run up to Wednesday by focusing on the people that George Bush is putting in charge in Iraq. Tell us about David Petraeus.

RP: Well, Dave Petraeus really is a new breed, a new generation of generals. He’s a very intelligent man, very hard working, tough, tough as nails, but intelligent and reasonable, and always questing, always looking for a better answer. You know, I’ve known Dave Petraeus somewhat for almost 20 years. And he was always a fast burner, the sort of officer that actually, mediocre officers would get jealous of him, because he was just so darned good. Nobody’s perfect. Only God is perfect, but Petraeus, while he and I do not always agree on things, we do not always agree on counter-insurgency methodology, nonetheless, I would say this in all honesty to your listeners. We’re sending the best we’ve got. If Petraeus can’t turn it around in Iraq, it can’t be turned around. And you know, he’s the kind of guy that you just can’t keep him down. When he was a battalion commander, a soldier stumbled and accidentally shot him on the rifle range, or in the chest, and he almost…another man might have died on the way on the helicopter to the hospital. Petraeus pulled through. Well back in, I think it was 2000, Petraeus was skydiving, his chute collapsed at sixty feet above the ground. He lands, his hip was smashed, they had to reconstruct it, put bolts in, and he can still…he’s 54 years old, he can still outrun most of the majors and the captains ten, fifteen years younger than him. It’s a matter…he’s one of those men with tremendous strength of will. And really, this kind of fight, that’s what it takes. Now I would never for a minute guarantee that hey, we’re sending Dave Petraeus, so Iraq’s going to be a success. All I’m saying is he’s our last best shot, and I do believe that if Petraeus can’t do it, it can’t be done. But that said, even though he’ll get a fourth star in this position, a general can only do what the president orders and allows him to do. So the crucial thing, the questions are, will he have enough troops? Will he have enough literal cash in hand to get young men off the streets, employed, get them picking up garbage? Will he be authorized to change the rules of engagement, to kill the people that need killing? How will he be able to deal with the Iraqi government’s…basically, they call it catch and release. We catch bad guys, turn them over to the Iraqis, Iraqis, if they’re Shia, put them back on the street. So Dave Petraeus faces a tremendous set of challenges. It’s going to be an uphill struggle. No guarantee it can be turned around, but boy, if I was betting on any horse in this race, it’d be Dave.

HH: A pretty interesting profile of him in the Washington Post yesterday, which described him as an intensely compacted hank of wire. And I went out and found a Der Spiegel interview that he did last month before the announcement of his promotion. And he made it clear that there are times when you just have to kill a lot of people. Do you think that that’s what’s coming up in Baghdad?

RP: Yeah, I do, you know, if the president allows him to, if the president backs him up. That’s the crucial thing. I mean, Dave and I have gone around on this for a long time. I, sometimes in the past, have thought that he was a little too hearts and minds, touchy feely. That may be unfair to him. But I think, you know, he’s a kind of guy that learns as he goes, and he is a good learner, and I think he’s…I don’t want to put words in General Petraeus’ mouth, but I do think he realizes that this is crunch time, that we have to take on the bad guys, the ones that really need killing, that can’t be won over by any standard, and we have to deal with them.

HH: Now you wrote in your column concerning Petraeus, “When his tour of duty in Baghdad ends, will unarmed Iraqis and Americans be able to walk in the streets of Baghdad without fear?” That’s the test. How long do you expect that test to come to a passing grade?

RP: Well, you know, it would be very tough to do it in less than a year, I’d say probably a couple of years. And there are real concerns here, because it looks like the President is going to go for a surge over the next few months of 20-25,000 troops. Now the most important thing, of course, is how troops are employed, not just the sheer numbers. But numbers do matter. And I’m a little bit worried that while even that 20-25,000 will stretch our forces, because we’ve run them into the ground, to an extent, nonetheless, I always feel that if you’re going to do something like this, you’ve got to do it all the way. And there’s no cheap way to do it. So if there is going to be a surge, I would prefer to see a larger one, 40-50,000 troops, even though it would be a tremendous strain on our forces, because the crucial thing in Baghdad, if you want to…it’s not enough to go into a neighborhood and clean it up. You have to be able to stay there afterwards and keep it clean. And you know, in the past, we would go in, police up a neighborhood, kick the bad guys out, chase some away, maybe kill a couple, bust a bunch. But then, we’d leave, or turn it over to the Iraqis, Iraqi police who aren’t competent, who are partisan, and the bad guys come back. So it’s not enough to win the fight. You’ve got to have enough troops to actually stay there, literally be cops on the beat, and also have to build trust with the locals, if they know the bad guys can’t come back. Then they start coming to you with more information. You have to build trust. So to use military slang, the first approach has to be kinetic. You’ve got to kill the guys that need killing. But then you need to maintain a presence. And I think my biggest worry about this surge, well, they’re two, really. One, it won’t be big enough in the end. And two, that we won’t sufficiently change the rules of engagement for political reasons, for Petraeus to be able to make that difference. All I can say is we’ll see.

HH: Yesterday on Face The Nation, Nancy Pelosi, the new Speaker of the House, said if the President chooses to escalate the war in his budget requests, we want to see a distinction between what is there to support the troops who are there now, indicating that they would not vote the force, the money for the additional troops. In that environment, can you see a sustainable surge?

RP: It’s tough. It’s going to be tough to…and really, you hit a key point, Hugh. Sustainable is the important word, because it can’t be just a four to six month surge. Frankly, we’ll need the increased numbers for 18 months to two years. Minimum, 18 months to two years. And that is going to be very tough. Now a problem…there are patriots in the Republican and Democratic Parties. Got it. But I do think there’s a psychological tendency, subconscious, call it what you will, among the Pelosi Democrats and the Harry Reid Democrats, who are only one part of the Democratic Party, or the Dean Democrats, who really want us to fail. They certainly are, on a tactical political level, don’t want to see Bush succeeding by 2008. And I’m not telling your readers that Bush can succeed. There’s a chance. We don’t know that yet. But I do think that the Democrats are going to put obstacles in the way of success.

HH: Now tell us a little bit about Admiral William Fallon, who is replacing General Abizaid as head of Centcom.

RP: Well, I don’t know Admiral Fallon personally. I don’t think I’ve ever met him. He has a reputation as a very decisive man, even brusque. He gets mixed reviews. The intel community doesn’t like him, because they say he doesn’t listen. Well, I was part of the intel community, and I can tell you sometimes, the intel community needs a little tough love. So we’ll just have to wait and see. But I mean, senior people that I respect, and that’s not all senior people, but the ones I respect, do tend to have a pretty high opinion of Fallon. They believe he has the guts to make a decision. And in a situation like this, that’s very important.

HH: Now in yesterday’s Sunday Times, revealed leaks from Israel saying that they had drawn up secret plans to destroy Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities using tactical nuclear, low yield nuclear bunker busters. What did you make of that story, Ralph Peters?

RP: Well, that actually ties back into Admiral Fallon. First of all, I’m sure the Israelis are drawing up such plans, and I’m sure they’re drawing up plans for conventional strikes. They’d be crazy if they don’t. I mean, what a military does when faced with a potential crises is draw up plans. That’s what militaries do on the edge of war. And by the way, while the war is going on. So if the Israelis weren’t making plans, they’d be derelict in their duty to their country. That said, making plans doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen. It may, it may not. But it’s not a foregone conclusion. But that brings us back to something the media were baffled by, because they couldn’t figure out why with two ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the President picked a sailor, a swabby, you know, Admiral Fallon to head Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East to the Indian Ocean. The answer is easy – Iran. While we’re not determined to attack Iran, I think the President wisely is preparing for the possible need to take out their nuke program. And if we had to do that, the offensive strike, the heavy ordinance would primarily be delivered by the Air Force. But the really tough challenge would be protecting the oil routes, keeping the Straits of Hormuz open, keeping the oil flowing, protecting oil terminals, oil rigs in the Gulf, oil facilities in the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia. And that would be primarily a Navy mission. So the offensive part’s heavily Air Force backed by the Navy. But the defensive part is heavily Navy. And also, Fallon, he’s had tours in the Gulf before. He was there in Desert Storm. He knows the Indian Ocean area. I think the President, again, very wisely, is looking ahead to say look, Petraeus will handle Iraq if it can be handled. We need a Navy guy to get ready for a fight with Iran, if that comes.

HH: Good thinking. Ralph Peters’ latest book is Never Quit the Fight. Thank you, Ralph, New York Post columnist. You can read it there and get the book at Amazon.com.

End of interview.

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