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U.S. General Says Iraq Will Move Toward Stability

September 20, 2006 at 5:10 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And now to our interview with Army General John Abizaid, commander of the Central Command, which includes all U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. I talked with him earlier today.

General, welcome. U.N. Secretary-General Annan said the other day that, if current trends continue, Iraq could break down into a full-scale civil war. Is he right?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, Top U.S. Commander in the Middle East: I think current trends today look certainly better than when I testified back in August. The situation is improving somewhat.

Certainly, there’s a lot of sectarian violence. I believe that we’ve got the military capacity and the Iraqis have the political will to get things under control. And I think it will start moving towards stability slowly but surely.

JIM LEHRER: Why can’t the sectarian violence be stopped?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: The sectarian violence is very, very difficult to control, because it involves very small, cellular groups of death squads that move about the city, that move into pre-designated targets that they’ve already selected, that has already been surveilled, that have certainly been well-known to various people that are plotting to get these particular people.

And they go in and get them. And then, when they can’t get their designated targets, they go after completely random targets, so it’s a very, very difficult military security problem that’s tough to defend against.

JIM LEHRER: And you’re saying that’s getting better? It seems, in the last several weeks, at least on our program every day, we’ve been reporting more and more bodies found, people being tortured. There seems to be on the increase, but you’re saying it’s getting better?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: It’s certainly better in the areas where we’ve applied military forces. The overall numbers show a slight decrease; I wouldn’t say it’s substantial. But in the areas where we’ve been operating, in the Doura district and the Amiriyah district and others…

JIM LEHRER: In Baghdad?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: … in Baghdad. And Baghdad’s really the key problem. As a matter of fact, 80 percent to 90 percent of the sectarian difficulties that take place in Iraq take place within a 30-mile radius of Baghdad.

In those areas that we’ve been operating with U.S. forces and Iraqi forces — and we continue to operate — there is a decrease. But we’re not everywhere. We’re moving step by step, section by section, and it will take some time. We will begin to really see whether or not we’re being successful in a month or two.

JIM LEHRER: In a month or two?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: And how will success be judged?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Success will be judged by the level of sectarian violence, murders, in particular, in the areas where we’re operating being less.

And it certainly — look, it’s a program that involves not just putting military forces on the street, but it also requires that Iraqi and U.S. special forces go after the death squads. We have to target them. We have to do the intelligence work necessary to know where they are. Then we’ve got to go after them and take them out of action, whether it’s by direct military action or some other form.

But it’s very, very important that these death squads be put out of action. The militias have to be, over time, brought under governmental control; that still remains a problem. Then there has to be, most importantly, I think of all, a reconciliation program moved forward that gives people in Baghdad reason to believe that things are going to get better.

I was in some of these neighborhoods. I went there after I testified last summer. I talked to some of the folks in the Sunni neighborhoods that were having the most difficulty. They are more appreciative to have coalition forces in their neighborhoods than they have been at any time since we’ve been there, and so that’s a good sign.

Sending more coalition forces

Army Gen. John Abizaid
Commander, U.S. Central Command
It's my estimation ... that the number of American forces is likely to remain about the same. We have other Reserve forces in the region that we haven't committed yet. It's possible that we might have to commit them; if it's necessary, we'll do so.

JIM LEHRER: Is the answer to send more coalition forces in there?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: The answer ultimately is to send more Iraqi forces in there. Ultimately, the answer is to have Iraqi police first, Iraqi military second, and U.S. forces playing an over-watch role.

Right now, in these areas in Baghdad, certain areas that we've selected, we have U.S. forces in the primary role in support with Iraqi forces. And we've got to change that equation over time. But we'll do what we need to do in order to bring the situation into greater security.

JIM LEHRER: There are 147,000 U.S. troops there now, correct?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: 147,000 approximately. It's over 140,000. It fluctuates, goes up and down based on rotations, but it's over 140,000.

JIM LEHRER: And you said in the last couple of days since you've been in Washington that that figure is going to remain pretty much that until spring, right, next spring, 2007?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Never say never in this business.

JIM LEHRER: OK, right.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: But it's my estimation, based on the way the sectarian violence is continuing in the Baghdad area, based on the development of Iraqi security forces, based upon the conditions out in places like el-Anbar province, and up in the north, and down in Basra that the number of American forces is likely to remain about the same.

We have other Reserve forces in the region that we haven't committed yet. It's possible that we might have to commit them; if it's necessary, we'll do so. And it's also possible that, with increased governmental action and increased reconciliation programs, that it would be possible to consider some reductions, but I think it's best to just say we are where we are and we'll re-evaluate constantly.

Training Iraqi forces

Army Gen. John Abizaid
Commander, U.S. Central Command
We have put an enormous effort into training and equipping the Iraqi armed forces and security forces. But it's also an enormous effort. It is literally building an institution from the bottom up.

JIM LEHRER: On the Iraqi security forces, of the 147,000 or 140,000-plus U.S. troops, how many of them are actively involved in training the Iraqi army?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Well, there's a large number of American forces that are dealing day-to-day with the Iraqis. And it's important for people to understand that, in the majority of the country, Iraqi security forces are in the lead, not coalition forces.

As a matter of fact, in most areas of the 10 Iraqi divisions, six of them are in the lead in their particular battle spaces. One Iraqi division, the 8th Division, down in the south-central portion of the country, is in its area and is operating without U.S. forces.

They have U.S. engagement teams with them that help them if they need to bring in additional combat power, but there's a substantial effort to work with the Iraqis, bring the Iraqis on board. The Iraqi military continues to develop well; it still needs a lot of work. Iraqi police forces need a lot of work, and we're working very hard to correct some of the imbalances that exist.

JIM LEHRER: I'm sure you're aware, General, that there's been a lot of commentary back here that the U.S. hasn't put enough effort into the training of Iraqi forces.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Jim, I really disagree with that. We have put an enormous effort into training and equipping the Iraqi armed forces and security forces. But it's also an enormous effort. It is literally building an institution from the bottom up.

We took the army completely down to zero. We have to not only build its units, train its soldiers, equip them, we have to develop logistics units. We have to have good command-and-control organizations. But more importantly, we've got to do the institutional work necessary to train the officer corps to be the officer corps of a modern nation that respects its people. And it's a generational level of work, not something that's going to be done overnight. And we're making good progress.

Violence during Ramadan

Army Gen. John Abizaid
Commander, U.S. Central Command
Baghdad is the main effort; it's the point where we've got to get greater control of security, stability, so that peace and prosperity can start moving in a good direction there.

JIM LEHRER: Ramadan, the month of Ramadan begins next week.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Right.

JIM LEHRER: Do you expect more American troops to be targeted during Ramadan?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I expect that there will be continued violence in Ramadan like there has been every year since we've been operating in the Middle East since 2001.

JIM LEHRER: But knowing that, you still can't -- you can't prevent it, you don't have the power to prevent it?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: The power to prevent violence is a power that no police force seems to have anywhere in the United States. So if the measure of action is the amount of violence, then we can't prevent violence.

Can we provide an environment in which the majority of the country is able to go about its daily business? The answer is yes. But the key point is Baghdad in particular. Baghdad is the main effort; it's the point where we've got to get greater control of security, stability, so that peace and prosperity can start moving in a good direction there.

JIM LEHRER: Since the very beginning, General, as you know, there's been all kind of conversation, all kinds of debate about the proper size of an American force in Iraq.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Right.

JIM LEHRER: You say you're prepared to even bring in more troops than the 140,000 you have now. Is that right?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Certainly, I know what the debate's been about enough troops, but we've been up as high as around 185,000. We've been down as low as 120,000, so that the number of U.S. forces in Iraq at any given time has gone up and down quite a bit.

People always forget about the 23,000 coalition troops that are in Iraq. People forget about the nearly 300,000 Iraqis that are under arms in the army and the police, an additional 100,000 working for various ministries that are under arms working for the ministries.

It's important to understand that, with that much force in the country, that we've got to ensure that, first and foremost, people understand it's primarily an Iraqi job to maintain security. We use American forces where it really requires military effort.

JIM LEHRER: So if somebody says to you, "General, if you had 247,000 troops or 347,000 troops, would that do the job?" In other words, could the country be made safe and the violence ended, sectarian violence, as well as the insurgency?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: You know, Jim, I think I've tried to articulate over the past years -- and General Casey has tried to do the same thing -- that the tension in this mission has always been between how much we do and how much we ask the Iraqis to do. The longer we stay, the more we must ask the Iraqis to do.

Putting another 100,000 American troops in Iraq is something that I don't think would be good for the mission overall, because it would certainly cause Americans to go to the front, Americans to take responsibility. And we're at the point in the mission where it's got to fall upon the Iraqis.

They know that; they want responsibility. The key question is having the right balance, and I believe we're maintaining the right balance. But I understand the debate.

Dealing with sectarian violence

Army Gen. John Abizaid
Commander, U.S. Central Command
It's absolutely clear to me the enemy has made Iraq the central front in the battle, not us, but the enemy. And because of that, we are fighting at the right place at the right time, and we need to get it under control.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the debate, does your decisions on troop levels, is it affected at all by the decline in public and congressional support for U.S. presence in Iraq?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: No. My overall theater responsibilities include Afghanistan, they include Iraq, and they include any sort of unforeseen military problem that might arise in the region. You also know we have a small contingent down in the Horn of Africa operating, for example.

The region is extremely volatile. It's a region where there's terrorism in every one of the 27 countries. There's some form of insurgency in nearly every one of the 27 countries, where a country such as Iran sponsors terrorist groups on the Shia revolutionary side.

And so the volatility in the region not only requires that we apply troops at the specific point to deal with the specific problem, such as Iraq and also Afghanistan, but it also requires that we have the ability to reach back and bring forces in to deal with whatever problem might arise.

And then the final thing I'd say is it's hugely important for us to keep in mind that the flow of oil and the flow of natural resources through the Straits of Hormuz, the Bab-el-Mandeb, and the Suez Canal have got to continue. And that falls to the United States Armed Forces, which is why we currently have about 215,000 Americans serving in my region.

JIM LEHRER: Are you the least bit concerned about the drop in public support for what you're doing?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Every American soldier wants as much public support as he can possibly have. That's the soldiers on duty in Iraq, and that's me, as well. We fight better knowing that our people back home support us, back us, and understand what we're doing. It's hugely important.

JIM LEHRER: Lee Hamilton who is the co-chair of the study group on Iraq, this new thing co-chaired with Jim Baker, said yesterday that his reading of the thing is that the Iraq situation, in terms of the public mind in the United States, only has about three more months to go, when patience is going to completely wear out. Does that make sense to you?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: No, it doesn't make sense to me. I think -- you know, there's patience that I worry about, the patience of the American people, but what I worry more about is the orders of the president of the United States.

Our orders are to stay out in the region, to stabilize the region, to make the region much less conducive to the extremist threats that exist throughout. And it's absolutely clear to me the enemy has made Iraq the central front in the battle, not us, but the enemy. And because of that, we are fighting at the right place at the right time, and we need to get it under control.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, General, Prime Minister al-Maliki, do you believe that he and his government have the ability, have the resources and the will to do what needs to be done, along all the lines that we've been talking about up until now?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I've been associated with the Middle East for a long time. This is the hardest task I've ever seen a Middle Eastern government really be saddled with.

It requires the maintenance of a difficult alliance with foreign forces. It requires dealing with an insurgency. It requires dealing with sectarian violence. It requires a complete changeover of the political order and a complete changeover of the economic order.

Can they do it? Yes, they can do it. They've been in office for four months. They're Iraqi patriots before they're everything else. The more I get to know them, the more faith I have in them.

And I believe, just like our own forefathers that founded this country, that there was no choice but to go forward. They know that. They'll do that. We'll help them. And when they don't need our help any longer, we'll wish them the best.

JIM LEHRER: General, it's hard to find optimists in this country right now about the outcomes in Iraq. Are you an optimist?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I'm an optimist about the outcome in Iraq. I'm an optimist about the outcome in Afghanistan.

I believe that we've got a rare opportunity to be in front of the extremist ideology. We can deliver it a very sharp blow that will not allow it to become mainstream anywhere. And, first and foremost, that requires us to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan but, more importantly, to help the people in the region have the tools necessary to resist the extremist trends.

The vast majority of the people in the region don't want the extremists to win. They want a better life, just like we do. And they'll be able to resist it with our help. And as we give them the tools, we'll be able to reduce our presence more and more.

JIM LEHRER: General Abizaid, thank you very much.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Thank you, sir.