David Petraeus: “No Substitute” for U.S. Leadership in Iraq, Syria

May 17, 2016

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of ISIS, first appeared on the radar of Gen. David Petraeus in 2004, as the Iraqi insurgency was starting to gather momentum. Zarqawi was directing the chaos, and as Petraeus remembers, “It was clear that there was a very, very talented, charismatic, capable, inspirational leader” behind the violence.

“This was someone who had ability that ranged from the tactical to the strategic,” Petraeus told FRONTLINE. “It’s rare to find that in one person.”

Three years later, Zarqawi was dead, and Petraeus was back in Iraq implementing the strategy that would come to be known as the surge. The U.S. troop buildup would stem the sectarian warfare, but the gains didn’t last: By the end of 2011, U.S. troops were out of Iraq, and sectarian tensions were back on the rise. Meanwhile, across the border in Syria, war was beginning to foment.

Sensing an opportunity, what was left of Zarqawi’s followers began to regroup. Copying his playbook, they began seizing territory across Syria and Iraq, rebranded as ISIS, and in 2014, under a new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, they declared their own caliphate.

In the below interview for the documentary The Secret History of ISIS, Petraeus talks about Zarqawi’s influence, the unraveling of U.S. gains from the surge, and how American policy in Iraq and Syria helped fuel today’s instability. As Petraeus, who served as head of the CIA from 2011 to 2012 told FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk:

“I think it took some time before there was a recognition that, without U.S. leadership, the situation in Iraq could completely deteriorate, and the situation in Syria was going to just continue to spiral down farther and farther.”

This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 11, 2016.

Let’s start where we’re starting the film. We start with Colin Powell at the United Nations addressing the world and offering the casus belli for what we might want to do in Iraq. Where were you? Did you watch it, and what did you think about it?

… I did watch. I don’t recall whether I watched it live or certainly saw it later. And of course it was replayed many times since then. I was still back in the United States. We had just gone through the final train-up exercise, if you will, for the fight to Baghdad, and I was getting ready with the great 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), which I was privileged to command at that time, for an expected deployment to Kuwait. …

Why was Secretary of State Powell the man giving that speech? And what was the point?

Well, I think he had enormous credibility. He had a considerable moral authority, if you will, even, given his previous positions, his reputation, the respect we all had, frankly, for his integrity, for his judgment. And indeed, an inspirational leader on top of all of that.

So I think he was the ideal point man, if you will, to, again, lead this particular effort, to make the case for what ultimately became the invasion of Iraq.

And did he?

I think he made a very forceful case. Obviously he is first among those that look back and question obviously the facts that were provided to him, the evidence, supposed evidence at that time. But certainly I think all of us were convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that he had chemical weapons.

I had been the executive officer for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff back a few years earlier when we bombed Saddam on several different occasions to degrade his capabilities. There was a real conviction that he indeed had these weapons. In fact, he deceived everybody; he even deceived his own generals. They thought he had them somewhere as well. …

Let’s move forward to the landing of Paul Bremer in the country. You’re up in Mosul. … The first real official acts of Ambassador Bremer were CPA-1 and -2. You’re working with the Iraqi army, or what’s left of the Iraqi army. … What do you think when you hear about CPA-2?

When the first two orders came out, the Coalition Provisional Authority Orders 1 and 2, we had enormous concern. Clearly there had to be de-Baathification, and clearly Saddam’s army had to be disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated back into society. The flaw in each of these was that they didn’t have the additional piece. To do de-Baathification without an agreed process of reconciliation threw tens of thousands of people out of their jobs, out of their homes, out of their future, and even robbed them of their position in society. So there was no reason for these individuals to support the new Iraq. In fact, it was in their interest to oppose it.

And the effect was even bigger with the army, because it was a larger organization. Here, the flaw was to announce the firing of the Iraqi army without telling those soldiers what their future was.

Week after week after week, the big demonstrations got larger and larger. There was enormous concern until about five weeks where there were actually killings, because the demonstrations were out of hand.

At a certain point in there, around that moment, I was in Baghdad, and I sought out the individual who oversaw that particular policy, and I told him that his policy was killing our troopers. That resulted in some quick action to then announce that there would be stipends for the soldiers, but that took a while as well.

The truth is that these two orders absolutely undermined — and they were a body blow, almost a knockout punch to everything that we had been developing up till that time. We’d run elections actually in Mosul, or really a caucus system in Mosul, to establish a provisional provincial council and then a provisional governor. We had Iraqi partners; they were helping us. This was a joint effort. They obviously knew their country and their province far better than we did, and we needed that assistance and that help.

Then several weeks later, here come these two orders. And the effect, frankly, was devastating. I think that’s where the seeds of what became the Sunni insurgency were largely planted. Those seeds fell on fertile ground because of a sense of alienation between those individuals now fired, now on the ash heap of history, if you will, and those who were running the country in Baghdad. …

In the 101st Airborne Division headquarters in Mosul, we had a sign on the wall. It was a question that we would ask ourselves before every new operation or policy initiative. It asked: Will this policy or operation take more bad guys off the streets than it creates by its conduct? And the fact is that CPA Orders 1 and 2 flunked that question big time. …

As the summer goes on, now we’re in August, the insurgency is happening. … The U.N. gets bombed. The Jordanian embassy gets bombed. Many people we’ve talked to said this is [Abu Musab al-]Zarqawi pulling together part of his initial master plan: We’re going to degrade outsiders who the United States is relying on. We’re going to run people away, the United Nations people, NGOs [non-governmental agencies] away. We’re going to take on the Americans as phase one. Phase two, of course, will be the Shia civil war, Shia-Sunni civil war in a little while. Did you know … that something bigger than just random insurgency was happening?

The U.N. compound bombing, which tragically killed the special representative of the secretary-general, along with many other members of that mission, but one of the great international diplomats, Sergio [Vieira] de Mello, that was devastating. We knew when that happened, first of all, that this was a very significant plot. This required considerable expertise with explosives, with tradecraft, with all the rest of this to get that bomb in that position and to blow it up.

We knew immediately that the effect of this was going to be equally devastating, because the non-governmental organizations that we’d enticed to Mosul, for example, and that the other commanders had enticed to their areas, they all left. It was almost instantaneous. We’d worked very, very hard indeed to get them into Mosul. We’d actually rehabilitated an old hotel, turned it into the civil military operation center. They had rooms there. We got them down from the Kurdish region, which is where they were staying, sort of watching what was going on in Iraq proper, and we were all of a sudden starting to get programs going.

Again, this was a devastating blow to the effort to get international organizations, non-governmental organizations, supporting the rebuilding of the new Iraq, which was so important to solidifying the gains that we had achieved in terms of security, in terms of local governance and so on.

Why was Washington so reluctant to use the word “insurgency” for so long?

The word “insurgency” had connotations that really sent a shiver down the spine of folks in Washington, in the United States — for good reason, because it means this is something much bigger than just a few terrorist cells. This is a real movement. This has an ideology. It has leadership. It has logistics, explosives expertise, tactical capability, command and control.

So I think there was a reluctance, frankly, to acknowledge that, because that means that the mission was not accomplished. That means that this is going south. And there had been declarations about how well this was going and so forth. …

You may recall that then over time, there was a phrase that emerged, the so-called long war, which we thought was appropriate; we thought it was accurate. It was descriptive of what it was we were engaged in. But again, that is not something that played well on the home front.

There’s a time during the fall when an awful lot of the military leaves, and for guys like Zarqawi and other insurgent leaders and other foreign fighters coming in, it’s kind of an open field across parts of Iraq, especially up in the tribal territories. … Is there a sense, just as a battlefield commander, that these guys, it seemed like they had a kind of free run?

There was a sense that the insurgents had really freedom of action, of maneuver in certain parts of the country, where we just did not have the density of forces required to deal with what was developing. Anbar province was most prominent, I think, of all of these. You had a single armored cavalry regiment, very good organization, talented commander. But there’s no way that that organization of, say, 5,000 or 6,000 soldiers could deal with this vast expanse that comprised Anbar province. …

“The word ‘insurgency’ had connotations that really sent a shiver down the spine of folks in Washington, in the United States.”

So there was no question that that unit in particular needed a lot of help. We were trying to help. Others were conducting operations there. But it was very clear at that time that additional forces were going to have to be returned to Iraq. And indeed they were. A Marine force was brought in to establish a divisional-size element in Anbar province, and then other forces were fleshed out as well.

When did Zarqawi come onto your radar screen? …

I really started to get a sense of how, if you will, special Zarqawi was I guess sort of midway through 2004. I was brought back after the first tour to establish the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I), which was going to rebuild everything and the Ministry of Defense — all the army, navy, air force elements — and then the Ministry of Interior — all the police, the special police, border customs and everything else.

We were in the midst of that. And of course the insurgency is gathering further momentum. It was clear that there was a very, very talented, charismatic, capable, inspirational leader, really. This was someone who had ability that ranged from the tactical to the strategic. It’s rare to find that in one person, and then to have someone who’s also, again, an inspirational figure in insurgent terms, if you will, and managed to play all of the different chords that would appeal to would-be jihadists, indeed, to those Sunni Arabs in Iraq who felt alienated, dispossessed by what was going on in Iraq as Saddam and his minority Sunni Arab regime were ousted and a Shia-led — given that Shia Arabs are the majority in the country — appropriately Shia-led government in Baghdad was being established.

It seems to us, as we draw the timeline, that when Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal’s troops finally get Zarqawi —

Which was in 2006, right?

Correct. While there are followers, … it begins the degradation of Al Qaeda Iraq and then eventually Islamic State of Iraq. …

Well, I would be careful with that. Let me talk about that for a second.

There’s no question that the killing of Zarqawi was a very, very significant blow to Al Qaeda in Iraq. But the fact is that violence continued to rise after that. 2006 was a year of just unending increases in violence, beginning with the bombing that was carried out by Al Qaeda in Iraq of the very holy Shia shrine in Samarra, a Shia shrine in a Sunni Arab majority area. That set off a cycle of violence between Sunni and Shia that Al Qaeda tried to fuel as much as they possibly could, Zarqawi directing it, of course, very capably, tragically very ably, until his death.

But then it continues. And this violence had so much momentum. The cycle was in such full, full-blown fashion that it was very, very difficult to stop it when we conducted the surge, starting in February 2007.

The surge, all the success of the surge —

Let me talk a little bit about that.

Keep in mind that the surge that mattered most was not the addition of 25,000-plus troops to an existing 135,000 or 140,000 American troops. The surge that mattered was the surge of ideas. It was the change in strategy. We literally did the opposite of everything that President Bush and Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki agreed to do in Amman, [Jordan], just a few months earlier in November 2006, after the election, where the Republicans lost control of the Congress. They met and agreed to get the Americans out of the cities, out of the populated areas, to accelerate the transition to the Iraqi security forces [ISF], to release detainees faster and so forth. The surge of ideas, we did everything opposite.

We knew that the only way to secure the people is to live with them, so we created in Baghdad alone 77 new locations where our forces and, in most cases, Iraqi forces were co-located. We stopped the transition to Iraqi security forces; indeed, we actually rolled it back. They had become incapable of dealing with the level of violence that was being experienced.

Let’s remember that in December 2006, when the president made the decision to surge, then announced it after that, there were 53 dead civilian bodies every 24 hours in Baghdad alone due to violence, though this does not even include the actual fighters, the Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents or the Shia militia. This is just innocent civilians on the streets of Baghdad. The level of violence was horrific. The suicide bombings and the significant attacks actually went up through February and March before they started to come down.

We stopped releasing detainees. I realized that we had to do counterinsurgency inside the wire as well as outside. We had to identify the extremists in the population, take them out, put them in maximum-security facilities that we had to build, so that we could then rehabilitate the rank and file, if you will, and then re-insert them with the tribal and judicial system that dramatically reduced the recidivism rate.

Then the fourth huge idea was that, of course, we recognized that we could not kill or capture our way out of an industrial-strength insurgency; that we needed to reconcile with as many of the rank and file, the lower-level Sunni insurgents and members of even Al Qaeda in Iraq, even as we amped up, increased the tempo of this special operations targeted raids against the irreconcilables, the leaders, the kingpins of Al Qaeda, of the Sunni insurgent groups, and then ultimately the same with the Shia militia, who were the other side of this Sunni-Shia cycle of violence. …

The surge lasted, really, from February 2007 until the last of the surge brigades was redeployed in July 2008. In that time, violence was reduced very, very dramatically.

And it actually went down farther. People forget that the results of the surge were sustained for a good three, three and a half years, until very late 2011, when Prime Minister Maliki began the series of actions that ultimately, once again, alienated the Sunni Arab population that we’d worked so hard to bring back into the fabric of society through reconciliation and a variety of other initiatives during the surge, and that were sustained beyond, until they were undone. And that was tragic — very, very difficult to watch.

I was the director of the CIA at the time, could see what was going on. People were certainly trying to influence the prime minister not to take further steps, not to do what we feared he might do. Tragically, he took every one of those steps, and more.

Let’s go across the border to Syria. Whatever remnants are left of Al Qaeda in Iraq —

At the end of the day, it is accurate to state that Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgency — because there were some other groups as well — that these elements were destroyed, not just defeated. You know, the military definition of destruction is that you are rendered incapable of performing your mission without reconstitution. So they’re flat on their face, and they’re down, and we had our boot on their neck.

Tragically, not only was the boot let up by not keeping the pressure on them after we left, conditions were created where they were actually enabled to get back up. …

They then drift into Syria. They generate enormous additional capability there, getting weapons and explosives and vehicles, and actually become a real conventional military force. This is an army now; this is no longer an insurgency, a guerrilla movement, terrorist cell. This is a serious army with thousands of individuals in the different elements that ultimately moved back first into Anbar province, just west of Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah and so forth.

Then, of course, the big blow is the swift movement into Ninewa province and the seizure of Mosul, the traditional capital of the north, if you will, a two-million-strong city that was very, very important and marked a dramatic defeat of the Iraqi security forces, who had been deteriorating because of a lack of training, a lack of good leadership. In fact, Prime Minister Maliki put leaders back in charge that I’d insisted be fired during the surge before we would reconstitute their units. These were Shia Arab and abusive, and that did not work well in the Sunni Arab north.

I’m now thinking of the Damascus bombing of the security forces. … As director of CIA, did you recognize, too, that something more than just freedom fighters or whatever was at work here? … Is that bombing important in terms of the marking on the wall the comments where what will eventually become ISIS is showing itself?

I think the bombing was an inflection point that indicated the seriousness of the Sunni Arab opposition in Syria to the Bashar al-Assad regime. Keep in mind, the Bashar al-Assad regime, this Alawite Shia-aligned element, is less than 15 percent of the population. Sunni Arabs are some 65 or more percent.

Initially there were peaceful demonstrations. These were put down violently by Bashar’s forces, and that then sparked this cycle of violence that ultimately is really punctuated by that particular bombing to which you’re referring. But that becomes just the first of many.

Now, this is at a point before the Islamic State is really established, frankly, before the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] puts forces in there in a substantial way, certainly well before Lebanese Hezbollah joins Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and way before the Russians establish their airbase in the northwest and begin bombing various organizations that are opposing Bashar, which by no means are limited to the Islamic State. In fact, 80 percent of the Russian bombs are being dropped on the forces we had been seeking to support.

So that was a significant event. But it really ultimately ends up being just one of many significant events as Bashar’s regime leadership is being targeted quite accurately and a number of very prominent individuals are killed or wounded, and then others defect. There was a period where the regime seemed to be tottering, but it obviously steadied itself. It drew assistance from Iran, the Quds Force, Hezbollah, Shia militias in the region, and then most recently, of course, Russian air assets.

… Do you know about [Abu Bakr al-]Baghdadi as director of the CIA? … Is it different than Zarqawi? Who is he? What is he?

What sets Baghdadi apart from the others is, again, a bit of what Zarqawi had, that he has the ability that ranges all the way from the tactical to the strategic. But in particular at the strategic, he has this vision of not just a terrorist organization and an extremist organization, but of a state. It’s obviously in the title of the organization, the Islamic State. And he establishes quite functioning governance in these locations. He has the sense to find revenue-generating mechanisms. He’s exporting oil, crude oil in various fashions. He’s robbing banks. He captures all kinds of equipment in Syria, and then even more in Iraq.

He demonstrates this talent for establishing a quasi-state over what is a very vast area and maintains that for quite some time until the U.S.-supported Iraqi offensive first halts the Islamic State on the outskirts of Baghdad and then starts to roll it back, an effort that has gradually gained momentum, that has really taken shape and form, and seems to indicate that the Islamic State can very much be defeated in Iraq, although the question then is whether the center of gravity of the issues in Iraq, Baghdad politics, whether those politics can be sufficiently inclusive to once again get the Sunni Arab part of the population to feel that it has a reason to support the new Iraq, rather than to continue to oppose it.

… There’s a famous meeting, lunch with Hillary Clinton, where you’re invited over to her house to talk to her. What about that can you tell us?

Well, this was on a Saturday, actually, where I went over to sit down with her and discuss a number of issues. The Islamic State, Syria, Iraq were just among a number of different issues that we wanted to bat around and wanted to compare notes on before subsequent so-called principals committee meetings. …

Certainly there was discussion of how we could help not only the Iraqis at that point in time, although Prime Minister Maliki was still in office and that made this quite difficult, but also how we could help the Sunni opposition in Syria. …

… What can you tell us about what was proposed to the president, for him to actually hear about what you thought and others thought needed to be done at this stage of what was happening in Syria?

Look, I can’t go into what I might have recommended as the director of the CIA, because if I had recommended something, it would be in the realm of covert action, because we don’t do overt action. That’s something that I wouldn’t discuss. …

… When the president chooses a different course of action, what [are] the implications of that choice to you?

Years later, I think it is pretty clear, as you look back, that the lack of U.S. support at the time for various opposition forces likely was a missed opportunity. After that, of course, you then see other countries in the region — Saudis, Qataris, Emiratis — arming and funding different elements, sometimes elements that are a little bit competitive with one another. You start to see the emergence of the Islamic State and the establishment of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate [also known as Al-Nusra Front]. So they’ve parted ways. The Al Qaeda senior leadership in the tribal areas of western Pakistan has essentially excommunicated the Islamic State for not being a team player under Jabhat al-Nusra.

You then even see the dispatch of leaders to establish the Khorasan group in northern Syria as a base, as a cell that would then project terrorist and extremist action into Europe and perhaps into the U.S. homeland as well.

Absent American action there, some people tell us in the moment of the red line about chemical weapons, the president’s lack of teeth to a response to that demonstrates an unwillingness by the administration to really get involved. … Is that a fair characterization of what you saw?

I think it’s accurate and fair to say that, given the experiences in Iraq and the experiences in Afghanistan, the enormous cost of these endeavors, the frustrations involved, the loss of life, the huge sums of money expended, that the pendulum swung quite a way away from that kind of activity, that we were trying to end wars, not to continue them or start new ones.

I think it took some time before there was a recognition that, without U.S. leadership, the situation in Iraq could completely deteriorate, and the situation in Syria was going to just continue to spiral down farther and farther, and indeed, that other, new problems were going to emerge, as we now see, centered on Sirte in Libya, where an Islamic State element is gathering strength, and leaders have gone there. It could be the new center of gravity of the ISIS movement.

The result of inaction?

Again, all of this is a result of American reluctance to some degree. But it’s not just American reluctance; it’s international reluctance. Again, all have been engaged together in Iraq and in Afghanistan. All have shared this, if you will, lesson of how costly and frustrating and difficult these endeavors are. And I think it’s understandable.

This is always the case in the United States. There was a no-more-Koreas; there was a no-more-Vietnams. And I think for a period of time there was a no-more-Iraqs or -Afghanistans, until there was this very clear recognition that U.S. leadership was indispensable; it was irreplaceable. I think we have now seen that. And we’ve then gone into Iraq.

We’re executing a campaign that has many of the elements, really almost all of the elements of the comprehensive strategy we pursued during the surge, but with two huge differences: that the ground forces, the conventional forces in this fight, are being provided by the Iraqis, and that the reconciliation effort, the effort, the initiative to bring Sunni Arabs back into the fabric of Iraqi society, this has to be performed by Iraqis — not just led by Iraqis, but done by Iraqis; that we can’t do it this time. We are not the strongest tribe in Iraq the way we were during the surge, when we had 165,000 great young American men and women engaged in helping Iraq drive down the level of violence and stabilize the situation in the country.

… What did it feel like to watch ISIS come across [Iraq], to know they’ve been sort of invited in [with] deals by tribes you had at one time worked with and cooperated with. What did that feel like to you, to see that happen?

Of course I was long out of government by the time the Islamic State sweeps back into Iraq — as an army, not as an insurgent group or terrorist organization — and it takes down the Iraqi security forces very, very significantly, of course, up in Ninewa province, and Mosul in particular.

“It took some time before there was a recognition that, without U.S. leadership, the situation in Iraq could completely deteriorate, and the situation in Syria was going to just continue to spiral down farther and farther, and indeed, that other, new problems were going to emerge.”

It was tragic to watch, obviously. It resulted in the loss of enormous amounts of equipment, lives, infrastructure, everything that we’d worked so hard to rebuild and to re-establish during the surge and beyond. And it had been undermined, frankly, by the Iraqi government and the very highly sectarian actions that it took. This was the culmination of all of that. It was, again, very, very sad. …

Was there a general warning that we need to do something about the rise of Islamic extremists in Syria while you were at the CIA?

There clearly was a concern through 2012 that what was developing was a highly Islamist and then ultimately, of course, extremist element in northern Syria in particular, and that these groups were actually causing problems for the moderate opposition, if you will, that we were trying to help in a variety of ways and that the Gulf States were also resourcing in many cases as well.

I understand you can’t talk about any covert plans, but there was clearly a debate going on in 2012 about whether to get involved in Syria. I was wondering if you could just in general terms explain what your position on that was, and what were the different sides, and where did the president come out on it.

The lessons of the post-Arab Spring period are pretty clear. I think there are arguably four of these.

The first is that ungoverned or even inadequately governed spaces in a swath of territory from West Africa through North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia will be exploited by Islamic extremists. We have seen this repeatedly in any area in that particular region that have seen ungoverned spaces emerge.

The second lesson is that the effects of what’s going on in these ungoverned spaces will not be limited just to those areas, that this is not going to be contained. In fact, I’ve described Syria as a geopolitical Chernobyl that is spewing instability, extremism, violence and refugees, not just throughout the Middle East region but indeed into Europe, and causing enormous challenges for our European allies, and indeed even effecting, generating some violence in the United States.

Third, we have learned that U.S. leadership in ideally preventing such spaces emerging or dealing with them when they materialize, that U.S. leadership is absolutely indispensable, that there is no substitute for it. That does not mean we shouldn’t seek partners and allies; we should. Churchill was right when he said that the only thing worse than allies is not having any, and we should always get the host nation to do as much as it absolutely can. But again, the U.S. is going to have to lead the effort.

And then, fourth and finally, that what is done has to be a comprehensive approach, not just a narrow counterterrorism approach. Drone strikes, targeted operations will not be enough. There has to be much more than that. Now, again, that doesn’t mean that the U.S. has to provide the ground forces or the political component or what have you. It does mean that all of those elements do have to be present, and that the U.S. again is going to provide absolutely vital capabilities in these efforts.

Again, no country in the world — in fact, all of the other countries in the world together don’t have remotely the capabilities that the U.S. can bring to bear in these situations.

Somebody told us that Baghdadi had learned through you and from the surge about the importance of reaching out to the tribes.

I can’t confirm or deny that. I mean, it’s flattering to hear. It’s obvious; it’s essential. Look, I don’t know where Baghdadi learned what he is now employing quite skillfully. But there was no question in my mind, after years in Iraq, that the tribes always had to be part of any solution that you were going to advance. You couldn’t make progress that was sustainable without involvement of the tribes, of their leaders and integrating that into the governance plans and procedures that were established.

Can you comment on the debate over the removal of the troops in December 2011, and what the effect was or was not?

I don’t think there’s any guarantee that keeping 10,000 troops in Iraq would have meant that Prime Minister Maliki would not have taken the highly sectarian actions that he did that so inflamed the situation with the Sunni Arab population that they once again constituted fertile fields for the planting of the seeds of Sunni insurgency, and indeed even Sunni extremism.

I would have liked to have taken that chance, though. I would have liked for us to have had the basis from which you could gather intelligence more effectively, to have had the situational awareness, to have had the possibility of helping our Iraqi partners if calamities arose, as they did. And of course it was a challenge to get our forces back on the ground, to rebuild bases, to re-establish the command-and-control pipes and all the rest of that, to rebuild the logistics capabilities for sustaining all of these forces.

Interestingly, of course, we do have some 3,700 to 3,800 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq without a status of forces agreement [SOFA] now. That does cause some reflection back to when the decision was made to remove them, because we could not get a status of forces agreement. To be sure, we have a degree of confidence in this prime minister, I think, that was not present when we withdrew the troops.

Again, there’s no certainties here whatsoever. Again, it was by no means axiomatic that the withdrawal of those troops led the prime minister to do what he did, or that the presence of those troops would have given us the influence to keep him from doing what it was that he did to undo all that we’d fought and sacrificed so much for in the previous four and a half, five years, starting with the surge. …

We should remember that there were hundreds of American forces that did remain after all of our combat elements departed, and this was the security assistance effort. And indeed, there was a three-star general in charge of it, so it was not as if there was no U.S. military presence whatsoever.

Rather, it was a very circumscribed presence, strictly there to help with the introduction of equipment that Iraq had purchased and to help them field this equipment in all the activities connected with that. …

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