David Petraeus: ISIS’s Rise in Iraq Isn’t a Surprise


July 29, 2014

Gen. David Petraeus took over as the commanding general of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq in 2007, and oversaw the surge. He also served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2011 until his resignation in 2012. Petraeus spoke to FRONTLINE about why the surge worked, the origins of the Sunni “Sons of Iraq” movement, and why the U.S. should’ve seen ISIS coming. This is the edited transcript of that interview, conducted on July 7, 2014.

Gen. Petraeus, let’s start with 2006, the debate on the need for the “surge,” a very big change in strategy at that point. … Give me your take on … what the debate was about and why.

Well, 2006 was a very, very tough year for Iraq and indeed for our actions in Iraq. With the bombing of the Samarra mosque — the destruction of the third holiest Shia shrine in Iraq and indeed one that is in a Sunni Arab town of Samarra that took place in February — and you saw after that the steady escalation of violence that became very nearly a sectarian civil war. …

It reached such levels that in December of 2006, there were 53 dead civilian bodies due to violence every 24 hours. Just think of that. That is beyond the security forces. That is beyond the enemy forces. These are civilians in the capital of the country.

And essentially the strategy that had been proceeding along up until that Samarra mosque bombing, it was just unhinged. It was undone. And then over time, as the violence escalated, the concept of transitioning tasks to the Iraqi security forces so that we could thin out and go home was invalidated. …

Now, there were different ways forward, and there was certainly not consensus that the way forward was to provide additional forces to an effort that was seen by many as failing. But that obviously was the decision made by the president. I think it was a very courageous decision. …

We added, over time, a little over 25,000 additional American men and women in uniform to an existing [140,000 or so]. So it took it up to about 165,000. Clearly that 25,000 in and of itself was not key to achieving the dramatic results that actually were, over time, the result of the surge.

The surge that mattered was the change in strategy or the change in ideas, and the first of those ideas being that the priority had to be on securing the Iraqi population, and that this could only be done by living with the people.

So instead of consolidating on big bases — which is the direction we’d been going in — and handing off to Iraqi forces, we went back to the neighborhoods in Baghdad and other areas that were also threatened by this ever-spiraling sectarian strife, this essentially civil war, Sunni on Shia. …

So we actually in Baghdad alone established 77 new locations for our forces. Each one of these invariably entailed a fight, but we had to go into the neighborhoods. We had to be there with the people 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Over time, they began to realize that we weren’t going to leave, we weren’t going to clear and hand off, we were going to clear and hold and then build out Iraqi security force partners and then, over time, thin out.

Once that was recognized, they started to come to us and say, “Here, let us tell you where the bad guys are, because we want them out of our neighborhood.” So that was the biggest of the big ideas.

But another huge idea — and not something separate, not something just lucky — was the idea of promoting reconciliation with disaffected Sunni Arabs who felt they had been cast off, cast out of Iraq, that they had been disenfranchised. …

There was one small case of this outside Ramadi, in Anbar Province, when the surge began. It had been going on for several months, and I immediately went out there, assessed it, recognized that this is the kernel of a huge idea, that if we could achieve critical mass and set off a chain reaction, first up and down the Euphrates River Valley and Anbar Province and then to Baghdad and then up and down the Tigris River Valley, each of these in the predominantly Sunni Arabs areas west and north of Baghdad, that we could really make a difference. And we set out to do that.

Over time this spawned the so-called Sunni Arab awakening, the Sons of Iraq. Ultimately we had 103,000 former insurgents, and actually over 20,000 former militia members part of that 103,000 to give you a sense of the magnitude of this endeavor.

But there were a lot of other big ideas. One was to stop transition, and the rationale was that the Iraqi forces couldn’t handle the level of violence that existed. We had to drive it down.

And by the way, they had been so damaged by the violence that in many cases we were going to have to seek new Iraqi leaders from the Iraqi government with their support; we were going to have to literally retrain entire units of the Iraqi security forces.

We had to do that for all of the police battalions and special police commandos, and we had to do it for a number of the army units as well. So until they could be developed, until the level of violence could go down to a level that they could handle, we could no longer hand off to them.

The same with releasing detainees. We’d come to recognize that in our detention facilities there were extremists in the midst of these detainee populations, and they were radicalizing the detainees. So what we were actually releasing was worse than what, in many cases, we had actually brought in.

Until we got those extremists out of the general population, put them in maximum-security facilities, and then had a rehabilitation process and a review process and even a job-training and education component that we could put them back in society without an enormous recidivism rate. So we overhauled that as well.

There was also much greater commitment — even more than what existed before, and that was considerable — between Gen. [George W.] Casey and Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad. But with Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker, he and I dedicated ourselves to absolutely achieving civil military unity of effort, and we spread that message throughout our respective organizations.

So this was what really mattered. The additional forces enabled the implementation of these big ideas, this surge of ideas, much more rapidly than would have otherwise been the case.

And in fact, in that regard it was invaluable, because had we not had progress to report when Ambassador Crocker and I went back to Congress in September of 2007, it’s very possible that the policy, the residual, small amount of support on Capitol Hill would have evaporated completely.

Instead, in eight of 11 weeks prior to that hearing, … we saw a dramatic reduction in violence so that it was down by some 45 or 50 percent by the time [we] got to those first hearings.

“Al Qaeda had been abusive. It had been blowing Sunni Arabs up and Sunni mosques up in addition to Shia Arabs and mosques. So they were keen to get these individuals out of their areas…”

And ultimately, over the course of the surge overall, by the time I left in September 2008, the level of violence was down by some 90 percent or so, and we were able to get on with transitioning tasks to Iraqi forces that were doing fine, that had been reinvigorated, rehabilitated, redeveloped.

And indeed other institutions had been rebuilt. Oil and electrical towers and pipelines were patched up. By and large, Iraq was functioning in a quite impressive manner by the end of the surge.

In the beginning of the surge, remind us, it seemed that it wasn’t going really well.

Before I went back, I said: “Get ready, because it is going to get harder before it gets easier. We are going to take away from Al Qaeda Sunni insurgents on one hand and then Shia militia extremists on the other, the areas in which they operate. We are going to fight them for these neighborhoods. We’re going to interpose our forces between the sectarian, the rivals, the enemies that are in these fights that are ongoing in Baghdad and in the other areas there was fighting like this, and that was very, very tough.

Naturally the level of violence went up before it went down, and it continued to go up, and American casualties continued to go up to the May-June time frame. It was somewhere in mid-June where all of a sudden we started to see it come down. …

The Sunni insurgents, the over 100,000 that you brought onboard basically, where did the idea come from that we actually had to involve them, we had to put them on the payroll to really bring them within our realm?

First of all, you have to recognize that the Sunni Arabs were not going to reconcile. They were not going to have an awakening, if you will. They weren’t going to raise their hand and say, “We’ll take on Al Qaeda,” until they were assured that we could secure them. …

Once they saw that we were committed, once they saw that we were able to secure them, they’d gotten tired of Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda had been abusive. It had been blowing Sunni Arabs up and Sunni mosques up in addition to Shia Arabs and mosques. So they were keen to get these individuals out of their areas and to reintegrate into an Iraq which has such bounty.

Let’s remember that Iraq can generate — even at that time it could generate $110 billion per year just in oil exports alone, if we could get the pipelines and all the production facilities and the electrical towers upright and operating again. …

Once they realized that this was possible, then they raised their hand. They said: “Let us help you. We will help secure our areas alongside your soldiers, and then what we’d like to do over time is of course we’d like to find employment for our young men.”

And what we said is, “OK.” In the meantime, we’ll give a modest part of a salary of what a soldier or a policeman got in Iraq, but it was something to keep them going. It was a relatively modest amount of money in the grand scheme of what we were spending at the time, and in my view was well worth it. It basically was to secure static sites as security contractors.

… Were they also feeling that within Iraq they were becoming part of the political system again?

… The initial reconciliation was really with us. Keep in mind that in Anbar Province and in particular Fallujah, Ramadi, these other very tough towns up and down the Euphrates River Valley, there were very, very few Iraqi security forces and relatively modest Iraqi authorities in terms of their ability to actually secure their areas.

So they were really reconciling with what some folks termed the biggest tribe, which was our forces. And then over time we worked with the Iraqi government, I would work with Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki. We had other people. We had other organizations built, the Iraqis built elements, so that we could start to work together with the Iraqi government and there could be Iraqi oversight and, very importantly, Iraqi buy-in. …

Was Maliki supportive of this? Some people said that he stood in the way in some ways, that he had a more sectarian sort of attitude toward it.

Initially Prime Minister Maliki, understandably I think, had some concerns about the idea of reconciling. By the way, our own commanders had concerns about this. I had commanders come to me and say: “We can’t sit down across the table from these guys. They’ve got our blood on their hands.” And I’d say, “Yes, indeed they do.”

That’s how these kinds of fights typically end: You have the reconcilables. We want to get as many as possible again to be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem. Then that will identify the irreconcilables. These will be the leaders, the hard-core Al Qaeda elements, the hard-core Sunni insurgent leaders. And then we will go after them.

In fact, another huge idea was that we amped up, as we said, the tempo of operations against them, Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal and then Adm. [William] McRaven’s Joint Special Operations Command Forces, which were conducting an extraordinary number of operations every single night, really every 24-hour period over time against the irreconcilables of Sunni and, over time, the irreconcilables on the Shia militia extremist side as well.

But over time, Prime Minister Maliki came to see the wisdom in this, … so now Prime Minister Maliki then did reach out. I remember we were flying north to Tikrit to a case where there was the beginning of an awakening, now in the Tigris River Valley, and he had a couple of suitcases with him, and I said: “Prime Minister, maybe I wasn’t clear enough, but we’re not going to spend the night up in Tikrit. We were thinking we’d just go up there, spend the day, and then we’d come back this evening.” And he said, “Oh, these aren’t clothes.” It was money.

So he very much got into the swing of things, supporting what came to be known as the Sons of Iraq that were the outgrowth of the awakening or really the reconciliation process. The overall intent of this over time was to bring the fabric of society back together, a fabric that had been torn apart during the increasing sectarian violence of 2006, and to get a few stitches back into it by the end of the surge. Indeed I think it is accurate to say that that’s what took place.

… Did you ever wonder what happens the day we leave?

We were always thinking about what happened as we, first of all, reduced our forces, increasingly handed off tasks to Iraqi security forces and Iraqi institutions, and ultimately when we really slimmed down to what might be just a security assistance effort some years hence.

And that’s why we worked so hard with Prime Minister Maliki and his government during the surge and indeed beyond as well, because the progress continued beyond the surge. …

The progress did continue after September 2008. Violence continued to go down. The economy came back. Oil production was up. Electricity production was up. Basic institutions and infrastructure were repaired. There was new construction. So there were lots of good initiatives that were going on. …

There was a sense that this can move forward, that as long as there is a sense of Iraq, not just of one sect or ethnic group or another, that this endeavor can continue to progress.

President Obama takes over in Washington. What’s the lay of the land?

When President Obama and the new administration came in, I think the situation was quite good, frankly.

Gen. [Raymond] Odierno was still the commander at that time. I think the president showed a degree of flexibility, of good analysis and decision in terms of the way forward for Iraq that was decided on at that time, how to further draw down our forces toward what might be the end of our time there, although there was always a sense that perhaps there would be an agreement that you could continue with some forces in Iraq beyond that time of late 2011 that was mandated in the agreement, negotiated by the previous administration.

But again, it continued apace. And although I ended up being in Afghanistan now from summer 2010 to summer 2011, my sense was that that progress generally continued as well.

Was there a concern among some of the Iraqis? Because of course the president campaigned on the idea that we were leaving and there had been an agreement under Bush in 2008 that 2011 was the date that we would start moving out. … Did you see any problems because of that?

I’m just not sure I’m in a position, because again, I was focused on Afghanistan during the period of government formation in 2010. I guess it was, and I sort of missed some of the drama of that, candidly. …

I should point out that we should remember that part of the context in the later years, if you will, after the surge was a memory of Prime Minister Maliki making a very courageous decision in late March of 2008 to go after the Shia militia in Basra. …

This was a much more close-run affair than people realize at times. I think it very easily could have resulted in the defeat of the Iraqi security forces and therefore of Prime Minister Maliki personally. His own brigadier general who commanded his security brigade was killed during the fighting in Basra, to give a sense of how many indirect fire rounds were descending on the location in which he was positioned in Basra at the time. …

He then supported the fight in Sadr City, where we went after the militias that were in Baghdad, and then fights in other places of Baghdad. …

… What was your take on the debate in Washington going on about some concerns that some of the moves he made were too sectarian in nature? That was damaging because of his background. I mean, in 2003, he was running the de-Baathification program when he came back.

“Actions against the minister of finance, then years later a prominent Sunni parliamentarian and others, and really quite violent treatment of what started out as peaceful demonstrators in the wake of these different actions, it was a catalyst for a renewed sense among the Sunni Arab population that they, once again, didn’t have a seat at the table in their country.”

No, he wasn’t. Ahmed Chalabi was running the de-Baathification program. … He might have been a deputy. … He was a second-tier figure. …

And the point of view of Americans toward him coming in in 2006 was?

I think in 2006 people just wanted to form the government at a certain point in time. …

… Why were you brought in to command in Iraq? You were not the normal general in a lot of people’s mind. You were an egghead in a way. You were from Princeton, and you were not seen in the same way as other generals were, and especially on this war. …

I have to leave it to others as to why they picked me.

We’d had a degree of success, if you will, in 2003, when I was privileged to command the 101st Airborne Division, although a lot of that unraveled when our reconciliation initiative there was not supported by the Iraqis who ran the de-Baathification and reconciliation commission. At least it went back because the three-star stood up the train-and-equip mission. So I knew that side of it as well.

So I guess, again, there is an amount of time on the ground at least that was useful. Then we’d thought about this intellectually quite a bit. And of course we did the Counterinsurgency Field Manual in 2006, when I was the commander of the Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth and oversaw the different schools and centers that were all preparing leaders and units to go to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I was a little bit different from a lot of others, and perhaps it was a sign of how desperate the times were that I got the nod. I don’t know.

So there’s a debate over when the troops are leaving, over the number of troops that will be left in 2011. There’s a difference of opinion from the DOD [Department of Defense] to the White House. Give us a little taste of what the debate was, why it was considered important, and where we ended up.

… I was in the CIA by just before Sept. 11, [2011,] and got into this particular, or at least observed the discussion at the Situation Room table.

I personally hoped that we could keep a force there but hoped that it could have a mission that would enable it to really contribute. I actually started to have my doubts that Prime Minister Maliki was going to allow that, frankly. … I was never sure that he’d allow our forces to really help, and I wasn’t certain what influence we’d had.

Having said that, I was a big supporter of keeping a force there on the idea that if it’s there, perhaps it can be useful. Perhaps it does have logistical bases. If push comes to shove, you have a footprint. You have individuals. You have people on the ground with a sense of what’s going on and so forth.

But at a certain point in time it was pretty clear that he wasn’t willing to take the agreement to the Parliament, which is what the bar was set. It had to have parliamentary approval. And thus, obviously, we ended up then removing those forces, although it’s important to remember we didn’t leave Iraq completely. We had hundreds of individuals that did stay with a three-star general, a two-star general, a one-star general initially, at least for quite a substantial security assistance effort.

This was the effort to bring well over $10 billion worth of U.S. equipment into Iraq, put it in the hands of Iraqi soldiers, ensure that they’re trained and understand how to operate it and maintain it and provide the logistical support for it.

When you saw the troops leaving, though, did you have any fears that it was too soon? …

My concern was what happened, literally, within days of the forces leaving. I actually happened to be in Baghdad at the time, or the day after Prime Minister Maliki pressed charges against the Sunni Arab vice president and his security detail.

Now, there were very few security details in Iraq by this point in time that probably hadn’t done something for which they could have been charged, so I’m not defending his security detail in the least. But to go after the senior Sunni Arab politician right after U.S. forces, the combat forces at least, depart sent quite a signal. And it was a real serious moment.

Ironically, the ambassador was not there. Everybody thought things were going OK. He had gone off on leave and was on his way back. The U.S. four-star was gone.

So here I was on the ground, as the director of the CIA, ended up shuttling back and forth between the different parties, the Shia-led government, Prime Minister Maliki, and then the Sunni leaders who were all holed up in one big compound with about 40 cameras waiting for them outside to make a statement, with M1 tanks all over the Green Zone pointed at different houses.

This was a very serious development. And tragically, what it did, of course, it started the process of undoing the process that we’d worked so hard to do during the surge and even in the years after the surge, which was to bring the fabric of Iraqi society back together, to get a few stitches in the hope that it could get more and more and more over time. And instead, this started to pull some of those stitches out and started a fraying process.

And then subsequent actions against the minister of finance, then years later a prominent Sunni parliamentarian and others, and really quite violent treatment of what started out as peaceful demonstrators in the wake of these different actions, it was a catalyst for a renewed sense among the Sunni Arab population that they, once again, didn’t have a seat at the table in their country, that they were once again going to be disenfranchised and cut out and that their leaders were targeted by the government. And that had a very, very harmful effect.

You add to that then, over the subsequent years, the replacement of a number of very competent military and police leaders with whom we not only worked but fought. We fought together with these individuals. We knew their capabilities, and they actually fought well, and a number of them were replaced by individuals that were really more sectarian loyalists frankly.

And then the chain of command was circumvented completely. Instead of the normal chain through military channels, operational area commands were created throughout the country, and each of those reported directly to the Office of the Commander in Chief, or the OCINC as it was called.

But as we saw in Ninawa Province and Mosul in particular, that was not an office that was trained, equipped, educated nor capable of commanding and controlling the kind of operational response that was necessary to what really was an ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] conventional force operation.

This is not just the actions of terrorist groups such as the assassination campaign that took place six months before the offensive. This was a real ISIS military action. The ISIS army is really the only way to think about it.

Of course that army became even stronger after they were able to capture a lot of the equipment that was surrendered by these individuals when they melted away.

… The day after our troops leave, as you said, the moves made against the vice president and some of the other Sunni leaders, and some of the other events that took place soon after in the months to come, … why do you think the powers in Iraq started making some of those decisions, which in looking back at it now created such a damaging situation?

These are questions that only can be answered, obviously, by the Iraqi government and its leadership. It was inexplicable to us.

At the time certainly some of this was playing to one’s base, if you will, to the core electorate of a Shia majority country. But at the end of the day, again, it’s not something that one can explain in a rational fashion.

Even the holiest Shia leader of Iraq, Grand Ayatollah [Ali al-] Sistani, has looked back and said that wrongs that took place must be righted. So even he has condemned what took place. He has noted the need for an inclusive government, and he’s noted the need for a government in an expeditious manner.

So when you have the most respected Shia cleric, one who is noted for his quietest tradition, not his activism — he’s not like the clerics of Iran who literally run the government; he is one who is generally removed from and doesn’t comment on politics — and here makes such a direct statement, which indicates that even to him it’s not clear why authorities did what they did starting in December of 2011.

Would it have happened if we had had 25,000 troops still on the ground?

No one knows whether forces there would have given us an influence. That’s the question for the ages. They were out of combat, out of the cities and out of the advising.

So you have to ask what the mission would have been. And again, without knowing what mission Prime Minister Maliki would have allowed them to do, it’s hard to say how much influence they might have achieved, again noting that there was a quite a robust security assistance force and that did not seem to translate.

As I said, I would have loved to have seen a force remain on the ground. I would have loved it even more if I knew that they were going to have a mission that would allow them to continue to contribute to the sustainment of the progress that was so hard fought and for which so many sacrificed so much during the surge and beyond.

Did you ever have a conversation with the president where you said, “Mr. President, I know we’re moving quickly toward pulling the troops out, but I’ve got to warn you that we’ve achieved an awful lot here, and it’s a very difficult situation, and there are stitches that are pulling this together that potentially could be torn apart”? …

I’m just not going to tell you what I ever told the president, and don’t infer from that something that I’m not willing to say.

OK, I’ll take it as —

And don’t take it as either. I don’t think it’s appropriate to say what I told the president, if I did tell him anything. …

Some people have pointed to the Dec. 12 meeting when Maliki was in the United States and met with Obama, and he told the president that [then-Vice President Tariq] al-Hashimi had ties to terrorism, and the president said, “That’s an Iraqi decision.” They point to that moment as being the green light for him to move ahead with what you’ve defined. What’s your view of that?

I have no knowledge of that, actually.

I will say there were other agreements with the government of Iraq that could have provided some other forms of assistance to them, that could have been very valuable, and those were not implemented either. …

Could we have pushed harder during any of this period of time?

You have to ask somebody else. Again, I was doing intelligence analysis at this point, not negotiating with the Iraqis. …

“ISIS really grew out of the growing flame of the Syrian civil war, and as it got bigger, more powerful, it started to push back into Iraq.”

[What was] the view of the Iraqis, in the end, of our troops pulling out at that point? We viewed it as a victory. We had gotten to this point. We had achieved something. The president had promised that we would become uninvolved and we would turn our sights to Afghanistan. How was it viewed from the Iraqi side as far as you know?

I don’t know, actually. Again, my sense was they thought they had capable forces and leaders and they would get on with it. I just don’t know.

The impact of the Syrian civil war on what we’ve seen happening in the past couple of weeks in Iraq: Give us a little bit more background on what has taken place, why it’s happened, and what we understood and what our worries were.

The Syrian civil war played a major role in what has come to happen in Iraq, because it was in many respects in Syria that Al Qaeda [in Iraq], AQI as we called it at the time, really resurrected itself, rejuvenated itself.

Many of the elements and the leadership of course of what now is known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or the Levant, so it’s bigger than just Syria. It’s Syria plus Lebanon and Jordan.

That element really built itself in the Syrian war, where over time it was able to take control of certain of the oil production facilities and started generating revenue. It could capture weaponry. It got some funding, undoubtedly, from some individuals, although that was virtually impossible to prove, and I don’t believe there is any case of governments actually supporting them directly.

But again, ISIS really grew out of the growing flame of the Syrian civil war, and as it got bigger, more powerful, it started to push back into Iraq. …

You’ve written that you’re not surprised about ISIS rising up. Explain.

It’s not a surprise if you’re watching it closely. And I have watched it closely, albeit through open-source rather than classified intelligence. But there’s plenty of it out there. In fact, there is more and more and more as these groups themselves post videos on YouTube and have Twitter accounts and are constantly telling you what it is that they are doing. A number of the think tanks in this town follow that closely, the Institute for the Study of War in particular, on whose board I sit.

So we’ve watched as ISIS became more and more prominent in Syria, as it challenged the true Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. Then, as it started to come back into Iraq, as it launched again, eight months ago now, an assassination campaign, very targeted hits on Iraqi security force leaders and members in and around Mosul, and then as it retook the city of Fallujah, six, seven years ago to take back from the Sunni insurgents at that time in the surge. So we’ve watched this.

What was a surprise was the pace of the collapse, really, of the Iraqi security forces in northern Iraq. I think that came about because of these factors I discussed earlier: the replacement of competent leaders with sectarian loyalists, and then the circumventing of the chain of command so that all major units reported to the Office of the Commander in Chief, an office that is not established as a core headquarters that can command divisions in a field fight, which is what was needed to coordinate an effective response, an effective counteroffensive to this offensive by ISIS.

Then of course you had individual failure by individual leaders who literally got on helicopters and flew away with their troops knowing it. And you can imagine the devastating effect that that has on morale of the rank and file, when the contract between leader and the led is just disregarded. It becomes meaningless, and that’s a critical element in soldiers continuing to fight.

You didn’t have Sunni Awakening groups that would defend the government?

Not only do you not have Sunni Awakening groups or Sons of Iraq that are helping the Iraqi security forces [ISF], you actually have a population that has become disenfranchised once again; that developed a feeling that they didn’t have a seat at the table at Baghdad; that the Iraqi security forces were putting them down, in some cases violently, when they raised objections to some of the actions of the Baghdad government.

And there was rejoicing in some areas as these ISIS forces came in and pushed out the Iraqi security forces.

… Was there any moment when you looked at what was going on and some of the specific moves that were being made by Maliki or others or by the United States and just sort of shake your head and say, everything that I was involved with in trying to build up, all the people that I worked with over there, that there were partnerships with, it’s all going to fall apart unless something happens? …

I don’t think you ever have a single point where a single action completely tips the scales one way or another.

What you have is a growing sense in this case of foreboding, of concern, of worry that indeed what was done in partnership during the surge and then in the years subsequent to the surge is now starting to be undone, and that actions are being taken that are undermining the enormously difficult, very hard work and enormous sacrifice of our men and women on the ground or coalitions and partners and, indeed, Iraqi security forces and civilians. And that developed over time.

Now keep in mind this has been a several-year process, with the first action against the senior vice president in December of 2011, a year later after the minister of finance, a year later the prominent Anbar politician, Sunni Arab parliamentarian, and then some months after that, six months or so, you have the collapse of the Iraqi security forces in Ninawa, when the ISIS army, not just ISIS terrorists, come at them in quite a significant offensive.

Could there have been anything done to have prevented it, … I mean, from the United States government?

I haven’t been in government since November of 2012. I certainly have talked to folks in government. They’ve shared concerns. We’ve discussed what could be done and so forth. But at the end of the day, if a government decides on a certain course, there are limits to what a country’s influence can achieve.

So you’re saying, basically, it was Iraq’s choice that put us in a bind on what we could or could not do.

I mean what I’ve said, is that very clearly these were choices taken by an Iraqi government and Iraqi leadership.

This is a country now that is unraveling. What happens next? What do you see happening? …

I think you have to think about Iraq in terms of several threats if you will, and I think it’s worth having an intellectual construct. And the first of those threats is the obvious threat to Iraqi sovereignty, to Iraqi territorial integrity, and that obviously has been threatened enormously.

It may be that Humpty Dumpty is never put back together again the way he was, the way Iraq was before this ISIS. Indeed I think certain aspects of it, where the Kurds are now and so forth, will never be returned to the situation prior to this offensive.

The question is whether it can once again, though, be a single country, albeit with greater devolution of powers perhaps, the different areas within it, different regions, perhaps even provinces.

But that right now clearly is threatened substantially, not just by ISIS but by resurgent Sunni Arabs who feel disenfranchised, who have also resumed their activities after being essentially defeated during the surge or incorporated during the surge but then have come to feel that there is not an incentive for them to support the new Iraq. Indeed there is an incentive to oppose the new Iraq. …

The second threat is a threat that is increasingly posed by ISIS as an extremist organization with designs beyond Syria and Iraq and even beyond the Levant and saying, for example, “We’ll meet you in New York,” or wherever. Whether that capacity is there now I think is in question. I’m not reading, obviously, the real-time intel assessments of what might happen.

“If you don’t take more bad guys off the field than you create by conducting the operation or initiating the policy, then you should think twice about it.”

I can tell you that our partners in London, in Australia, in Saudi Arabia, in a variety of other countries around the world are very, very worried about the attraction that ISIS has had, and indeed the civil war in Syria has had, for would-be jihadists who have gone there, have become more radicalized by that experience, learned bomb-making skills or other paramilitary-type tasks and skills and gone back to their home countries.

Saudi Arabia I think has arrested over 52 of them by now and counting. Again, other countries are worried as well, and I’m sure the same is true for the United States and that at a certain point that may eclipse the threat posed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen, which has Ibrahim al-Asiri, the diabolical bomb maker who has tried so many times to get a bomb on an aircraft into the minister of interior’s office in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere to blow up and cause havoc. …

Then there is a third threat, … the threat that Iran has for the whole region and indeed for beyond the region: its efforts to maintain or to establish a Shia crescent from Iran through Iraq, through Syria and down to southern Lebanon, Lebanese Hezbollah; its efforts to achieve a degree of regional hegemony, or at least greater regional influence; its sponsorship of Shia militants in places like the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, in Yemen, in Bahrain, in southern Lebanon, and indeed in the fighting in Syria itself and now very likely in some capacity in Iraq as well.

We have to be wary of that threat while noting there could actually be some cases in which there might be a convergence of interests. But we need, again, to be very cognizant of what Iran is trying to achieve. And in many cases that is not the same as what we are trying to achieve.

It sounds like a total nightmare. … How dire is this? What do we do at this point?

The Middle East is clearly in one of those pivotal moments. We’re in a period of history where the organizing principles, the lines on the map drawn by British and French diplomats early last century are being erased. …

In many … cases, of course, the Arab Spring has brought about instability rather than greater stability. And rather than bringing about government that is more representative and more responsive to the people, you’re seeing, frankly, the opposite, or you’re seeing all-out war.

The fact is you could have a situation, which many of these countries do, actually fragment. … A number of these countries certainly are under enormous pressure and may or may not ever really become the unitary elements that they once were: Libya, Syria, Iraq, possibly Yemen.

When you were over there in your many roles, was this sort of the thing you were working against? Was this your nightmare? …

These are enormously challenging emerging developments, without question. These pose, each of them, some potential outcome that can be very challenging for our interests not just in the region but in some cases around the world.

Just having a grasp of all of these initially and then determining what is a reasonable way forward is, as they say, very hard government work.

Do you have sort of a game plan of the way forward? What would you like to see some of the first moves to be?

I strongly support the administration’s initiative to provide substantial assistance to the moderate opposition in Syria for two reasons. One is now to counter ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and indeed perhaps to be able to change the dynamic on that particular battlefield, that particular civil war, to the point that people might actually be willing to discuss, to negotiate some kind of settlement. But certainly unless the momentum is shifted, there will not be any discussions in Geneva or elsewhere.

With respect to Iraq, I’m strongly supportive of what Grand Ayatollah Sistani has prescribed: rapid formation of a government, an inclusive government — i.e., shorthand for it has to have the trust of all three major elements of Iraqi society, not just the Shia but also the Sunni Arab and the Kurds — and then a government that takes actions to right past wrongs, that is willing to address the real and perceived actions against them, and it is willing to deal, to negotiate in an honest and transparent manner with the Kurds as well.

Back earlier on in history when you were there, what were the concerns the United States government had with the Iranian involvement in trying to pursue their goals within the Iraqi government?

I think it’s reality that Iran is going to have influence in Iraq. All elements of Iraq accepted that. It wasn’t just Shia that would go to Tehran and see the commander of the Quds Force and others and the legitimate government leaders. It was also Kurdish leaders and Sunni Arabs who would even link up with Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, maybe not in Tehran but in Turkey or somewhere else.

So there was an acceptance of a degree of Iranian influence in Baghdad. … They are co-religionists. But don’t ever misinterpret that for that reflecting an Iraqi desire to be the 51st state of Iran.

One speaks Arabic; the other speaks Persian Dari, what have you. One is Arab; the other is Persian. They fought a bloody, 10-year civil war that is not all forgotten.

Again, while accepting certain Iranian activities and influence and indeed assistance at times, not to mention the enormous trade that goes back and forth, there are limits to what Iraq will accept from Iran, although those limits become less, or become greater if you will, when they really need Iran to help, perhaps say on a battlefield if it comes to that.

Beyond that, though, what the Iranians were doing that was completely unacceptable, obviously, prior to the surge, during the surge, and even beyond for a period, was essentially training, arming, funding, equipping Shia militia extremists or blowing up our soldiers and Iraqi coalition soldiers.

Iraq did not welcome that. And one reason that Prime Minister Maliki went after the Shia militia in March and April of 2008 was to reduce their influence in certain, really critical cities like Basra and eastern Baghdad and northern Baghdad and so forth.

So that was beyond the pale, and Iran has done that throughout the region. The Quds Force has been very active. Indeed, they blew up a busload of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. It’s well known. They and Lebanese Hezbollah tried to carry out an attack in Bangkok.

So they’ve been active across that spectrum, even trying to hire a hit man in Mexico to take out the Saudi ambassador in Washington, as you recall. Thankfully, the hit man turned out to be a source of a U.S. government organization.

So Iran has had a very harmful effect in a variety of ways in the region, … fomenting unrest to a degree in Saudi Arabia, undoubtedly in Bahrain, and definitely in Yemen with Hamas, with Lebanese Hezbollah among other activities in locations. …

It’s been reported also that in the 2010 elections, Maliki was given the chance to set up the new government even though he had less votes than [Ayad] Allawi. Some point to the fact of an agreement made between Iran and him that specified that no U.S. troops would stay.

I don’t have knowledge of that.

Do you think that’s true?

I find it somewhat surprising. Again, you have to remember that Iraq and Iraq’s leaders have always had probably a slightly higher opinion of their security forces than perhaps was warranted. …

And lastly, the lessons learned? …

If you want to talk lessons learned, you have to go back to the beginning. I was asked, when I had my confirmation hearing as the Multinational Force Iraq commander, [had] we made mistakes? And I gave several pages of mistakes.

And among those is, don’t pursue policies, operations or actions in which you end up with more enemies rather than less as a result of the particular operation. If you don’t take more bad guys off the field than you create by conducting the operation or initiating the policy, then you should think twice about it.

And we did that early on with the firing of the Iraqi military without telling them what their future was, with de-Baathification, without having a reconciliation process nailed down. Ambassador [Paul] Bremer intended to do that, to be fair, but didn’t have it sorted out completely, and it never was actually established.

And there are many others over the years, but I’ll let the historians deal with that.

But as far as ISIS moving through Iraq right now, are there any other lessons that the Obama administration has learned that might alter the direction that they go in the new future?

You have to ask the Obama administration. I don’t know.

… Any other points that you think are important to understand about where we are in the history of this war?

A lot of those who fought so hard — among those who sacrificed so much, from what I believe rightly has earned the title America’s New Greatest Generation — have contacted me and said: “Was all what we did during the surge for naught? We fought so hard. We sacrificed so much. We spent so much in blood and treasure.”

I don’t think that’s the case. I think that what America’s sons and daughters did, what coalition troopers and Iraqi security force members and civilians and, indeed, our own diplomats, intel officers, development experts did during the surge was extraordinary. It gave Iraq and Iraqis yet another chance.

But at a certain point in time, it is Iraq and it is Iraqis, Iraqi leaders in particular, who have to take that forward. And sadly, what we have seen is Iraqi leaders take this forward in a way that both in real terms and in imagined terms was sectarian and increasingly authoritarian.

And that created fertile fields for the replanting of the seeds of insurgency and rejectionism. And it made ISIS’s task much easier than it should have been.

And there’s no part of you that doesn’t feel that if we had stayed another year, another 10 years, another 20 years, like in Korea, this would have germinated, that the seeds would have had longer to —

… That’s one of those enormous what-ifs. The fact that some other assets, that agreements were made and not honored, at the very least makes one wonder. Again, it’s just a huge what-if. I would have liked to have seen it take place. Obviously it didn’t, and so we are where we are now. …

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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