Seven Questions: Gen. David Petraeus on Winding down the Surge
By the end of July, 25 percent of American combat troops are due to withdraw from Iraq. FP sat down with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to find out how he plans to draw down without leaving chaos behind.
Haraz N. Ghanbari/Getty Images News
Haraz N. Ghanbari/Getty Images News
Foreign Policy: These days when you speak about the surge, you always highlight positive developments but you also appear very cautious. What are your concerns?
Gen. David Petraeus: We are trying to be cautious as we describe the progress that is taking place in Iraq. It has been substantial. We have seen a consistent reduction in the level of violencea reduction of 60 percent since June, really to a level not seen since the spring of 2005. There has been a corresponding reduction in the loss of civilian lives, Iraqi, and coalition force casualties. Having said all that, it is a fragile achievement, and there are a number of concerns that we do have. We feel as if weve knocked al Qaeda to the canvas, but we know that, like any boxer, they can come back up off that canvas and lend a big, right-hand punch. We also have concerns about the militias and the elements of the [Mahdi Army] militia that have not been honoring Moqtada al-Sadrs cease-fire pledge.
FP: Based on the experience of the British, who as they draw down are leaving a lot of instability behind them in southern Iraq, how can you can be confident going forward as U.S. forces withdraw?
DP: We have already begun a reduction, and well reduce another number over the course of the next seven months. We do that with a reasonable degree of confidence because our surge is taking place and the Iraqi surge is taking place as well, and it amplifies what we have done. In fact, the Iraqis have formed 160,000 police, soldiers, border police, and other security force elements during the past year. To be sure, theres an uneven nature to their quality, to their capability, and to their level of training and equipping, but theyre significant in quantity. And quantity does mean quality in counterinsurgency operations, because youve got to secure so many infrastructures against the terrorist and insurgent and militia elements. We think that what we have been handing over has been winnowed down in terms of the nature of the problem in a way that they can handle it. And only when they can handle it we will have this transfer.
FP: When is it going to happen?
DP: A number of provinces have already transitioned to Iraqi control. The latest has been Basra. There has been a lot of political maneuvering among all the political groups that are competing for power in that province, but they have finally come together. There is a strong Iraqi security forces leader, General Mohan, who has been able to build quite credible Iraqi security forces there that, if required, can implement the security measures necessary. Nonetheless, its very challenging. There are militia problems. There are criminal problems. But we think they are problems that they can handle with some coalition support, and thats what the British forces down there are going to continue to provide.
FP: Why didnt the U.S. military didnt embrace a true counterinsurgency approach before the surge?
DP: There was a concept that was working reasonably well until 2006, when the Samarra mosque blew up and the ethno-sectarian violence took off. All the efforts we were making to try to tamp it down were not successful initially, and it took a real change of strategy, frankly. It took additional forces on the Iraqi and coalition sides. And it took redeploying forces back out into Iraqi neighborhoods to try to get violence down, to get the support of the local people. The huge factor here was that we were able to tap into something that was there but was waiting to express itselfthe Sunni communitys rejection of extremism, indiscriminate violence, and the oppressive practices associated with al Qaeda in Iraq. In the first few years, they associated with al Qaeda because they felt disrespected, dispossessed, you name it, disappointed. Now they realize that if they want their place in the new Iraq, they cant let al Qaeda be in their areas.
We now have tens of thousands of what we call Iraqi concerned citizens who are now members of the Iraqi police, paid by the Interior Ministry, in Anbar Province. There are another 6,000 or so who have gradually worked through the process of being approved to be part of the Iraqi police in Baghdad. Thats a tougher one for the Iraqi government because theyre mixed communities. Lets remember, the fabric of this society is torn, so there are understandable concerns about taking in Sunnis, some of whom were part of the insurgency. But this is the reason we call it reconciliation. You reconcile with your former enemies and not with friends.
FP: So having to ally with past enemies is not a failure but a success?
DP: Not all of them were our enemies. Some were what we call fence-sitters; some were oppressed and some probably were shooting at us, but you dont kill your way out of this kind of thing. You cant kill or capture everybody in an insurgency. What you have to figure out are the irreconcilables, and ideally you want these numbers as small as possible because they have to be killed, captured, or run off.
FP: Is the Iraqi government walking at your same speed?
DP: They will be the first to tell you they want to make more progress and make it more rapidly than they have done to this point. There have been accomplishments, especially in recent weeks. They approved a pension law that extends pension rights to tens of thousands Iraqis who were left out, cast off. They agreed to the Security Council resolution extension, which gives us our mandate. They have debated accountability and justice, which is the de-Baathification reform legislation. The budget for 2008 should come up for a vote very soon after they return from Eid and the hajj. So, the progress has been halting, but there are a number of encouraging signs on the horizon.
FP: Theres an election going on right now in the United States. Do you think that what youre doing in Iraq will have an impact on politics at home?
DP: To be candid, were not really thinking about that. Weve got enough to do here on the ground, and well let that take care of itself.
Interview: Conducted Dec. 17, 2007, by Monica Maggioni, special correspondent for Italys RAI TV.
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