David Petraeus is the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was the commander of US forces in Iraq in 2007-2008, when he oversaw the surge of US troops that ended Iraq’s sectarian violence. Petraeus also commanded all coalition forces in Iraq. He was at the Sulaimani Forum earlier this month where he spoke to Rudaw about the war on IslamicState (ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) and the US strategy to degrade and defeat the extremist group. Here is an edited transcript of the interview.
Rudaw: What went wrong in this country? Why don’t we have a stable Iraq?
David Petraeus: There are a number of developments in the period that started after US combat forces left Iraq. There were actions taken that over time alienated the Sunni community in Iraq. The community that we worked so hard – prime minister (Nouri) Maliki and I together — to bring back into the fabric of Iraqi society.
Unfortunately, the end of 2011, the arrest warrant for VP Tariq al-Hashemi, peaceful demonstrations that were put down violently, the arrest warrant for minister of finance Rafi al-Essawi, more demonstrations, more violence and overtime this very important community of Iraq — the Sunni community which had come back into the fabric during the surge in 2007, 2008, the Anbar awakening reconciliation — was undone.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq, when it went to Syria it resurrected, and when it came back to Iraq, in many cases it found the Sunni communities that were fertile fields for the planting of the seeds of extremism and insurgency.
Rudaw: When you were in Mosul, did you expect the rise of this terror group?
David Petraeus: We saw it before. We saw it with the start of the insurgency in late 2003, and then of course all the way up when the surge of violence was getting worse, and sectarian violence between Sunni insurgents, al-Qaeda and Shiite militia – very, very bad. When you recall in 2006 when president Bush made the decision to conduct the surge, when he selected me to be the commander of it. There were 53 dead bodies — civilian dead bodies — due to violence every 24 hours on average in Baghdad. The situation was horrific.
This situation has been very difficult. And indeed last summer, last June, July was very, very challenging for Iraq. The enemy was literally at the gates of Erbil. It was at the outskirts of Baghdad. It retook Mosul, areas of Salahaddin province and Anbar province. So it was a very dangerous period for Iraq. But thankfully, now and in recent months, we’ve seen a combination of Iraqi security forces, of the Peshmerga, of Shiite militia and now some Sunni tribes stop ISIS and start to roll it back.
Rudaw: The cases that you mentioned as the cause of violence happened during Maliki. Do you think it is fair to blame Maliki for everything that has happened and is happening in this country?
David Petraeus: That probably would not be fair. I think certainly it was really the Iraqi government. He was the leader of the Iraqi government without a question, but these were actions taken, some that resulted in decisions that he made and then executed in a very poor manner. Iraqi security forces that were far more violent, and far more brutal frankly than they needed to be in the way they dealt with peaceful demonstrations in Anbar province and in Hawija and then they filmed it with their cameras and put it on YouTube, totally unprofessional. Complete lack of discipline — and that further alienated the Sunni community. All of this together ultimately was what made the Sunni community feel they didn’t have a stake in the success of Iraq.
Rudaw: Those who are critical of Maliki say your government spent billions of dollars on the Iraqi army, which didn’t resist for one day?
David Petraeus: It did resist for one day, but nobody came to the rescue in one day. There were other actions which degraded the effectiveness of the army. The good commanders that we worked with and fought with together in 2007, 2008 and beyond, many of them left the country or were replaced. They were replaced by commanders, and in many cases that I had insisted be removed. Individuals who were accused of highly sectarian actions of mistreating detainees and so forth and sadly a number of them were put back into position, and that further alienated the Sunni community.
And then of course the office of the Commander-in-Chief inserted itself into the chain of command and rendered the chain of command as dysfunctional at a time where you needed a really good chain of command to conduct a counter offensive — to counter the ISIL offensive into Iraq.
There are many factors that all came together at the perfect storm to undermine and degrade the effect of the Iraqi forces. The other forces were of course those forces that had not been conducting training at the time that is necessary to conduct counter-offence operations.
And we saw this of course — I am the biggest admirer of Peshmerga — but even the Peshmerga if you don’t provide them, if you don’t allow them to have the training, weapons and combined arms, then you get rusty. You have to re-learn those skills, and that can take place. Thankfully, we have seen the Peshmerga conduct a very courageous operation since then.
Rudaw: Do you think it is possible to have the surge again?
David Petraeus: Well, there is a surge going on right now, but it is an Iraqi surge. The fact is, all of the same elements of the comprehensive civil military counter-insurgency campaign that were carried out in 2007-8 needed to be present now. The difference is that a number of these elements now have to be provided by the Iraqis. Not only that they should be — or that they can be — but that they must be provided by Iraqis.
The ground forces must come from the Iraqi forces, if they can’t provide those ground forces the results will not be sustainable. There needs to be an identification of which forces are going to hold an area. The force that ultimately clears an area after Daesh is cleared, that force has to be legitimate in the eyes of the people and supported by the locals.
All of the elements of this civil military campaign have to be present. Another element that is crucial is to resurrect what you were talking about, reconciliation, to have a new Anbar awakening, but not just Anbar or Euphrates but the Tigris as well. This is all very do-able, Mr Abadi (Iraq prime minister), I can assure you, knows this and that he is pursuing it.
Rudaw: Maybe he realizes this, but many believe that — okay we have an inclusive government in Baghdad but there is no trust between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. For example, how can people trust a Shiite militia entering a Sunni region with sectarian flags and sectarian slogans? How can we bring back this trust?
David Petraeus: Clearly there have to be bridges rebuilt, there are literally bridges that have been physically destroyed to be rebuilt but there are also psychological bridges that have to be rebuilt and there has to be a real recognition of what you just described, that a militia from one sect flying the flag of that sect or portraying the picture of one of their leaders will not have this legitimacy that I talked about with the people.
This is all very delicate or very sensitive. Someone today said there has to be awareness of what used to be clear, again what is used to hold that area, noting again the vital importance of legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
Rudaw: Will Sunni groups be able to work with the Shiite groups in this sectarian climate?
David Petraeus: They have to. They must work together and to a degree that has been the case. In the case of the Tikrit operation, clearly Shiite militias played an enormous role. There were also some Iraqi armed forces, from one of the divisions, and Sunni Arab tribal forces as well. They’re working together. But as you get further into Sunni areas, those forces need to be more Sunni Arab.
Rudaw: Do you think the US has a strategy to defeat ISIS, and what is this strategy?
David Petraeus: It is to pound away at Daesh, this is what made operation Tikrit possible. Months of pounding away their vehicles, convoys, bulldozers — this has been going on for months now and the toll has been enormous. And now the line of communication from Rabia and Sinjar has been cut to Mosul. It is much more difficult now for Daesh to get supplies and people from Syria. Now they have to come from Anbar. Now they have lost Tikrit and that’s more difficult. Mosul is really isolated now in many respects. The Peshmerga are all the way to the Tigris River — cutting off ground lines of communication, and that’s very important.
Rudaw: There was an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Iran occupies Iraq.” Do you think this is an exaggeration or is it real?
David Petraeus: Clearly Iran has played a central role in a number of different activities in Iraq. It’s a fact that Iran has influenced the political process, it’s a fact that Iran together with the Marja (Shiite clerical authority in Najaf) and the US diplomats — that each of them separately helped bring about the political change that has taken place.
You should be very clear in recognizing the Iraqis’ want to have a relationship with Iran, and they have to. Iran is their big neighbor, they have enormous religious tourism, they get a million liters of diesel from Iran every day, they get hundreds of megawatts of electricity, lots of goods and services, it has to have a relationship with Iran.
Having said that, to use a US analogy where we have fifty states, Iraq does not want to be the 51st state of Iran. Iraqis are very conscious of the differences between their Marja and religious differences of politics. Iraqis are very conscious that they are Arabs with the exception of the Iraqi Kurds. Iraqis are very conscious that they speak Arabic not Persian or Farsi.
Clearly, there’s a big distinction but clearly there’s a willingness, sometimes a desire, to accept Iranian assistance, and that has helped the militia to a degree and has long been in association with the militias that has to be gently, gradually, reduced however, and all Iraqis recognize that.
Rudaw: Peshmerga forces are fighting the most barbaric group. Kurdish leaders are blaming the West for not helping. The help does not measured up to the expectations. So far we have not received heavy weapons from the US and the coalition.
David Petraeus: I think the heaviest weapons that we provided have been in extraordinary intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities with our aircraft. The F16s, A10s, various bombers that have been hammering the Daesh forces on a daily basis, that’s something that no one else in the world can provide, even the coalition partners.
There has been a very robust training effort that has begun, and so again, I think that the contribution of the US and coalition forces has been enormous. But if I were in the shoes of Kurdish leaders, when I was in my military uniform, I always wanted more than what I got.
There has never been a military man who wouldn’t like to have more forces, or armed vehicles, more satellite radio communications, channels, you name it. I would expect Iraqi Kurdish leaders want some more, they would feel they deserve more and I would agree with them.
Rudaw: How do you see the future of the Kurds in this uncertain situation?
David Petraeus: I think this is an interesting dynamic. You have seen a lot of different developments here. Some of which are positive for the Iraqi Kurdish region, some of which are not. You see the reduction from the price of oil, which happens to coincide with all of the extremist threats with the emergence of Daesh, and that has been very bad, very challenging for Iraq, and therefore for Iraqi Kurdistan.
You see Kurdish forces fighting very well. Taking areas, controlling areas, keeping them safe. Safeguarding the Kirkuk oil fields. And overtime I think this perhaps creates a new situation, new dynamics, as Baghdad and Erbil are determining their evolving political situation.
We have seen new relationships with Turkey, some of these developments have been reassuring to the Kurds, but probably not all. The episode of the difficulties of getting assistance to the YPG in Kobane is one that is remembered. And of course there are developments with the exports of oil that have also been somewhat challenging as well. You see another interesting dynamic — Syrian Kurds who are very grateful for the assistance being provided by the KRG.
The enormous support the KRG is giving to hundreds of thousands of refugees in Kurdish provinces. But you also see the desire by the Syrian Kurds to have their own autonomous region, not necessarily to be part of a greater Kurdistan. I think that’s a interesting development, to see how that evolves — what the relationships will be between Iraqi Kurds, Syrian Kurds.
Let me just say if I could, having not been in Iraq for four years, the progress that I see in Erbil and in Sulaimani is breathtaking. You all watch this every single day, you don’t realize how astonishing it has been. This is really remarkable. It’s something that all Kurdish people should be very proud and indeed the Kurdish leaders in particular should be very quietly proud as well.
By Hemin Lihony