Interview with Gen. David Petraeus

Interview with Gen. David Petraeus

By Fareed Zakaria GPS - March 7, 2010

ZAKARIA: And now, the head of the United States Central Command, General David Petraeus. General Petraeus, honor to have you on.

PETRAEUS: Great to be with you, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: What do you hope to see come out of the Iraqi elections?

PETRAEUS: Well, I'd like to see a government that continues to do what this one does, which is to be generally representative of the people, responsive to all the people, and to continue the progress that has been achieved over the course of the last couple of years, again, in the economic, social and political realms. You know, in keeping all of the Iraqis together as well. Hugely important.

ZAKARIA: But -- but that part is the crucial part. When I go travel in the Middle East or talk to people from the region, what I'm struck by is that the whole hope that Iraq as a functioning democracy or a quasi-democracy would be a kind of inspiration or have some kind of a opening (ph) effect in the -- in the Middle East, has not quite happened largely because in the Middle East, 90 percent of which is Sunni.

They see the fact that the Sunnis of Iraq remain somewhat marginalized as being a proof positive that this is -- this is -- that either democracy is a terrible thing or this is not real democracy. They don't know which -- which option to choose. And the fact that in this election you had the situation where Sunni candidates have been essentially -- some early disbarred from -- from being able to participate, including fairly senior politicians.

Doesn't that lack of inclusion hurt the central message that we were trying to send out of Iraq?

PETRAEUS: Iraq does have many, many different tensions. There are still lots of strains on the fabric of society, a fabric that indeed was torn by the sectarian violence in 2006 and into early 2007, and, really, so far has only got a few stitches back into it. And that's another aspect of the way forward, that again, we hope that Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd, Yazidi, Christian, Turkmen -- all of these different groups, (INAUDIBLE) and others, can indeed make accommodations and really continue to make accommodations.

Because all progress that has been made to date, all of the legislation that's been passed and so forth, has all required cross sectarian, cross ethnic coalitions, and I think that actually will continue to be the case, because when you do the math, there's no way that a prime minister will be elected without a cross sectarian and indeed cross ethnic coalition developing to elect that individual and the other key members that will be part of the package.

ZAKARIA: American troop withdrawals are slated to continue and to be down to zero combat troops at the end of 2011. Is that a pledge you think you will be able to fulfill?

PETRAEUS: Well, first, let's focus initially on where we're headed right now. First, we're about 96,000 or so right now, down from 165,000 or so at the height of the surge and other periods and headed down to 50,000 by the end of August.

Then, of course, with the new government in place, there will be the dialogue about what is it that the sovereign Iraq, with its newly elected government that will be in place for four years, will want in terms of a security relationship with the United States.

There's some sense that they may want to continue a security assistance relationship at the -- at least, something we have with virtually all the other countries in the Central Command region, especially given that they are, of course, they've got a lot of American hardware, a lot of American tactics, techniques and procedures. There's some very good intelligence-sharing arrangements and so forth. But that's up to that government.

ZAKARIA: But you could foresee --

PETRAEUS: And it will be a sovereign government.

ZAKARIA: But you could foresee a situation where a new status of forces agreement is negotiated and the United States maintains some 10,000, 20,000 troops in a kind of supporting role if the Iraqi government wants it?

PETRAEUS: I'm not sure I would -- I would see something anywhere near that large, candidly. I think it would be much more along the lines of the traditional security assistance arrangement, a relationship that may include other countries as well. Indeed, there's still a NATO training mission in Iraq. There's -- there's a British element still helping with the Iraqi navy that was a separate bilateral agreement.

ZAKARIA: Would it be legitimate for the American taxpayer to look at what's happening in Iraq, particularly economically and say what was in it for us? Because you watch Iraq signing oil deals, and the Chinese are doing pretty well, the Brits are doing pretty well. We're doing all right, but there's no --

You know, for all those who thought this was a conspiracy for oil, you notice that the United States does not seem to have any privileged position in terms of its access. What did -- did we -- do we have any influence economically in Iraq?

PETRAEUS: Well, I think we are literally having to compete along with everyone else. There are occasionally some degrees of access that might be provided. But, by and large, this is -- it's capitalism at work.

And, in fact, we used to offer to our Iraqi counterparts who occasionally would toss around the conspiracy theory, that this is all about sewing up Iraq's oil for the next few decades and say that, gosh, for what we spent in a single year in Iraq, we could have bought all of your oil for the next decade without having to invade you.

So, look, it is legitimate for the American taxpayer to ask that question. And, again, only history can judge at the end of the day whether this was, frankly, a wise investment in -- in the enormous amount of -- of gold treasure and, indeed, most importantly the lives of our young men and women in uniform and our civilian counterparts and Iraqi civilians and coalition members.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you about one of Iraq's neighbors, Iran. When you were up in the north, one of the things you had to deal with, and even during the surge, was Iranian forces, Quds forces, in many ways fermenting the violence in Iraq by supplying weapons or arms, militias, all kinds of things.

Apparently, these security services are now -- the Quds forces, now spending a lot more of its time worrying about what's going on in Iran, trying to create, put down the opposition movements there.

Has that changed the political dynamic in Iraq? Are you finding that the Iranians have in a sense packed up and gone home?

PETRAEUS: Well, first, I think you're absolutely right to say that the security elements in Iran, particularly the Revolutionary Guard's corps, the -- the Quds force and the Basij, the militia, have had to focus a great deal more on internal security challenges than they did in the past. And, indeed, I think you've heard it said by pundits that Iran has gone from being a theocracy to a thugocracy, that it has frankly become much more of a police state than it ever was in -- in the past since the Revolution.

And that is, again, because of the emergence of this reform movement of the -- the citizens who are outraged of the hijacking of the election that took place back last summer.

ZAKARIA: Do you think Ahmed Chalabi is an agent of Iran or influenced by Iran or carrying out an Iranian agenda in Iraq?

PETRAEUS: Well, it -- I think -- again, this is less about what we think. This is about what Iraqi leaders think, and Iraqi leaders have obviously not been overly pleased with some of the political high drama that has been fomented by the Accountability and Justice Committee, which has been orchestrated indeed by Dr. Chalabi. And, again --

ZAKARIA: Again, that he was -- that committee was behind this renewed de-Baathification and this attempt to --

PETRAEUS: Yes, sure.

ZAKARIA: -- to disbar a whole set of people from running.

PETRAEUS: Yes. I mean, indeed, they announced the list. They determined who -- who was on it. They had a -- a key role in the adjudication of it, later as appeals were issues and so forth. So -- and that did indeed, in the -- you know, and especially coming so close to the actual elect (INAUDIBLE) quite a bit of political turmoil.

They've worked through it. The fact is there are tens of thousands of candidates, of which several hundred now in the end will have been disqualified. They -- as with everything in Iraq, there's -- again, with "Iraqracy", as we have termed it at times, there's often a considerable degree of emotion. There is, again, drama. But, at the end of the day or perhaps sometimes a little after the end of the day, they managed to work through it.

And, as always, it has required, again, what I talked about earlier, these cross-sectarian, cross-ethnic coalitions and -- and deals, which is OK. That's a good development for Iraq, frankly.

We used to say when I was there, you -- you can shout, but please don't shoot. And shouting is, I think, a -- a very acceptable alternative to shooting.

ZAKARIA: Do you think that the Iranian regime has made a decision that they are going to try to get a nuclear weapon, or do you think it is still unclear whether they want a robust nuclear civilian capacity and a robust missile capacity, but -- but they haven't yet decided whether they will join the two?

PETRAEUS: I think it's something slightly different, actually. I think, first of all, that there can be a debate about whether or not the final decision has been made. I think in fact probably that final decision has not been made by the Supreme Leader, and that will be his decision to take.

But that's a little bit immaterial at this point in time because all of the components of a program to produce nuclear weapons, to produce the delivery means and -- and all the rest of that, all of these components have been proceeding as if they want to be in a position where he can make that decision, having reached the so-called threshold capability. And that is, of course, what is so worrisome to the countries in the region, and, of course, above all, to -- to Israel and obviously to the United States and the countries of the west.

They are now transitioning, of course, from what was the diplomacy track for about a year, where everyone made every good faith effort, extended the open hand, and it was not met with an open hand. It was met with intransigence and obfuscation and evasion, and now the result is the transition by not just the United States, but -- but with France, with the U.K., even Russia now, all seeing the need to transition to the so-called pressure track which would include much different sanctions and so forth.

ZAKARIA: Don't you have the beginning of a very robust containment strategy, though, and you would be the one actually who would probably be principally charged with the military operationalization of this. You have the moderate -- the Gulf states, the Sunni states, Egypt, Israel, the major European countries, perhaps even Russia, all arrayed, you know, along this common interest that Iran not -- not become a nuclear power.

Wouldn't it be possible to contain it?

PETRAEUS: Well, I think, first of all, you have to ask a country that is most directly concerned about this, and that would be Israel. And, at the end of the day, what we might want with a slightly detached perspective than the other western countries. What the Gulf states and others might be willing to accept --

And by -- by the way, there is no uniform or universal acceptance of what you had just laid out. In fact, it's quite the contrary in many of the countries, and there's quite a --

ZAKARIA: Meaning what? They -- they want the United States to strike?

PETRAEUS: Well, there are some that are very, very, very, very concerned about the developments in Iran and they find that very --


PETRAEUS: -- difficult.

ZAKARIA: What does that mean? They want -- they want the United States to strike?

PETRAEUS: Well, it's interesting. I think there -- there is almost a slight degree of bipolarity there at times. On the one hand, there are countries that would like to see a strike, us or perhaps Israel, even. And then there's the worry that someone will strike, and then there's also the worry that someone will not strike. And, again, reconciling that is -- is one of the challenges of operating in the region right now.

Our job right now is to ensure that we're prepared for any contingencies, that we can support indeed, with the diplomatic efforts, to transition now to the pressure track and so forth. And that's indeed what we're endeavoring to do with our partners who, by the way, find that President Ahmadinejad is often our best recruiting officer, because his actions, his rhetoric and his other -- the other activities of Iran, in many cases, are causing much more embrace of CENTCOM and -- and other activities than otherwise would be the case. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: We will be back with General Petraeus in just a moment. We haven't even touched on Afghanistan or Pakistan yet.


PETRAEUS: -- and then we have gone forward.

ZAKARIA: Did he at least (ph) publicly endorse the operation?

PETRAEUS: He has. Oh, he has acknowledged it. He is --

ZAKARIA: When? I have -- I have followed --

PETRAEUS: He has said that he is the commander in chief of this operation, and indeed there have been articles about that. So he has --

ZAKARIA: You're satisfied with --

PETRAEUS: -- taken this forward.

ZAKARIA: Karzai's --

PETRAEUS: Well, look --




ZAKARIA: And we are back with David Petraeus, the commanding general of CENTCOM. Thank you so much for joining us.

PETRAEUS: Great to be here.

ZAKARIA: Afghanistan. The larger offensive seems to have gone well, certainly from a military point of view. But there is some question as to whether the Taliban melted away to come back to fight another day.

There are some reports that there is another area in Afghanistan, Nawa in Helmand, where you -- the United States had an operation like this. The Taliban seemed to melt away. It seemed like a victory. But they are now coming back.

Do you worry that these fighters have melted away to -- and, you know, and that once the United States tries to itself withdraw the large footprint it has -- it has put, you will find a resurgence of Taliban in places like Marjah?

PETRAEUS: Well, that's always a concern with this kind of approach, and -- and you should know that explicitly we went into Marjah having announced what we were going to do there. General McChrystal was very clear about this. And that was so that we didn't end up in a massive slug fest that destroys Marjah to save it.

So those that wanted to melt away and don't want to fight, all well and good, because the objective is -- is secure the population. We'll kill or capture bad guys that stand up to us, but the key is, again, to get that city as intact as is possible with as little loss of innocent civilian life, and then to erect the security apparatus and so forth, keeping in mind that a lot of this depends again on -- on who the civilians side with.

You know, there is a shura held there yesterday. General McChrystal, in fact, observed it. A number of Afghan leaders attended it from -- from Kabul. And we freely acknowledged that there are individuals in there who tacitly or perhaps even actively may have supported the Taliban in the past when they held sway.

The key is now is of course to turn them into part of the solution.

ZAKARIA: General McChrystal used a phrase to describe how he -- part of the process, which is effectively a clearer hold, and then he said and then we'll have government in a box --


ZAKARIA: -- ready to bring out. I -- I was struck by the expression because if only Afghanistan had government in a box. I mean, you -- here you have -- the big problem in Afghanistan is that the government is weak, indecisive, corrupt, often of the wrong ethnicity, and the idea that you could just bring a pre-packaged gift item from Amazon and put it in the middle of Marjah and it was going to work.

So isn't this the central challenge, which is you clear the area --

PETRAEUS: Absolutely.

ZAKARIA: American troops will do it.

PETRAEUS: It absolutely is. Sure.

ZAKARIA: But then what you get in -- in place there -- I mean, look at this last shura you were mentioning. The second vice president of Afghanistan who was brought in there to speak there spoke in a language nobody there could understand.

PETRAEUS: He did. Yes.

ZAKARIA: He was speaking in Dari, those people speak Pashto.

PETRAEUS: That's exactly right.

ZAKARIA: He's a Hazara, which is a-

PETRAEUS: You've got a good research assistant.

ZAKARIA: I don't. This is all me, believe it or not. And, you know, isn't that part of the problem, the political problem?

PETRAEUS: It is. There's no question about it. Again -- and it's -- let's be real clear, this is clear hold, build or rebuild, depending on the damage done, and transition. And the key in the hold, build and, above all, transition phases of this activity are indeed Afghan governance, and that governance, to be successful, has to be seen as serving the people, as providing a better future for them, not being predatory or corrupt as has been the case in a number of instances in past years, without question.

ZAKARIA: So I look at our Afghan partner, in talking about governance, Hamid Karzai. You have taken great pains to give him some say, inclusion, include him in the process, in the -- in the operation. And yet, he has never publicly supported it. He has never publicly endorsed it, and he has twice criticized your forces for reckless civilian casualties, never pointing out that the Taliban is, of course, using human shields to -- to make it very difficult to not have collateral damage.

Is this -- this does not strike me as an improvement in governance in Afghanistan. In other words, this is a pretty big political problem.

PETRAEUS: Well, actually I met with President Karzai last week, in fact. And for what it's worth, he has --

ZAKARIA: Did you tell him what I just said?

PETRAEUS: Not -- not quite exactly, but -- look, we have candid conversations, both directions, by the way. And I think they're very, very constructive and very good, and I've been doing this now, obviously, for a year and a half or so with him. And, frankly, there have been developments this time that are unique to this time.

First of all, he was actually consulted and asked that ultimately to give the order to carry out the operation. And indeed he provided guidance and he -- he held some things up until he was back briefed on how his concepts were going to be operationalized. He has, rightly, I think, actually, when there have been incidents of innocent loss of life, called into question what was done in those cases, and then we have gone forward.

ZAKARIA: Did he at least (ph) publicly endorse the operation?

PETRAEUS: He has. Oh, he has acknowledged it. He has --

ZAKARIA: When? I have -- I have followed --

PETRAEUS: He has said that he is the commander in chief of this operation, and indeed there have been articles about that. So he has --

ZAKARIA: You're satisfied with --

PETRAEUS: -- taken this forward.

ZAKARIA: Karzai's --

PETRAEUS: Well, look, I don't think in a relationship, even in a friendship, that anyone is ever, you know, 100 percent satisfied with everything that takes place, and indeed, that's why you have good constructive dialogue. And, again, he's not completely satisfied with everything that we're doing either --

ZAKARIA: You're very good at this because you --

PETRAEUS: -- so that's OK.

ZAKARIA: You're very good at this because you have to live with him. All right.

Let me ask you about Pakistan. Do you see what is going on right now in Pakistan? They're -- they're -- having helped us capture some senior Taliban figures and ones that appear to have been fairly central, is this the sign of a fundamental reorientation of the Pakistani military or is it too early to say that and this is just -- you know, this is -- this is encouraging news, but we still have a long way to go?

PETRAEUS: The more important development, actually, is the one that has taken place internal to Pakistan. And this is the decision, as you know, that was reached some 10 months or so ago after the Pakistani people, all of the Pakistani leaders, including the major opposition figure and Sharif and others, and the clerics all recognized that the threat of the internal extremists to the Pakistani state was reaching existential proportions, that -- that the Pakistani Taliban and Swat districts, Swat valley in particular, in the Malakand division of the northwest frontier province were threatening the very writ of governance.

By the way, I was in both lower and upper Swat this past week, and I have to say that that has been a very impressive counterinsurgency operation.

ZAKARIA: They are taking on very ferociously those elements, those militants who attack Pakistanis by and large. They have been reluctant to take on those militants who attack in Afghanistan.

PETRAEUS: Well, as I said, this is very much a work in progress. This is the beginning of a campaign there, and the important development is that this is the Pakistanis fighting their war against internal extremists that threaten them.

Now, the development that I found interesting on this latest trip, and I've been in there almost every two months now and -- or meet with General Kayani or the other leaders somewhere else, on quite a frequent basis. I think the development most recently is that there is emerging a recognition of what Secretary Gates has called the symbiotic relationship between all of the extremist elements in the Fatah, not just --

ZAKARIA: Do you think they get that? Do you think the Pakistanis (INAUDIBLE)? PETRAEUS: This is increasingly -- increasingly, I think, obvious to -- to those who are watching this.

The challenge, though -- and, first of all, look, we have to recognize, number one, the enormous loss of life that the Pakistani military has sustained, and even more, Pakistani civilians. Because of course, as always, when a force takes away a sanctuary or a safe haven from an enemy, that enemy will fight back, and it will go in other areas where you are more vulnerable, perhaps, than in the areas where the actual fighting is taking place. And, in fact, that's why it's significant that indeed some of these Taliban leaders were picked up down in Karachi and other settled areas, as they -- as they're termed, of Pakistan.

But we also have to recognize that the Pakistani army, the frontier corps, the security forces, have put a lot of short sticks into a lot of hornets' nests over the course of that last 10 months. There's a limit to how much you can do that without consolidating the gains in some areas and then, over time, as I mentioned, thinning out to enable you to go into other areas, but leaving behind a sustainable security, a sustainable economic, social, political situation, so that you wouldn't have to go back there in the future, but it's something that can -- can be sustained just by the forces that have been left behind.


ZAKARIA: We will be back with General Petraeus in a moment.


PETRAEUS: -- served with some CIA officer, actually, who were known to be gay and one who's known to be a lesbian, and, you know, after the 10 seconds of awareness wore off, the focus was on the professional attributes of these individuals.


ZAKARIA: Finally, General Petraeus, let me ask you, you said recently in an interview that you didn't mind serving alongside many women who happen to be gay. Does that mean that you would be comfortable with the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

PETRAEUS: I would like to clarify what I did say. What I said is I served with CIA officers actually who were known to be gay and one who was known to be lesbian. After the ten seconds of awareness wore off, the focus was on the professional attributes of these individuals. So given, again, standards of personal conduct, focus on human behavior, a focus on proper implementation, you know, I think that this is something that can be worked through, frankly.

I'll lay this out to Congress. My thinking on this matter, I've been wrestling with this. A lot of us have. We've done a lot of personal soundings. We've looked at the 25 or so countries, including Australia, U.K., Canada, Israel. Some pretty good militaries that have all integrated, if you will, gays and lesbians into their militaries, but had very sensible and pragmatic policies. I think that has been the key to the success of their efforts.

But again, when I talk to the -- probably the Senate armed services committee, if asked, I'll lay out a pretty comprehensive view, my personal view at least on this particular issue.

ZAKARIA: It sounds to me, though, if these -- if the review process of scouting out the opinions of soldiers, if they were to go to this soldier, that is, you, it sounds like what you would tell them is that under -- as long as it was carefully implemented, you would be comfortable?

PETRAEUS: I'll lay that out, again, to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

ZAKARIA: What, you don't want to tell it to a TV show first?

PETRAEUS: I know you'd love to have that. I think we'll allow the scoop to go to our members of Congress.

ZAKARIA: General Petraeus, honor to have you on. Thank you so much.

PETRAEUS: It's really been good to be with you, Fareed. Thanks a lot.


The Big Questions in Iraq
David Ignatius · November 12, 2014
The Oil Weapon in America's Hands
Pat Buchanan · November 14, 2014
25 Years After the Wall Fell, Challenges Remain
Cathy Young · November 12, 2014

Fareed Zakaria GPS

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter