SPIEGEL Interview with US General David Petraeus: 'The Longest Campaign of the Long War'
In an interview with SPIEGEL, General David Petraeus, until recently commander of the American forces in Iraq and future head of the US Central Command, discusses his new job, progress in Baghdad and how lessons from Iraq may apply to the escalating situation in Afghanistan.
US and Iraqi soldiers sit together as they guard the newly opened Mithaq swimming pool in Baghdad's Sadr City: "The level of violence is considerably down."
Petraeus: ... Yes, and don't forget Yemen, where there are also extremist elements, as we saw recently.
SPIEGEL: Saudi Arabia is on the list, too.
Petraeus: The situation there has improved tremendously. Over the last four years they have done a superb job in their fight against al-Qaida. As you may recall, our embassy in Jedda (in Saudi Arabia) was overrun some four years ago and a number of foreign workers went home because of violence against them. Even the Interior Ministry in Riyadh was hit. Since then, the Saudis have employed a very intelligent and comprehensive approach to counter al-Qaida, including precise operations based on good intelligence, changes in their corrections facilities, superb strategic communications programs and a host of other initiatives -- all of which, together, have helped Saudi Arabia achieve impressive results in their fight against extremists.
Petraeus: Soberly, and I truly mean that. I'm approaching it with a coldly realistic appraisal and a keen awareness of the challenges.
SPIEGEL: Is that the attitude you are taking with you from Iraq, where you were in charge of the Central Command for 19 months? Recently, while the rest of the world was stunned by the progress in Iraq, you almost sounded like the greatest skeptic.
Petraeus: There has, indeed, been very substantial progress in Iraq over the past year -- violence is down by 80 percent, civilian deaths by about the same, and so on. Nonetheless, US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and I have repeatedly sought to emphasize that the progress in Iraq is fragile and also, possibly, reversible. Having said that, it might be a bit more durable now than it was a few months ago when we last testified together before Congress. In fact, the Iraqi Council of Representatives just passed the provincial elections law and that is very important because it represents the kind of broad consensus that is necessary in the Iraqi system. As you know, according to the constitution, the Presidency Council has to approve all legislation that is passed by the Council of Representatives. This means that the Kurdish president and his Sunni and Shia vice-presidents all have to approve legislation; this means, of course, that each of them thus has a veto. Thus, without a reasonable degree of consensus there are clear limits on what it is that can be done.
SPIEGEL: But how stable has Iraq become as a country?
Petraeus: Ambassador Crocker and I, as well as our bosses, are cautious about this -- properly so, we believe. We have had innumerable surprises along the way in Iraq and we have made mistakes along the way as well. The appropriate assessment is therefore one that reflects a degree of caution when it comes to Iraq.
SPIEGEL: Has experience turned you into a pessimist?
Petraeus: I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist. I am a realist, and the reality in Iraq is that it has been very hard and it continues to be hard. We should accept and acknowledge that even as we recognize that the improvements in the security situation are allowing us to reduce another 8,000 US forces over the next four months -- reductions that, again, reflect an assessment that there has been significant progress and that the Iraqi forces are indeed shouldering more of the burden.
SPIEGEL: How strong are the enemies of the new Iraq?
Petraeus: There is still a level of violence. Al-Qaida in particular remains dangerous, and there is some residual militia and special group presence. There are still between 20 and 30 attacks per day, still periodic car bombs and still loss of innocent civilians. However, the level of violence is down considerably from last June, when there were some 180 attacks a day and civilian (and military) losses were considerably higher.
SPIEGEL: Do you still see the threat of a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites?
Petraeus: I think that is much less likely and this a remarkable fact. The level of sectarian violence was horrific in the winter of 2006-2007. There were, for example, over 50 dead bodies every 24 hours in Baghdad alone in December 2006 just from sectarian violence.
SPIEGEL: One of the great miracles in all this is the behavior of Moqtada al-Sadr, who for some time now has kept his Mahdi Army quiet.
US General David Petraeus: "I am coldly realist."
SPIEGEL: And the Sunnis, on the other hand, were bribed into cooperation, as Bob Woodward writes in his new book "The War Within"?
Petraeus: That's not completely accurate. I will tell you what we have done. The Sunni Arabs began to realize that they had made a huge mistake by not voting in the election of 2005 and by not being part of the new Iraq. They had reasons for this: They were effected by the disestablishment of the military and by de-Baathification (the dismantling of Saddam Hussein's party) in winter 2007-2007. They increasingly recognized that their future lay in being part of the solution rather than a continuing part of the problem. But they couldn't reject al-Qaida without our provision of security. So we took care of their security, we moved into their neighborhoods, we protected their tribal leaders who led the rejection of al-Qaida. And then we cleared many of their towns and cities and rural areas of al-Qaida Iraq and other insurgents, sometimes with their help, but often without it. And once their areas were clear, many of them sought to help us keep them secure -- and, over time, we began hiring them to man checkpoints and help keep their areas clear. You know, we had money for emergency reconstruction programs, and this seemed a wise investment -- as reconstruction is not possible without security -- and they helped to maintain it.
- Part 1: 'The Longest Campaign of the Long War'
- Part 2: 'In Afghanistan, You're not Rebuilding, You're Building'
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