This is Part 2 of a two-part interview.
Retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus believes that the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, while a “generational” one, will eventually be won. The more consequential battle, he contends, is the war that will follow: for governance.
In Syria, Petraeus said, while Russia’s military intervention has vastly complicated the creation of a no-fly zone, such a plan is still “doable.”
Petraeus, an Atlantic Council board member who has commanded US-led coalition forces in Iraq and in 2003 led the 101st Airborne Division as it entered the city of Mosul, said the Iraqi forces’ campaign to retake Mosul has gained “considerable momentum.” However, he added, “the real battle is not actually the fight against the Islamic State, which I have said for some two years would be defeated without question, the real battle is the struggle after the Islamic State is cleared from these areas, the struggle for power and resources and ensuring that these are shared equitably and with the all-important guarantee of minority rights, not just of majority rule.”
Mosul is the capital of the northern province of Nineveh, a part of Iraq that includes a particularly diverse population—a fact that will pose a challenge to any future governance effort.
Once ISIS is defeated, Petraeus said: “The issue is whether they can then establish the kind of governance and politics that avoid elements of the population feeling that they have to resort to violence?”
It will be up to the Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, to lead this governance effort, he added.
Abadi, however, has his hands full. Even as he is conducting a war on ISIS, he is struggling to fend off challenges from his political rivals in Baghdad. Over the past few months, a coalition in parliament has used no-confidence votes to fire Iraq’s defense and finance ministers. Iraq’s interior minister, Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, resigned in July after an ISIS truck bombing in Baghdad.
“There is going to have to be support for the prime minister in the parliament—more support than there has been—to prevent any further of these kinds of actions and to ensure that he himself is not unseated by a vote of no confidence,” said Petraeus.
On Syria, Petraeus has been an advocate of a no-fly zone that would create safe zones for civilians. Such a plan has become significantly complicated since the Russian air force entered the war in Syria on the side of the country’s embattled leader, Bashar al-Assad.
Petraeus said a no-fly zone is still doable, but “vastly more complex and complicated, and potentially more dangerous given the introduction of Russian air forces into that arena.”
Noting that there will have to be careful coordination in any effort to create a no-fly zone, Petraeus said: “I have always felt that there needs to be firmness with Russia and indeed with Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime, but not outright provocation.”
On November 14, for the first time in almost a month, airstrikes resumed on the rebel-held eastern part of the city of Aleppo. Russia said it had launched strikes using carrier-borne jets and long-range missiles that targeted the rebels in Idlib and Homs provinces, but denied that it had attacked Aleppo. The strikes resumed a day after a phone conversation between US-President elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which they discussed the situation in Syria.
Ultimately, partition may be the solution for Syria, said Petraeus who has described the country as Humpty Dumpty that can never be put back together again. “It’s all well and good to try to negotiate an outcome that would restore Syria to being a unitary state with perhaps a considerable devolution of power, a federal system or something,” he said. “I am just not sure that that is realistic anymore.”
“It is very difficult to try to negotiate something when in the back of your mind you actually acknowledge that it is probably just not realistic,” he said, adding: “That particular test probably needs to be applied again as the new [Donald Trump] administration prepares to take office.”
Retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus spoke in a phone interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.
Q: As a former commander of US-led forces in Iraq and the man who in 2003 led the 101st Airborne Division as it entered the city of Mosul, you know that city well. What is your assessment of the military campaign to retake Mosul from ISIS?
Petraeus: It is gathering considerable momentum and has achieved considerable momentum. In fact, the campaign has really become very impressive in how it is using assets that are unique to the United States—at least in terms of the number that we have, this armada of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets; the unmanned aerial vehicles, Predators, Reapers, unblinking eyes over the enemy, enabled, each one of those, by somewhere around 150 highly trained individuals performing all the tasks associated with maintaining each of these orbits seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. This is enabling our host nation partners—whom we are advising and assisting and whom we have reconstituted after the failure in the face of the Islamic State over a couple of years ago, but now very much taking the fight to the enemy having taken away virtually all of the major locations in Anbar province to the west of Baghdad then working our way up the Tigris River and now engaged inside the districts of Mosul city—the largest Sunni Arab city in all of Iraq and the capital of the most complex human terrain in all of Iraq as well.
This fight has actually developed a considerable amount of quite impressive momentum. Now, to be fair, you could argue that it should have been faster. I would because the sooner that the Islamic State was shown to be losers, the sooner it has lost much of its effectiveness in cyber space and the Internet in recruiting and proselytizing and encouraging attacks elsewhere in the world as well. All of that has now predictably followed.
The key is to determine—and I think this is where the [US] president-elect [Donald Trump] and his incoming administration will look very hard—are there rules of engagement that can be relaxed somewhat or have they been relaxed enough now? Are there additional assets needed while still ensuring that it is the host nation that does the fighting on the frontlines and it is Iraqi men from the federal police, the army, and from the Sunni and also Shia militia elements and tribal forces—that they are the ones on the frontlines fighting to take their country back from the Islamic State even as we are providing a variety of different means of assistance. And then noting as well the importance of a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign as we embarked on during the surge in Iraq, but without us having to do many of the tasks that we had to perform then—reconciliation with those population elements that were alienated by the actions of the previous prime minister [Nouri al-Maliki], which touched off much of this unrest and violence; providing the restoration of basic services; the repair and reconstruction of damaged infrastructure, reopening of schools, medical clinics, local markets; re-establishing local and provincial governance; and ultimately being inclusive in all that is done so that the government in Iraq, in Mosul, in Baghdad, is representative of all the elements of Iraqi society, responsive to all of them, and ensures minority rights not just majority rule. That is the key.
The real battle is not actually the fight against the Islamic State, which I have said for some two years would be defeated without question, the real battle is the struggle after the Islamic State is cleared from these areas, the struggle for power and resources and ensuring that again these are shared equitably and with the all-important guarantee of minority rights, not just of majority rule.
Q: And the onus for that is on the Iraqi government?
Petraeus: Very much so. It is a government led by a prime minister [Haider al-Abadi] who knows that inclusiveness is needed, but at the very time that he is rallying his country and focusing the attention of Iraqis and the world on the fight to clear the Islamic State from Mosul and to defeat it in the north and in Anbar province in the west, at that very moment he is also having to watch his own political back because the previous prime minister, who pursued the ruinous sectarian policies that undid much of what we had achieved during the surge in Iraq some three-and-a-half years after the end of the surge—that individual has gone after the current prime minister and has, with a coalition in the parliament, successfully unseated the prime minister’s minister of defense and finance through votes of no confidence.
So there is going to have to be support for the prime minister in the parliament—more support than there has been—to prevent any further of these kinds of actions and to ensure that he himself is not unseated by a vote of no confidence.
Q: What does victory against ISIS look like?
Petraeus: The defeat of ISIS is a doctrinal term: it is rendered incapable of accomplishing its mission without reconstitution. That will take place. We destroyed al Qaeda in Iraq during the surge. We did the same to a number of the Shia militia in the battles of Basra and Sadr City and so forth in 2008, a year into the surge. The issue is whether they can then establish the kind of governance and politics that avoid elements of the population feeling that they have to resort to violence? That they are not able to get at the political table what they believe is their reasonable due and then end up pursuing that through other means that turn violent.
As we used to say when we were doing politics in Iraq—we used to caution that it is OK to shout but not to shoot. That’s what we have got to get back to. That’s what the Iraqis have got to get back to: that it’s OK to show the full range of emotions, but it’s not OK to employ violence to achieve one’s objectives.
Q: You have described the war against ISIS as a generational one. Is a long-term US military presence in countries like Iraq then necessary?
Petraeus: I tend to think that it will [be]. I have said that this is a generational struggle not a struggle of a decade, much less certainly of a few years and that we have to be prepared for that. That means, by the way, that we have to have a sustainable strategy. The metrics that matter in determining sustainability have to do with the cost in blood and in treasure. What is important about the ongoing campaign in Iraq and the one that is developing in Syria and even to a degree in North Africa and elsewhere is that we have been able to reduce the cost in blood and treasure. That means that they are much more sustainable than the kinds of enormous efforts that were necessary—to be sure—when I was privileged to command the surges both in Iraq and Afghanistan, but were not sustainable over the long term. They did indeed retrieve losing terribly spiraling downward situations, but we always recognized that we couldn’t sustain them at the level at which they were being conducted.
So it is very important that by using our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, together with those of our coalition and host nation partners—using the precision targeting capabilities and strikes, and supporting all of this with the industrial strength ability to use intelligence gathered through all different means, that is hugely important.
Q: You have advocated in support of a no fly zone in Syria. However, has the presence of Russian jets on the side of Assad complicated such a strategy?
Petraeus: Very much so. It is vastly more complex and there would have to be very careful coordination. I have always felt that there needs to be firmness with Russia and indeed with Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime, but not outright provocation. That requires this kind of approach that I have discussed earlier where you are walking a narrow line between those two extremes. That will be hugely important if that is a decision that is ultimately pursued.
I have felt that there should be a safe zone. Remember we did a no-fly zone for over a decade to protect the Iraqi Kurds in the north of Iraq and then also the marsh Arabs and some of the Shia in the southern part of Iraq. It is doable, but it is vastly more complex and more complicated and potentially more dangerous given the introduction of Russian air forces into that arena.
Q: You have described Syria as Humpty Dumpty—how it may never be put back together again. Is partitioning Syria into smaller states a viable solution?
Petraeus: I fear that that’s the case. It’s all well and good to try to negotiate an outcome that would restore Syria to being a unitary state with perhaps a considerable devolution of power, a federal system or something. I am just not sure that that is realistic any more. Rule number one of this kind of activity has to be to make sure that what you are trying to achieve is actually doable. It is very difficult to try to negotiate something when in the back of your mind you actually acknowledge that it is probably just not realistic. That particular test probably needs to be applied again as the new administration prepares to take office.
Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.