Q&A: Gen. David Petraeus on Leaving Iraq

Gen. David Petraeus is due to relinquish his role as the commanding general in Iraq in mid-September, moving up to head CENTCOM, the U.S. military's Central Command, in overall charge of the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He sat down for an hour and a half this week with NEWSWEEK's Rod Nordland, at the general's office in the American Embassy, in Saddam's old Republican Palace. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: General, I was just down in Fallujahwith the Provincial Reconstruction Team there. Not only is it quiet but we're on our way out.
David Petraeus:
It's a pretty transformed place over the last year or so. But again we have to keep our eye on it. None of these places can we take our eye off the ball along with our Iraqi partners because our presence in Fallujah is very significantly reduced. Our presence in Anbar province has been reduced from 14 maneuver battalions to six in the course of this year.

I asked tribal sheiks there whether Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) could ever come back if Sunnis fail to reach a political settlement with Baghdad, and they all said, "No, we're past Al Qaeda. We might start fighting the Americans again, but not with Al Qaeda."
I think it's true that they are past Al Qaeda. They are past ... an organization that embraces an extremist ideology, employs indiscriminate violence, and practices oppressive social actions such as forced marriage or cutting fingers off smokers.

Forget that, no smoking ...
That was the tipping point when they cut the fingers off the first person who was smoking. I mean, can you imagine an Anbar sheik being told he can't smoke? They're not necessarily past what used to be called "resistance," though, or something like that; although, look, candidly, even that, I think at this point is more political rhetoric because what are the alternatives? They know, and they will tell you in private, and they probably did, that they made a colossal error in not voting in 2005 and in boycotting the elections. They know that Iraq is no longer potentially wealthy. Iraq is an incredibly wealthy country. It has just passed a $22 billion supplemental budget because it realizes how much it's going to make because of the increased oil exports because of the improved security situation ... complemented very much by the increase of the price in oil. To enjoy their share of Iraq's bounty, they obviously have to participate. The real challenge they will always be wrestling with is ... not only to make their voice heard, but to get the most prominent place at the table that they can possibly achieve. And of course, as the Al Qaeda threat has diminished, there's been a certain amount of drama, if you will, political drama, in the relations among the tribes as well as between the tribes and, let's say, the established Iraqi Islamic Party.

We interviewed two people who claimed to be the police chief of Fallujah, two days apart.
You go through these things. You know, when you've been in Iraq for as long as actually both of us have—you know, it's coming up on four years—I think you're a little less prone to get too excited too quickly. There's a certain degree of posturing and rhetoric, and that can occasionally be quite heated, in the new Iraq, what some have termed the "emerging Iraqracy."

That's a good one, but hard to pronounce.
It is. Yes, and you have to sort of lead up to it a little bit, to talk about how it's not [just] democracy, it's Iraqracy.

We've been burned before by being overly optimistic in this war.
We have, we have. And so we have to be very careful, and we are with respect to Anbar. We know [the insurgents are] trying to come back in ... and we have picked up a number of those individuals who have tried to come back in. And of course they attacked and killed several of our marines and sheiks in the attack [June 26 in Karmah, near Fallujah]. But the fact is that the level of violence in Anbar is the lowest in our recorded history, literally, the lowest of any of our data.

And in Baghdad, too. If you take Mosul and Diyala out, the numbers are really ...
They are very small. And actually, yesterday [Aug. 18], there were 14 attacks in all of Iraq, and that includes crime. That includes everything that we're aware of. And we actually have a much broader appreciation for what's going on because we have—I mean, just in Baghdad alone we have 77 joint-security stations—combat outposts and patrol bases that didn't exist when the surge started.

And then I think unless you've been here, you don't realize the significance of another initiative, and that is that we have reduced our holding of Iraqi detainees by about 5,500 since November. And that's quite significant because they have not been re-arrested ... less than 1 percent. We learned a lot about the detainee business. And the last piece was put in place last fall, which is that you have to conduct counterinsurgency operations inside the detainee facilities just in the same way you conduct them outside. In other words, you have to separate, you have to identify the irreconcilables, the real hard core, and you have to separate them from the rest of the population. In the detainee facilities, when the hard-core Taqfiris were in there, they were training the Terrorist Class of 2008.

In so many ways, it sounds like Al Qaeda in Iraq has been defeated, but the U.S. military is reluctant to say so.
You won't find a single military leader in this theater who will say that.

You could be the first.
Yeah, I could, but I won't be.

But at least can't we say "strategically defeated"?
There's no military leader who will but yeah, you can. We'll leave that to the academics.

I mean, they no longer can …
What we assess is that Al Qaeda in Iraq has been significantly diminished; their capabilities substantially degraded. But we assess that they remain lethal, they remain dangerous. They continue to be, in our view, again, what we call the wolf closest to the sled. Public Enemy No. 1. Now, there have been periods where we focus more on the [Shia] militia, frankly. But after the very significant operations against the militia in Basra, Maydan, Sadr City, elsewhere in Baghdad and so forth, there was the militia ceasefire; there's now the transformation of the militia by Moqtada al-Sadr into an organization that focuses on social services and cultural issues. And there's a wait-and-see about what happens to what used to be called the special group leaders and elements because, as you know, they went back to Iran or a couple went to Lebanon and Syria. And so right now the most significant source of violence in Iraq is Al Qaeda in Iraq and those [handful of] Sunni extremist allies that remain. But they are the ones who are carrying out the suicide-vest attacks, the car bomb attacks and so forth.

Would you agree they now lack any real central organization, and are just a bunch of disparate groups and cells?
Well, they've always had a somewhat cellular structure. They've had varying degrees of command and control; when you had a really strong leader like [Abu Mussab al-]Zarqawi, much more so ... But it still exists. They still have links to Al Qaeda senior leadership in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan]. But those are more tenuous, they have to go to much greater lengths to communicate. And I think it is fair to say that Al Qaeda in Iraq, by and large, is on the run, that its safe havens are considerably diminished.

Mosul and Diyala are the only places where they're really putting up any fight.
Certainly a very significant, tough fight. But the level of violence, even there, is down by over half in Mosul from four months ago. That's an area where they really can't afford to lose the remaining toeholds that they have.

We've heard you've recently intercepted communications from AQI to Al Qaeda senior leaders asking them not to send any more foreign fighters because they couldn't handle them.
They actually stopped the flow, period, for a while, about two months ago. They just said, "Stop bringing in anybody."

And they were focusing on bringing in suicide bombers mostly, rather than actual fighters?
Because they were so disrupted. Yes, they said, "Just stop" … There's a variety of intelligence sources that we have that can sort of corroborate that. Now they've started again, but only about 20 a month.

Could there have been an Awakening without the surge?
Well, there could have been an Awakening, but you couldn't have exploited it ... And by the way, in the course of our surge of 30,000, the Iraqis surged by over 130,000 actually, and climbing. The Sons of Iraq [armed Sunni neighborhood volunteers], the Awakening, that's another 99,000 now. You know, we had tribal Awakenings all the way back to early 2005, actually, but they ended up with their heads chopped off. The one that endured, of course, was the one that sprung up with Sheik Sattar out by Ramadi in October of 2006. You started to see a downward trend in violence but the [military] clearance of Ramadi didn't take place until mid-March through mid-April of 2007. And in a number of cases you had to clear it first, or at least you had to be started on that road before they would dare to raise their hand and say that they were willing to help protect their country, or their neighborhood.

Beyond that, I think there was an intellectual construct. You know, it wasn't just "the surge." It wasn't just extra forces. It was the kind of conceptual guidance that was put out at the same time that we employed the additional forces ... starting with a focus on securing the population, which can only be done by living among them.

[Another] intellectual construct was ... an explicit idea that we have to identify and separate the irreconcilables from the reconcilables, but that you're not going to kill your way out of an insurgency; you got to reconcile with as many as you can. That helps guide you, and that leads to, at the local level, political reconciliation and Awakenings, and then also you're looking to see, as the security situation allows, people start focusing on laws and budgets and all the rest of that. It takes a very comprehensive approach.

Just back to Al Qaeda a little bit. Why so shy about declaring victory over them, if they're in such bad shape?
Well, first of all we truly think it would be premature, honestly. And then I think there still is a very lethal and very deadly and very barbaric enemy out there. Again, sufficiently barbaric to strap [explosive] vests onto women.

Which in a way is a sign of their weakness, too. They can't find enough men to do it.
Well, yeah, you can interpret it that way. We'll let you do that. And again, honestly, [U.S.] Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker and I explicitly, from day one, together, said that we have got to be coldly realistic and as absolutely objective as we possibly can and not let our enthusiasms or perhaps normal optimism creep into our assessments, frankly. And so we've been very, very careful to ensure that what we say is as absolutely credible as we can make it, and also not open up the assessments to charges of spinning.

But do you see any element of Iraqi society now that's pro Al Qaeda? I mean, you used to have Sunni political leaders who were openly so.
There are some that are surviving, you know, in Syria or Jordan still. There are some that still talk a bit about resistance, but even that has actually sort of become yesterday's news, I think. They are much more the old line, what you would call the hard-core Baathists and Saddamists rather than religious extremists.

You no longer hear of Sunni imams in the mosques praising Al Qaeda in Iraq.
We actually don't, come to think of it. You know, by the way, what you have just raised is an interesting point. I don't know how you can capture it, but progress in Iraq often is, in a sense, a negative. It is something that is no longer there. Remember how last year at this time you would see two-mile-long lines or mile-long lines for gas stations? Well, when you see those, you realize there's a problem. When you don't see them, you don't realize there's not a problem, you just don't see them. There are so many areas like that ... But again, you need to be cautious about that, too, because as the ambassador and I have in fact cautioned on a number of occasions that, yes, there has been significant progress, but it is still not self sustaining; there is still a degree of fragility to it, and it could be reversed.

The most telling thing to me is that people in August are back out at midnight on the streets.
Well, I mean, that's one. There's a whole host of these [indicators] ... The insurance rates for aircraft coming into Baghdad International Airport have been cut by half ... Two weeks ago there were licenses let for outside the Green Zone, a five-star hotel, a shopping mall and a commercial center in three different locations in Baghdad.

In a way you could argue that with an enemy like Al Qaeda, victory's never going to be absolute, you're never going to wipe out every last one so it's really about whether you've reached a tipping point where they don't affect society.
Security gains, obviously, help with everything. Everything is much more doable, much more possible. But still, again, we're not celebrating; the champagne bottle remains in the back of the refrigerator. There's no victory dances in the end zone because every time you start to feel really good, there will be some kind of incident. There will be a suicide-vest attack, there will be a car-bomb attack or what have you. And we have to stay very, very focused. We talk sometimes about having our teeth into the jugular of Al Qaeda, and we got to keep them there. Because they're still out there. And to some degree on the Shia side we've seen the same thing with the [Shia] militias there. As the Al Qaeda threat to the Shia neighborhoods and Shia populations has been so significantly reduced ... there's not the need for them that the population, perhaps, felt before. And so the people don't want the militias to come back either.

And now Moqtada al-Sadr says he has become a social worker.
Yeah, yeah. And again, if you look at what the militia was and what he's trying to transform it into, you have to see that as a positive step.

In some ways, Iraqi leaders are getting a bit nationalisticresisting foreign investment in oil, delaying the Status of Forces Agreement [SOFA] with the United States.
It's probably to be predicted. What you see is a degree of self confidence that wasn't present before. And you also see a government that's been in place now for well over two years. The first year was marked by such extraordinary violence that they really found it difficult to get much done ... If you think back to June of 2007, there were 180 attacks a day on average, and there's now about 25 or so attacks in a day [Iraq-wide]. It's just such an enormous difference.

Is that new Iraqi self-confidence going to make it even harder to conclude the SOFA? And do you think that's going to be done before you leave?
I think that's all doable. There are sufficient areas of very important mutual interest that will enable the conclusion of an agreement. Iraqis know that ... while their security forces are increasingly capable, there are still significant gaps and shortcomings.

Many Iraqi political leaders are insisting on a timetable as part of this.
If you look at the serious statements; if you look at, let's say, what Prime Minister [Nuri al-]Maliki's spokesman has said, even when he's used a date, he has always used the words "hope," prior to the date. And then he's used words such as "conditions permitting" or "subject to conditions" following any date. So there's a recognition of reality, but there's also a need to play to domestic politics here.

Looking forward to Afghanistan, are you going to take a lot of what we learned here and make changes there?
Well, I think it would be premature to make that kind of statement. In fact, the big lesson I think you take away from any experience like this is how unique each situation is. Now, it does happen that I was just over in Afghanistan for two and a half days … this last week. And there clearly are significant challenges by no means all of which can be solved within Afghanistan; the extremism that emanates from the [Pakistani] border areas is a very serious threat, and it appears to be a growing threat.

There have been some days when Afghanistan's had more violent incidents than Iraq.
That has certainly been the case in many days in recent months ... One of the assessments that I presented to [Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2005] was a sense that Afghanistan was going to be the longest campaign of what was then called "The Long War." And I think that's still very much true. There may be certain aspects of the experience in Iraq that can help inform the refinements to the campaign there. But again, it would be premature on the basis of having spent two and a half days there in the last three years to state what those might be.

Will there be an Afghan surge?
Again, it would be premature. As [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates and others have all noted, there's clearly a need for additional forces, given the pressure the insurgents have exerted in this year in particular.

I guess you can't comment on the U.S. presidential …
No, I'd rather not. [Laughs.]

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