"Resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would make the US troops less threatened
and remove the arguments of movements"
Commander of the US Central Command, General David
Petraeus, told Al-Hayat in an interview that resolving
the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is “very central”
for his work as commander of US forces in 20 countries,
mostly of them in the Muslim world, and that dealing
with this conflict, just like closing Guantanamo, would
be “a positive step forward” towards making the US
troops less threatened. He said: “I think a lot of
things would be better if this issue is resolved. If
there could be a just resolution of this issue that all
accept and all support, needless to say, it removes some
of the different arguments that various countries make,
that various movements make”. The resolution of this
issue would also empower Arab leaders to help the United
States even more in confronting terrorism.
the question of whether or not some movements and
organizations such as Hezbollah qualify as a
“terrorist group” according to the definition of the
Obama administration, Petraeus replied: “I am pretty
confident that they have in fact done that”, and added
that “it is safe to say that Hezbollah has not been a
force for stability in Lebanon . But frankly, if you
could reach a resolution on the Palestinian issue, then
their stated reason for existence is of course
removed”. According to him, “the one way to
undermine the rationale for the existence of many of
these groups is of course by reaching an agreement to
resolve the Mid-East Peace Process.”
Petraeus accused Iran of continuing its activities
against Iraq and the US troops stationed there and said:
“The continued arming, training, funding, and
directing of Shiite extremists in Iraq is not just of
concern to us. It is of concern to the government of
Iraq and they have stated that to their neighbor on a
number of occasions in the past”. He added that “the
large weapons cash- explosives cash with signature items
that come only from Iran.” He also stated that there
were in Iraq “incidents of sensational attacks that
have been carried out by the Al Qaeda and its Sunni
extremist affiliates who are trying to reignite
sectarian violence about every three weeks or so”.
said that with the “increased concerns” about
Iran’s apparent quest for potentially nuclear weapons
and delivering means, there have been
“ever-strengthened relationships between the countries
of the Gulf Region and the U.S. Central Command and the
United States”, including military relations. Hence,
Patriot batteries have gone back in to many of these
countries as well as missile defense, and Petraeus said:
‘All of this has received quite a boost, frankly, from
Iran because they are concerned about what Iran is doing
and what Iran has been saying. And they therefore want
to be ready to defend themselves were it ever to come to
that. They would like to buy those defenses to be able
to deter any kind of action that Iran might ever
Petraeus assured that the number of foreign fighters
entering Iraq from Syria is dramatically reduced, but
that “it still goes on and we know it” and mentioned
the recent example of two captured Tunisians. He said:
“We know that there are cells in Syria. There is no
question but that there are Al Qaeda facilitators in
Syria” to infiltrate Iraq, and “it is a cause for
concern to Iraq and it is a cause for concern to us
because they are killing Iraqi civilians, Iraqi forces,
and some coalition forces.”
Raghida Dergham: Since the predominant issue, at least in the minds of Arabs, is the Palestinian issue, how central is the resolution of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict to your job as Commander of the U.S. forces in 20 countries, mostly of them in the Muslim world?
General Petraeus: It is very central. In fact, the appointment of the Special Representative for the President, the envoy Senator (George) Mitchell is a very significant step, therefore, in our view, my view as Commander of the theatre.
Ms Dergham: Do you think the American troops would be less threatened in the region should there be a resolution for the Palestinian issue?
Gen. Petraeus: Well I think a lot of things would be better if it were resolved. If there could be a just resolution of this issue that all accept and all support, needless to say, it removes some of the different arguments that various countries make, that various movements make.
Ms Dergham: What about the direct impact on U.S. troops? Is there an impact of threatening American troops in the region linked to the continued anger with the United States because of the continued unresolved Palestinian issue?
Gen. Petraeus: Well, I think it is just one of many factors that are out there, actually. It certainly is a factor. There are a number of factors that can be removed. Guantanamo is another factor. If Guantanamo could be responsibly closed- in other words, if those individuals that we are most worried about were turning to extremist activity are safeguarded in some way- then certainly, closing Guantanamo would be a positive step forward. And, in that regard- as with a number of other factors- a similar case can be made (in answer to the threatening impact on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict on US troops)
Ms Dergham: About Guantanamo: You have already said that closing Gitmo and the abandonment of the interrogation techniques help in balancing the U.S. mission in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the overall struggle against violent transnational extremist groups. How do you mean that?
Gen. Petraeus: Well, this has been another factor used by extremists, by those who wish the United States, and by those who wish the forces of moderation and tolerance in the region to fail. And so, this is just another one of those propaganda tools that is used. The more of those potential tools that can be removed, the better for the prospects of the kind of Middle East that I think most of its citizens want but certainly the extremists oppose.
Ms Dergham: General, did any of these techniques take place in Iraq when you were in charge?
Gen. Petraeus: We never certainly authorized it. As a division commander very early on, I provided guidance to our soldiers in 2003 within a couple months of getting on the ground when we realized that we were going to have detainees, that we would for example adhere to the Geneva convention in dealing with those detainees. Certainly there were cases where that was violated, and when it was, we took the appropriate judicial or non-judicial action, as it is termed.
And the same took place when I was a commander in Iraq… In fact, when I was the Commander in Iraq I put out direction to our soldiers as well that we had to live our values. We are fighting for these values. You know, countless Americans and coalition members’ allies have died in defense of these values over the centuries. We must live those values and we are very determined to do so.
Ms Dergham: You said that closing Guantanamo in a responsible way and observing the Geneva Conventions is something that will be good for the United
States. Do you mean that establishing Guantanamo was a violation of the Geneva Convention?
Gen. Petraeus: I do not mean to say that.
Ms Dergham: So it was not a violation?
Gen. Petraeus: Well, I am not an international lawyer and this is not something I can debate. What I can say with certainty is that the existence of Guantanamo has again been used by extremists as a propaganda tool against those forces that we are allied with in the Middle East- the forces that I think you want to see succeed and your readers generally want to see succeed as well.
Ms Dergham: Let me go back to the Palestinian/Israeli issue. Would resolving this conflict empower Arab leaders to help the United States even more in confronting terrorism?
Gen. Petraeus: I think it would. And that is why President Obama has already invested a good deal of effort in it. That is why he appointed such a prominent and proven individual as Senator Mitchell who of course helped to reach the accords that ended the thirty years of problems in Northern Ireland
Ms Dergham: Have you received definitions as to who, according to the Obama Administration, qualifies as terrorists groups? Is Hezbollah, for example, a “terrorist group” according to the definition of the Obama administration?
Gen. Petraeus: I would encourage you to ask the Obama Administration. I am pretty confident that they have in fact done that. But- if you want to get into that- we are quite clear about those who are trying to kill or capture or soldiers where we are deployed. Of course, we do not have a substantial presence in Lebanon but I think it is safe to say that Hezbollah has not been a force for stability in Lebanon. But frankly, if you could reach a resolution on the Palestinian issue, then their stated reason for existence is of course removed?
Ms Dergham: Whose stated reason? You mean, Hezbollah’s?
Gen. Petraeus: Hezbollah’s reason for existence… Ask the leaders of Jordan, of Lebanon, of Egypt, of the Gulf States and they will certainly tell you that one way to undermine the rationale for the existence of many of these groups is of course by reaching an agreement to resolve the Mid-East Peace Process.
Ms Dergham: Israel wants the United States to deal with “Iran first” as a precondition for working toward a resolution of the Palestinian problem. President Obama seems not to agree with that. Do you, General, do you fear that the U.S. military might be dragged de-facto into the “Iran first” option?
Gen. Petraeus: Well that is a hypothetical that I would not get into frankly. I do not think it is productive to do that. We certainly, as the Commander of the theatre- a region of 20 countries, one of which is Iran- I can tell you that there is enormous concern. By the way, Israel is not in my area nor are the Palestinian territories. But having said that, the countries in that region, the vast majority of them are very concerned by the provocative actions and the provocative rhetoric by Iran. The continued arming, training, funding, and directing of Shiite extremists in Iraq is not just of concern to us. It is of concern to the government of Iraq and they have stated that to their neighbor on a number of occasions in the past.
The large weapons cash- explosives cash with signature items that come only from Iran- explosively formed projectiles and the like in Maysan Province couple of weeks ago show that this activity still goes on. So do the explosions of these Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs) in a still fairly regularly basis.
Again, the violence levels in Iraq as you know vastly diminished. I mean, they’ve gone from 160 attacks per day in June in 2007 to between 10 and 15 attacks on a consistent basis for the last 5 or 6 months. What we have seen in Iraq that causes concern are incidents of sensational attacks that have been carried out by the Al Qaeda and its Sunni extremist affiliates who are trying to
re-ignite sectarian violence about every three weeks or so.
Ms Dergham: So Iranian actions continue against Iraq and the American troops in Iraq?
Gen. Petraeus: They do. They may be on a smaller level certainly than they were before the fight against the militia that was launched by the Iraqi security forces in March and April of 2008 and that the operation in Basra and the operation in Baghdad in Sadr City. So they never returned to that level. But it still does go on. There still are periodic EFP explosions. We have actually seen single rockets lobbed into the green zone in recent weeks. And again, they come from Iran, without question.
Ms Dergham: President Obama has actually recognized the Islamic Republic of Iran by addressing the Islamic Republic of Iran giving them the respect that they have been saying they want, and yet these attacks continue as you are saying. He has now given what some people think is a time frame for talks with Iran. The impression is that the United States- no matter what- is not going to resort to the military option even if Iran acquires a nuclear military capability. Is this harmful to the troops in the region- to have some people calling the U.S. a Paper Tiger. Is this harmful for the moral of the troops? Tell me what you think of what I just said.
Gen. Petraeus: Well, I obviously do not share what you just said. I think your characterization is flawed and it is not one that I would agree with.
Ms Dergham: You mean the Paper Tiger part. But what about the earlier part of the question?
Gen. Petraeus: Well, again I am not going to comment on hypotheticals or suppositions. I think that is probably just not useful. There clearly is a willingness- if Iran wants to be a true, responsible and constructive member in the region for it to assume that role. But in many respects, I think the ball is in its court. It is the source of the army training, funding and direction for the Shiite extremists in Iraq, for the Lebanese Hezbollah, for Hamas, and to a limited degree the Taliban in Afghanistan.
We do have shared interests: they don’t want to see the Taliban actually return to control so that this Sunni ultra-conservative extremist organization would once again control their neighbor to their east in Afghanistan. They do not want to see the illegal narcotics trade expand any further which has enslaved them.
Ms Dergham: So they need you as much as you need them?
Gen. Petraeus: Well, again we all see what the calculation is. But what I am pointing out is merely that there are some shared interests, but there are clearly also diverging interests. A political scientist or a scholar of international relations would ask whether Iran is willing to be a so called “status quo” power, or is intent on being a revolutionary power? Is it intent on striving to achieve regional hegemony, or is it willing to be a constructive member of the Gulf region and of the greater Middle East in the world.
Ms Dergham: And the answer is?
Gen. Petraeus: To be determined.
Ms Dergham: Do you, General Petraeus, have a plan in mind regarding
Iran? You have envisioned a way out and you have envisioned a plan actually for Iraq. What do you envision for Iran?
Gen. Petraeus: Well, needless to say, if I had one I probably would not share its existence with you.
Ms Dergham: Well I am not asking details. I am just saying, do you have one? Do you have a plan?
Gen. Petraeus: As I said, if I did I would not share that with you.
Ms Dergham: Do not share it but tell me, do you have one? Do you have a plan anyway?
Gen. Petraeus: If I did I would not share it with you. And again, it is not constructive to discuss that kind of thing. And I
Ms Dergham: Let me just try one more time…
Gen. Petraeus: No. Let me tell you what we do. What we are trying to do is to reinforce, to strengthen, to build on the security architecture in the region. Interestingly, Iran has become the best recruiter for partnership with Centcom (Central Command) in the region. As these countries have become more and more concerned about what Iran is doing: its apparent quest for nuclear technology, potentially nuclear weapons and delivering means…and they just launched another missile test.
As this concern has grown, what you have seen are ever-strengthened relationships between the countries of the Gulf Region and the U.S. Central Command and the United States. And so, Patriot batteries have gone back in to many of these countries as there is more desire to purchase more of them, and the air forces and missile defense and shared early warning. All of this has received quite a boost, frankly, from Iran because they are concerned about what Iran is doing and what Iran has been saying. And they therefore want to be ready to defend themselves were it ever to come to that. They would like to buy those defenses to be able to deter any kind of action that Iran might ever take.
Ms Dergham: Senator John Kerry said to me in an interview a couple of weeks ago that there is a need for New Security Order and that there are efforts towards a new security order in the region where Iran would be central. Do you share that view? Is that what you guys are working on?
Gen. Petraeus: I mean, I am not sure what he had in mind. What we are working on is indeed a Security Architecture, if you will- networks of networks that improve the defensive capabilities bilaterally by the relationships with us and then also evolving into multilateral relationships as well.
Ms Dergham: Including Iran?
Gen. Petraeus: Well, we do not know. Obviously not including Iran. We do not talk to Iran right now military to military.
Ms Dergham: You don’t. There is no communication with Iran military to military?
Gen. Petraeus: No, other than the occasional maritime bridge-to-bridge kinds of normal international activity if you will that we conduct with any ship at sea.
Ms Dergham: So is there any such vision for a new security order in the region other than what you just described, I mean in the larger sense, that would really change the balance?
Gen. Petraeus: Well I think if there is anything like that, it is highly conceptual at this point in time and certainly has not made its way into the military realm with respect to
Ms Dergham: You mentioned a little earlier about Iran continuing activities you do not welcome whether in Iraq and other places…
Gen. Petraeus: By the way, not just us. This is not just strictly U.S. It is all of the countries in the region, all of them, virtually. And that is why they have sought stronger partnerships with us, more activity with us in a true embrace of Central Command and of the U.S. and the other western countries. I mean France just opened a military base in the
Ms Dergham: Tell me about that. What do you think of that?
Gen. Petraeus: I think it is wonderful.
Ms Dergham: Why?
Gen. Petraeus: Well, I think that the UAE allying itself with our allies, with our coalition partners- our NATO ally and coalition partner in Afghanistan- is a wonderful step forward.
Ms Dergham: The United States had said in the past that Iran and Syria continue to infiltrate weapons through the Syrian border into Lebanon to different factions, not necessarily to only Lebanese militias but to others as well…
Gen. Petraeus: Well, we also remain concerned about the fact that although the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria is dramatically reduced…
Ms Dergham: …To Lebanon, I was saying…
Gen. Petraeus: I am now talking about Iraq. Although the number of foreign fighters who go into Damascus and then make their way into Iraq is dramatically reduced from 120 at the height of the particular foreign fighter pipeline to maybe under 20 and some months under 10, it still goes on and we know it. We captured two Tunisians recently.
Ms Dergham: You mean the Syrians are still allowing fighters through their borders into Iraq?
Gen. Petraeus: What I am saying is that fighters are moving through Syria into Iraq and that this still takes place. I am not saying that they are allowing them. One would certainly hope that would not be the case. A government that wants to do business with Iraq, that wants a pipeline across Syria to the Mediterranean again, would not allow foreign fighters to move through their country and to cause problems in Iraq.
But the fact is that foreign fighters are indeed still able to do this. We captured a Tunisian. Other Tunisians we knew blew themselves up because this Tunisian told us and because we captured the foreign fighter facilitator who helped all of this take place.
We get intelligence on a fairly regular basis. By the way, Tunisia has taken operations more recently against the countries from which these individuals come. They have been quite good actually about restricting the ability of military aged males to fly on a one-way ticket to Damascus. So, there is a lot of effort against this but some of that still does take place.
Ms Dergham: Do we know where are now the fighters who were turned back from Iraq into Syria? Are they in Syria? Have they been exported to Lebanon? Have they snuck somewhere else? Where are they?
Gen. Petraeus: Well, some went back to their own countries. A number of them were killed or captured- very substantial numbers. And overtime or gradually some of those with the Iraqi government have been returned to their home countries.
Ms Dergham: So you do not think that there is any in Syria?
Gen. Petraeus: It is very possible...We know that there are cells in Syria. There is no question but that there are Al Qaeda facilitators in Syria. That is how foreign fighters move into Damascus and then make their way to the border. And there is certainly, yes, there is certainly movement between Syria and Iraq and then back into Syria by these facilitators, by these cells, that help move these foreign fighters into Iraq. A number of them are suicide bombers as I mentioned the Tunisians most recently that we know of. And we periodically get intelligence that tells us that something or other is going on. The numbers are very substantially less than they were then say at the beginning of the surge. Again, they have gone down from 100 to 120 down to certainly below 20 and perhaps less than 10 in a given month. But it still does goes on and it is a cause for concern to Iraq and it is a cause for concern to us because they are killing Iraqi civilians, Iraqi forces, and some coalition forces.
Ms Dergham: I want to go on to Lebanon quickly. The U.S. had said that the is continued shipment of arms through the Lebanese/Syrian border into Lebanon. Is that continuing? Are you worried about it? Is there anything you are doing about it? What do you know?
Gen. Petraeus: Well, there are concerns about that. Certainly. Hezbollah did re-arm of course in the wake of the fighting there several years ago. We are concerned about longer range rockets and missiles that reportedly have gone in and the source of those undoubtedly was Iran. And in fact, in one case, a ship was intercepted and actually unloaded in a country other than its intended country of Syria.
Ms Dergham: So then what happened? What happens next?
Gen. Petraeus: Well, those weapons did not make it to Syria. They stayed somewhere else. A boat full of weapon materials was stopped short of getting into Syria.
Ms Dergham: That was the one from Cyprus. That is what you are talking about. What happened to that issue?
Gen. Petraeus: Well, those weapons were not delivered to Syria is what happened.
Ms Dergham: The U.S. has been equipping and training Lebanese armed forces. Vice President Joe Biden said something when he was in Beirut. He insinuated that that would not continue if Hezbollah takes over the government and the State of Lebanon through elections. When Hamas won the elections, I think the U.S. stopped training Palestinian soldiers. What would happen next now in Lebanon?
Gen. Petraeus: Well, what happens next are elections.
Ms Dergham: No, I mean, in case you stopped training?
Gen. Petraeus: Well, I am not going to talk about the “what ifs” and all the rest of that. I am not going to get into the hypotheticals until there is a true policy decision.
Ms Dergham: Many people are worried that an Israeli military operation will take place in Lebanon to eliminate Hezbollah’s missiles, which Iran provides. Does this worry you?
Gen. Petraeus: It is not something that I would talk about actually. Remember, Israel is not part of my region.
Ms Dergham: No, I am talking about Lebanon actually.
Gen. Petraeus: There is always concern about any rise in violence, however that takes place. But I am not going to get into the “what ifs” of this case or that case or a bunch of
Ms Dergham: What do you…
Gen. Petraeus: This has to be the last one because I got to go to this dinner.
Ms Dergham: Give me just three more…
Gen. Petraeus: No, this is really it. I do have to get ready for this dinner.
Ms Dergham: Okay, let me just chose a couple things. If one only then I have to really…
Gen. Petraeus: I am sorry but I got two wars to run and a dinner to go to.
Ms Dergham: I actually wanted to do Pakistan…
Gen. Petraeus: Go ahead then.
Ms Dergham: You just came back from Pakistan and Afghanistan, you met with the Army Chief and you were quoted as saying that if the civilian government is not solid, the military is…
Gen. Petraeus: I have never been quoted as saying that. And I have not said whom I met with in Pakistan either.
Ms Dergham: But you did meet with Army Chief Kaylani.
Gen. Petraeus: I am not going to tell you. I was in Pakistan. I met with a variety of different Pakistani leaders.
Ms Dergham: Including Kaylani?
Gen. Petraeus: Now what is the question?
Ms Dergham: Did you meet with Kaylani?
Gen. Petraeus: I am not going to say whom I met with. I was in Pakistan. I certainly didn’t say anything about the civilian government.
Ms Dergham: Okay.
Gen. Petraeus: I have not talked to anybody about what I said, what I did in Pakistan that has been reported actually.
Ms Dergham: That is why we are reporting it.
Gen. Petraeus: Okay, well what is the question. I am not giving you that.
Ms Dergham: Well, what happened? I mean, did you get anywhere with your trip? Did you succeed in what you wanted? Are you afraid of the Balkanization of Pakistan? Taliban is saying that they were going to launch major attacks on cities…
Gen. Petraeus: Okay, this is it. This is the last question and the last answer. Frankly, I had quite a good day in Pakistan. I met with various U.S. and Pakistani leaders and frankly, what I was struck by on this trip is the convergence of a number of different factors all united against the Taliban. The people and the popular opinion is rejecting the Taliban in a way that I have not seen before. All of the political leadership with maybe one or two outliers is united against the Taliban and in support of the military operations. The religious leaders have issued fatwas against the Taliban and the military is very vigorously pursuing the campaign in the North West Frontier Province in Boner and Lower Dir and Swat Valley. And, in fact, they have reinforced those operations substantially and they have continued the operations in several of the different areas of the federally administered tribal areas.
So, I think what happened is that the Taliban ended up being a catalyst that generated a degree of unity against them by the actions they took in Swat; by the very oppressive practices that they implemented upon the agreement that was reached with the government going into force and immediately them violating that particular agreement; and then by moving outside of Swat into Boner and Lower Dir and posing a threat to the rid of government, as its termed, that was so substantial as to cause all of these different forces to ally against them. I think that this is quite significant.
I do not talk about optimism or pessimism anymore. I talk about realism. And the reality is that this will be very difficult. The reality is that the Taliban and the other extremist organizations will fight back as they always do when they are confronted. We have seen some of that with the car bombs, the suicide bombings, and Lahore yesterday and Peshawar.
But again, what I saw was something I have not seen before. And this is by the way Pakistan carrying out its fight. This is not Pakistan carrying out our fight. This is not them fighting America’s war on terror, this is Pakistan fighting against a threat that poses an existential threat to their government, a threat that literally threatens the very existence of the Pakistani state. And for the first time, at least, I think since 9/11, you see the convergence of all of these forces. You see the unity of all these forces against these extremists.
Ms Dergham: So you are not afraid of the Balkanization of Pakistan?
Gen. Petraeus: Not right now. I am not.
Ms Dergham: Not “right now” you said. I noticed that.
Gen. Petraeus: No. Not right now. You know, I am not going to talk about the “what might” and “ifs” again… Good to see you.
Ms Dergham: Thank you so much.