David Petraeus: ISIS is on its way to defeat but terrorism threat persists

Story highlights

  • Gen. David Petraeus discusses the terrorist threats facing the world today.
  • Petraeus also talks gun control, Afghanistan, Syria and other issues.

(CNN)In a wide-ranging interview Monday, retired Gen. David Petraeus, who formerly led coalition forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan and directed the CIA, said that ISIS is headed for military defeat in Iraq but that the terror threat it helped inspire remains significant.

In a conversation with CNN National Security Analyst and New America vice president Peter Bergen at an event at New America's offices in New York City, Petraeus also discussed gun control, Afghanistan, Syria and a range of other national security challenges facing the next president. Petraeus now serves as Chairman of the KKR Global Institute, part of the New York-based private equity firm KKR. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
    Peter Bergen
    Peter Bergen: Is the terror attack in Orlando the new normal?
    Gen. David Petraeus: I fear it is a bit of a new normal. The truth is that a number of us have been saying for quite some time that it was only a matter of time until someone went to a gun show, bought a military-like semi-automatic assault weapon with a large capacity magazine and did enormous damage.
    I do talk to individuals still in the business of tracking individuals in the homeland and abroad. A lot of them have felt that they were hanging on by their fingernails a bit in terms of tracking all the potential threats out there. The Orlando terrorist is an example of someone who was in the sights of law enforcement, but never crossed the threshold from pre-criminal to criminal behavior and thus was not tracked adequately before this horrific act.
    And I fear that there could be more of these types of attacks. I know that law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and local, state, and federal police are working very hard via every legal means possible to gather the intelligence, to fuse it, and to analyze it in order to take the pre-emptive actions that can minimize the chances of further such attacks. But, again, I fear that it's likely that we will see more horrific events like the one in Orlando.
    Bergen: You and other former senior military officials are part of a group looking at the issue of the easy availability of assault weapons. What is intent of the group and why did you add your name and voice to it?
    Petraeus: We are part of an advisory council for Mark Kelly's Veterans for Common Sense, a group that pursues common sense initiatives to reduce gun violence. Current areas of focus include trying to close loopholes that allow individuals who are domestic abusers or can't fly on an airplane but still are able to get a gun.
    Bergen: So you would certainly endorse anybody that's on the no-fly list should not be allowed to buy a semi-automatic weapon?
    David Petraeus gave his views on national security issues in a conversation with Peter Bergen June 20 in New York City.
    Petraeus: Absolutely. There are obviously a number of different loopholes including the gun show loophole. I also believe that there's one purpose for an AK-47 and an AR-15, even if it is just on semi-automatic mode, and that is to kill another human being. And if you have a large capacity magazine you can kill even more.
    Bergen: What advice would you offer the next president in terms of the big national security issues he or she will face?
    Petraeus: I think the central issue is the nature of American leadership in the world, how expansive will it be, how involved will it be? Frankly, where do you draw a red line? And if you draw a red line make sure that you are going to act on it?
    Bergen: On Iraq and Syria: Some have suggested carpet-bombing ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq. Is that going to work?
    Petraeus: I think carpet bombing is an absolutely tremendous idea if the enemy accommodates you by laying himself out like a carpet in the middle of the desert, without any civilians or infrastructure around him. Sadly, the Islamic State has learned that that is a losing proposition and does not accommodate us in that way. In fact, the Islamic State is very much underground now in places like Mosul and Raqqa. They are getting hammered when they pop their heads up; they get hammered if they get in a convoy.
    This campaign is now going a bit quicker than a lot of people anticipated. I've been in fights, the fight to Bagdad [in March 2003], where you are fighting very fiercely and intensely and all of a sudden the enemy just collapses, and I think we'll see some of this from ISIS in Iraq in the months ahead.
    I just can't imagine a force that is able to stay in the fight given how they're been pounded every day for such an extended period. Don't get me wrong, Mosul is a city of 2 million people, I know it well, my headquarters was there after the fight to Bagdad when I was commander of the great 101st Airborne Division. Mosul is a big city. And it's a very complex city in terms of the ethnic and sectarian groups and tribes. But I think the odds are now that it will be cleared before the end of the president's administration and it could, perhaps, go more quickly than we think.
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    Bergen: Mosul could be out of ISIS hands by January 20, 2017?
    Petraeus: I think it is possible.
    Bergen: That's a big deal.
    Petraeus: It is a very big deal. I've said, from the very beginning, even in the darkest days, that the Islamic State would be defeated in Iraq and that the long-term threat in Iraq had more to do with Iraqi politics -- in which the Iranian-supported Shia militias play a very prominent role.
    Bergen: ISIS is clearly losing now?
    Petraeus: No question ISIS is a loser in Iraq and, increasingly, Syria. I am quite certain we will also get al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. There's no way you can run a state, and an army -- which is what ISIS still is right now -- without touching something that is going to lead to your demise sooner or later. Beyond that, we should be prepared for the fact that the Islamic State army is going to be defeated in Iraq, but there will still be residual terrorist cells and insurgent groups that will continue to carry out attacks in places like Bagdad.
    Bergen: You wrote in the Washington Post in May that you have become "increasingly concerned about inflammatory discourse against Muslims and Islam." What did you mean? Why did you write it?
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    Petraeus: Well, if you look at many of the cases in which we have achieved progress in fighting Islamic extremists, in almost every one of those cases you will find a Muslim partner. You'll find leaders of an Islamic country or their intelligence services or military leaders or others who were extremely helpful. In some cases, host nation forces are key. Right now, after all, we're supporting Muslims in various countries who are fighting the Islamic State. It's their forces that are on the front lines in many of these cases.
    That doesn't mean that we shouldn't recognize that there is a serious problem within Islam, as that is obviously where Islamic extremism exists. And even if it's a tiny percentage of large numbers, this is a serious threat. But at the end of the day, this is really more of a clash within a civilization, within the Islamic world for the heart and soul of Muslims, than it is a clash between civilizations, to use Sam Huntington's terminology. It's much more about a fight for the future of Islamic countries, an existential threat to them. This is, to be sure, a serious threat to us. It's a very serious threat in Europe. But it's an existential threat to Islamic countries.
    Bergen: You mentioned Europe. Is NATO "obsolete" as some have claimed?
    Petraeus: I don't think it is, and God bless Vladimir Putin because he's given NATO another reason to live. Having just been in Europe, I can assure you there is new urgency about the threat posed by Putin, and the farther east you go the greater the urgency is felt. And if you're in the Baltic states or Poland, the threat indicator is blinking red.
    Bergen: Should the next president declare a red line about the Baltic States?
    Petraeus: First of all, I think declaration of red lines is hazardous duty and should really be preceded by very, very careful thought. And no kidding, if you say it's a red line, you better be prepared to act on it. There are a lot of interpretations of what happened in Syria and how the ultimate outcome was reasonable and so forth, and 90% of the chemical weapons are out of there as a result of the ultimate agreement that was reached, however circuitous a path that took. But when you talk to leaders in the Gulf States, in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, all of them will say that that the failure to act when our red line was crossed was very damaging to the confidence that leaders had in the United States.
    Bergen: You mentioned the Gulf. You've been in Saudi Arabia recently. Is it time for the famous classified 28 pages in the 9/11 report about the Saudis to be released publicly?
    Petraeus: I guess it is. I don't think it's going to show more than that some individuals perhaps had some potential links. But I can tell you that, when I was a four star in several different positions in the Mideast and as director of the CIA, there's no country that wants to defeat the Islamic State or al Qaeda more than the country whose current crown prince was nearly blown up by an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula terrorist with a bomb inside him that was built by Ibrahim al-Asiri, the most dangerous man in the world, still at large in Yemen.
    Bergen: Why is he the most dangerous man in the world?
    Petraeus: Well, he is in an extraordinarily talented, diabolically, barbarically talented bomb maker, and willing to sew bomb materials inside people, literally.
    Bergen: He's still out there as far as we know?
    Petraeus: He is, yes. Very worrisome.
    Bergen: Brexit. Would it be a good thing for the United States, for global security, if the British left the EU?
    Petraeus: No, though I think the most powerful arguments are in the economic realm. Beyond that, one of the big ideas about organizational change is that if you are going to embark on really significant change, you ought to be near certain that the results are going to be so worthwhile that you're willing to go through the enormous disruption that this is going to entail. And Brexit certainly doesn't pass that test. In fact, I think it's quite clearly established by the IMF and others that there would be significant economic downsides, in particular. And there certainly would be some downsides in the security realm as well.
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    Bergen: Syria: Is Raqqa going to be a harder nut to crack than Mosul, and would a no-fly zone be an effective response in Syria to much of what's going on in terms of protecting people, tamping down the violence, decreasing refugee flows?
    Petraeus: Yes, and yes.
    If you think the politics in Iraq are diabolically difficult, Syria's situation is an order of magnitude or two or three greater. And it's gotten more and more and more difficult obviously as the opposition forces have fragmented, have atomized, as the Islamic State has stood up, as the al Qaeda affiliate has been established, as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Forces advisers began helping Bashar al Assad -- and then Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, then some Iranian forces and Shia militias, then Russian air support and special forces. This has just gotten diabolically more difficult.
    And, of course, our special forces are now on the ground in the north helping some of the opposition forces as well. And you'll have seen that a few days back, the Russians bombed one of the opposition groups that we have helped establish way out in eastern Syria -- a force that was not threatening the Russian air base in Latakia or the Russian naval base at Tartus. There's got to come a point in time where we caution the Russians that, "if you bomb our guys we're going to bomb your guys." And that's something we probably should have said long ago. That doesn't mean we get into it directly with Russia. I'm not one who wants to provoke. But we do have to be firm. (And we should do the same, by the way, in Ukraine in terms of providing anti-tank guided missiles, shoulder launched. You're not going to run to Moscow with those. These are not offensive weapons, but you will make the separatists pay a price.)
    But back to Syria, if they are going to bomb the forces that we've established that are going to then take the fight to the Islamic State, I think then we bomb their guys, i.e. some of Bashar al Assad's regime fighters. We should have grounded Bashar's air force way back. Should have said, "You keep dropping barrel bombs on the heads of the people of Aleppo and we are going to ground your air force." And we have the capability to do that without even entering the air space.
    Bergen: Enforcing a no-fly zone for the United States would be a very simple thing to do?
    Petraeus: It was straightforward a couple of years ago; however, it's much more complex with the Russians in the skies now.
    Bergen: Now that the Russians have at least nominally withdrawn combat forces, does it make it a little easier to enforce? The Russians have at least claimed to have withdrawn.
    Petraeus: Well they haven't withdrawn their forces. They rotated some elements back to Russia and then gradually brought some others back to Syria. And the forces they took back to Russia are very easily restored. So that was really more of a shell game than anything else.
    Bergen: You've spent much of your life either studying insurgencies or fighting them. Is Syria the most difficult insurgency/civil war that you've seen?
    Petraeus: I think Syria is incomparably more complex than anything I've ever seen or studied. There are so many different factions now. There are so many different sides to this.
    If something had been done in 2012, mid-2012, maybe it might have been different, though there were never any guarantees. But the conditions were very different than they are now. And the challenge now, I think, is that our policymakers find it very hard to articulate what the desired end state is. I think it is still policy that Bashar Assad must go, but we're not really sure now. I have also thought Assad had to go at some point. After all, he's the magnetic attraction for every would-be jihadist attracted by the Islamic State's sophisticated recruiting effort in social media. His presence is the clarion call for recruiting for the Sunni Arab side. But now, if he goes, it could actually be worse. So my view is that he does have to go, but we should know what's going to replace him before we actually give the final push.
    Bergen: I know you can't comment directly on what you were recommending or suggesting when you were CIA director about arming the moderate Syrian rebels, but let's say, just sort of in an abstract sense, if that had happened early on, would it have made a difference?
    Petraeus: Without getting into what I might or might not have recommended, I think there were opportunities at that time. There were opposition leaders that had greater potential and stature. Sadly, some of those were killed in the ensuing months. There was an opportunity then, and at a time when the infrastructure had not yet been damaged, the institutions were still in place, where people who observed lessons we learned from Iraq about making sure there's no looting, no extra-judicial punishment, no wholesale replacement of everyone. But, as I noted earlier, there were no guarantees.
    Bergen: What are the lessons from the post Arab Spring?
    Petraeus: There are five lessons, and I think they're quite straightforward. The first is that ungoverned spaces in the Islamic world will be exploited by Islamic extremists.
    Second, the effects of such actions, the ramifications, will not be contained to the areas in which the extremists are located. So this is not a problem that, in Washington parlance, you can admire until it goes away. You have to deal with it. The worst example obviously is the geopolitical Chernobyl that is Syria -- spewing radioactive effects everywhere -- violence, instability, extremism, and the tsunami of refugees into the countries of our NATO allies and European partners, causing the biggest challenge in Europe in many decades. Much worse than the Euro crisis in fact.
    Third, is that in dealing with these, U.S. leadership is indispensable, it's imperative. There's no substitute. First of all, the U.S. has, in terms of the assets that are most useful here, the intelligence surveillance, reconnaissance assets -- drones and manned aircraft and everything else -- we have more of that than all of our possible allies and partners put together by several factors. Beyond that, our precision strike capabilities are also vastly greater than those of all our potential partners put together. Now, it doesn't mean you shouldn't have partners and allies, especially from the Islamic world. You should have as many allies and partners as you can get. Churchill was right on this count, that "the only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them."
    Number four is that the effort that we lead has to be a comprehensive effort. It cannot be just a counter-terrorist campaign. It can't be just drone strikes and precision raids by our special mission units. It has to be an "all of the above" campaign, with all the elements of the comprehensive civil-military campaign that we pursued in Iraq during the surge. But, that doesn't mean that we have to provide all of the elements of such an approach. Obviously we should only do what cannot be provided by others. Iraq is an example where the ground combat forces and other components of the strategy are provided by the host nation rather than by us.
    Number five is that is a generational struggle. We used to say that this is a marathon not a sprint. It's more that. It's an ultra-marathon. This is going to go on for a generation. We will defeat the Islamic State in Iraq. We ultimately will defeat it in Syria. But although you can put a stake through the heart of Baghdadi and a number of his fighting elements, you are not going to put a stake through the heart of all the extremist ideas that are out there which will still resonate with some small elements of the Muslim population around the world and in that region. And of course, ISIS will morph. In fact, we've seen it go to Libya, to Yemen, to Afghanistan, and to the Asia-Pacific region. Again, ungoverned spaces are going to be exploited by Islamic extremists.
    In sum, these lessons are hugely important and I hope that they will at some point feature in debates as the presidential campaign gets to the point of two candidates.
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    Bergen: Does Putin have an end game? Is he just seizing opportunities or does he have a vision, or is it unclear?
    Petraeus: I think Putin has a general desire to re-establish as much of the Soviet Union or perhaps the Russian empire as is absolutely possible. And he has pursued this objective in a variety of different ways. He has tried his own version of the EU. It hasn't gotten much traction -- the Eurasian Economic Union. He has lured certain countries away from the EU path. He invaded Georgia, took Crimea, is going to build bases in Belarus, and he still has 1,500 troops on the soil of Moldova. He's doing more in Kaliningrad, that little enclave inside the Baltics. And he's flying planes in a provocative way, sailing ships in a threatening manner. Beyond that, there are some other general principles: I think he doesn't like to see dictators around the world toppled, for fear probably that someone might get an idea of doing that to him. And he wants to hang onto his remaining sea base on the Mediterranean which is, of course, the base at Tartus in western Syria.
    Bergen: Is torture an effective response to terrorism?
    Petraeus: No. And I publicly stood against this. I will carve out a possible exception, and that's the ticking time bomb scenario -- and while noting that we cannot forget the context following the 9/11 attacks that some felt was a strategic ticking time bomb scenario. I think policymakers owe law enforcement officials some guidance on genuine ticking time bomb situations.
    But that aside, I think there are very clear lessons of our post-9/11 experience. And that is first of all, that it's arguable whether torture actually works. Beyond that, my experience as the individual who was responsible for more detainees than anybody else in our country in recent decades (we had 27,000 in Iraq alone when I was the commander of the surge -- and several thousand more in Afghanistan when I was commander there) was that if you want information from a detainee, become his "best friend." That takes time, it takes very skilled interrogators who are good linguists and who know the terrorist organizations, who have been living this, marinating in it for years, which is what the best have been doing. And we were able to elicit information from people in line with the procedures in the Army Field Manual on human intelligence collection operations.
    Again, I think it is very arguable that what you get from them through other means -- enhanced interrogation techniques -- is going to be what you want. Beyond that, we do know that the price you pay for doing that far outweighs the value of whatever information you may have got. So there may be a debate about what you might get. But I don't think there's a debate about the cost of getting information that way to the moral stature of the United States.
    Bergen: What should we do in Afghanistan? The Obama administration plan has been until the recent past to draw down troops, to close to zero. Is that a sensible plan?
    Petraeus: Well, it was sensible to put that plan on hold, as the President did. The bigger issue right now is that we have not been providing our close air support for the Afghan security forces, even though it's readily available in many cases, to help them against the Taliban. We are allowed to use our close air support and precision strike against the small al Qaeda elements that are still in eastern Afghanistan and the nascent Islamic State elements that have been established there. And there are some other very specific circumstances in which our close air support can be employed-- obviously if our own forces are in harm's way -- but the fact is that we are unable to provide reliable close air support for the Afghan forces confronting the Taliban. The Afghan forces are out there now without us, without our advisers and embedded forces, and all of a sudden, they're no longer getting the assistance when they're under attack by the Taliban, and that has left them in a very tough spot in a number of different situations. There's been a slight relaxation of that policy. I think that was wise, but it should go farther. And the further planned drawdown should be delayed until the next President has a chance to decide the way forward.
    Bergen: When the next president comes in, he or she will have a choice, they could say, "We're going to wrap this up in Afghanistan," or they could say, "We have to be there, for really quite a long time." So what would be sensible? Is there a number of troops that's sensible, is there a time frame that's sensible?
    Petraeus: I think what's sensible is that you certainly pressure our Afghan partners on the ground to continue to take over. They're now responsible by and large for the security of the country with limited assistance. We should also continue to provide funding for the Afghan security forces and for economic assistance. Afghanistan is not going to be able to do everything needed on its own for decades.
    The question is, is this still an important mission? I think it is. That is where al Qaeda had its sanctuary before the 9/11 attacks, where those attacks were planned, and where the initial training for the attackers was conducted -- all while the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. We have been able to keep al Qaeda from re-establishing such a sanctuary. We have been able to develop Afghan security forces and institutions to a reasonable level that have taken over the responsibilities of securing their country, albeit with coalition assistance. And my hope is that at the upcoming NATO summit in Poland there will be a further commitment to Afghanistan by the U.S. and our coalition partners -- who I can tell you, having just been at a gathering in Europe where one of the ministers of defense, a prime minister of another country, and a handful of others in various governments -- all said that they are eager for the United States to extend that commitment in Afghanistan and, in that case, they will also extend theirs.