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