May 19, 2005
Release Number: 05-05-24
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
TRANSCRIPT: General John P. Abizaid AOR Update
General John P. Abizaid, Commander, USCENTCOM, 18 May 2005
Abizaid: Hello guys, how are you? This is the typical, okay, who's going to say what next? [Laughter].
Press: We were hoping you'd start off with some comments.
Abizaid: I'm sure. Okay, I'll start off with a few comments and then we'll do whatever you guys want to do. It's really kind of a rushed-around day today as usual, you know.
First of all, I've been traveling in the region as usual. Just came back from the region. I had a chance to talk to most of the regional leaders and went to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Gulf countries.
As we look at the military situation in the theater, it's clear that not only specifically for Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005 do we want to look for opportunities to move American forces from the forefront of counterinsurgency operations to the supporting role, but we'll look to adjust our broader force structure in the region over time so that we have the right force in the right place at the right levels supporting the two major operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, for example, we've decided that one of the battalions that was going to rotate in during the summer we'll retain here in the United States as essentially a rapid reaction force, quick reaction force, deploying them as necessary. What enables us to be able to do this initial modest reduction there I think are a couple of different things. Number one, NATO forces are coming in in greater numbers and will take greater responsibility. Number two, the Afghan National Army is moving in a good direction as far as its development. Number three, in the majority of the country security incidents are fairly low. There are certain areas where along the border with Pakistan, in those provinces where security activities remain fairly robust, but even there the forces that we have along with the Afghan forces are doing pretty good work.
Now of course we do have an election period coming up and we always reserve the right to make adjustments up or down as necessary. But we know that NATO will add a couple of additional battalions during the elections that are coming up in Afghanistan and we'll take a look and see how the security situation looks as we come closer to the elections, but we're pretty confident that we're moving in a good direction there.
[Lt.]Gen. Eikenberry took over from [Lt.]Gen. Barno. Gen. Eikenberry has got an awful lot of experience in Afghanistan. He was there, as a matter of fact many people call him the father of the Afghan National Army. I'm not so sure you ought to print that. He would probably chuckle at that. He has a very good relationship with the Afghans over his work with the Afghan National Army in its formative stage.
In Iraq, Iraq continues to move along politically in a direction that continues to give me cautious optimism. It's a difficult period, of course, as the new government stands up, a new Minister of Defense comes in, a new Minister of Interior comes in. I know that Gen. Casey is encouraged by the way the new Minister of Defense, the Minister of Interior are showing very seriousness of purpose with regard to -- much seriousness of purpose with regard to dealing with the insurgency.
We just came off of a robust combat operation out in western Al-Anbar Province and there are continuing combat operations up in Mosul and elsewhere in the Baghdad area that are very important combat operations to keep the pressure on terrorist groups such as Zarqawi and insurgent groups as we find them.
It's clear to me that the new Prime Minister and his government are very interested in dealing with the security issues of the country as a first priority. But like any new government, they're new and it will take some time for them to get organized, get established, find their offices, understand what works, what doesn't work, and there's also a period of intense political activity that's scheduled between now and the next Iraqi election.
It's my impression that the majority of the insurgents that are fighting continue to be Iraqis, primarily Sunni Arab Iraqis, ex-Ba'athists and extremists, some tied to Zarqawi. There is no doubt a foreign fighter component to the insurgency but we should not overstate it. In some areas it's larger than others. In Al-Anbar Province, for example. But what everybody has to understand is that people who are associated with the insurgency need to move now to be part of the political future and not try to play both sides of the street. They can't be on the one hand seeking reconciliation and on the other hand being responsible for the death of Iraqis. And if you look at the death toll in Iraq, it's primarily Iraqis and interestingly, it's more Sunni Iraqi than it is Shia Iraqi. So people are killing their own people for no good reason that I can see other than to gain some temporary political advantage. And not only is that cynical, but that's something that the Iraqi people I think can see through pretty well.
So now's the time for those people that can be reconciled to come forward, and those that can't' such as Zarqawi, will come under increasing pressure.
As I look at the rest of the region, the mood in the region, in my view, and it's not based on polling, it's based on my talking with local leaders and military and political leaders in the region. The mood in the region is that the ideological steam behind bin Laden, Zawahiri, Zarqawi, is less this year than last year. It's not that it's less dangerous because it remains dangerous, but it is having less of an opportunity to attract people because it's exposing itself for what it is which is a movement without a future.
Okay? Anything else I should cover?
Voice: Do you want to talk about transition or training in Iraq?
Abizaid: No. Whatever these guys want to talk about I'll answer questions. And you've got to forgive me, I do have to run to a QDR meeting.
Press: I wanted to ask you about the people playing both sides of the street. Are you finding a lot of that? Are you capturing people who are people that otherwise you'd be working with in the government or elsewhere?
Abizaid: There are people that have been associated with the insurgency that want to come forward. There's no doubt about that, they've approached Iraqis. Sometimes they try to approach us, and clearly this is an issue that's one that will facilitate them getting in contact with the right people in the Iraqi government, but the truth of the matter is there are people in the insurgency that are looking for ways to come out of the insurgency and be part of the political future.
I can't tell you how many, how effective, those are issues that you'd have to go talk to the political leadership in Iraq about. But I can tell you that some of these people are continuing to seek reconciliation while at the same time continuing violence. It's clear to me that if you're going to be part of the future of Iraq you need to be part of the future of Iraq dealing in a political process, not in military activity.
Press: Do you see this as a trend in the insurgency and that you're able to peel some people off, significant people, in the majority of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs that have been supporting the terrorists in some form or fashion? What do you see in the trend in terms of that cooperation or collaboration?
Abizaid: I think there's a lot of uncertainty right now and I wouldn't want to overstate it. I wouldn't want to overstate the issue to make people think there's a huge sea change, but it's clear that the Sunni Arab community understands that they want to be part and they need to be part of the political future. I mean had they been part of the last political activity they'd have a lot more say at the table right now than they do. So to me that's clear.
What I think an important message for people in the insurgency to understand is, in my view it's pretty hard to temporarily cooperate with Zarqawi and the terrorists and the foreign fighters. To me, that's a road that leads nowhere. Once you have joined Zarqawi's team I find it very difficult to find a way that you can be part of the political future or you can be part of the reconciliation process.
So there are plenty of signs of people coming forward inside Iraq, primarily to Iraqi forces by the way, telling them here's an arms cache, here's a bad guy, here's this, here's that, and that's happening more so than we've seen in a long time.
Press: But do you identified before some of the financiers of the insurgency that are in Syria, that are former Ba'athists. Do you see any pressure coming upon them, that any of these people are turning over a new leaf, or that the Syrians are pressuring them to shut down their operations that facilitate the flow of fighters and materiel in to support the insurgency?
Abizaid: I'd say that our visibility is not as complete as your question implied. In other words, it's still, we have a murky visibility into finances, facilitators. We know that there are terrorist facilitators that are clearly associated with al-Qaeda and Zarqawi that operate in Syria. Where they are, who they are, how they operate is less clear to us. They're a threat not only to Iraq, they're a threat to Syria.
Then there are Ba'athist facilitators that probably feel that they have absolutely no chance for the future, that continue to have access to funds and influence inside the Sunni Arab community. It's very important that the Syrian government not allow Syria to become a base of operations against a stable and developing Iraq that will be, once it develops and once it stabilizes will be in the interest of Syria.
Press: With regard to reconstruction, do you guys feel like you're seeing traction inside Iraq where you're able to move that forward more quickly? Or is the level of violence still high enough that you can't, that things haven't changed significantly?
Abizaid: With regard to reconstruction, there are some areas -- Iraq is very, very local. There are areas where there's relatively little reconstruction because of insurgent activity. You go out to Al-Anbar Province, for example, it's pretty grim out there in terms of what has been done versus what could be done.
To me, reconstruction is clearly tied to whether or not you participate in the political process.
You go down south, there are a lot of projects going on down south and up in the north there's a lot of projects going on. I'm probably the wrong guy to ask about how we're doing dollar wise and project wise and everything else wise, but I think where the levels of security are good, there's opportunities for movement.
For example you go down to Basra and there's a big Port of Basra Project that has great potential for the future of Iraq.
The other thing I'd like to say is I go around and I talk to Arab financial leaders occasionally. I happen to meet them at various meetings here and there, and they are very interested in investing in an Iraq that's stable. But as we all know, investment happens when there's a stable atmosphere. People are starting to understand that. Certain parts of the country are more stable than others.
I think when the process continues to indicate that they're going to move towards peaceful governmental transition that's supported by all three communities, investment will start to pour into Iraq. That's what I think.
The Gulf right now is actually booming outside Iraq. One of the reasons it's booming is because people are positioning themselves to get ready to invest in Iraq, which is another point that the insurgents ought to understand. Every day that they continue to fight, they delay the opportunity for their people to have a better life.
Press: What's the status of training? I read Graham's story this morning. I'm particularly interested in whether the police are making any contribution because I understand there have been problems in the past, but their role. And then any changes in training such as integrated U.S. and Iraqi teams.
Abizaid: I'll tell you, I think that the police and the Ministry of Interior in terms of the way things have developed are probably behind in terms of sophistication, chain of command, cohesion of leadership. I don't know how much I would say time-wise they're behind, but they are behind. Part of it has to do with the tradition of policing and the country that existed before. Part of it has to do with military units operating as units. Police tend to operate as individuals and the individuals become more susceptible to corruption and intimidation.
I was at the International Police Training Center in Amman watching a bunch of Iraqi police being trained by Iraqi trainers, Jordanian trainers, international trainers. It's a good effort. When you guys are out in the region you ought to think about going by there. It's a good thing to see.
I thought that that level of training that was going on out there was quite good.
The question for us is how you integrate these individuals back into a system that is tied to the MOI, the Ministry of the Interior, and has the leadership and the vision to be able to deal with the insurgency. Ultimately the police become more important in the final stages of the insurgency than the military. And right now we're pretty much at U.S. lead against the insurgency, I should actually have said coalition lead against the insurgency with the Iraqis in support.
If we recognize Gen. Casey's vision this year you'll see more and more -- I can't say when the transition point will be, but I think that there's no doubt that the Iraqis are anxious to be out in the lead on the counterinsurgency, but initially it will be the Iraqis out in the lead, it will be Iraqi military forces in the lead in the counterinsurgency. But ultimately we need to get to the point where the Iraqi military is out on the borders defending the sovereignty of Iraq and the Iraqi Interior Ministry forces are fighting the counterinsurgency. That's probably some ways away but ultimately that's what's got to go.
So my answer to your question is there's a lot more work to be done on police training and police and Ministry of the Interior cohesion and institution building, but there's also a lot of work to be done, not that I underestimate it, in the Ministry of Defense side.
Press: With regard to the latest spike of attacks, do you have any sense of what the insurgents are thinking or what the strategy could possibly be with regard to attacking other Sunnis and with regard to attacking Iraqi civilians?
Abizaid: The long term insurgent strategy to me is as crystal clear as it's been in any insurgency that I've ever studied. That is you don't have to defeat the government and coalition forces, you have to make them lose their will, and that a long, drawn-out protracted campaign will make them lose their will, cause them to overreact, retard the development of civil society, and ultimately allow the insurgency groups to rise to the top more out of frustration than out of the capacity for victory itself. So that strategy is at play.
There's also a strategy that's at play with some of the Sunni insurgent groups that aren't quite sure that there is a political future, and it gets back to this issue about being on both sides of the strait. Where they'll dabble in what the politics might have to offer for them while at the same time maintaining their military options.
And by the way, you also see that to a certain extent in some of the Shia groups such as Moqtada Sadr where he's dabbling in the politics but seems to be trying to retain some sort of a military option. What we've all got to recognize and what the Iraqi government clearly wants to do is not allow that military option to be available to internal militias or insurgent groups that's the key to this thing.
Press: What's the impact of the police being behind where you want them to be, as you say? Does that mean more American forces are going to stay longer to do these jobs? You're not able to push ahead with certain initiatives that you want to be able to do? What's the practical impact?
Abizaid: I think the practical impact for American forces is that we'll have to, we'll probably have to stay well embedded -- I think what it really means, not so much for American forces in the lead on the counterinsurgency, I think what it means for American forces indirectly with MOD forces, that it delays MOD forces going out and doing the external security mission, and that keeps American embedded trainers and embedded transition teams in the field longer. I think you guys are pretty familiar, you saw in Brad Graham's story, you guys are all familiar I'm sure with the way that we're embedding military transition teams.
So that keeps that -- But I don't think we're to the point where any of us are ready to predict how many units can come out and what the force structure's going to be in June or July of next year. We're in the process now of evaluating. That story was interesting to me, the part that he was relating about the Iraqi battalion commander, how he rated his unit, or brigade commander or whatever it was. I was talking to George about it today and we were laughing about it. But the truth of the matter is we're developing the tools that allow them and us to evaluate where their units are and some sort of a meaningful readiness standard. And of course we'll have to work through the cultural issues of what it means to Iraqis and what it means to Americans, and we will. And Gen. Casey in particular and [Lt. Gen.] Dave Petraeus even more in particular have developed a very good relationship with the Iraqi military chain of command that allows them to have these levels of conversation that were displayed in that article today.
I guess that's the long way of saying the first and most important issue in Iraq is political process remaining viable. If the political process doesn't remain viable it will spark more violence.
So people who want to talk about independent military this or that, I want to disabuse them of the notion that there's something independent militarily that's going to make a big difference. What will make the biggest difference in Iraq is the political process, moving down the road of constitution, constitution referendum, elections, government. Legitimate government.
Press: Do you see any signs that legitimate Sunni or a viable Sunni voice is emerging within the new government? Are they coalescing around any kind of leaders --
Abizaid: I think the new Minister of Defense is a viable Sunni leader. I think the President or the Deputy President, Ghazi al-Yawir -- whatever the current name of the position is. There are a lot of -- The people that are in the government in my mind are viable Sunni leaders and there are viable Sunni leaders on the outside that are sheiks and notables in the society that are being pretty vocal about talking about a need to joining the political process, that are looking for ways to organize and are looking for ways to participate. So reconciliation is a very, very important effort, but on the other hand nobody should conclude that reconciliation means surrender. I mean reconciliation means that the society finds a way to move forward. There are certain elements of the society in Iraq within every ethnic group that's looking for a way to derail this whole process. You see it in the Shia community in very small numbers, you see it in the Sunni community in the Zarqawi element, then you see it in some Kurdish elements in Ansar al-Islam. So we should understand that there's going to be a lot of threats to this political activity for quite a while. I'd say that like any insurgency, the insurgency will continue for quite a while.
Press: What's behind the spike in violence? Is it all a reaction to political developments, to political progress?
Abizaid: You have to prove -- It's very interesting to see when it took place and it's clear you've got to prove your viability, you've got to prove that you're able to kill people, cause headlines to be grabbed, strike terror into the hearts of people and in particular intimidate the Sunni Arab community so that you don't come forward.
But this is 30 years worth of intimidation. That's what Saddam was all about. It's like an Al Capone style of government that existed in a country of 25 million people for 30 years. It was all based on terror and intimidation. There's a reason why there are so many mass graves around that country, and that doesn't go away immediately. It takes a long time to defeat the people, or the power elite of the country can't imagine that they've been defeated or that they don't have a way to be part of the future.
It will be interesting to see how the Iraqis work the issue of where they'll draw the line, of who can be part of the future, but that's something they'll have to do with our help.
Press: General, what's your take on this whole controversy over the Koran as was reported in Newsweek? Do you believe it did spark the violence that we've seen in Afghanistan?
Abizaid: I think it was a story that was exploited by many of the political groupings and insurgent actors on both sides of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border for their own political aims. It came out at a time when al-Qaeda had been dealt a pretty heavy blow by the death [capture] of Al-Libbi, where President Karzai was out of the country, where people are posturing inside Afghanistan for political activity, where President Musharraf is reaching out to the Indians, and where some of the more radical Muslim parties inside Pakistan are posturing against President Musharraf.
It came at a time when I thought probably the political constellations were about right to spark something. This is how the Middle East works. It works on emotion in many different ways.
To my mind, we need to keep telling the story about the enemy -- Who they are, what they are, what they stand for, what they do to people. To me, that's the untold story of the Middle East right now, and Central Asia and South Asia, and the more we can talk about fighting this ideological enemy of al-Qaeda the more we'll give heart to the moderates because they don't want to really be part of that.
Press: Has the violence in Uzbekistan caused us to rethink our military relationship with Karimov, or have you guys communicated anything to him?
Abizaid: We haven't communicated anything to him militarily. We continue our operations in support of activities in Afghanistan, although at a limited, somewhat limited scale.
Press: More limited since the attacks?
Press: As a result of that?
Abizaid: Yeah, we have decided to make sure that we're cautious about how we're operating and I have nothing to say further than that.
Press: But was this made to send a signal to him that this was another means of --
Abizaid: No, no, no --
Press: -- government showing its disapproval for that?
Abizaid: No. It's meant to deal with a potential change in the security situation.
Where the violence has happened is quite a ways away. But whenever there's a change in the internal situation of anywhere we operate, we always sit there and say okay, commanders, let's take a good look, make sure we understand what's going on, change some of your tactics, techniques and procedures to reduce your levels of vulnerability. I think it's just prudent that it's not designed to be a political statement at all. It's --
Press: Are the people --
Abizaid: -- a military move.
Press: -- violence? Are they Islamic extremists or do you know who they are? Or do you think that they're pro-democracy folks?
Abizaid: I think this is a level of violence that's coming probably from a lot of different groups that aren't altogether clear to me, but I would not necessarily characterize them in one way or the other. I'm trying to figure it out myself.
Press: Thanks a lot, General.