David Petraeus On The Complexities Of Re-Taking And Stabilizing Mosul
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's taken two years for Iraqi forces to be ready to attack the city of Mosul. Iraqi generals say it may take months to clear that large city of ISIS. And a man who knows Mosul says the military operation that began this week is just the start. General David Petraeus is focused on what happens after Iraqi forces move in. Petraeus is the retired U.S. Army general who once commanded all U.S. forces in Iraq. And back in 2003, he led the 101st Airborne Division as it entered the city of Mosul.
What's it like?
DAVID PETRAEUS: It's the most complex human terrain in all of Iraq. Mosul is a city that used to be of nearly 2 million people. It's probably about a million civilians or more in there still. It has a Sunni Arab majority, but there are also Shia Arabs there. There are Turkmen Shia as well as Sunni. There are Kurds, and they're in three different parties. There are Yazidis. There are Christians. There are Shabak. There are innumerable tribes and other elements of society. And so, again, the order of magnitude of the complexity and the sheer scale is beyond anything that the Iraqi security forces have had to contend with so far.
INSKEEP: What are the implications of that complexity? Does that mean, as you're going into the city, if you make friends with someone, you don't know if you might be making an enemy at the same time?
PETRAEUS: I think the implication is really more about post-Islamic-State governance. That's the real issue here. There's no question that the Iraqi security forces - with all of the enablers, the advice, the assistance being provided by the U.S. and the coalition against the Islamic State, no question that they are going to defeat the Islamic State in Mosul. The question really comes down to post-Islamic-State governance.
The Iraqi government is obviously going to influence this, the Kurdish regional government. There's a Turkish element lingering on the outskirts of the city. And as I said, there are all of these different elements within it, and a number of those have grievances. There will be some that want to settle scores. And certainly all of them are going to be competing for power and resources and influence.
INSKEEP: Past visits to Mosul - I have a memory of some very tightly packed neighborhoods of a rather extensive metropolitan area. It seems that if you're going house to house and trying to clear the area that even a few people resisting could cause you a lot of trouble for a long time.
PETRAEUS: That's exactly right, and that's the challenge of urban fighting. And, of course, this is urban fighting where the enemy has had two years to occupy, to prepare tunnels, to dig in, to have overhead cover, to have sniper holes, to have improvised explosive devices, to have houses that are rigged to blow. They've even reportedly got a trench that's filled with oil that they've torched to create smoke and obscure some of the optics on our unmanned aerial vehicles and so forth.
So again, there will be tough battles in this without question. But the outcome, I think, is absolutely certain. In fact, I think, in truth, the Islamic State, they know that they are going to be defeated. And, in fact, a number of them have tried to desert already and is typical that they have been shot by the Islamic State. They've shot and killed civilians who they believed were plotting against them.
There has been contact with civilians in the city. Reportedly they're going to rise up at the first shot once it's inside the city. So again, they face a very, very difficult task that, ultimately, is going to end in their defeat.
INSKEEP: Given the broad strategic concerns that you've laid out, does it matter particularly if Islamic State fighters are killed in the fighting or if some of them get away to fight another day?
PETRAEUS: Well, I think, look, any military guy always will tell you that you don't want to let fighters get away to fight another day, that we don't want them to retreat to Raqqa or perhaps even retreat all the way to their home country, if they're from outside of Iraq and Syria. We don't want to see our European allies have to face a bunch of returning extremists from the battlefields in Iraq and Syria. So again, always in the interest of either detaining or killing them, if they put up resistance.
INSKEEP: But is it a big deal if they get away?
PETRAEUS: It is. It depends on the number that get away, depends on the skills that escape. You know, if some of these are the great explosives device makers, if they are the inspirational leaders, if they are technical experts in some aspect of the Islamic State army's activities. Keep in mind, by the way, this is - we call it a terrorist group, and it is. This is an Islamic extremist organization that carries out horrific terrorist activities.
But in this manifestation, it's an army. And there's no army that is going to stand up against the combined capabilities of a force that has been reconstituted, retrained and equipped and remanned and enabled now by the constellation of assets that the United States and the coalition members can put over top of it with unmanned aerial vehicles, lots of precision-strike assets, and then the intelligence fusion that is helping them as well.
As we provide advice, as we provide assistance, as we provide enabling, having done already the train-and-equip and continuing that, and even already planning now to take some of them back off the line after this is complete to spool them up, if you will, to focus on what will be the remnants. There will be guerrillas. There will be insurgents. And there are certainly still terrorist cells in cities like Baghdad and around it.
INSKEEP: So what does winning look like, then?
PETRAEUS: Winning looks like a city that is cleared of the Islamic State that ultimately has a provincial government that is based in Mosul. Although I hasten to add, we can put a stake through the heart of the organization, certainly the army, ultimately, perhaps, all the guerrilla cells and terrorist cells that will remain and maybe even their leader, Baghdadi - you know, you can't run an army and run a caliphate without ending up on the X, as we say - but we can't put a stake through the heart of the ideas and the ideology - these horrible ideas that have inspired individuals to carry out extremist actions, terrorist acts.
And that's what we're going to have to contend with. And that's why I have said that this is very likely a generational struggle, not just the fight of a few years or a decade. And it has already gone on obviously some 15 years at this moment anyway.
INSKEEP: General Petraeus, thanks very much.
PETRAEUS: Great to be with you again, Steve.
INSKEEP: Retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus led U.S. forces during the Iraq War.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.