General Anthony Zinni (usmc, retired), former centcom commander

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Mother Jones: What do you think would be a realistic withdrawal time frame?

General Anthony Zinni: I don’t think we’ll end up withdrawing in the sense that everybody’s coming home, because we can’t leave a festering threat in the middle of this region. And obviously, the political will isn’t there to continue the way we’re going. No matter who the presidential candidate is and however Congress comes down, we’re going to find ourselves devolving into what I would call a containment, support, or reinforcing role. And it might look something like this: U.S. forces retain bases in the Kurdish areas and Al Anbar province. And their rules of engagement, if you will, would be to go after Al Qaeda targets, gain intelligence, help secure the border, and prevent spillover. I think we would retain and maybe establish a more robust security-systems program for the Iraqis. I think what we would stop doing is getting between the militias and extract ourselves from the sectarian violence. Quit this sort of street patrolling. I think it would become sink or swim for the Iraqi forces.

If you look at the casualty-generating operations that we have, being in the streets, being on the roads where we’re subject to IEDs, where we get ourselves between Sunni and Shiite militias&8212;I think those are the things you’re gonna find there’s no stomach for and people are going to be looking, the political leadership is going to be looking for alternatives to not let the problem of Iraq spill over and affect our interest in the region.

But how do you contain it? Minimize the casualties, force the Iraqis to step up, and I think that you have to have the stomach for the fact that it’s a five-to-seven-year effort and the Iraqis are probably going to get bloodied in this, but it’s their civil war. It may look something like Lebanon in the mid-’80s in certain areas.

MJ: So you think they need to duke it out internally?

AZ: I think they’re gonna have to do it. You know, if you look at the history of this world, they get to the point where they’ve exhausted themselves in bloodshed and they finally come around and figure out a way to work together. And as long as we’re involved in this thing we add to the problem. The short-term security benefits that we create are not long lasting, because you can’t be there forever.

MJ: If we simply secure the borders, do we step in if we see signs of ethnic cleansing?

AZ: There’s no hard-and-fast rule on that. I think we would have to look at a situation where that might occur. I think that we would have to be fully convinced that the Iraqi security forces have expended themselves to the point where they can’t prevent it any longer.

MJ: You hear the Democratic candidates talking about withdrawal, but they don’t give timetables.

AZ: Yeah, but that’s politics. Either it’s based on political appeal or it’s based on naiveté. We’re not going to withdraw from the region. To pull out of Iraq would say we are inviting you to set up a sanctuary and a base of operations. The first time Al Qaeda in Iraq blows up our embassy in Amman, Jordan, guess what? We’re back in. The first time the Iranian influence becomes so great that they begin to incite and meddle with the Shiites and start causing problems, guess what? We’re gonna be back in.

We have to take a stand, and we have to ensure our interests are protected; they’re too important and they reverberate around the globe. Responsible political leaders back here understand that you can’t extract yourself totally from the region. You know, we haven’t left anywhere and come home since the beginning of World War II. We don’t come home anymore. We’re still in South Korea. We’re still in Germany. We’re still in Japan. We’re still all over the world.

MJ: You say we’ve got a five-to-seven-year effort ahead of us.

AZ: I don’t mean five to seven years in terms of our commitment. This is five to seven years for the Iraqis to come to grips with their own internal civil strife. Nobody’s going to march on Baghdad and plant a flag and say, “I’ve won; I rule Iraq.” That’s not gonna happen. The Shiites aren’t going to dominate the Sunnis; the Sunnis are no longer going to dominate the Shiites. And the Kurds certainly aren’t going to collapse; we wouldn’t let that happen, and I don’t think the Turks would let that happen either. So the end state in this thing is that there is no positive end state. It’s going to be, from here on out, three entities that’ll form at best some sort of federal system with at least initially a lot of autonomy at the local level.

One thing that’s discouraged me is in the development of the Iraqi security forces&8212;it’s all about guns from our point of view. We’re not creating an Iraqi civil affairs department, we’re not creating Iraqi psychological operation units, counterintelligence units, the kinds of things you need to be successful in this environment. What this is all about is creating the kind of environment that bad guys can’t exist in. And that succeeded in the Kurdish areas, which was expected, and it succeeded somewhat surprisingly in Anbar despite all the initial mistakes and we don’t want to lose that.

MJ: Do you think the Iraqi forces are up to the task? We hear these statistics, such as how 40 percent aren’t showing up for the job.

AZ: We made the first mistake of disbanding the army because it’s harder to rebuild an army in conflict from scratch, with all the issues of ethnic and religious differences. I mean it’s pretty remarkable where they are given that.

MJ: Will Congress trump what may be the right course of action in Iraq?

AZ: It’s going to take courage to say, “I’m not leaving Iraq; I will restructure the strategy but I’m not leaving.” If you’re a Republican, you’re admitting the failure of this administration, and if you’re a Democrat, you’re not playing into the popular mood of withdrawal.

I believe we overuse the military. We haven’t deftly integrated the diplomatic, economic, and cultural things we could have because we’re not very good at it; certainly this administration is terrible. Its doctrine of trying to impose democracy and a market economy at the point of a bayonet is a losing strategy.

MJ: Do you see a significant drawdown in the situation you’re describing?

AZ: Yes. I discourage giving a number because I think when you sort out the missions and the locations, you ought to let the Pentagon, the military, not the guys in suits but the guys in uniforms, make these decisions so we won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. We contained Iraq and Iran with fewer troops than report to the Pentagon every day for work. The president said containment didn’t work. I don’t know what the hell he was seeing. But for a decade, unless something flared up, we had on average 23,000 troops in all of CENTCOM in the most volatile region in the world.

We also had our allies contribute to our presence out there. There was $300 to $500 million a year the Saudis and Kuwaitis paid us in in-kind assistance—fuel, food, water. The Saudis built a $450 billion complex to house our troops. We had a nice arrangement out there. Containment worked. And the proof is in the pudding that the president was wrong when he said containment didn’t work: Saddam was no threat to his neighbors. He didn’t have WMDs. He was contained by every definition of containment.

We have this lack of satisfaction about containment because it leaves things undone. We’ve contained Korea. We’ve contained Cuba. We’ve contained the Soviet Union for 50 years. We were effectively containing both Iraq and Iran. I’m saying, go back to what worked.

MJ: If we draw down, doesn’t that leave a lot of people who worked with us in a vulnerable position?

AZ: Certainly in Baghdad we’re not going to leave the Green Zone. We’re going to have a security requirement. We have to get out of the street patrols, get out of positioning ourselves between sectarian militias. This is not our war. We’ve always tried to identify the enemy in this war as monolithic. Remember at the beginning of this war there were dead-enders, and then there were insurgents? Well, they’re not. They’re criminals, they’re Al Qaeda, they’re foreign fighters, they’re local militias, each of which requires a different approach. But we sort of all treated them the same until recently.

MJ: Do you think it’s going to take a new administration to solve the situation?

AZ: The new administration will have an opportunity regardless if it’s Democrat or Republican because what I sense out there, all over the world, is they’re so hungry to reestablish positive relationships with the United States; they’re so hungry for us to take a different kind of leadership role. But you can’t continue to suffer the casualties in this sort of sinkhole that goes nowhere. It’s important to reestablish the regional security arrangement, the old Gulf coalition that we’ve broken by going into Iraq. They like the idea of American support and security assurances as long as they don’t come with a heavy military presence or preemptive actions that become more destabilizing.

MJ: What’s our moral obligation to the people of Iraq?

AZ: We owe the Iraqis because we’ve been letting them down ever since the first Gulf War. We sort of implied that if they stood up to Saddam we’d help them. We intervened and as soon as we found no WMDs, we switched it to bringing Democracy and freeing the Iraqi people, improving quality of life. And of course now we’ll cut and run and let them suffer through all that.

The difference between how others view us and how we view ourselves is we compartmentalize things. Well, it’s okay to say, “Screw it; we’re outta here, because that was a Bush decision and I decide to vote against him now. I’m clear of this.” Your conscience is not clean just because you’re a peace demonstrator. The government is us and the moral obligation is with us as a society. The administration proposed the war; Congress authorized it; we are responsible for it. We can wash our conscience clean with a new election, but there has to be some sort of obligation that falls to us as a society for what our government does in our name.

MJ: What’s your take on how General Petraeus has been doing?

AZ: I wish Dave Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the finest team we could put out there, would have been out there in the beginning. They have an appreciation for the culture. They have an appreciation for the conflict and the nature of it, what works and doesn’t work. They don’t get caught up in doctrine or ideology. They’re very practical in their approaches. But they’ve been dealt a lousy hand that they have to play out. So whether they can salvage it or not will be problematic, because they have to start from so far behind.

We are doing things that practically are losers. If you’ve ever had experience teaching tactics, you can watch and see war games, you can see how military commanders get sort of sucked into marginal success that in the long run will be failures. Where you’re killing the enemy, you’re draining the enemy, but you’re paying a hell of a price for it. And if you project it out into the long run you see that this is a Pyrrhic victory at best, but you’re being sucked in because you are moving forward in some ways. And you lose sight, you become myopic in looking at this, you lose sight that this is a loser tactic and you need to do it with a new approach. I heard that some of the neocons were saying that if we were willing to suffer these kinds of casualty rates for about 10 years we could prevail. Well, give me a break. That just is not sustainable. And it’s not victory in the end.

We’re fighting tactically. We interpret victory by body count, by how many cells you break down, how much leadership you kill. Meanwhile, the Osama bin Ladens of the world have this endless flow of angry young men pouring into Iraq, willing to blow themselves up. You’re going to make no strategic difference, and you’re back to the Vietnam mentality that maybe you can win this war from the bottom up if you can kill enough of them.

MJ: Maliki’s government has been criticized. Is there something more we should be doing?

AZ: We are beyond our ability to influence that. We ran to these elections, and that’s not the way you build a democracy. Civics 101 tells you the election is the end state, the end result; many things come before that: structuring the government in a way the people understand, educating the electorate, creating political parties that are viable and have a platform and are understandable. But we went to the elections first, so we created this mess—and you have a government there that is not responsive to the people.

MJ: Is there concern that if the plug is pulled contractors will be made vulnerable?

AZ: This is a high-risk business from that aspect. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a high-margin business. But it’s a dangerous business. We’ve had a lot of employees killed, Americans as well as third-party nationals. If we withdraw, you’re going to see the contractors have to withdraw because of the security situation. Unless the contracts are done through the locals or something like that. Sometimes the locals have their own security and are able to handle it.

MJ: Do you have contingency plans for pulling your people quickly?

AZ: Yeah, we do. We monitor it very closely and if it gets to the point, let’s say we have people housed in an area that has U.S. security in the region so we’re under that U.S. security umbrella. If suddenly that U.S. security is departing or leaving we make an assessment of what security there is, and if it is anywhere near unclear we’re going to pull our people and we’ve done that.


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Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

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