Making Deterrence Great Again

General David Petraeus knows America's enemies. The former CIA director tells Die Weltwoche that the elimination of Iranian General Soleimani was more significant than the killing of Al Qaeda mastermind Bin Laden or ISIS leader Baghdadi. The war-hardened strategist explains how taking out Soleimani may have helped re-establish deterrence. He discusses the future of armed conflict and the situation in the Mideast and suggests, "This may well be the time to put forward a proposal that would bring Iran back to the table.”

In a move that stunned the world, US President Donald Trump eliminated Iran’s most feared and brutal military leader, General Qassem Soleimani. As the drone strike dust settled on a Baghdad runway, politicians and pundits blasted the American president, issuing wildly dire predictions that the pathologically loose cannon had just ignited World War Three.

In the midst of the hysteria, I contact four-star General David Petraeus — former leader of the allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and former director of the CIA under President Barack Obama — for his view.

I first met the commander in 2007 in Iraq. Petraeus was leading then-President George Bush’s “surge” that successfully salvaged a war effort that had a spiraled into an internecine bloodbath. Petraeus received me for an interview in his spartanly furnished headquarters set up in one of Saddam Hussein’s now occupied palaces. 

Even then, the American war chief singled out Soleimani as one of the West’s most dangerous foes on the Mideast battlefield.

 

I ask him, now, if the world is safer with Soleimani no longer in it.* Petraeus tells Die Weltwoche that he believes Trump’s decisive action to eliminate the Iranian henchman has re-established deterrence and could reopen the door to genuine diplomacy — newly robust (and lethal) American might has carved a softer way.

 

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General Petraeus, in the past few days, you have said that “it is impossible to overstate the significance of the attack” against Soleimani. What makes you think so?

It is, indeed, very difficult to overstate the significance of the death of Soleimani. He was the Iranian equivalent of the US Director of the CIA, Commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, and Iranian Envoy for the region, all in one. During his 22 years at the helm of the Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force, he trained, equipped, funded, and often directed substantial militia forces in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, and supported proxy forces in Yemen, Gaza, and Afghanistan, among others, as well. He was both the strategic architect and operational commander of the Iranian effort to solidify the so-called Shia Crescent, stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria and down into Southern Lebanon, and of the effort to “Lebanonize” Iraq and Syria (to be the power broker in those countries through control of powerful militias on the ground and a veto-proof bloc in the parliament).

Soleimani had the blood of well over 600 American and coalition soldiers on his hands just in Iraq and that of countless Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, Israelis, Yemenis, and others. He also oversaw periodic operations in eastern Europe, southeast Asia, and South America. And he was consistently among the top three of the most dangerous, formidable, and nefarious adversaries for me during multiple commands in Iraq, especially during the Surge, as well as during my commands of US Central Command, coalition forces in Afghanistan, and time as Director of the CIA. The others in the top three periodically changed. He did not.

You claim that the killing of Soleimani was “bigger than bin Laden” and “bigger than Baghdadi.” Why?

Bin Laden, by contrast, was still hugely symbolic when he was brought to justice in early May of 2011 (when I was the commander in Afghanistan), but he was no longer directing operations. He was still sending strategic thoughts and exhortation to his subordinates and Al Qaeda affiliates, but he was relatively removed from operational activities and not remotely as active as was Soleimani.

Baghdadi was certainly still giving operational and strategic direction when he was killed this past year, but the ISIS caliphate had been eliminated and ISIS as an extremist group (or, perhaps army) had been defeated (though there are still some 15,000 fighters left in the region). He was very much on the run when he was killed, seeking operational security – so much so that he was not even in the area of the former caliphate when he was killed in northwestern Syria.

The US attack was bold and decisive. What grade would you give President Trump’s performance as a commander in chief? And how would you describe his style and conduct as a commander in chief?

As a retired soldier and general, I don’t grade the presidents I served or the incumbent commander in chief.

President Trump has shown patience, some say reluctance, in his reaction to the earlier provocations. Did that lead to an erosion of American deterrence? And how far has the deterrence been reestablished through the recent strike against Soleimani?

I thought the previous US responses to Iranian provocations – shooting down a $130M drone over the Strait of Hormuz, periodic attacks on shipping in the Gulf, and, above all, the attack on the Ab Qaiq oil facility in Saudia Arabia (which took 5% of the world’s crude oil production out of service for a month) – were relatively insignificant and may have called into question the “will” component of deterrence. (Deterrence, in its simplest form, is a function of an adversary’s perceptions of capabilities and will; US capabilities in the Gulf region were augmented substantially; however, questions had arisen about the willingness of the US to employ those capabilities.) The question now is whether the strike that killed Soleimani made Iranian leaders realize that the US does, indeed, have the will to use its extraordinary military capabilities, in which case deterrence of certain Iranian actions likely will have been restored.

My sense is that the Iranians recognize their vulnerabilities and will try to calm the situation down for a period of months, especially given that their economy is so dismal due to the reimposition of sanctions by the US and the ratcheting up of those sanctions after each provocative Iranian action. Keep in mind, of course, that according to Reuters (that has good on-the-ground reporting), Iranian security forces have killed some 1,500 Iranians demonstrating against the regime, Iran’s economic deterioration, and other issues in just the last three months. And demonstrations have resumed in recent days now that the mourning for Soleimani is over, now adding the shootdown of the Ukrainian plane to their list of grievances.

In fact, this may well be the time for the US to work with its principal NATO allies and others to put forward a proposal that would bring Iran back to the table to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, malign activity in the region, and missile program, perhaps even relaxing some sanctions if needed to resume negotiations. To be sure, it is by no means clear that Iranian leaders will return to the table given the US presidential election in early November this year; rather, they may just wait until the results of the election are known.

Even if they do not return to the table, however, there would be value in diplomatic terms, in my mind, in putting forward a proposal.

Iran has retaliated for the killing of Soleimani by launching more than twenty missiles, the barrage targeting two large military bases that house thousands of Iraqi and American servicemen and women. There were no casualties. How do you view this relatively mild reaction?

It appears that Iran sought to “thread the needle” with its retaliatory missile strikes – that is, to carry out an action that would be seen by the Iranian people as sufficiently substantial (reinforced by inflated Iranian claims of US casualties), but to avoid US loss of life – by giving a warning to the Iraqis (passed on to the coalition) three hours in advance of the strikes so that US and coalition soldiers could evacuate “soft” facilities (such as the expeditionary aircraft maintenance shelters and other facilities struck at Al Assad Air Base in western Iraq) and would locate in hardened shelters, thereby avoiding the loss of life that would have resulted in the US having to respond with direct strikes on Iranian capabilities.

A few hours after the retaliation strikes, Iran shot down an Ukrainian International Airplane killing all 176 passengers due to a “human error.” The plane was mistakenly identified as an incoming US missile. What does this tell you about Iran’s military capabilities?

At this point, and it is still very early of course, it appears that the shootdown of the Ukrainian airliner was a tragic mistake by the operators of a Russian-provided air defense battery in Teheran on heightened alert. That was a horrible reminder of the reality that mistakes are made in military operations and war. It obviously does not reflect well on the professional expertise of those involved who apparently could not distinguish between the radar signature and transponder code of a civilian airliner and that of a cruise missile.

Is Iran a threat for the US and/or Europe?

Iran’s missile capabilities do pose a threat to military assets, civilian infrastructure, and other potential targets in the Middle East and parts of Europe. Open source analysis and range maps are readily available at the sites of expert groups such the one at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Is the drone attack on Soleimani a milestone towards a new type of warfare – away from big field armies towards a duel of drones?

We have seen the importance of remotely piloted and unmanned aerial vehicles (RPVs/UAVs) grow dramatically in the past decade, in particular. And we should expect the same with the increased development and employment of remotely operated and unmanned systems on the ground, at sea, and in space in the years ahead, as well.

In fact, it has been the dramatic growth of the armada of RPVs in the US military, in particular, that has allowed a dramatic change in how the US has fought Islamist extremists and others in recent years – as we have seen, most significantly, in the way the US enabled Iraqi and Syrian forces to defeat the ISIS army (though there are residual ISIS insurgent/terrorist elements), providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets for them, as well as precision air attack, intelligence fusion, training, equipping, and advising, while the forces from those countries did the fighting on the frontlines. This enabled relatively small US and coalition contingent of well under 10,000 troops in Iraq and Syria to do what it had taken 165,000 American troops alone to do in Iraq during the Surge (which I was privileged to command). Drones have been among the major components of the new approach in which we enable host nation forces rather than doing the front-line fighting for them. That is a dramatic change as we seek approaches that are sustainable over time.

Do you see the day coming when our leaders in the West won’t be safe from rogue drone attacks?

There are already growing threats from potential rogue drone activities, and one of the most significant “growth industries” in the defense sector is that of counter-drone capabilities, which require advances in numerous areas of expertise, from identification (typically by integrating various sensor “feeds’) of a drone on a hostile mission, to tracking it, jamming its control signal, and, if necessary, swiftly catching it or knocking it down, among other actions required. And as an example of the growing threats to leaders, let’s not forget the attack of two quite simple drones armed with explosives on Venezuelan President Maduro in August 2018.

Americans have lost many lives in Middle East wars. Now, the US is no longer dependent on Middle East oil. Some suggest your country should gradually withdraw your troops from the Middle East. What do you think?

It is of enormous significance that the US has recently become a net exporter of crude oil rather than a substantial net importer. In roughly a decade, the US energy revolution has enabled American oil production to go from what many energy economists described as “peak oil” production of approximately 6 million barrels per day to some 12.5 million barrels per day in recent months. This development, together with a similarly dramatic increase in natural gas production, has made the US the largest oil and gas producer in the world and has transformed global energy markets. It is accurate to note that while decisions by OPEC and Russia are still of considerable significance in crude oil markets, the true “swing producers” now are the shale oil producers in the US. And, of course, they respond to market conditions.

Despite that development and the consequent reduction in American oil imports from the Mideast, the US still has a vital national interest in the free flow of energy resources from the Gulf region. After all, it is oil and gas from the Mideast that still fuels the global economy, especially the increasingly important economies of south and east Asia. The US economy may be driven most significantly by domestic consumption, but our GDP growth still depends to a considerable degree on trade with a variety of partners around the world.

Beyond that, there are various other continuing tasks of great importance to the US and our allies and partners around the world, such as countering Islamist extremists (which is likely to be a generational task, and one that we should conduct with a sustainable, in terms of blood and treasure, sustained commitment), ensuring peace and stability in an often fractious region, dealing with strategically significant refugee flows, and contributing to the defense of long-standing partners in the region.

The key to the accomplishment of all of these missions is determining how to perform them in the most efficient and sustainable way possible – as is true, of course, of all of the tasks the US has to, and should, shoulder around the world.

 

*The interview was conducted vial Email.

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