His name might have been dragged through mud and tainted by scandal, but not too long ago, David Petraeus was a highly revered and capable general who commanded U.S. and coalition troops during the 2007-2008 surge in Iraq. Security breach and extra-marital affair aside, Petraeus still offers invaluable insight on Middle Eastern relations. Last week, at the annual Sulaimani Forum, a conference for Iraqi leaders and academics in Iraq, Petraeus shared some of that insight with the Washington Post's Liz Sly. In the interview, Petraeus commented on ISIS, Iran, Middle East instability in general, and what he thinks is the world's biggest threat coming from the region.
The last time Petraeus was in Iraq was in 2011, when he was still the director of the CIA ... before the public learned that he had given classified documents to his mistress. When describing the feeling of being back in Iraq, a country where he spent his most formative years as military commander, Petraeus admits that it's one of loss. He told the Post that it's impossible not to dwell on the mistakes made since the end of the Iraq War:
These include the mistakes we, the U.S., made here, and likewise the mistakes the Iraqis themselves have made. This includes the squandering of so much of what we and our coalition and Iraqi partners paid such a heavy cost to achieve, the continuing failure of Iraq's political leaders to solve longstanding political disputes, and the exploitation of these failures by extremists on both sides of the sectarian and ethnic divides.
Through these mistakes, ISIS was able to rise amid the instability. Petraeus thinks that the group's rise could have been prevented.
It is tragic foremost because it didn't have to turn out this way. The hard-earned progress of the Surge was sustained for over three years. What transpired after that, starting in late 2011, came about as a result of mistakes and misjudgments whose consequences were predictable.
So what would his advice be for fighting ISIS? Firstly, Iraq needs to provide boots on the ground, "albeit enabled by advisers and U.S. air assets, with tactical air controllers if necessary."
Iraqis must also be the ones who pursue reconciliation with Sunni leaders and the Sunni Arab community. We may help in various ways, but again, sustainable results can only be achieved by Iraqis — who clearly have the ability to do so, even if the will is sometimes not fully evident.
And to stabilize the entire region addled by ISIS, we need to make Syria a priority.
Beyond Iraq, I am also profoundly worried about the continuing meltdown of Syria, which is a geopolitical Chernobyl. Until it is capped, it is going to continue to spew radioactive instability and extremist ideology over the entire region.
However, despite the popular consensus that ISIS is the most pressing issue coming out of the Middle East, Petraeus has a differing opinion. He tells the Post that the biggest threat to Iraq — and the world — is not ISIS, but Iran-backed Shiite militants.
I would argue that the foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by — and some guided by — Iran.... Longer term, Iranian-backed Shia militia could emerge as the preeminent power in the country, one that is outside the control of the government and instead answerable to Tehran.
And for anyone in Washington who views Iran as a potential ally, particularly in light of the current nuclear negotiations, Petraeus offers his own take, which mirrors what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed in his recent speech before Congress.
The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East. It is ultimately part of the problem, not the solution. The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State. While the U.S. and Iran may have convergent interests in the defeat of Daesh, our interests generally diverge.
Overall, Petraeus believes that ISIS, which he refers to as Daesh, is on its way out, and its demise could open the space up for a much more serious threat.
The most significant long term threat is that posed by the Iranian-backed Shiite militias. If Daesh is driven from Iraq and the consequence is that Iranian-backed militias emerge as the most powerful force in the country — eclipsing the Iraqi Security Forces, much as Hezbollah does in Lebanon — that would be a very harmful outcome for Iraqi stability and sovereignty, not to mention our own national interests in the region.
Images: Getty Images (5)