Interview with William J. Fallon

Former CENTCOM commander talks about Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq

(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
November 25, 2008
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Retired Admiral William J. Fallon, former commander of the US Central Command and U.S. Pacific Command, is now the Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at MIT's Center for International Studies. He spoke to the Globe in a wide-ranging interview about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and relations with China and Iran. Below are excerpts from the interview.

The Iraq War

"Iraq is dramatically improved from what I inherited back in the end of 2006. And in my opinion, it's essentially over. Heavy combat [operations] stopped some many months ago -- actually about six months ago --for us. We have some combat activity still ongoing occasionally up in the Mosul area, but other than that it's pretty much over and been over.

We still have Special Forces folks [engaged in operations] who don't get a lot of publicity and that's just fine. They're working very hard behind the scenes to keep Al Qaeda which is a shadow of its former self, but to make sure they're in check. And also they did very effective work against the Iranian-led extremists on the Shia side that really started to get pretty obnoxious here in early 2007.

The drawdown is underway -- well underway. And my read of this, and I'm pretty familiar with the actors, the places, and the Iraqi leaders as well, is that we'll continue to draw down. The issue's going to be the rate at which this continues to come down now.

We'll see what the new administration wants to do -- who the next secretary of Defense is going to be, [and] just what the rate is. There's room for some maneuver, in terms of how many, how fast, what the rate is, but as you get closer it's going to be more difficult because we're going to end up, I think, with the terms of this... long-term security agreement [under consideration] with Iraq.

It's critical [to have such an agreement] because we have a presence in virtually every country in the world. They're all different. And they range from very large numbers of people, like Japan, where we have about 35,000 folks still there. We basically provide the security for that country. Their armed forces are very small and... that has enabled them to devote most of their attention to economic activities. And without Japan's tremendous input into Asia's economy over the last 50 years, Asia wouldn't be where it is. So, we have forces there to provide them with security and that's unique.

[In Iraq] I think it's going to be different -- very different. We have other places where we only have a handful of people -- three, four, or five military people. And they're there to help. Each country has different needs and they ask us for different things, and so we negotiate these things to have some kind of presence, but in most cases they're very small."

People talk about all these bases in the Middle East. We have very few "bases" in the Middle East. We have a naval presence in Bahrain, which has been there since the end of World War II at the request of that government, and they still very, very much want us to stay there. It's a small headquarters and we have access to the port, which is the headquarters of our 5th Fleet, our Middle East forces, and then we have a small access to a chunk of an airfield where we can park a couple of airplanes -- at the commercial airport. Over time, it's waxed and waned in size but the numbers are a couple thousand and that's our naval headquarters in the Middle East.

We have an air base in Qatar. And that's really the only base, the only other base we have in the Middle East. And the Qataris have been kind enough to give us access to this place. It was one of the air bases, and we have used it as a very critically important base to help us in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have fighters and tanker [aircraft] based there that provide air cover for troops in both places, and we have a large number of transport aircraft that come in and out of there moving supplies. That's about it. We have facilities we use in Kuwait, staging areas for moving our equipment in and out of Iraq.

And we used to have a huge presence in Saudi Arabia, as you may know, back in the Gulf War back in "90 and '91. A hundred, almost two hundred thousand troops in various countries there. There's nobody there now. [Now] we have a handful of people, an attaché and a couple of assistants at a military mission there, about 20 people that help the Saudis with some of their long-term materiel needs, but that's it. No operating forces, no bases, no facilities, no nothing. No combat aircraft.

In Iraq, we need to have a long-term agreement with these guys for a whole host of reasons. There are things they don't have. The air force is minimal. Their navy's minimal. And their ability to get intelligence from technical means, like we do now, they just don't have. And so we're going to have to provide that stuff. It will evolve.
They are not capable of doing all of the things that we do, right now. They'd like to be able to, but they can't. They'll get there, but they're not ready yet. ...But they're picking up the security [mission]. ...The Iraqis are actually paying for about 90% of all their security requirements this year. And next year I expect they'll pay for basically everything. Our money goes to our operating forces. But they're paying for their forces, their equipment and so forth.

Iraqis want to be in charge of their country, and they want to be seen by their own people as being in charge. They also know they're not ready to bite off the whole enchilada. And so, I suspect we'll see two aspects of this. One, an agreement in principle that says, six months from now, nine months from now, two years from now, we're going to be about this size -- and I think you've seen some of that come out -- we'll basically have most of our combat forces out of here. And then we'll keep a residual force of some people to do whatever needs to be done, but basically we're going to be off the streets and pretty much out of sight, but not out of mind.

They've come a long way [politically]. This is not a country with a history of any kind of political process other than: you do what I say or I'll kill ya. That's it. [Nouri al-] Maliki, the prime minister, comes from a political base that's... very narrow. He's not a politician. He was professor at one time. [Muaffaq Al] Rubai, the security advisor, he's a doctor. They're in these positions of leadership because they represent, in Maliki's case, the Dawa Party, which is two percent or three percent, I think, of Shiites.

By the way -- when we got these guys and put them in charge? If you go back and look at the details of a few years ago, they intentionally got guys that were not strong people. Because they didn't want strong people, they wanted people that they thought they could manipulate.

You can see the Iranians are pushing really hard from the outside. They want no deal at all [in Iraq]. Because they want no US influence. They want us out of there, as they want us out of the [Persian Gulf]. Since 1979, you know, "US, go home. Just go away." Sorry, we're not leaving. We have interests here in this region. And by the way a lot of the neighbors -- your neighbors -- want us to stay. But they're pushing very hard.

Iranians, in my opinion, put bets ...on every number. Because they didn't know where the wheel was going to stop. So they backed everybody, including Al Qaeda believe it or not, because they wanted to have some say.

The War in Afghanistan

This is a real challenge, and one that's probably a bigger challenge than Iraq. A longer term [problem] for a host of reasons. You can't separate Pakistan from Afghanistan because the Pashtun tribal overlay goes across both borders. And when you get down to it, it's fundamental frictions.

The problem is that, last year, the terrorists brought the ungoverned into the governed. The [attack on the] Red Mosque... and then a series of bombings, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, all of these things occurred in the settled areas.

And one of the important takeaways I had: For decades the Pak's had viewed India as the problem. This is the enemy. They fought a number of wars, and they had their entire military focused on the Indian frontier. It's really important, because they just ignored the other problems in the west. They were happy to have this unsettled area, and frankly, with some of this stuff with the Taliban and Afghanistan, [it was] not all bad [from Pakistan's point of view] because it kind of keeps them busy over there and you don't have to mess with it. The last thing the Pak military wanted was a backdoor front. They didn't want any part of a two-front war. If they had to go fight India again, they wanted to be able to focus just on India.

The facts are, India's not the problem now, in my opinion. It's not going to happen overnight, but [former Pakistani [President Pervez] Musharraf knew it, and he got it. And more importantly today, [General Ashfaq] Kayani, the head of the Army in Pakistan, gets it. He knows that's not the case. And you saw even the new government, [President Asif Ali] Zardari and those guys are now picking up where Musharraf left off and are trying to continue the rapprochement with the Indians, which I think is moving along. Things are much better. And the leaders on both sides recognize that they have to make it better. So for about three years now in Kashmir there has been one little thing after another: bus travel, train travel, more trade, more ability, the levels of violence are down. A lot of things slowly but surely. It's not going to happen overnight. There's a lot of hate and bile from many decades ago.

Why is this so critically important? Because if the Pak's really get the picture here, and they turn themselves to dealing with their insurgency problem, everybody's going to be a lot better off. We'll be better off with the Afghans, and they'll be better themselves. That appears to be happening, but it's not easy. They have a lot of very poor people. But they have an educated middle class, and there's a struggle going on within the country. They got 70 million something people and a lot of them don't have much. But there are a lot of Paks that are educated, and again they're proud. They've got to deal with these problems. Unless they can deal with this insurgency, they're not going to move the country along.

Can America have faith in Pakistani resolve against Al Qaeda?

So far, knock on wood, it seems to be stumbling along. Not going bad. They're doing some of the right things. Reaching out to India's really important. Trying to work with the West. Talking to [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai because they'll have to have a dual agreement.

[But] I was kind of holding my breath, because the track record of the guys running [Pakistan] right now is not good. If you honestly look at their past, these are known crooks [whose motto is] "What's in this for me?"

I've stayed in touch a little bit with the commanders out there. We did really well last summer -- not this past summer, the summer before -- because there was good cooperation, much improved cooperation between the Pak [military] and the Afghan [military], and we were the brokers in between. Then last spring, and the early part of this year, it kind of went downhill, for a number of reasons.

Now it looks like it's getting better, and the reasons are better cooperation between the Afghans and the Paks, some help from us. We have put tripartite border positions into several areas and the key passes. It doesn't do any good -- and I told them out there -- it isn't going to do you guys any good at all to have the Paks over here, the Afghans over here, and a no-man's land in between. Because the bad guys are going to do anything they can to instigate trouble. What you really need to do is sit down at the same table. If you're in the same place, look each other in the eye and say, "We've got a problem out there." There's trust and confidence that is going to be built up here.

The real troublemakers are Al Qaeda who are a worldwide terrorist network who will do anything they can do have instability in the area, first of all, because it protects them. If they can have a cone of instability around them, then they can continue to exist where they are. And we're pretty certain, at least when I checked out, that they were up somewhere in those remote areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan where not only is the terrain about as challenging as you'll find anywhere on earth, but the tribal networks are very, very exclusive of outsiders.

They [the Pakistanis] were actually pretty successful in south Waziristan, which is one of the areas on the border. Why? They decided to act, which was nice, for a change. They got tribal support to help them get rid of the outsiders. Very interesting.

But they didn't get that kind of help up in North Waziristan, and they haven't yet. Why? Because the outsiders [in South Waziristan] were mostly Uzbeks. And they didn't treat the locals very well. And the locals picked up on it. And after a while, they said, "We'd be happy to get rid of some of these thugs for you."

It hasn't happened with Arabs from Al Qaeda They've been very clever about this. They've figured out how to get very close culturally. I'm not there, this is all second and third-hand but we get a lot of reports that indicate that this is the way it is. They've intermarried. They've taken great pains to be deferential to the local chiefs. And they've done, I'm sure they've greased the way fairly, so they've been much more successful.

Rifts Emerge with Washington

"When I was in the Pacific [as the head of the US Pacific Command from 2005 to 2007] there were people with different viewpoints. One of the challenges I saw out there ...was that we had one long term issue and that's called China. It seemed to me that of all the things we needed to deal with we had better figure out how we are going to come to grips with the future relationship between the US and China."

They are the owners of most of our debt. Between China and Japan they are sitting on $3 trillion dollars [of US debt]. People say 'look at all [the rest of] these problems in the world.' They are all interesting. For my money, if you fix the problems here most of those others go away because it is our behaviors that are the cause of some of our challenges."

The size of the country and its influence is staggering. So we've got to figure this out. There were people who warned me that you'd better get ready for the shoot 'em up here because sooner or later we're going be at war with China. I don't think that's where we want to go. And so I set about challenging all the assumptions and I came back here about once a month and sat down with Secretary Rumsfeld. I'd walk through what I was thinking, why I was thinking that way. There were people who didn't like that."

[My reputation became] "Fallon loves the Chinese, doesn't see any problem with this." [I responded with] "What are the priorities, guys? Do you want to have a war? We can probably have one. But is that what you really want? Is that really in our interest? Because I don't think so." We had a lot of initiatives underway [on military-to-military relations with China] and some of that stuff didn't go over too well back here.

[When asked to move to the Central Command] I asked "Why me?" I am a Navy guy for starters. Never had a Navy guy [in that post]. They made a decision that Petraeus is a strong guy and you are no wallflower.

I had been pretty vocal through most of 2006 about the problem in Iraq. We had to change because I didn't like what I saw. I had responsibility for about 150,000 people out in the Pacific and I was feeding these guys 30,000 at a time into Iraq and they were getting chewed up. This is not my idea of goodness. I was a pretty vocal critic.

Early Opposition to the Surge

The decision was made [in early 2007] to surge the additional troops. [I said,] "They are not going to do any good at all if we don't change what they are doing." It became very important to figure out how they were going to be deployed and what the priorities were going to be. Petraeus had to figure that out.

I was in favor of changing [strategy but] I thought we had too many people there. Too many of the wrong people. If we'd get the right number of people doing the right things we'd probably be making some money here. The key thing was what they were doing and how they were going to be deployed. The [additional] numbers [eventually] helped a lot because frankly the place was pretty lawless.

There were some people who said, "Well, wait a minute, from the get-go, you are not supporting the plan." Well, I said "What plan? The surge isn't a plan. That's nonsense. The surge is a decision to put resources out there. We don't know what the plan is yet. I had to remind some of the guys on [Capitol] Hill -- some famous guys. "There is no plan. We'll have one when Petraeus gets out there and figures out what the hell we're going to do. I am not going to support anything until we figure out what makes sense." The key thing to remember is in early 2007 politics came back in -- it was pretty brutal -- and they wanted everybody to be lined up to support their idea. So every word that I uttered was microscopically analyzed. I tried to be consistent in putting forth [that] we are going to need some time to figure this out.

Growing Friction over Iran

One of the challenges was as the guy in charge of the region I can't solve Iraq just from working the inside. That's Gen. Petraeus' game. He is my commander working inside Iraq. That's terrific. He is doing a good, bang-up job. But I have to do something about the neighborhood and the idea that we were going to ignore Iran and Syria, for example, and just focus on Iraq was ridiculous. You have to work on the neighborhood. Some people didn't like that/ They said "'These are bad guys, you can't deal with them."

[My response was] "I don't know how I am going to deal with them but we're going to deal with them because they have a huge impact on the war." I advocated, with Iran, you need to figure out a way to work on the problem of having 30 years of no dialogue with Iran,. They are not necessarily good guys. In fact, I said countless times that we have caught them red-handed doing this, this, and this in Afghanistan, and particularly in Iraq. And they were burned badly for that. In the bigger scheme of things you just can't kill everybody in the world.

I did an Al Jazeera [Arabic language television] interview [in 2007]. Nobody had ever gone on Al Jazeera and I said "Why Not?" Tom Friedman, the author, was over there with me on a trip and he said he was going to talk to them and he said "You ever done that?" I said "I'll go with you and check it out." So I watched..and I told them I'll come back and do it sometime. I came back the next month and did it. They told me they thought the audience was 30 million people. The interview was not particularly friendly. Everything was negative: "You [Americans] did this or you guys did that. But it was great because it gave me an opportunity to say "that is a interesting proposition, but..."

Some people didn't like that because that's Al Jazeera. Then I did an interview with Financial Times, a big front page spread. I had a comment in there that all this talk about the drumbeat of war [with Iran] is really not helpful. Some people back here interpreted that as some criticism. That was actually aimed at the continual media [hype about] "When is the war? Tomorrow? The next day? How many people? How are we going to do this?" [My response was] "Back off champ. Let's settle down. This is not helping anybody."

The story in the Middle East when I showed up was that if Fallon is here, he is the strike leader, blowing stuff up for years, he is the guy figuring out how to blow up Iran.
Every place I went, in every newspaper, every day, it was we're going to go to war with Iran. It was fed by stories and leaks and rumors. This [was seen as the way ] you keep pressure on Iran.

[My take was] "We don't want Iran to make a mistake. We have a lot of power out here. Don't screw this up, guys. Don't instigate trouble." [The Iranians] were constantly testing us. Wasn't a week of showing up out there [in March 2007] they seized the British sailors up in the Northern Gulf and took them off to Tehran and had a hostage parade. There was just constant pressure. Plus, we caught them red-handed in Iraq several times providing direct military assistance to militias plus all the [Improvised Explosive Devices]. I [was] trying to let [the Iranians] know we are resolute, we are strong, if you, Iran, push us into a conflict you are going to get licked, you are going to lose, but that is not where we want to go.

[As for] the interview with Esquire, pretty unfortunate. The story came out and it was obviously a political attack on the president and used me to put the president in a very awkward position. The rest of the news hounds jumped all over it and it became a free for all.

Prospects for Engagement with Iran

One of the real challenges here is us understanding how they make decisions inside [the country] That was one of my biggest challenges. I didn't know who really calls the shots. We think we know, but who influences [the Ayatohlah] Khomeini and to what extent? We just don't have much insight. I went everywhere to find out information. We have a long way to go. The idea that we are just suddenly going to announce a conference tomorrow and everybody is going to come and sit down is probably unlikely. [Iran's] nuclear [program] is probably a great place to start. Fundamentally there are some things they want. What are they? Can we satisfy some of their wants and satisfy some of our wants?

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