US and Global Security: An Interview with Admiral William J. Fallon

Admiral William J. Fallon, former commander of US Central Command, analyzes the ongoing US role in Iraq and Afghanistan, including criticisms about troop numbers, in this interview with Nayan Chanda, YaleGlobal editor. Fallon also describes security matters related to Pakistan, Iran, China and Japan. The consequences of any military action can extend far and wide, and Fallon notes: “I think one of the encouraging things to me is that so far, most of the leaders in the world recognize how interdependent we all are, and that any actions are going to have to be well-coordinated with others in the world, and that's a good sign.” – YaleGlobal

US and Global Security: An Interview with Admiral William J. Fallon

Most global leaders recognize the need for coordination on security issues
Friday, March 6, 2009

Nayan Chanda: We are delighted to welcome to our studio Admiral William J. Fallon, former commander of US Central Command and currently Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at the center for International Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT]. It is wonderful to have you at our studio. Welcome. Admiral Fallon. And it is nice to see you in civvies this time.

Admiral William Fallon: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be with you.

Chanda: There has been quite a persistent report that you had some different view of Iraq than the policy that was adopted and there was the report that you thought that the pace of withdrawal should be accelerated, rather than made slow, as it was adopted. Now are you happy with President Obama’s withdrawal plan?

Fallon: Well, I think, first of all, the stories that circulated in the media in most cases usually have some element of fact and some that's just absolutely not true or not accurate. That's just the way things are because people are taking other people’s opinions and comments and rarely are first-person accounts. In terms of the pace of withdrawal, the real issue was then and still is, in my opinion, the job that needs to be done and that is to maintain, first back a couple of years ago, to really establish security and be able to turn responsibility for that security over to the Iraqi security forces. And so, you always have an element of uncertainty. If we knew all the details and how things will unfold, it would be pretty easy to make decisions, but you never do. So we were trying to, in my opinion, to estimate the amount of time it would take to have the place in a good enough condition to turn over and at the same time to be sensitive, at least at my level, in some other realities.

Chanda: Like?

Fallon: The opinion of the American people, the likelihood or not of the Congress taking steps on her own to direct a certain level and pace and all manner of other things such as the other requirements we had for forces and capabilities within the region that I had to balance.

So as I looked at these things, I had made up in the back of my mind kind of an outline of where I thought we ought to be. Of course, I wanted to hear General Petraeus and his team from inside the country and what they had and then to weigh off in my mind the imperatives that would be coming from General Petraeus with these other factors that I thought. So as I sketched out where I thought we probably ought to be, as we projected, it's coming out to be pretty close in the main as to the rate at which we are coming down. I had some difference, certainly in total numbers. Most of that had to do with the support footprint that we had in the country. The number of combat troops was pretty, maybe not, easy to discern. But General Petraeus and his team had a pretty good handle on that. It was some of the rest of the footprint that added to this aura of large number of troops and since people were counting back in those days, maybe getting some of that out would make things a little more palpable.

But as things have turned out, of course once we really were able to get security pretty well established; number of causalities came down dramatically. Interest waned dramatically. And as you know now, in just a recent poll, where is Iraq in the priority of things that are on your mind, it's not at the top or anywhere close to it. So, I think things are coming down in a reasonable fashion. You are still shooting for some target. The number-one objective is still to maintain security and try to turn this over in a manner that makes sense. So I think we are in pretty good shape.

Chanda: Would you agree with some of the critics on the Democratic Party’s left side who are saying that the number of non-combatant troops to be left behind would be still too high: 50,000?

Fallon: There are two issues, I think, in here and both of them are really off the mark. There is a group of folks who do not want any part of it. They want everybody out right now. And the only way you are going to make them happy is if everyone leaves tomorrow. Not a great idea, particularly where we are. There is another group that either does not understand or does not care to understand or is disinclined to support the idea that we want to have a long-term relationship with this country.

And the process of going from where we are now to something in the future is going to entail some number of US personnel to help the Iraqis to get where they need to go. They have a lot of capabilities right now that we provide. There are a lot of capabilities that we provide that they don't have: very tiny air force; intelligence support; things like that, that are really going to be essential for them to be successful in their security.

Chanda: So train them in those areas?

Fallon: Some of these things have to stay in. And again, it is very interesting. A couple of years ago, when we were trying to estimate where this number would be, the number that I had in my mind and jotted down was very close to the number that is envisioned right now. And there are some factors as you look at things that you might have to do, how many people it really takes to work in a country this large, what kind of support things you need; the numbers are probably about right. Again, we are still a year out from that now, that number may be adjusted as things move forward. But I think that the arguments are this general "we have had it, out of here" which has been persistent for some time now. And it is just not very realistic in the case that we really are.

Chanda: One of the reasonings, I think, when you argued for a somewhat faster withdrawal was to focus more attention on Afghanistan because this has been your concern that Afghanistan was being neglected in order to maintain this large presence in Iraq. Now, in the light of what has happened in Afghanistan, what do you see the additional US troops that are now going to be deployed in Afghanistan, what are they going to do? What will be their mission?

Fallon: First, I'd comment on that “neglected,” not my choice of terms. And a lot of people have used it. Again, there is a political dimension to this that has been around for some time. We were not able to provide all the things that the commanders would have liked, that I would have liked, in Afghanistan, simply because we had, and I agreed, that we had a higher demand signal for Iraq. That was the more burning issue. It was the one that had the largest impact on us and on the region and the one that needed the help more significantly back a couple of years ago. So we did what we had to do. If we had the additional forces, it would have been nice to be able to send them to Afghanistan.

The number one need on my wish list was for people to do the training. We needed more folks because the big picture in security, at least for my view, has been: get the Afghan security forces trained to be able to take care of business in their country. They want to do it. It will be better for us and for the people of that country if that's what happens. But this does not happen overnight. You just cannot wave a wand and there is very little infrastructure in place. We had to basically start from scratch and build it.

So this is a process. It takes time and we could probably accelerate this a bit if we had ample numbers of folks of the right people to do the training. Since then, there has been some deterioration of the security situation at various places in the country that needs to be addressed. So, there is little more of a demand signal now for troops. But I think we have to be careful with the numbers here.

Chanda: You know, you have been to Afghanistan many more times than any other senior military official. The report on Gates is that Kabul has become basically the repair of the Afghan government. The rest of the country, 70 percent of the countryside, is under Taliban control or influence. If that is the case, how are you going to, how are the US or NATO forces going to roll this back?

Fallon: Well, first of all, I do not accept that vision. I find, as I look from afar, and I'm not there, have not been for some months now. But it is almost as if it was just woe and despair in Iraq, everything was wrong, it was bad. Now it's not anymore. So now we have to look and find something else that is wrong. I attended a conference a couple of days ago in which I was struck by the handwringing about Afghanistan, about how bad this is and that is. I said I just don't share that view. A lot of things need to be fixed. But the place is not, I think, about to roll over and go belly-up tomorrow. There are lots of areas in the country that are not in a state of turmoil. There are many issues that have to be addressed. And I think that now a lot of people are certainly paying attention to it.

I know within the US government there is an effort in several quarters underway to look at the things that are at play here and to try to come up with a better way to address them, given where we are today. One thing I think it is important to remember, certainly it was the case in my experience in Iraq, people would hear the term “Iraq” and they would immediately conjure up an image of something. But given the fact that we have had quite a number of years that have gone by since 2003, and Afghanistan we are back in 2001, situation today compared to last year, year before, year before, year before, significantly different. And I think folks are too quick to start prescribing solutions or proclaiming the way things are. I think it would be appropriate to really focus on things today as opposed to the past. And there are some trends that are moving in the right direction. Some not so.

But to get an accurate assessment, I think, you need a view of today and not of yesterday or yesterday’s problems. So there are a lot of issues. Remember, this is a country – first of all it is very different than Iraq – drawing too many similarities would be a mistake from the start. And we can spend half an hour talking about those but I will not do that.

There are a lot of things that this country has going for it, number one the people. They are tough people. They have been used to deprivation; they have been used to eking out a living with minimal resources. And so they have figured out over the centuries how to live in this kind of environment. Not saying they like it, but they are used to it. But they see glimmers of things that would be different than the way they have lived, not the least of which is education. They recognize that the vast majority of people are in fact illiterate. But another major factor here, as people constantly talk about the Taliban and the resources of the Taliban, it is my very distinct impression, from many interactions with Afghanis all over the country, that they do not like the Taliban. And the majority of people have no desire to go back to anything resembling Taliban rule. They had a dose of this and they did not like it. They know what kind of oppressions these characters would inflict upon them. There are a lot of things that are ascribed to the Taliban that I think are probably a little bit of overzealous painting of the picture to try to fit somebody’s image.

Chanda: But two things.

Fallon : Go ahead.

Chanda: One is the fact that the supply line from Pakistan to Afghanistan has been interdicted so often that it is impairing the ability of the NATO forces to operate. And secondly, the rising tide of opium production which has made Afghanistan the world’s largest opium producer, 93 percent of opium is produced in Afghanistan, which in turn gives the resources to the Taliban to buy weapons. How do you resolve these two issues?

Fallon: Well, the business of supply lines: Afghanistan presents a little different challenge than Iraq in that for Iraq we had, effectively, a super highway from neighboring Kuwait which enabled us to move very large amounts of material by land into the country. And we had some other avenues too and numerous air bases that you could fly high priority cargo and people in. It is different in Afghanistan; it is much more difficult. But I would tell you that from my experience, the level of violence that we had to endure back in 2006, early 2007, in moving things on the ground in Iraq, was very high. It's nowhere near that in Afghanistan. Certainly there are interdictions, certainly there are problems coming through the mountain passes from Pakistan. It's not easy to get things into the country.

But the overall level of violence compared to Iraq – again do not want to draw too many comparisons because there are so many differences – isn't in the same ballpark. That said, attention has to get paid to it. All kinds of things that are different. There were no roads at all in Afghanistan to speak of prior to 2002. That is being addressed by the international community. It is a phenomenal benefit to the country. We benefit certainly from having better highways to move our things. But as I have watched this country develop, wherever the roads have gone in, it is just astounding to see the blossoming of economic activity among the Afghan people.

Your second point: the business of opium. There is nothing new here. This has been pretty much the trade and stock of the country for centuries. It is, by all accounts, the number one economic factor and it is used by not just the Taliban, but by most other folks in the country, in one way or another. It's not what we would like to see. The majority of the leaders in the country recognize this. We've had several, not very successful, international efforts to do something about this. Lots of chatter, but when people get there and see how difficult it is, it becomes more of a challenge than people envision. It's not going to be resolved overnight. It's an issue.

Corruption is an issue. It is all over this part of the world. There is no surprise here. And it'll have to be addressed by the government and by others in charge. It's not going to change overnight. But I think it is one of the major issues that we have to take on. But just to say because there is a heavy heroin and cocaine trade means that this is the reason the Taliban are there – I think the Taliban and their cohorts and those other instigators of instability are certainly taking advantage of this to fuel their needs.

But from what I have seen in the country, is very interesting: in those provinces where there seems to be significant progress, the thing that makes a difference has been leadership, whether it's the governor, the provincial council, certainly working with the central government to really address the problem. In those areas where there seems to be success, there is a direct tie to leadership. So, finding good leaders, encouraging them, supporting them – everybody needs a helping hand, sometimes stronger than others. But this would be a thing that would be very good. There are other provinces that have very little problem with drugs. And some of it is just because they are not in vulnerable areas. Others, because they have leaders that recognize that they do not want it.

Chanda: Mostly in the southern tribal and Helmand [ province]…

Fallon: It's just up to Helmand, that is the primary area.

Chanda: Now, talking about the leadership. One of your first tasks as the commander of central command was to go to Pakistan and try to dissuade General Musharraf not to declare emergency rule and since then the country seems to be kind of imploding politically. Just yesterday, there was an attack on Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore which was pretty devastating. And Pakistan has now become the refuge for the Al Qaeda. And the latest report is that the three Taliban groups in Pakistan are uniting to actually fight the Americans in Afghanistan and operate in Pakistan. Now this creates a situation which is certainly not very good for the United States or for anybody. What would be your suggestion? What should the US do to save Pakistan?

Fallon: There is a lot of work underway. There is not a lot of deep thought, I think, required to, first of all, recognize the problem. You can't separate Afghanistan from Pakistan and just deal within the borders. The tremendously significant Pashtun overlay, the tribal overlay between both countries, puts a very interesting dimension into this. The leaders of Al Qaeda have been alleged for quite a few years to be hiding out in these ungoverned areas, the tribal areas of Western Pakistan, up against the Afghan border, very, very tough terrain. Without a strong central government in Afghanistan for years, with the approach in Pakistan being to keep hands off the fatah, a system that's been in place for hundreds of years now, there's essentially no government rule in this area, and so the local tribes have done what they have see fit, and little interference from the outside.

And so this is going to be a significant challenge to get at this, but recognize that it's really maybe two countries, but essentially the same problem, I think is the first order of business. And the second would be that within Pakistan itself, the traditional focus of the security forces was certainly not on this internal insurgency, in fact it was on India and the history of conflict between the two countries, led to a mindset that the problem was always in the East for the Paks. I don't believe that's true. And I believe the leaders of Pakistan, at least the ones that I was dealing with, President Musharraf, General Kayani, I don't believe they accept that anymore. They think, as I do, that things have moved on. Everything isn't square between India and Pakistan, there's still a long way to go, but clearly the leaders on both sides have been moving this in a very positive direction, step by step.

It's tough because there are people who are hell-bent on upsetting this and pushing it back the other way. But for the Paks to accept the fact that the bigger problem in the country is now this insurgency is a significant mindset change. That's one thing to their credit that they do and I think they recognize it. Second thing, to actually deal with it is another matter that's very challenging. Military changing from a focus from large-scale land warfare, fixed armies, large units, more conventional, to one in which you have to deal with a very difficult, elusive, non-traditional, asymmetrically different challenge is something that takes time and that takes a lot of training. This is not going to happen overnight. I think the pieces are trying to be put in place and one of the things the U.S. can do is of course is try to help these forces.

Chanda: This use of drones inside Pakistan – s since September there have been more than 30 attacks – which has of course had some success in knocking out some of the foreign fighters in Pakistan but it has made the U.S. more unpopular than ever. How do you resolve this issue of fighting the leadership of Al Qaeda hiding in these areas without hurting Pakistani people?

Fallon: I operate under the theory that you're never going to have all the people happy all the time – no way. I think this is an issue of priorities. There is a grave threat, already amply demonstrated, to not just the United States but democratic people throughout the world, that emanates from this group of folks that are hell-bent on imposing their vision of the world on the rest of us. If there is intelligence, it seems to me, and I think we have to be a little careful, there are a lot of things that have been ascribed to drone attacks that have maybe not been, shall we say, documented by government authorities anywhere here, but accepting this generally, there is a need from time to time, or I suspect there is a perceived need, I recognize that I am not part of the process anymore, that you may have to act in some circumstances that the potential for a negative activity, either in the region or outside, may dictate a sense of urgency that you need to do something, and trying to keep pressure on these people is really important.

We are buying time, I think, in several respects. One, for the security forces in Afghanistan to grow competent enough to really be aggressive in their border regions, at the same time changing Pak capabilities from one that's focused, again on this main battle kind of idea, to one that's going to effective in dealing with them. Paks have made several forays back into these areas with some success; they've paid a high price for it. So it would seem to me as an outside observer, now, that this is an area that needs a lot of work, and it's not going to happen overnight. So, meanwhile, just giving people a free rein, with little doubt that there are some bad actors mixed in among these tribal people, who have been given support and shelter for various reasons, I probably don't know all the details, so I think you're going to find that we'll probably see judgments being made regularly here on just how much pressure and what kind to try to disrupt the potential for very, very serious attacks. As the Paks – the Pakistani people and leadership have now discovered, it can be very, very hurtful: look at the assassinations, the other attempts, the other bombings, this tragic thing with the Sri Lankans just yesterday, and so they'll have to deal with it. It would be wonderful for all concerned, certainly from our view, I would think, and from the Paks' view, if they could deal with this stuff themselves. We have a way to go.

Chanda: In February 2007, the US Bush administration was proposing to increase the carrier battle group from two to three in the Gulf and you were reported to have said “no” to the additional third carrier battle group. And the reason for the administration's attempt to increase the battle group presence there was to basically send a signal to Iran that they should not pursue their nuclear program. Now, if you did oppose this additional battle group, what would have been your reasoning?

Fallon: Well, some of these things are still best left in the realm of things that maybe we'll talk about in the future because of some classification and intelligence issues. But generally, as I looked at decisions within the central command region in terms of forces, I was keen to, because of the cost of doing business, both with wars ongoing in Afghanistan and Iraq, that when we made the operational move that we were getting some value, some return on our substantial investment, I happened to be one that's very keen to periodically assemble significant capabilities for a number of reasons – to demonstrate to ourselves that we have the ability to operate in the sizes and differences in capabilities that we don't usually get to.

Also, to demonstrate to interested parties, or people who should be interested in the region, both friends and allies that we have these capabilities that are very robust, and to those who might come up with bad ideas, that we have significant capability and we are very flexible and we can move things pretty rapidly, and so it's a judgment issue on timing, on intent and ability to pull together things, and so I was – and again, a lot of this chatter in the media was just people looking for political justification for their views – but if you go back and look at the record with me, I've been pretty strong in having the flexibility.

Did I think we needed things to just be hanging around? No, I'm not one to just put people – I've spent too many years, too many months and weeks in my own experience just twiddling my thumbs while someone tried to make a decision. I like the action part. Move them in, demonstrate what you need to do, move them out and go put them somewhere else. There are lots of places; the demand signal for aircraft carriers in the world is unending. And when I was in the Pacific, I was always trying to convince people to move some of them in significant numbers out there, so I think a lot of this was overblown, Nayan, but there are certainly signals to be sent from time to time, and we have a need periodically to demonstrate our capabilities.

Chanda: Your friend, Admiral Mullen, has said recently that Iran does have enough low-enriched, enriched uranium to actually produce a nuclear device. That being the case, how does the United States, or the world community, bring Iran back to compliance with IAEA?

Fallon: Probably one of the top issues on the agenda for this administration and for others in the region. I think it's a challenge to deal with these guys for many reasons, not least of which is we've had 30 years of basically official silence between them, lots of chatter but no dialogue. There is little doubt in my mind that the Iranians are pursuing an objective of trying to get to nuclear weapons capability, which is not going to be good for anybody in the world that I can see. A lot of motivations for this, and we may be part of the problem, but nonetheless it's been their activity in pursuit of this goal, as well as some significantly other disruptive activities that's really been a problem, and was for me during my tenure and remains.

So, we have to take these into consideration, it seems to me. We would like some of this activity to stop. We would like the push for nuclear weapons to stop. We would like their activities to destabilize Iraq and Afghanistan to stop, as well as their use of surrogates in Lebanon and in Gaza and other places – really unhelpful. I think the administration right now is trying to figure out a way to get in some kind of a dialogue that makes sense. The idea that we're suddenly – some of these discussions in the media are interesting, we are going to be at war, or we are going to be at peace, we are going to talk, or we are going to fight – this is nonsense.

In the business of international diplomacy and strategic military affairs, you have an array of capabilities which you try to use in the proportion that seems appropriate at the time to get your point across. At the end of the day, you'd like to have people convinced that there are behaviors that are in their interests as well as your own that can be helpful to them in their vision of the future. Finding the key to open these boxes with Iran, I think, is going to be a challenge, but I think there's a lot of help in the region. They have been destabilizing to the point where few of their neighbors find themselves on their side in arguing for any of the things that Iran seems to want to do. At the same time, there are some other folks that have been standing in the sidelines that I would expect – you've probably seen in the media in the last couple of days that we'd like to get some other people to play a hand here. So exactly which works, I don't know, I would expect that we'll probably pursue several avenues here simultaneously, to see kind of where there might be so movement and to get them to start playing a role. This can't be a one-way street; it's going to have to be a dialogue.

Chanda: The last question: while you were commander of the Pacific command, you actually argued very strongly and you won the case of starting a military to military dialogue with the Chinese and you will be, I think, happy to see that it's actually happening now in the new administration. But given that Japanese are so concerned about the Chinese claims on their territorial waters, etc., how far can the US go with being cooperative with the Chinese without antagonizing the Japanese?

Fallon: Lots of frictions and anxieties in northeast Asia, if we just stay in the part of the world. I pushed to renew or to ramp up the level of military-to military activity, because that was the very obviously lagging part of the relationship. We have extensive economic, commercial, political, cultural, educational, you name it, other ties, with China. Mil-mil [military relationship] has been a real problem. And the immediate issue back when I was in Pacific command can be traced back to 2001 when there was the collision between the US reconnaissance aircraft and the Chinese fighter, so things just went to zero – not in the best interests.

Again, we had 30 years of non-discussion, non-dialogue with Iran, and we find ourselves, both of us, in a pretty good hole now, didn't want to get there with the Chinese. But I think we have to constantly assess where we are, be looking at intentions as best we can determine them, based on actions people take, and do our best to have real experience rather than just make assumptions based on distant observation or secondhand reporting. And, of course, lots of people tend to see this as a zero-sum game, so you move closer to China, then you must be distancing yourself from Japan.

And I heard some of this, I was in Japan recently, and I picked up on some of this anxiety, tried to allay those concerns and I think that Secretary Clinton's recent visit was designed to do that in part too. The relationship between Japan and China is very interesting, certainly lots of friction, but China has benefited immensely from Japanese investment and economic activity in the country. There's a lot of potential to deepen that just as there is tremendous additional benefit that could follow from Taiwan-PRC enlargement of their ties. That's moving in a positive direction to me. So, there's going to be a lot of concern, there is a lot of concern right now, because of the fallout of the economic and financial crisis – everybody's nervous.

But I think one of the encouraging things to me is that so far, most of the leaders in the world recognize how interdependent we all are, and that any actions are going to have to be well-coordinated with others in the world, and that's a good sign. It's going to take a lot of work. But from this very traumatic experience of today, it's my hope that we might be able to learn and take advantage of this situation, which has now leveled some of the bumps around, to move forward together to find ways in which we can possibly cooperate to solve some of these enduring problems, and at the same time kind of ease some of the long-standing tensions. But it requires engagement, it requires initiative and hard work. Nothing happens by magic.

Chanda: Well on that note, Admiral Fallon, thank you so much.

Fallon: It was a pleasure to be with you, thank you.

© 2009 Yale Center for the Study of Globalizaton

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