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Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt on the Campbell Conversations

Tom Fazzio
Syracuse University
Major General Walter Piatt is Commanding General of Fort Drum

The U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum in northern New York, is gearing up for a deployment to Iraq in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. This week, Grant Reeher speaks with Fort Drum's Commanding General, Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt, about the Division's upcoming mission to Iraq, and his own experiences there.

Interview highlights

Grant Reeher (GR): The division has a long history of involvement in Afghanistan and you’ve written a couple books about your experiences in that country. It seems to me that that nation is getting less mainstream media attention in recent years relative to Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and so I wanted to get your take on Afghanistan though first. Where is that country right now, what would you say its prospects are for a reasonably stable democracy, and what do you think America’s proper role is there going forward?

MG Piatt (WP): That’s a very good question, a very deep question. I would just speak from my experiences that the Afghan people deserve a right to be a sovereign nation and a chance for real and lasting peace. They are a resilient people and a very kind people and very resourceful people…They are a peaceful people. I think people don’t know a lot about Afghanistan and are quick to judge. Unfortunately, it’s still a very difficult place because the country is fighting a very serious internal threat, a very serious Islamic State threat as well, in Afghanistan, so they need our help. They need help from the international nations as well to come there for the Afghan people. I know it’s difficult because it’s been a long war and people want to know is it winnable, is there an end in sight in Afghanistan, but you got to remember, this is a sovereign nation, and they and they deserve it…I think there has to be, there must be, real political solutions before the country can move forward to a lasting peace. But I’m hopeful…I hope they get the peace that they deserve.

(GR): And if I could get a little bit more from you on your sense of what the United States’ role should be, particularly in terms of the military of course. That’s a constant source of discussion and concern in this country…

(WP): Well, I think our support is security assistance. I think the military’s role will be to continue to support and advise because, for these political solutions to take place, when they do, there needs to be, the foundation needs to be security followed by rule of law, and the security forces…will have to establish enough security on the ground so that they can move forward. So [we are] committed to helping our Afghan brothers and partners there to get over and rid this country from this internal threat and move forward to better days.

(GR): Our country’s involvement in this region has been so long-term. It’s had its ups; it’s had its downs. How are you going to measure success here in this present mission? How do you know whether the objective has been achieved or not?

(WP): Well, I think it’s important for everyone to know the success that the Iraqi people have had against the Islamic State. Because the Islamic State was not just a threat to Iraq, and it was not just a threat to the region; it’s a threat to the world. And what the Iraqi security forces did, they did for the world. They took them on. The Islamic State was really at the gates of Bahgdad…It was the Iraqi people themselves that mobilized and pushed this strike back…And they suffered for it…they died, but they did not waiver…I know our presence in the region is controversial, but you can’t take away what the Iraqi security forces did and the Iraqi people did to defeat the Islamic State.  Now, they’re not destroyed—that destruction must be completed, so we’ll be able to complete it when we see the Iraqi people say, “Our nation’s secure enough. We just need your help. We need your enablers.” That will be how we know the mission is successful.

(GR): Can you tell me a little bit about the nature of your upcoming deployment to Iraq? Where will you be? What will you be doing and what will be trying to accomplish?

(WP): We’ll be in most parts of the country. So from Mosul to Kirkuk to Western Anbar and inside Baghdad itself. So, wherever the Iraqi security forces are established. What our mission simply will be is to advise and assist and enable the Iraqi security forces and also to train them. So, we’ll have one mission to help integrate the security forces as they provide post-conflict security, so that stabilization and reconstruction can grow. But we’ll also be training them in many of the training bases around the country. And not just the army. We’re going to get back into otraining army brigades, but we’re going to be training federal police forces and especially border guard forces, which are really needed. Those forces we never had the time, because of the ISIS threat, to complete our training there.

(GR): I’ll turn the focus around now to here. Deployments of the division obviously have a great impact on the local community that comprises and surrounds Fort Drum. Tell me a little bit about, in your experience, how are deployments experienced by the community?

(WP): I’ve been stationed all over the world, and this is my third time being assigned to Fort Drum in the 10th mountain division. It is the best military community in our Army. It is by far the best…The community is invested. They understand the difficulties of these deployments.  But soldiers sacrifice for their nation, but they’ll do many things, but when they know that their family has a good place to live and their kids are in good schools and they’re living in communities that really appreciate military service and they have access to healthcare, soldiers will go and deploy over and over again because they know their families are being taken care of. And the North Country community—best there is.

(GR): I know and understand that you need to steer away from politics, but there’s a question related to politics that I just simply have to ask you, and it’s this: I think it’s fair to say that President Trump, whether or not one supports his policy proposals, has engaged in a different kind and a more free-wheeling kind of rhetoric when it comes to international relations and potential international conflicts. Now, I know you’re a strategic thinker…so how does that approach strike you strategically?

(WP): This is a troubled region, and so our job as a military is to do what our international leaders ask us to do. We must provide them options. There’s no clear end state…it’s a very complicated mess. And we must provide those options for our national leadership so they can help keep our nation secure and help protect our interests around the world…We know we’re a tool that has to be utilized. That’s why we’re ready. We also maintain a high level of combat readiness so that we can prevent future wars. It’s what our military does. So I always tell people, I go where I’m told. And they tell the 10th Mountain Division to go somewhere, you can be guaranteed one thing: We go where we’re told, we fight where we go, and we win where we fight.

(GR): Now, not many officers write books about their experience, and you’ve done that a few times now, so tell me a bit about that process. What is driving you to want to share that, and frankly, how do you carve out the time to do it?

(WP): To be honest, it’s very therapeutic for me. I think that we all have to find ways to deal with our stress, and for me, writing was that. And thinking about these moments and writing them down and talking about them helped me understand it and process it. And I think sharing it with other soldiers, I get that…I do believe there’s a side of the world that just doesn’t get told. I think what soldiers do every day on their mission doesn’t get told that much. And I also believe, in my experience in Afghanistan, what the Afghan people do does not get told a lot…It’s not all about violence. When we need to do that, we do it with surgical precision for a limited time for a specific reason. But it’s the people, they’re still there. And you can bring hope by just getting to know them and understand what they’re struggling with before you try to apply a security solution to their world, their nation.  

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.