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Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt on the Campbell Conversations

Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt is the commanding general of Fort Drum

After beating back ISIS militarily, how is Iraq now faring as a nation? What are its biggest challenges? This week, Grant Reeher speaks with Maj. Gen Walter Piatt, the commanding general of Fort Drum in northern NY. Gen. Piatt recently returned from a mission to Iraq to help build peace. 

Interview highlights  

Reeher: Let me ask you to begin, if we could, by giving our listeners a brief overview of the division’s recent deployment in Iraq. How many troops went? What locations in the country were you concentrated in, if any? What was the objective?

Piatt: In this particular deployment, it was our division headquarters, so it was only a little over 500 soldiers that deployed, some of them for the New York National Guard, too, to help round out the division headquarters for the 10th Mountain Division. Our third-brigade 10th Mountain Division was already there…I assume command of the Coalition Joint Force Land Component Command, and our mission there was really to deactivate that command as part of the progress, the post-conflict, because Iraq had won the major fights against ISIS. So, our mission was to transition and set conditions for that transition over to more Iraqi control. And we were very successful in it. Very early on, by almost within 60 days, were we able to take command and transition to the campaign plan that was called “Reliable Partnership,” then to really to advise and assist our Iraqi counterparts in areas not just in the tactical fighting and execution of military matters, but also in how they could rebuild their army and reestablish training and then allow the army, then, to become subordinate to the government as they took the lead role in post-conflict Iraq.

Reeher: Let’s say I were to go outside of Baghdad right now, into the country. What kind of place would I encounter in terms of basics like water, food, electricity, healthcare, housing? What would I be seeing and encountering?

Piatt: There is a wide variety. Well, first of all, Baghdad is a very safe and secure city. It’s the capital, and ISIS never made it to the capital – they were 20 meters away – so the rest of the country, you’ll still see the scars of war and occupation of ISIS. That also serves as a symbol to the people how bad it was. There’s immediate hope and faith that they’ve overcome such a terrible enemy that now, they can do anything that is presented before them. But as that time goes past, there’s a demand for basic services…You’d see good people that have then survived the devastation of a horrible, horrible conflict and are trying to rebuild in post-war in their little towns and villages throughout. But I still say that you see, first of all, hope because this attack from ISIS, although they threatened to take over Iraq itself, it solidified Iraq. The response was one of unity of the Iraqi people to defeat this enemy, and not only defeating it for Iraq. This helped the world because this was an enemy that could present external attacks on every home country or homeland of the coalition…This was a global terror threat, so you see hope, but also, people are running out of patience. It’s very fair to say that they want to see the benefits of the war that they fought so hard to win.

Reeher: You’ve written a report based on your mission. It’s titled, “Winning the Peace in Iraq.” And you write in that report that…once the threat of ISIS was broken up militarily, then, there were other challenges that you start to see more clearly. And one of them that you describe is these older forces of social and political divisions in Iraq that were there before, and now, they’ve reemerged. What are some of the most significant of those internal divisions?

Piatt: First off, I always tell myself wars don’t end in peace. That piece is a process that is often a more difficult struggle than the war itself. War united Iraq, so when the enemy that united Iraq—that was ISIS—was defeated tactically…the success came at such a rapid pace that once the fall of Mosul happened, ISIS almost disintegrated. Now, they’re on the run hiding, but they defeated them as a military front, but they did not defeat the ideology. The ideology still lingers, and so, the old issues began to arise, as you mentioned, because now, there wasn’t a unifier of an enemy that was unifying a country. I think all of them are very significant, and all of them require a long, difficult process to try to build consensus to overcome. So, you have militia groups that are still mobilized…you have the terrible destruction of Mosul and the terrible destruction of many cities scarred by ISIS occupation, and then, you have the divide between Kurdistan and Iraq, the disputed territories. These were issues long before even the U.S. time in Iraq, and now, they’re coming to a head.

Reeher: You had something in your report that really caught my attention…You wrote, “If the government of Iraq is unable to resolve the tensions with the Kurds…international intervention may be required.” And that really leapt out at me, of course. What intervention do you envision there, particularly from the United States? What do you think might be necessary in the end?

Piatt: My best military advice to many of the Iraqi senior military leaders that I was advising and helping with was that just because you’ve won the fight doesn’t mean international coalition forces should leave Iraq. It’s a lesson that many senior Iraqis will tell you last time, that asking the U.S., and the U.S. leaving too soon and many coalition support leaving, was wrong. We need that presence to help us get through these very difficult political issues. That presence helps keep the security at bay, helps build the military while we get to work on these issues…These are all peaceful interventions of the international community to help the difficult diplomatic that’s required.

Reeher: You’ve mentioned a couple times now how the military is one of the most respected institutions there now and that it’s doing things that…the government and other institutions should be looking at and taking some lessons from. One possible future, though, that I might see for Iraq, is, perhaps, military rule. What’s your sense of that? Is that something that they United States and its influence would be able to put the breaks on if that’s where the country kind of started going?

Piatt: I don’t get that sense from working with the Iraqi military. One of the things I think they took from the Western militaries and coalition members and from the United States is what a professional army looks like, that we respect and subordinate ourselves to our civilian leadership, government leadership, but yet, that doesn’t mean we’re going to not say “no” to them. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to stand up and present better options to our government leaders, but when the decision’s made, we’ll execute. That was part of reliable partnership. We built a very good army, so when Iraq was overrun by ISIS, the army disintegrated and fled, and they took great criticism for that. But it was the same army, it was the same leaders, that mobilized the country again and counterattacked and defeated ISIS…They fought this together, and they fought alongside coalition members and U.S. and saw the commitment of the U.S., and they have this deep trust, now, that this can work. The military has a responsibility to protect the homeland, but we also have a responsibility to make sure that our government doesn’t overextend its power, either. So, we have a profound professional military in Iraq, and I think that is a result of the many, many years of hard sacrifice and commitment on behalf of the United States and the coalition. That much we’re very confident in. It’s been a huge success, but at great cost.

Reeher: Your troops have been deployed in this region quite a lot since 9/11. I think you’re the most deployed division in that regard. So, there must be some feeling on the base there of when are these sets going to end for us? And so, how do you sustain the morale of your colleagues and the troops and the sense of mission under conditions like that? I would think that would be hard.

Piatt: The sun never sets on the 10th Mountain Patch. We are everywhere all the time. We are the most deployed position in the army. I call us the “blue collar division” for the United States Army. We do windows, and we get asked to do a lot. Our soldiers are ready. The reason the morale is high, and they’re ready to respond to hurricane disasters in a moment’s notice…is because they live in a great community. Their children, their families have access to good schools, and they have a good home on the base to live, part of a division that knows how to train and prepare for any operation that could be given to us. We don’t get to pick the mission, but what we do get to pick is how we accomplish it. And our soldiers feel good about that, and that’s why I say the 10th Mountain Division lives in the greatest military community in the United States. I’m a little biased, but it makes a difference. When you get along with your community and the small town surrounding us and this university—Syracuse University—the way they treat us, the way they respect our soldiers, that gives you great pride in what you’re doing. Our nation welcomes us home. We walk in airports with our uniform on, people buy us a cup of coffee. They thank us for what we’re doing. Everywhere I go, I’m thanked for my service. That is tremendous respect from our nation, and that’s what we do it for. And that’s why the morale is very high. But it’s a fair question – “How does this end? Will we ever achieve peace?” And why we write about winning the peace is winning the peace is just as important to a soldier as winning the fight. Winning the peace is harder. Wars don’t end in peace. This peace is a struggle, and people need to know that our country’s always been one that would commit great resources and time and sacrifice to other nations so that they could build prosperity post-conflict. And that will achieve lasting victory over a terrible enemy.

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.