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U.S. Should Keep Its Presence In Iraq, Afghanistan, Retired Gen. Dempsey Says


It was never supposed to last this long, but it's now been 13 years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, nearly 15 years since the invasion of Afghanistan. And the United States continues to have a presence in both countries, which is a good thing if you ask retired General Martin Dempsey, who, until last fall, was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He points to President Obama's decision this week to slow the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan as an example of the flexibility the military needs to make lasting gains. We spoke to Dempsey as the Islamic State has lost significant ground, but still that group has unleashed a wave of attacks outside its territory.

MARTIN DEMPSEY: Any time there's been success against ISIS, they will lash back out, whether it's beheadings or whether it's destroying historical sites or, in this case, a flurry of suicide bombs.

GREENE: So you're saying we might just have to accept for some indefinite period of time that as ISIS loses ground they might get more desperate and they might carry out these kinds of attacks in Iraq but also in places like Paris. I mean, we just have to accept that for now?

DEMPSEY: Well, I don't know if accept is the right word. I think we need to anticipate that that will be their tactic. And, look, there are certain things we can do that will allow us to both anticipate and defeat those kind of attacks before they occur. But some of them are going to occur. And I've said for some time that this is a generational struggle. And I think what we do about it now is we take a long-term view of it. We don't want to fall into the trap of fighting 20 one-year campaigns. We've got to have one 20-year campaign.

GREENE: Many of your own critics would hear you talking about, you know, taking the long view and picking your spots, and they would call that overcautious. I'm thinking of people like Senator John McCain, the Republican from Arizona who said, at one point, General Dempsey has proven if you don't want to intervene anywhere in any country you can invent reasons not to get involved. The military always errs on the side of caution but not to the extent I see with General Dempsey's advice. How do you respond to that?

DEMPSEY: Well, I respond to it as I did then, which is that my job was to present our elected leaders with options but also to articulate risks and opportunity costs. So, you know, if you want to be all in, which is the phrase sometimes used in the Middle East, then you've got to take some additional risk in Europe and in the Pacific. And, you know, as we've seen over the last three years, that may not be the smartest thing to do for the nation either. And you can call it caution. What I'm suggesting is we've got to take a longer term view of this, put ourselves on a sustainable level of effort, and then, you know, just get after it for the next 20 years.

GREENE: Let me finish with a question about - you know, we're within months of the 15-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks if we can believe that. Is it any less likely that a 9/11 could happen today? I mean, I think about ISIS and what they have done. Is - I mean, there any reason to believe that they couldn't pull off something so terrible in 2016?

DEMPSEY: You know, I did a lot of research about these kind of catastrophic surprise - let's call them - events. There's just so many cases in history where after the fact someone will say we just never imagined that something like that could happen. So the short answer to your question is we got to be careful not to have a failure of imagination.

GREENE: Now, do you think we are failing in imagination or we're doing it the best possible to imagine every possible scenario that this country could be threatened?

DEMPSEY: I think we've been a bit distracted recently on the way we've been talking about the world and talking about the homeland. I mean, we've seemed as though we've kind of pushed ourselves to the ideological edges, and where we really need to be is in the middle. And so I am concerned.

GREENE: You mean the political discourse in this country is distracting the policymakers from focusing on some of the important sort of questions about threats to this country?

DEMPSEY: Well, what you'd hope a political campaign would produce would be thoughtful conversation about what's best for the country going forward and how we're going to afford to do everything we need to do. I haven't heard a word spoken yet, by the way, about the fact that the bipartisan budget agreement will expire at the end of the year and the Budget Control Act and sequestration will kick back in 2017. And that's a real problem. It's a real problem for the military. It's a real problem for the rest of the government. If I'm right about the fact that we need to take a long view of our security, then how are we going to resource whatever strategy we adopt?

GREENE: That was retired general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.