Retired U.S. Army general and former CIA Director David Petraeus held Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responsible for the upheaval in his country.
Speaking Monday at the Aspen Institute,
Petraeus told veteran CBS journalist Bob Schieffer that Maliki betrayed the commitments he had made to reconcile the country's Shiite majority with its Sunni minority.
Petraeus does not expect Baghdad to fall to Sunni insurgents, but how and when the central government can retake the areas it lost is an open question.
"The 18 percent Sunni minority felt they could not trust the government. They had a stake in the failure of the new Iraq rather than in its success," Petraeus said. The Kurds also lost faith in Maliki.
Asked if ISIS was a bolt of out the blue, Petraeus replied: "I think people who have watched this closely — and I've been one of them — have seen this coming."
For months, ISIS could be seen carrying out both military operations and targeted assassinations of its opponents.
"So this was something you could see coming," he said.
No one really expected that the government's security forces would not be able to handle what was "at the end of the day" a "capable" but not a large ISIS force.
"What I think did surprise people" was how some Iraqi commanders simply got on helicopters and flew away rather than stand up to ISIS, he said.
Now ISIS is a threat not just to Iraq but to America's allies in the Gulf and in Europe and even in Australia and "increasingly, perhaps, to the homeland," Petraeus said.
Summing up what he saw as a three-fold threat, Petraeus pointed to ISIS as a danger to Iraq's territorial integrity and as a menace to Europe and the U.S. homeland from returning jihadists.
No less important was the danger of Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. The Iranians want to extend their control over Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, he said.
The United States was already doing a lot of what can be done. Washington is developing a clearer intelligence picture. It is employing drones. The United States needs to be careful not to become the air force for one side of a sectarian struggle. Airstrikes would only be valuable with enough intelligence that would hurt ISIS while avoiding collateral damage, he said.
Washington should support an inclusive government that reverses it sectarian orientation. While respecting Iraq's sovereignty, U.S. diplomats on the ground are encouraging precisely this process, Petraeus said.
The former general has been working for KKR Global Consulting, appearing on the speaking circuit, and teaching. The Aspen Ideas Festival was one of a number of public appearances Petraeus has recently made. He resigned as CIA chief after an extramarital affair with his biographer came to light in 2012.
His 37-year military career included serving as commander in Iraq and Afghanistan and commander of the U.S. Central Command.
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