March 5, 2007
By William Cole, Advertiser Military Writer
The Navy admiral who soon will oversee U.S. military operations in the Middle East likens Iraq to a burning house in a region of dry timber.
"This place is on fire, major conflagration. Burning down. Implications for the neighborhood," said Adm. William J. Fallon, who has headed U.S. Pacific Command at Camp Smith for two years, and will take over U.S. Central Command and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan starting March 16.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Advertiser, Fallon said he doesn't see an aircraft carrier being based in Hawai'i "in the near future." That echoes what U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, said in August, and will likely disappoint proponents who wanted a carrier group here, in part because of the millions of dollars it would pump into the local economy and jobs it would create.
Fallon, a naval aviator and strategist who improved military relations with China, said the bloodshed in Iraq has to be stanched very soon. If not, it will be hard to change perceptions here and in Iraq about the unpopular war, and salvage the U.S. effort.
But Fallon emphasized that to stabilize Iraq, more time, effort and patience will be needed by the United States, particularly with a new counterinsurgency strategy being implemented by the new top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus.
As part of that strategy, 21,500 more combat troops are being added to the 141,000 in Iraq to bring greater security to Baghdad and western Anbar province.
"We have made major decisions to take a different approach in dealing with the situation in Iraq," Fallon said. "Nothing happens overnight. You don't snap your fingers and suddenly everything goes quiet and peaceful. It's going to take work, dedication and some time.
"I'm not going to sit here and try to predict that a week from now, a month from now, a year from now — who knows — (that things will improve). We don't have a lot of time in my book. But perceptions need to change, most importantly, perceptions in Iraq, with that population." Possible flashpoints
As a regional commander, Fallon inherits an area that includes Lebanon and Somalia — countries that are potential flashpoints for widening violence.
The region also includes Iran, where tensions have been building for months. But a U.S. naval buildup in the Persian Gulf does not signal an impending war with Iran, Fallon said.
Iran's influence and pursuit of nuclear weapons are "destabilizing, unhelpful actions that are inimical to what we would like to see in this region," Fallon said. "And we want to make sure that they are discouraged from taking steps that would be unhelpful along these lines. Does that mean we would like to go to war with Iran? I don't think so."
The Guardian newspaper of London said officers advising Petraeus in Baghdad have concluded that the counterinsurgency campaign has six months to win the war in Iraq — or face a Vietnam-style collapse of political and public support.
The troop surge is expected to last into the fall.
"I don't want to put an exact time on it, but a minimum of six to nine months," Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the second-highest commander in Iraq, told CNN last week.
Fallon, 62, leaves Hawai'i next Monday to take over Tampa, Fla.-based U.S. Central Command. Air Force Lt. Gen. Dan Leaf, the deputy commander of U.S. Pacific Command, is expected to fill in for Fallon until Adm. Timothy Keating is approved by the Senate and arrives in Hawai'i at the end of the month.
In the interview at his Camp Smith headquarters, Fallon said in the Pacific "things are improved. We have general stability and security."
A force realignment Fallon orchestrated will bring 8,300 Marines to Guam, and a greater ability for the U.S. territory to accommodate U.S. Air Force warplanes and aircraft carriers. 'Try to work' region
When he takes over Central Command, Fallon said his role will be that of regional commander, with Petraeus having the lead for security in Iraq.
"I'm going to help him every way that I can," Fallon said. "At the same time, (I'll) try to work the region. Work inside and outside."
Fallon said it's his intention to "go out there and solicit the views of those (countries) who are in the neighborhood and to encourage some attempt to collectively address" Iraq's future.
A regional security conference on Iraq, scheduled to begin Saturday in Baghdad with the United States attending along with Iran and Syria, is "just what the doctor ordered," Fallon said.
The talks with Iran and Syria are a reversal of past Bush administration policy and are seen as an acknowledgement of a worsening situation in Iraq.
"All the other countries that are in the neighborhood — who's helping?" Fallon said. "I'm looking for answers there. There's not a whole lot going on that I can see in a very positive way."
Fallon's selection as the first Navy admiral to lead Central Command and the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan signaled to some the possibility of war with Iran in what would largely be a naval and Air Force campaign.
The USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier battle group — with the Pearl Harbor destroyer USS O'Kane — was dispatched to the Persian Gulf region to join the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower already there.
Fallon said "we have a lot of reasons for wanting to maintain a very significant (military) presence in this region."
The world is dependent on oil that flows through the Persian Gulf, and a disruption would play havoc with global economies.
"It's in our interests in world stability to make sure these (commercial sea lanes) are safeguarded," he said. Spent time in Iraq
The New Jersey native and 1967 Villanova graduate flew in the Vietnam War and commanded a carrier air wing during a combat deployment to the Arabian Gulf in Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
That year, he spent time in the Kurdish north of Iraq. Fallon was a deputy director for operations in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and in the past year has visited Iraq twice.
His son, also named William, followed his father into the Navy and flew an F-14 over Iraq at the start of the war in 2003. His son-in-law served a year in Iraq as an Army reservist.
Fallon and his wife, Mary, had been contemplating retirement in about a year and possibly staying in Hawai'i, but instead he now has been thrown into the frying pan of Middle East tensions.
"It's a challenge that needs to be met," he said of accepting the new assignment. "We've asked thousands and thousands and thousands of American soldiers and Marines, sailors and airmen to go out there and to serve our country in difficult circumstances."
He said he found it "very difficult to even think about saying, 'No, that's too big a problem, or somebody else's problem.'"
Although many people are "shaking their heads saying, 'This is a lost cause, we can't do anything here,' I don't believe that and that's why I'm agreeing to do this."
Fallon said he has not yet set benchmarks for success in Iraq, partly because he hasn't even assumed the Central Command job yet from Army Gen. John Abizaid, who is retiring.
"The specific metrics I need to talk with commanders and our leaders on," Fallon said. "I'm anxious to do that."
He said, though, it's "way too early" to be encouraged or discouraged by the troop surge, with only one brigade on the ground so far.
"We've got to implement this thing," he said. "We've got lots of details to figure out in terms of how we use these forces." Ending the bloodshed
The one thing he's clear on is that the bloodshed must stop. The troop surge will put U.S. forces in small outposts among Iraqis in an attempt to improve security and bolster humanitarian assistance.
Fallon acknowledges that Baghdad is a city of 7 million people with suburbs of millions more, and with "140-something-thousand troops, that's not much."
Some reports point to the troop surge as being too little for an effective counterinsurgency effort.
Fallon said whether the U.S. can find the right combination of efforts, and Iraqis can be encouraged "to make the tough political decisions that have to be made" to govern effectively, remains to be seen.
"I think there are lots of reasons to have a good outcome, but it's going to take some time," Fallon said. "Let's give it a shot. And I think the American people, at the end of the day, would like to have a successful outcome in this.
"They are tired, they are frustrated. I got it. So am I. I'm an American citizen, a taxpayer. Been there (to Iraq). Kids have served there, and I get to see the cost of doing business in human terms pretty regularly around here, so I think I understand the situation."