Anthony Zinni Interview (2007): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Challenges for U.S. National Security Policy,î General Tony Zinni, former Commander in Chief of the Central Command (1997-2000), April 23, 2007

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Cultural Understanding

In your book you talk a lot about your experiences as a soldier and then an officer and then a commander. Let's talk a little about that, because you began to see some of this as far back as the Vietnam War when you were a soldier. Give us an example of where you came to see that the theories emanating out of Washington and guiding our policy had no interface with the culture that you were dealing with.

As a young lieutenant in my first tour of duty in Vietnam, I was as an advisor to the Vietnamese Marines. To prepare for that I had to learn the Vietnamese language, taught to us by Vietnamese families in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in the course I went through. They not only taught us language but taught us much about the culture. When I went there I was immersed in the culture, in the society, we wore the uniforms of the Vietnamese, I rarely saw another American. We lived amongst the people, they had a quartering act, for example, so when we were in operations around the villages we literally moved in with the families and the villagers. I came away from that experience a year later having seen a different war than my colleagues who were with U.S. units and operating in a bubble of isolation within the culture, society. I saw the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese people, and I saw a much different war. I saw in many ways that it certainly wasn't going to be determined by just military successes. You know, we won every battle on the so-called battlefield and still did not win the war.

I saw that this was truly -- we mouth the words correctly -- this was an issue of hearts and minds, but the kinds of things that would have drawn from the people that kind of commitment, would have generated the kind of hope, would have connected to them, weren't [taking place] on the ground. We were attempting to resolve this issue purely through the use of force and battlefield determination of the end state, and I saw that that wasn't going to occur. The society had to be with you, the people had to be committed, they had to understand that there was benefit that they could see, and that wasn't happening.

In the nineties you were charged with commanding Operation Comfort to rescue [stranded groups], and the same issues emerged again.

Yes. It was a series of operations: Operation Provide Comfort with the Kurds in northern Iraq; Operation Provide Hope in the former Soviet Union after the wall fell, where we were attempting a sort of international Marshall Plan to connect to Russians and others in the former republics and trying to help generate how they should function in a democracy and the evolution toward democracy; [and] Operation Restore Hope in Somalia with the Somalis -- I spent three tours of duty in there. I worked on the planning for the Balkans missions in Kosovo, Bosnia, and others -- so, again, at the collapse of the Soviet Union this changed, the rise of all these issues and instability, these changing societies, societies that we were attempting to change in some ways. I saw how we understood the application of military force, but the application of military force wasn't going to be the determinate in these interventions and we didn't understand how to shape the other political, economic, and social changes and conditions that were necessary for the kind of change we were seeking.

And in the case of rescuing the Kurds, they had fled to the mountains to flee from Saddam, you talk about having an aide who spoke Turkish, and I believe Arabic, and informed you about the culture that we were dealing with -- so [you discovered that] the people you might have thought you should be dealing with to solve the problem weren't really the leaders of the community.

Yes, there was a U.S. Army officer [who] was born in Turkey, Turkish by origin. Her father was a general officer in the Turkish military, she spoke Kurdish and Turkish, obviously knew the culture. She was a relatively junior officer. I was a the Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff, and many times she was critical in some of the things we were trying to do because she felt we didn't understand how to connect and operate within this culture, and I began to rely on her. At one point, she brought in a Kurdish school teacher to help me understand the structure of their society, the tribal, clannish structure, how decisions are made, the difference between tribal leadership and their decision making authority, and political leadership. It was enlightening and helped influence the way we did business and the way we connected with the Kurds. This was, to me, an alien society that I had no experience with. I didn't even know what a Kurd was prior to that. Very quickly, because we were thrown into this, we had to come up to speed on this cultural knowledge before we could begin to operate, and even communicate, in that environment.

As we try to come to an understanding of what the threats are out there, if the military or the Americans who are intervening don't come with this subtle, sophisticated analysis that you're describing, then we may help exacerbate a potential threat, not necessarily from the Kurds but the instability that Saddam was creating. We intervene and if we try to help and we don't understand the situation, we've got problems.

That's true, and the military is well aware of this now. There's a major effort ongoing to provide cultural understanding as part of what we in the military would term the estimate of the situation. It's more than just the military equation and the military factors. The military [understands this] more than anybody else; you can hear this quoted by the generals and colonels on the ground in Iraq, that there's not a military solution to these kinds of conflicts. They're not fought on the same terms that determined previous world wars and other conflicts that were between nation states and fought in accordance with a set of conditions or conventions. They see the need to have stronger partnerships in these environments from those who represent the political, the economic, the social [conditions] that need to be affected on the ground, if it's going to be reconstruction, if it's going to be development, if it's going to be construction, if it's into a society that's never even known the kinds of things that we're promoting, like democracy or free market economies. The flaw has been that the military understands how to do its end of the business (and that's become more difficult lately), but we don't have those partnerships, the other agencies, the other nongovernmental and governmental agencies that are up to the task, and that's been one of the failures in Iraq, too.

After you left the military, your skills as a negotiator and a diplomat were called on, and you talk in the book about the case of the Philippines where you were trying to mediate between a rebel group and the government. As you say, you have to understand who they really are (that is, the adversary), where they come from and how their goals grow out of their own environment, and this will make you a more powerful negotiator. Talk a little about that, because given the way our foreign policy is going that's the one thing that we don't do.

No, and I've had these experiences many times, in the Israeli/Palestinian situation, in Indonesia and Africa, and many other places where I've been asked to participate in mediation or facilitation. The first requirement is not just to understand the existing situation, or not just to go after a set of goals or objectives, but to understand the history, the cultural evolution of what brought this about, because rarely are these things short-term events or evolved very recently. If you don't have the depth of understanding the roots of the issues and the problems and of the people you're dealing with on each side, then you're less effective as a mediator or a facilitator to bring them toward some sort of peaceful resolution of their differences and their issues. Oftentimes they may come at this with an end state that isn't going to be able to be worked out in a peaceful, compromising way, and so you have to peel them back from the end state and talk more about the objectives and what they're seeking so that alternative end states could be offered as a way of maybe accommodating those.

For example, rebel groups often say, "What we desire, what we want, is independence." Down the road maybe independence just creates a nonviable state, would never be agreed to by the primary state, and so it's not going to be a negotiable issue, but what is it that they expect independence to bring them? If it's a degree of greater share of economic prosperity, if it's more political freedom and representation, maybe that can be dealt with [by] some other means, some sort of granting of autonomy, some sort of restructuring and governance. But you have to, again, peel it back to what are the objectives, what are the perceived wrongs or real wrongs that have been done, in order to get there. Again, that requires that depth of understanding that you've alluded to.

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