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Assessing the Surge in Iraq [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speakers: Stephen D. Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations, and Max Boot, Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Moderator: Peter Beinart, Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
May 8, 2007
Council on Foreign Relations New York, NY


PETER BEINART:  Well, thank you all very much for coming.  This is an intimate group, but I think it's actually a really terrific group for discussion about Iraq, a lot of people who know the topic very well.  And we're very lucky to have Stephen Biddle and Max Boot here, both of whom have been in Iraq very recently, both I think with quite unusual degree of access to the U.S. military and with a very interesting perspective, both of them, on what's been going on.

My name is Peter Beinart.  I am -- I'm serving as a moderator, although in such a small group I doubt that those tasks will be too onerous.

So I'm going to turn it over first to Stephen for a five-minute or less just summary of any thoughts that he has coming out of his experience, and then I'll turn it over to Max to talk four or five minutes or less about his time in Iraq.  And then maybe I'll throw out a question to each of them, and then we will just let you guys all have at it, and I'm going to give you the signal when each are done -- start the --

QUESTIONER:  The evil eye.

QUESTIONER:  Can I ask just one question?

BEINART:  Please.

QUESTIONER:  What are the ground rules?

BEINART:  This is on the record.  In fact, it's actually being taped.  So those are the ground rules.

I think neither of my colleagues need much introduction.  Stephen is a senior fellow in defense policy, and Max is a senior fellow in national security studies.

So Steve, I'm going to turn it over to you.

STEPHEN BIDDLE:  Thank you.  I'll just be very brief because I want to do some questions and -- (off mike).

Let me say a little bit about the question of is the surge working in Iraq and how to think about that.  A lot of that has tended to revolve around car bombings and other big-casualty spectaculars.  My general take, though, is that pacification, whether in the form of surge or more broadly, pretty reliably works, and it's pretty reliably working in Baghdad, where you've got the troop density to do it from.  So where we have deployed appropriate troop densities in Baghdad -- and as I'm sure you know, we're not sprinkling troops randomly over the whole city; what we're doing is occupying particular battle spaces with the density necessary in order to clear and then hold that piece of real estate, which leaves substantial parts of the city at the moment largely devoid of U.S. troops -- but where we put U.S. troops down in the appropriate density, I think we have successfully pacified those neighborhoods, and I think we can expect to continue to do that as other brigades arrive.  The problem isn't can you pacify where you've got the appropriate troop density; the problem is even when the surge is complete we are not going to have enough troops to establish that density over anything like the entire threatened part of Iraq. 

So the challenge here is, how do you go from a condition of reasonable security in those parts of Iraq that you can defend with the necessary density to a reduction in violence elsewhere where you can't?   By what mechanism are you going to use improved population security in part of Iraq to generate adequate population security in the rest of Iraq?  And that process, I think, is not going to be primarily a matter of, in a classical counterinsurgency mode, drying up the enemy's support base by winning the hearts and minds of their potential supporters and causing the insurgency to wither away over a period of 10 to 15 years a la Malaya or other classical kind of insurgency events.  I think if there is going to be a success in Iraq -- I'll put my cards on the table:  I think it's unlikely.  I think it's possible.  I'm not among those who think that the war is necessarily and unavoidably irretrievably lost.  I think a success is possible, but it's unlikely; this is a long shot.  If it's going to happen, the only way it will happen is by a series of negotiated deals between the U.S. and the government of Iraq and to particular factions in which they agree to take combatants who remain armed and in the field and capable of violence, but they agree not to use that violence potential and instead to observe a cease-fire because they think it's in their self-interest to do that. 

So the kind -- when people talk about a political solution, the political solution that makes sense is, again, a series of essential bilateral deals between our side and particular factions on the other side.  And only through that mechanism are we going to get a reduction in violence through most of the kind of -- the potential for violence will remain even if that happens.  So that the challenge is, how do you generate incentives to force people who don't want to reach these kinds of deals at the moment to do so?

And I -- my own take on that is that the only form of leverage we've got that's sufficiently forceful to generate much movement toward these kinds of cease-fire deals is probably going to have to be military, which means that a force of 160,000 soldiers that is not enough to generate population security over anything like the necessary sections of Iraq may be enough to generate sticks and carrots sufficient to persuade people whose combatants remain in the field to tell them to stand down, but that that's a rather different model for thinking about how a -- how the conflict here could be brought to successful termination than the more traditional counter insurgent model -- that we're going to bring it to a successful termination by providing direct population security and gradually expanding the perimeter of the part of Iraq that we can secure.  I don't think in the plausible time horizon we're going to have enough troops to do that.  I also don't think it's an appropriate response to the nature of the conflict, you know, anyway.  But I'll leave that topic for Q&A and stop with that teaser. 


MAX BOOT:  Thank you all for coming, and I'm very aware that there's a lot of knowledge about Iraq around this table quite aside from Stephen and myself.  All you guys have been there many times and know very well so let me just keep my remarks very brief in terms of what I saw and concluded.

And I spent the first couple of weeks of April in Iraq at General Petraeus' request, taking a look around and spending a fair amount of time with him and some of the senior commanders, but also getting around with U.S. units in the field in Baghdad as well as in Ramadi, Fallujah and in Baqubah.  And my general takeaway, not terribly surprising, is I think things are substantially improving in Anbar, they're going to hell in a handbasket in Diyala, and it's a mixed picture in Baghdad. 

Now, the Anbar story, which I think is starting to be told but still hasn't quite perhaps received the attention that it deserves, is really kind of amazing.  I mean, when you look at Ramadi where I was walking around a few weeks ago without anybody taking potshots at us or trying to blow up our humvees, pretty amazing the turnaround that's happened there over the course of the last year where it's gone from being one of the worst cities in Iraq to being one of the safer ones.  And that was really using kind of classic counter insurgency techniques -- the clear, hold, and build where U.S. and Iraqi troops went in there, fought very tough, street-by-street, house-by-house battles to clear out the al Qaeda terrorists, and then have works on setting up concrete barriers -- setting up so you control checkpoints -- have work done setting up combat outposts and joint security stations -- spin this web to make it very hard for the terrorists to come back into town.  Now, they're still trying to come back into town as we have seen from some of the big VBIEDs that have gone off in the last few weeks, including a couple in the last few days.  But those are generally hitting on the outskirts of town around entry control points; they're not getting into the town itself.

And what we have in the town itself is a very -- I thought a very impressive structure of outposts located within eyeball range of one another.  I mean, people talk about how wonderful ISR assets are and all the great things you can do with surveillance, and we're doing a lot of that.  But basically at the end of the day you still got to have eyeball contact on -- from one outpost to the other so you can see what's going on there, and that's what we've got.

And we have the critical mass of troops, American and Iraqi, in Ramadi in part because the tribes are now with us and we are providing soldiers and police officers who are allowing us to garrison the areas that we've gained.  The big challenge now in Ramadi is going to be to rebuild because, you know, the city is devastated.  I mean, it looks like pictures of Berlin in 1945.  The water mains are destroyed because they're using so many underground explosions from IEDs.  You have water in the streets.  You have buildings that are turned into rubble.  And the question is are you going to have the resources to rebuild that in a way that rewards the people for their cooperation with the coalition and send a message to them that there are positive rewards to switching sides and turning against al Qaeda.  And right now, Colonel Charlton, who's the brigade commander over there, is having a hard time getting the money to rebuild.  I mean, he's got the CERF money, but that's not going to cover something like $10 million of repairs that he thinks need to be done pretty expeditiously, and he's looking for somebody to pony up.

So, you know, if some of your media organizations have some excess funds you'd like to invest, you know, Ramadi could be the place to do it.  But I think he's looking for AID or somebody else to step forward and ideally for the government of Iraq.  And that's really essential because you've got to -- I mean, you can have all these noises being made by the politicians in Baghdad about how they want to reconcile with the people in Anbar, but they got to put their money where their mouths are and so far they haven't been doing it, and that's the real challenge.  And of course, you know, the viewpoints you get from the people in Anbar is, "Oh, you know, this is all a plot by the Persians in Baghdad against us -- they hate us  -- they're against us."  And I'm sure there's a lot of that, but of course, a lot of it is also they just can't do anything.  They have no capacity.  They don't know how to spend money.  They can't get it out there.  And so it's this combination of probably malice and incapacity, which has a potential to defeat some of our hard-won gains on the ground in places like Ramadi, and that needs to be addressed and fixed as quickly as possible. 

Now, Diyala, again, is a -- is a less optimistic story -- just, you know, gone -- go downhill.  Just in the last year since I was there last year to now it's gotten much worse, in part because we're starting to push a lot of insurgents out of Baghdad and Anbar, and they're showing up in Diyala and some of the surrounding areas, and the situation there is going downhill.  Now, you know, I know Joe Biden has commented on this and he used the expanding balloon metaphor, suggesting just pressing down on the balloon in one place and they're popping up somewhere else so your efforts are basically useless.  I don't think that.  I mean, I think that if you choose the metaphor of the spreading oil stain rather than the expanding balloon, I think what we're doing makes sense because you want to focus as many troops as possible on the centers of gravity.  If you spread 170,000 troops thinly around the country, you're not going to pacify anything.  You're going to lose everywhere. 

And that, in fact, has been to some extent our model up until now, whereas now I think we're adopting a smarter strategy which is to try to focus our troops in Baghdad -- the center of gravity -- to try to achieve critical mass there so we can actually pacify it.  And as, you know, Stephen was pointing out, even there it's hard to receive the kind of critical troop-to-civilian ratios that we really need, although I think we are achieving them in some embattled neighborhoods.  But I think given the limitations of the amount of force that we have, it makes sense to say, "We're going to suffer some setbacks and be out -- going to try to limit those."  And they're -- they are pushing some more troops out there to basically (on an economy of force ?) sufficient to essentially try to contain some of the accelerants of the violence in Baghdad -- try to disrupt some of the insurgent activities, but realizing they're not going to pacify those areas in the Baghdad belts anytime soon, but just to try to keep the insurgents off balance and devote their -- as many resources as possible at Baghdad and try to achieve some success there.  And I think there is evidence that we're achieving success there, and I think the big thing that's happened is the big falloff in sectarian murders, which are down two-thirds since January.  Now, unfortunately that's been offset by the fact that suicide bombings are as high as ever, and obviously a suicide bomb is very hard to stop.  I mean, they're working on stopping and one of the big things they're doing is what they call the concrete caterpillar where they're putting in 500 meters of concrete a night to try to gain control of markets and neighborhoods to keep insurgents out -- to make it more difficult to drive car bombs and to do all of these things.  But it takes time, especially when you have, you know, protests in the streets, and in some neighborhoods some of these -- I think very necessary -- security measures. 

But although we haven't been able to stop the suicide bombings, I think one thing we have done is we have contained our consequences, because you saw what was happening last year when you had suicide bombings -- it was setting off a cycle of retribution where the Shi'ite death squads were going out there after these big Sunni VBIEDs and, you know, capping 100 Sunnis a night or whatever.  It was a pretty ugly scene, and that was spinning out of control into a -- into an all-out civil war.  And I think so far we've been able to do, with our greater troop presence -- not only more troops, but also pushing more troops out of the giant forward operating phases which I this is just as essential -- what we've been able to do is to contain the consequences of some of those big suicide bombings so that it's not setting off this cycle of retribution that we've seen in the past.

But I think we have to continue with the strategy.  And I've been, you know, pretty dismayed to see a lot of people including in this town are trying to say that the surge strategy is already failing when it's barely been implemented.  We only have the fourth of five brigades arriving in the country just now.  We're waiting for the fifth one by June and it's going to take many months after that to see any kind of results.  I think the lesson of Ramadi is that if we have a mass -- a critical mass of troops and you have the time for them to implement a classic counterinsurgency strategy it will work, and I think it will work in Baghdad if we have the patience to let it work.  But even if we do, of course, as Stephen has pointed out is another huge challenge, which is to try to translate that into long-term political gains and that's something, since Peter's telling me my time is up, I'm happy to talk about in the Q&A.

BEINART:  Terrific.  Well, let me just throw a quick question to each of you and then we'll open it up.

Steve, I wonder if you can just elaborate a little bit on what these cease-fires would look like.  Are these cease-fires between the United States military -- the cease-fire between the Maliki government?  Where -- what are the terms of them?  Is a cease-fire -- what's the difference between a cease-fire and political reconciliation, which is what we keep talking about, and to -- and what kind of confidence could one have -- would these cease-fires -- that these cease-fires would actually hold the minute America started to reduce its number of troops in Iraq?

BIDDLE:  Well, let me start with the difference between a cease-fire and a reconciliation.  At the risk of some degree of word-splitting, reconciliation I think in many minds implies a conflict of interest between the key parties is resolved, and they've come to a world in which they can deal with one another in a non-conflictual way because they see their interests as aligned rather than in conflict.  That, I think, is a generational objective of that.  That's not coming anytime reasonably soon.

That's one of the reasons why I tend to use the word cease-fire rather than reconciliation.  I think what -- to the extent that we're going to get a success in Iraq, it's going to lie in parties who distrust each other profoundly nevertheless agreeing not to shoot each other for a while; to wait and see what's going to happen.  That, I think, is a reasonable aspiration level for Iraq. 

But the problem is that we have not just three major groups of combatants -- Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Kurds -- but none of them are unified bargaining entities.  There are multiple factions on each of those sides.  The reason why I say bilateral cease-fire is because it's going to have to be done at the retail level.  Faction by faction, some amalgam of the United States and the government of Iraq is going to have to persuade the leadership of a particular armed group to stand down and not use the force that they have at their disposal in exchange for promises and the aversion of threats that we or the Iraqis -- but probably mostly us -- are anteing up.

Now, as your question implied, cease-fires of this kind are notoriously unstable because lots of -- especially when you got this many actors that you're trying to negotiate with bilaterally -- there are plenty of people who won't have signed a cease-fire at the time that Group X has, and most of them have a tremendous interest in blowing up the cease-fire that was just reached.  So in order for any of these cease-fires, much less the aggregate of them across the country, to be stable instead of having spoilers destroy them only seconds of their being signed, there has to be some relatively neutral third party to play an enforcement role.  Classically, if you look at the civil war termination literature, that role is played by people in blue helmets who've come from Bangladesh or Pakistan or Niger or wherever, and they come under the U.N. banner and they perform that role. 

That's not going to happen in Iraq.  The only possible candidate for the stabilizing force that can render any of these cease-fires sustainable is us.  Now, we're not the ideal candidate for a zillion reasons, among which being, probably alone in Iraq, everybody dislikes us.  I mean, most people in Iraq like somebody but most people -- almost everyone in Iraq doesn't like us.  On the other hand, people may not like us but nobody in Iraq views us as an existential threat.  Nobody thinks the United States is going to engage in genocide against any of the groups, whereas they do think the other locals are prepared to do that.  So in principle, you could imagine if the United States played its cards right -- again, this is a low probability in undertaking anyway -- but it's imaginable if we played our cards right we could negotiate the cease-fires, we could provide the stabilizing role ourselves, and we could keep these cease-fires holding for a reasonable period of time.  Note that that is utterly inconsistent with the political model in which success yields a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

BEINART:  You're talking about a long-term U.S. presence?

BIDDLE:  Yeah.  The only conceivable model of success I can see in this conflict involves a very long-term sustained U.S. presence.  Now, that's not 160,000 soldiers worth of U.S. presence, and second, it's not U.S. presence as war fighters for 10 to 20 years.  But it is a sustained presence of tens of thousands of armed U.S. troops providing a peacekeeping function in Iraq.  Now, if we're going to have any prospect, I think, of something other than a very unfortunate result in Iraq, I think it is therefore essential that we start laying the political groundwork now if we really do want to make this work for that kind of stabilizing presence that's going to be necessary if the only imaginable political solution is going to work, and at the moment I don't see a lot of that groundwork being laid.

BEINART:  Okay.  Let me throw -- I'm going to ask you a question of a kind of parallel nature.

You talk about the success that you had seen in Anbar -- the military success -- and some success in Baghdad, and then you talk about the need to try to follow this up with economic reconstruction.  I wonder -- and, of course, as you also said, that ultimately the name of the game is political reconciliation -- to what degree did you see any evidence that these military successes were able to be translated into political reconciliation?  I'm particularly interested in the fact that you had this political success -- this military success in Anbar, in the Sunni area.  Has that had any effect on the political consciousness of Sunnis, or is there any strategy by which it could be translated into political results?

BOOT:  Well, I think it's early days because when you look at what's happened in Anbar, it's really started -- it started in September of last year.  It hasn't been that long of a period, when you have Sheikh Sattar and some of the other tribal leaders coming together to form the Anbar Salvation Council and to flip from al Qaeda towards supporting the coalition.  Now they're interested in expanding it.  They want to work with the government.  They want to work with the coalition.  They're even talking about being this Iraq Salvation Council to try to expand beyond their base in Anbar.  I mean, I think a good first step would be if they could simply organize Anbar because one of the big problems that we've had, as Stephen alluded to, is figuring out something to negotiate with on the Sunni side because they're not that unified.  So if Sadr and some of these other sheikhs can overcome their mutual distrust and rivalries and all of that and organize Anbar in a cohesive way, that would be a huge step forward because that would give the central government somebody to negotiate with.  That would give the Shi'ites somebody to negotiate with.

And I think there is some interest on both sides in reaching out toward one another.  I mean, I think it was significant that General Petraeus was able to convince Maliki to go out to Anbar in March and visit in Ramadi with some of the local tribal leaders.  At the same time, it's amazing the guy hadn't been out to Anbar since 1977.  I mean, that shows you how far you have to go.  But at the same time, the fact that he's willing to go out there -- the fact that he's expressing interest in bridging some of these differences -- I think is significant.  And, you know, kind of the sense that I get from General Petraeus and some of his senior folks is they are gaining more trust and confidence in Maliki; that they think that he is growing as a leader, he is not acting solely as a Shi'ite sectarian leader, that he is showing some nationalist tendencies.  And they see it, you know, where the rubber meets the road, where, you know, they come to him on almost a daily basis and present him with target sites of Shi'ite extremists they want to take down.  Now, the Sunni extremists they're taking down all the time.  That's not a big deal.  Nobody in Baghdad cares about that.  But they do come to him with the target sites of Shi'ite extremists they want the joint special operations folks to take down, and so far he hasn't turned down a target.  I mean, they've been coming at him and he's been signing off on some of these hits, which are very difficult for him politically because they're targeting people who are part of his political base. 

But that said, Maliki is not the government of Iraq.  I mean, he is the prime minister.  He has limited authority.  He doesn't even control his own Cabinet, much less the parliament.  And there are a lot of other people in the government and in the Cabinet who are much more sectarian than he is.  And the question is, which forces will prevail in the long run?  And it's very hard to say.  But I think what's important now is to try to build upon some of the very small gains that have been made in places like Anbar and to try to foster this reconciliation process with more gestures of these kinds of meetings between Maliki and some of the senior leaders to try to bridge some of those differences.  But ultimately the government of Iraq is, as I said before, is going to have to place its money where its mouth is.  They have to get more money to places like Anbar because that's how the tribe measures seriousness is who's paying us off, and they got to be paid off, and if they're not getting paid off by the Shi'ites there's a real danger they're going to get paid off by somebody else.

BEINART:  One -- go ahead.  Let's start it up.

QUESTIONER:  I am particularly taken by what you're talking about in terms of the money.  I mean, there is a lot of money coming from oil revenues in Iraq.  It's going somewhere.  I don't really understand where the Iraqi government is spending it on.  Will they have the money to do what you're talking about?

BOOT:  One of the big difficulties is they're not spending a lot of their money.  I mean, they -- you get different estimates but, you know, perhaps half of the Iraqi budget or something along those lines is not being spent at the moment largely due to issues of incapacity and also corruption, because they've kind of handicapped themselves -- or they've sort of handcuffed themselves rather -- after some of these corruption scandals where they had, you know, Cabinet ministers and others stealing the government blind.  So now almost every contract has to be approved by the prime minister and that -- and his senior Cabinet colleagues and that takes a lot of time so they're just not approving a lot of these contracts.  And what they're actually doing now, for example, is they're trying to get around some of these things by directing more money towards the U.S. defense contractors for foreign military sales where they don't have to do all this vetting of each contract -- that they can set it up on a more automated system.  But a lot of this is just dealing with pervasive issues of corruption and lack of governmental capacity.  They don't have enough experienced administrators to overcome a lot of it.  But I think there's a tendency in Iraq to impugn -- kind of malign motives for any failure of the government -- that, "Oh, yeah, you could do this but you don't want to," and there's some element of that but I think a lot of it is they just don't have the capacity to do a lot of the things that we take for granted.

QUESTIONER:  Stephen, what's your understanding of the command and control of these different groups?  Who would you negotiate with, and how many people do they actually control?  It's my impression over there it's really chaotic, and that these tiny little cells are operating with 50 different people telling them what to do, and some are doing it for money and some are doing it for revenge and some are doing it for political reasons, some of them are criminals.  So who do you actually negotiate a cease-fire with?

BIDDLE:  Let me answer in principle.  The specific details on particular groups obviously I can't go into.  But if you just look at this as a sort of a general problem of social science, under increasing military pressure from rivals, for any group to remain effective in the field at defending themselves and at terrorizing -- let's say they want to terrorize -- eventually they're going to have to improve their degree of organization, improve their ability to command and control their people, and create something approximating contiguous territories that they control.  Now, in the limit as the process goes on long enough -- I mean, what this produced in the early modern period was the European state system.  But you've got the same thing going on in microcosm within Iraq -- as initially very poorly organized, very disparate, vaporous proto institutions under the pressure of armed warfare with one another and with the government and with sectarian rivals on the other side are gradually distilling out into something that looking -- you would expect them to gradually distill out into something that would look increasingly like organizations that you could bargain with.  So --

QUESTIONER:  Where on the spectrum are they on that, do you think, then?

BIDDLE:  I'm trying to stay on the appropriate side of the pertinent boundaries here.

QUESTIONER:  Do you know more, or --

BEINART:  Do you want -- maybe you want to just do a little context about what the rules about what you can --

BOOT:  Can I just jump in very quickly here because I think -- jump in very quickly here.

I think the problem you're talking about is primarily a Sunni problem because when you look at the Kurds, they're pretty well organized.  They have two main political parties.  You look at the Shi'ites, they're reasonably well organized.  They have three main parties and a few smaller parties, but they're people you can deal with.  The problem has been on the Sunni side because nobody knows who actually speaks for these Sunnis.  And the most extremist elements are not in the government, they're not negotiating, so there's nobody to speak for them, and that's been a real issue.  And of course, the Sunnis have been carrying out the worst attacks.  But I think our best hope --

QUESTIONER:  But there's also the problem with the Shi'ites, these rogue groups that people are very careful to separate from Sadr, that are associated with him but he doesn't control, at least that's what they say.

BOOT:  No, that's true.  I mean, sure, there is -- I mean, there are violent people out there.  But I think what we've seen is that I think there's good evidence to indicate that when the senior leadership -- although there's limits to the control of Muqtada al-Sadr or somebody like that, but I think when they decide something that moves a lot of people  -- that if they decide they're not going to fight there are some people will fight but most won't, and I think that's what you've seen in Sadr City, for example, in the last few months -- that when they do make high-level decisions -- and we can argue about whether it's Sadr making it or there's deputies but somebody's making those decisions and they are able to show results on the ground -- it's not 100 percent chaos, and there are people you can negotiate with.  I think it's mainly been a problem with the Sunnis, that finding somebody to negotiate with.  And I think the hope now is -- and I don't know if it's going to pan out -- is that Sheikh Sadr and some of the people around him in Ramadi will be able to organize the Sunnis better.  But you know, there's real obstacles there because the people in Fallujah are suspicious of the people in Ramadi and so forth and so on.

QUESTIONER:  I'd like to ask Stephen --

BEINART:  Let's just go to the gentleman -- (off mike).

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, okay. 

I don't know if you can answer my question, both of you, about the Iraqi forces' capacities and their readiness.  When do you think the Iraq army would be ready to handle solo missions and all the tasks without the help of the coalition and especially U.S. forces?

BIDDLE:  Never?  I don't think the issue -- I would frame the question a little differently, and I'm sure Max will disagree with me on this one, will make for a more interesting exchange, too.

I don't think the issue is capacity.  I think the issue is political, not technical/military.  I think most of the Iraqi army, for example, is reasonably proficient technically at the moment.  Now, the standard story is that the institutional part of the Iraqi military is coming along more slowly than the tactical part, which is surely true.  They're not as good at logistics as they are at combat functions.  They're not as good at buying equipment and paying their troops as they are at conducting patrols and monitoring checkpoints. 

But I think at this point the problem is less knowing the military technical skills that they need to know and more who are they really fighting for.  As you would expect, in a communal civil war as opposed to a classical ideological insurgency what you have is a situation in which the society has largely broken down into factions, and the national military, which is made up of members of these factions -- Sunni, Shi'ites, and Kurds -- is subject to the same centrifugal forces that the rest of the society is, and as a result the question of the loyalty of the Iraqi security forces is at the moment I think a much bigger issue with respect to their performance and whether or not they are well enough trained or well enough equipped.

QUESTIONER:  When you say -- I'm sorry -- when you say security forces, you mean both the police and army?

BIDDLE:  By security forces I mean everything from the Iraqi army to the Iraqi national police through the Iraqi police through the facilities protection service through all the rest.  There is this, you know, very heterogeneous security force in Iraq across all of the -- you know, obviously there are big -- the reason it's heterogeneous is they're very different one from another.  But across all of it I think issues of politics are at the moment more important to its performance than issues of technical proficiency.

BOOT:  If I could just jump in on that because I -- just to address the Iraqi army in particular, which I think is the most effective security institution and the one, if we have any hope for the future of Iraq, it really has to reside in the Iraqi army. The national police and the police are, to put it charitably, a variable quality and in some cases are part of the problem, not been a solution, and that's been true of some Iraqi army units as well, but I think their combat performance is rapidly increasing.  And I was, for example -- I mean, this is not a typical unit but I was very impressed to spend some time with the Iraqi special operations forces who are, you know, already I'm sure the best special forces in the Arab world.  I mean, they're doing multiple missions every night, taking some tough fights and going up against both Shi'ite and Sunni extremists.  Now, those are the best of the best in a relatively small force, but I think what you're seeing and what I hear from American combat military advisors is that the combat performance of Iraqi troops is improving, and a lot of them are fighting much better now.  But there are several issues, one of which of course is even alluded to is the question of loyalty. 

But I think a more pervasive issue right now is the issue of size -- a more difficult issue is the issue of size because technically I think the Iraqi army's getting better, but the whole force is about 136,000 soldiers and officers -- 136,000 for a nation of 26 million.  Now, Saddam Hussein had about 900,000 to a million soldiers under arms in 1991.  By 2003, he still had close to 400,000.  How are we expecting 136,000 soldiers to defeat the size threat that they face in Iraq today?  I mean, we have to dramatically increase the size of the Iraqi army.  I think it has to be 3(00,000), 4(00,000), 500,000 before you have any hope of success.  And that's going to require more in the way of support, both financial and in terms of American advisors to try to increase the size of the force.

But the problem is we set the wrong benchmarks when we were setting up the force because the notion was that they would be -- primarily concentrate on external defense and we didn't want a very strong military because of the threat of a military coup.  Well, hell, at this point, you know, when the threat is complete and utter chaos, I will take the threat of a military coup.  The problem right now is it's not a serious threat because the Iraqi army is not the strongest militia in the country, and we want them to be the strongest militia in the country.  So we had better increase them and increase their capacity I think pretty dramatically for them to have any hope of dealing with the threat that they face.

And you know, they're still going to be reliant to some extent on American help on issues that Stephen raised, the -- you know, ISR, logistics, fire support, some of those other things.  Those are not big deals.  The big deal is that they are taking the fight to the enemy, they are suffering heavy casualties, they are standing and fighting.  So at the tactical level I think they are showing increasing promise, and we need to try to build that up so they can build on that.

And a final point I would throw out here is I think Iraq needs to think about a draft because we basically got rid of their conscript army for them and imposed our model on them, which is a small, professional, all-volunteer force.  But I'm not convinced that's the right model for a country like Iraq because the army there is not only fighting external and internal enemies, it needs to be the schoolhouse of the nation.  It needs to be inculcating nationalism, egalitarianism, non-sectarianism.  And it needs to be doing that with as many young men as possible, and I'm not sure that those who volunteer for service are going to be enough, especially when it's only 136,000.

BEINART:  We've got over here and then this young lady here, and then -- (off mike).

So go ahead.  Sorry; I don't know your name.

QUESTIONER:  My question was, the administration talks about the importance of the government adopting these -- or taking these four steps:  the oil law, de-Ba'athification, regional elections and the constitutional review.  How quickly -- I mean, if through some miracle the government does do those things within the next couple of months, how much do you think that will contribute to the willingness of these armed groups to accept a cease-fire?

BIDDLE:  I think that kind of progress is necessary but not sufficient for generating the kinds of cease-fires that I've been talking about.  If you don't get some level of national progress towards this kind of reconciliation compact -- especially the key pieces of legislation -- the trouble is that the individual Sunni factions are going to say, "We're being taken for a ride.  You guys want us to stand down from the fighting, but there's no evidence that the national government is viewing -- is changing its stripes and becoming something other than a tool of Shi'ite domination over us."  And as long as there's no ability to show that the central government is doing something other than pursuing a sectarian Shi'ite agenda, I think it's going to be very hard to get the retail-level agreements with particular Sunni factions that we need to get the violence down.

That having been said, if you've got total progress in six months on all of the key pieces of national legislation, that wouldn't be enough because the whole problem here is that the Sunnis, as Max quite correctly points out, are not a unified bargaining entity.  So there's no Shi'ite entity in the parliament -- or, I'm sorry, no Sunni element -- entity in the parliament that could say, "Oh, okay.  You've met our demands, so we're going to stand down and have everybody stop shooting one another."  Those decisions are held by people who are not serving in the parliament right now.

So the national progress towards the legislation that makes up most people's benchmark lists is related to the conduct of cease-fire negotiations at the retail level, but it's not a direct blend.  It's an indirect relationship in which progress at the national level helps in enabling critical local negotiations, but you're talking to a different group of Sunnis in the latter than you are in the former.  And unless you satisfy their needs at the local level, they aren't going to agree.

QUESTIONER:  So you need to do all those things, plus you need to convince them that they'll get a good deal locally, and you need to also be a threatening force for them to try to --

BIDDLE:  Yeah.

QUESTIONER:  -- intimidate them?

BOOT:  Can I just make a point on that?

I think it's -- the signals that are being sent out from Washington right now make it very difficult for Iraqi politicians to take these hard steps because what we're essentially asking them to do is to make very difficult compromises with people who are their mortal enemies -- or they view them as their mortal enemies:  to share oil revenue, for example, or to share other elements of power.  And at the same time as everybody in this town is jumping up and town and banging on a table and saying, "Timetable, timetable, timetable!  You got to do this, you got to do this, you got to do this!" at the same time we're saying, "Oh, and by the way, we're going to leave in six months," or "We're going to leave in a year."  And so what is the incentive for these Iraqi politicians to essentially take these very hard decisions if they're slitting their own throats in this battle which is about to come up against the people they're compromising with now?  I mean, the incentive -- if we're about to leave, their incentive is to keep their powder dry, not make any concessions, and prepare for the civil war.

The only way we're going to convince them, I think, to make these very difficult concessions that we want is if we convince them that, as Stephen suggested, we're going to be there as a long-term guarantor of their security so they can make some compromises without slitting their own throats.  But otherwise, as long as the signal coming from Washington is we're not there for the long haul, we want to pull out, they're not going to make these compromises, and it would be irrational for them to do so. 

QUESTIONER:  But nobody's making that case.  Nobody's making the case that this is going to take a long time.  We're in La-La Land.  I mean, on one side you have the Democrats saying the surge has already failed before it's completed; on the other hand, you have Republicans like Boehner saying, "We're going to know by September whether or not the surge is working."  I mean, by basic counterinsurgency strategy we're looking at a -- you know, at a decade-long process here even if it's the more modest aims that you're talking about of, you know, kind of individual cease-fires to kind of calm the place down.  That's not a six- or nine-month progress.  So I mean, there's just a complete disconnect.

QUESTIONER:  That's why --

BEINART:  I'm going to go back to the question.  You can fold it in.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, I mean, it kind of adds on to it a little bit.  I mean, I'm curious to know what you all have to say about the idea of benchmarks and moving us forward.  How helpful are those on the ground in Iraq right now?

And beyond that, I mean, how do you -- what are the best ways to measure progress right now, I mean, as the military uses the term (matrixing ?)?  You know, to -- how -- you know, when we talk to General Pace, he'll say, "Okay, well, you know, we want people to feel more safe tomorrow than they did yesterday, and that's -- that's our metric.  You know, what should those metrics be for measurement?

BIDDLE:  Okay.  Well, let me start with that question and I want to go back to -- (off mike).

With respect to this whole issue of measures and metrics, the measures that make sense depend on your underlying understanding of what brings success, and there are two very different understandings of what brings success at work here that imply very different measures.  And since I think one of them is right and one of them is wrong, that means that a lot of the measures people are talking about are rather misleading. 

So take, for example, the model that I think is most common which is the way we're going to get success in Iraq is the way you get success in classical ideological counter insurgencies.  You win hearts and minds, you build up an indigenous security force, you hand the fighting off to the locals, and you dry up the enemy support base because you persuade their potential supporters that they're better served with a legitimate indigenous government than they are with these nasty sub-national insurgents.  If that's your understanding of what would bring success in Iraq, then logical measures are things like is the violence level going up or down, and if you're drying up the support base, you would expect the violence level at some point to start going down in a reasonably smooth, progressive sort of way.  How much electricity are you providing would matter.  You look at the things that you're trying to do to win those hearts and minds and see how they're doing. 

Not unsurprisingly, these are the kinds of measures that have been getting most of the attention in the debate.  I don't think that's the nature of the conflict we're in.  I think rather than an -- I don't think this is a war of ideas in any important way.  I think this is a war of communal survival among sectarian and ethnic groups within Iraq in which they're fighting for their own survival and self-interest -- that the Sunnis are not so much advancing a case for how all of Iraq should be governed.  If you Shi'ites don't understand if your self-interest would be better realized if you -- if the country were run out of the Ba'ath party, that there are very few political manifestos being issued by combatant groups in Iraq because it's not a war of ideology.  It's a war of self- interest among Sunni, Shi'ites and Kurds, each of whom are fighting to advance their self-interest over the self-interest of their local rivals.  If that's the case -- if what you've got is a communal civil war and not a classical ideological insurgency, the way you get success is very different.  It's along the lines of what we were talking about earlier.  Classically, the way you terminate communal civil war is you negotiate a power-sharing deal among the players that yields a cease-fire, and then you enforce the cease-fire with outsiders because the locals don't trust each other, and hence they'll never trust a large indigenous armed force because it's made up of the people they were just fighting against a few months ago.  That's why I gave the answer, "never," about when I think the Iraqi security forces will be ready to take over without us.  I mean, "never"'s a little strong; maybe make it 20 years instead.

But if what we're doing is trying to terminate a communal civil war, again, that implies we need this long-term U.S. presence to stabilize the thing, and the critical path to success lies through the successful conduct of these retail level cease-fire negotiations, and that implies that the right measure and metric is how are we doing in the negotiations.  How many negotiating partners are there?  Are they splintering and growing in number, making the negotiating problem increasingly intractable, or are they coming together into negotiating parties of reasonable number and reasonable consistency and organization that we can deal with.  Are the bargaining positions of the two sides getting closer, further apart or not moving?  Has anybody actually signed the cease-fire yet?  If so, how many?  And in areas where a cease-fire has been signed, are things getting better for the people who signed them as opposed to worse?

By contrast, when you look at the usual measures -- how many bombings, how many deaths, how many U.S. casualties, how many incidents -- all those things could go up, down or sideways, and it has very little connection with the underlying political negotiations that are the real route to success, because any time you make progress in negotiation, a spoiler's going to come out of the woodwork and try and blow it up.  And I just disagree with this.

BOOT:  (Off mike) -- my colleague a tiny bit here?

BIDDLE:  Oh, yeah.

BOOT:  I think I would actually invert the equation that Stephen is putting out there and say that all the political compromises and cease-fires and agreements you reach don't mean anything unless they can achieve results on the ground in terms of actually increasing the level of security and decreasing the level of attacks. I think that has to be the basic measure of progress, and I would judge Baghdad or any place else in Iraq the way I would judge New York City or Washington, D.C.

Look at the murder rate.  Can you get the murder rate down?  If you can, I think you are making progress, and I wouldn't say it's totally hopeless for the Iraqi security forces.  I agree that they're going to have to have participation by American advisors who are kind of a guarantor of neutrality within those forces that they don't become more sectarian.  But even given that American presence, I think they can be an effective institution.  I think we need to work on building them up, and for example, I think in Baghdad there's evidence that, for example, that the largely Kurdish units that have come in have done reasonable well because they are trusted by the people of Baghdad as kind of relatively neutral outsiders in the way that U.S. troops are.  And I think there's ways to build on that and to, I think, to try to build up the Iraqi army in particular as being an institution that's trusted by the different sectarian factions of the country.

BEINART:  I'm going to take -- bundle the next three questions.

Yochi, did you have a question?

QUESTIONER:  I did.  Rhetoric aside, the Maliki government has at best -- I mean, to use a phrase they used after the report, to put it charitably, it has not done much of the reconciliation that we hoped it would do.  The oil law has problems we all know very well about.  The provincial election law has been rewritten by his faction to recentralize power in Baghdad as opposed to decentralizing it into provinces.

Do you think that the bet we've made as a country on Maliki is the wrong bet?  And is he the wrong leader?  And if so, what flows from that?  What are the consequences of having a prime minister who is appearing to be a nakedly sectarian Shi'ite, as opposed to a person who has the ability or inclination to unify Iraq?

BEINART:  Hold that thought.


QUESTIONER:  Yeah, I wanted to talk about the political realities here.  What happens in September?  I mean, the administration is soft pedaling.  It's talking about how they're going to reassess, they're going to look at the results and so on, but it seems pretty clear from what both of you are saying the administration is not going to seek to withdraw in any significant way in September.  It's doubtful we're going to be anywhere that's -- you know, that's measurably better than we are now in Iraq.

What happens in September?  How do you build support for this, given what you've both said about how long it's likely to take?  And if you can't -- you know, I think you're right when you say that all sides are hedging.  I just don't see how we convince the Iraqis with everything that's going on here domestically that we will stay.  So I mean, why is -- (off mike)?

BEINART:  Let's see if we can get one more question.

QUESTIONER:  My question's sort of the flip-side of Yochi's question, which is:  What has empowered Maliki to go after, you know, his core constituency, i.e., Sadr?  Something must be going on internally in Shi'a politics to allow him to do that.  And is it a good thing or a bad thing that Muqtada has decided to lay low for the moment? 

(Cross talk.) 

BOOT:  Okay, are we making the wrong bet on Maliki?  Well, maybe we are, but I can't imagine what other bet we could be making.  Because as you remember, we weren't too happy with his predecessor and we got him instead.  And I just don't know who we think would be a better bet. 

I mean, the sense I get from U.S. officials who work very closely with him is, as I said before, that he is, to use the horrible cliche, growing in office, that he is in fact thinking and acting more like a national leader.  What you're saying is, no, he's acting like a sectarian Shi'ite leader.  There's some evidence of that, but I think the bulk of the evidence is that Maliki himself is making some positive steps.  But his power is very limited. 

And you know, even if he wants to do things, he doesn't necessarily have the power to do it, because he doesn't control the cabinet.  He doesn't control the parliament.  You know, I think he is starting to feel a little bit more powerful.  And one point that I've heard people make is that the execution of Saddam was kind of an event that gave him street cred with the Shi'ites that he was somebody who was going to stand up for their interests, and is one of the factors which is maybe allowing him to exercise a little bit more influence or trying to. 

In the case of -- you know, I think he's willing to stand up to Sadr a little bit more.  I mean, there's no love lost there.  It's not like he's bosom buddies with Muqtada.  The only reason he would be afraid to take him on is because he's afraid of him.  But as you shift the balance of forces a little bit, as you move more American forces in, as you start to chip away at some of the extremist Sadrist networks, Maliki may start to gain a little bit more confidence.  At least that's the hope. 

But I don't think we have -- whether you like Maliki or not, I don't think there's another horse that we can bet on.  I don't see who else could possibly be a credible leader, and you have to give him time.  I mean, we can't switch leaders every year and expect a new leader take over every year and do somehow markedly better than the previous guy.  I mean, I think it takes time to consolidate authority if in fact he's able to do so, which is very hard to say. 

MR.     :  Allawi wouldn't mind coming back. 

BOOT:  Yeah, he was so popular, right?  He's very popular and lively. 

QUESTIONER:  (Inaudible.) 

MR.     :  Yeah, why not SCIRI? 

BOOT:  Well, we're not -- there's very good reasons not to pick SCIRI, okay?  I mean, any of these guys you look at -- do you really want a guy with this huge militia running the country?  Is that the best bet? 

MR.     :  Maybe. 

BOOT:  Maybe it is; maybe it isn't.  But I mean, everybody you look at has huge drawbacks.  And you know, remember the pain that Zal went through just to try to handpick Maliki.  And then we're going to say, okay, let's get somebody else.  I don't think we have the know-how to micromanage Iraqi policy to an extent like, we say, oh let's get rid of this guy and let's put a new guy in.  I think we ought to heed the lessons of Vietnam, which was, we were very unhappy with Diem, and so then we got something much worse.  So you know, stick with the guy who's in there now, I would say, and try to work with him, and we are working with him. 

The question you raised is, you know, what happens with the short-term expectations game?  Look, if we want results by September, we might as well pull out right now.  It's not going to happen by September.  I mean, that's insane.  We may start to show some results by January.  At least I hope we will.  But the notion that we're going to somehow know whether the surge has worked or not by September, I don't -- that's just wishful thinking. 

But I don't think that -- I mean, I think the situation is a little bit more complex than that.  Because I think Bush, you know, if nothing else, is a stubborn guy and is certainly not going to pull the plug in September.  And the real question is, you know, are there going to be enough Republicans revolting on the Hill to override his vetoes and cut off funding?  I don't know the answer to that.  But I would be skeptical that that many Republicans are actually going to rebel against their president. 

Are we doomed?  Well, we may be doomed.  I mean, I think what we're doing now, certainly if I had to bet, I would say we're probably going to fail.  But I think there is a chance of success.  And I completely disagree WITH Harry Reid when he says all is lost.  I don't think all is lost.  I think it's very long odds right now, but I think we have a chance to salvage an acceptable outcome and we have to try to seize that opportunity, because even if you're talking only about a 25 percent or a 30 percent change of a successful outcome right now, every other plan is worse.  Every other plan is basically a zero-percent chance of an acceptable outcome, which is what happens if we pull out, concede defeat and give up right now. 

I think there is still a chance to work.  I think, you know, there are still some hopeful signs in the fact that the Iraqi army is standing and fighting, is not disintegrating.  The government, for all of the fissures you've seen with Sadr ministers coming in and out, the government still exists.  It hasn't completely come apart, despite all the daily threats and all the rest of it. 

I think that there is still a backbone of Iraqi society which wants to see a negotiated solution.  I think the challenge now is can we militarily defeat the hard-core, irreconcilable elements and thereby to create some breathing room for the more moderate elements, assuming that they are willing to come forward.  And that's the hard question.  It's very hard to answer that.

BIDDLE:  I'll take them more or less in order.  Is the bet on Maliki sound?  Is he a nationalist?  Is he becoming a nationalist?  Is he going to get to be a nationalist?  I don't think that's the right question to ask.  How many  Bosnian nationalists are there today?  How many Lebanese nationalists are there today?  I don't think the way we're going to get out of this is by creating a national identity in Iraq.  I think the way we're going to get out of this is by brokering a cease-fire among ethnic and sectarian factions and then policing it so it doesn't break down.  If the only way out of here is to create nationalists out of a society that fractured years ago, then I think you're pretty close to hopeless.

Now, I think there's more hope than that, although I'm rather pessimistic on balance, because I think if we were systematic about a strategy that was oriented around trying to broker a cease-fire deal among the entrenched communal factions, there might be a chance for doing that. 

But you look at Maliki, and everybody's looking for the sign, that somehow or other there will be a sign that shows that this guy really is pro-American or a nationalist or the right sort.  What I think we can reasonably expect to see from Maliki is a sustained tug of war over the 10 or 12 or 14 issues every day that come up where his interests and ours diverge to some degree. 

And rather than there being a flash of light and the heavens open and one day Maliki becomes a nationalist -- I don't mean to be as pessimistic as it sounds -- I think what we're going to see is a guy walking a tightrope, where on one side of the tightrope he's got Sadr and Hakim, on the other side of the tight rope he's got the United States, and they're both trying to pull him in different directions.  And at any given moment, depending on how much pull is coming from the two sides, that tightrope will bow in one direction or the other. 

But reasonably I think the most we can expect from the guy is that if every day, 12 times a day, we continue to apply a lot of pressure in our direction, the guy, being a rational individual, will bow in our way.  But I don't think there's going to be ever any moment when he jumps off the tightrope and becomes unambiguously aligned with either side, actually, until and unless we leave, in which case he'll clearly align with either Sadr or Hakim, or both if he's able to square that circle.

How do you build support for this?  And are we doomed? 

Like Max, I think the odds of failure are much greater than success -- the odds of success.  I'm less optimistic than Max.  I would put the odds lower than 25 percent but higher than 0.

It seems to me if one were going to try and build public support for a long-shot gamble that the public is not currently behind, which is certainly the way I would characterize the situation at the moment, a first step towards doing that is articulating a logic for what the problem is now and how you can solve it that sounds to most people like it corresponds with what they're observing of Iraq. 

If what you're doing is laying out a strategy that seems to be pinned on a diagnosis of the underlying problem that just doesn't look right, it doesn't look like it has much to do with what we see going on in Iraq, then I think you've got a -- you've political "Mission:  Impossible."  You may have political "Mission:  Impossible" anyway. 

But if there's going to be a political way out, I think it begins with an articulation of the problem that's closer to what most people are seeing and observing.  And again, I think that lies in conceiving of this as a communal civil war termination effort, rather than as an effort to win enough hearts and minds to create Iraqi nationalists.

QUESTIONER:  Can I throw a bomb in there?  Given this construct, which is a Bosnia-type construct --

BIDDLE:  Yeah.

QUESTIONER:  -- that you're putting forward, you need the outside powers, don't you -- or an Afghan-type conflict -- you need Iran cooperating on the Shi'a side, you need Saudi Arabia and Syria cooperating in the Sunni side in a major way to broker this now.

BIDDLE:  Yeah, we didn't get very much into the question of the neighbors, but that's another long conversation --

QUESTIONER:  Paul and I just came from Sharm el-Sheikh.


QUESTIONER:  We're very innovative.

QUESTIONER:  So we observed the Kabuki dance there and --

BIDDLE:  Well, the short answer is yes.  I mean, there are several things you need that we don't currently have.  I think a reconfiguration of our military policy towards the creation of bargaining leverage, rather than an oil spot model that creates security over the whole country, I think, but also, in addition to that, a regional diplomatic initiative that can reduce the amount of nefarious interference on the parts of lots of neighbors, not just the Iranians and Syrians, but all the others as well -- that would certainly be required.

And in terms of September and what you can reasonably see by September, again, I think Max is dead on.  You're not going to see major changes in the military environment by September. 

What I think I would want to see by September to be relatively more optimistic that things are on the right track is the political developments ongoing in Anbar mature and stabilize.  I mean, in terms -- if your model for success is politically negotiated cease-fires enforced by a long-term stabilizer, the first steps to that you'd like to be able to observe reasonably soon, given that there appears to be some beginnings of possible movement out in Anbar.  So I'd be much more interested in a very detailed articulation of what's going on with the 14 tribes, and are they in fact progressing politically in the way we want by September, or are things going in the opposite direction?

That strikes me as the single-most interesting measure observable by September.  Anything -- you're not going to see Jeffersonian democracy breaking out at Anbar because the 14 tribes all change their stripes by then.  But you would like to see continued, measured progress toward negotiated deals with the Sunnis in Anbar as a first step toward the political solution of interests.

The last question had to do with Muqtada al-Sadr and the question of his lying low is a good thing or a bad thing.  I actually think that's quite fascinating, because here you've got a guy who apparently told his fighters, stand down, stop manning checkpoints, stop patrolling the streets long before any Americans ever showed up.  There still aren't any Americans in lots of his home turf, and yet he told his people to stand down.

One of the reasons why car bombings have gotten so easy in Baghdad is because we are defending battlespaces with troop densities that we can defend, which means the whole city isn't under U.S. security by any means, and yet key militia leaders like Sadr stood down anyway.  Why in the world was that?  Is it because the guy didn't read the U.S. papers and didn't understand how long it was going to be before the brigades built up?  I suspect that's probably not the case.  I wonder whether -- what we've got is an interesting strategy by Muqtada to deal with his own internal dissent.  I mean, he's had problems, apparently, for some time with rogue elements that he can't control, so he issues an order -- to those who obey his orders -- to stand down, and might reasonably have anticipated that the rogues who don't obey his orders won't obey this one, either, and they'll continue to act violently and allow the Americans to sail in and do his dirty work for him by removing rogues that he can't control.  And if so, that's a very favorable situation.  It helps take an entity that's hard to negotiate with, because it's fractionated, and in a sense cleanses it of some of its most irreconcilable elements and might create a Jaish al-Mahdi, an office of the martyr Sadr, that's a more plausible negotiated partner after it's all said and done.

But I think the whole question of what's going on with Sadr's people in Baghdad is very opaque at the moment.  And there are a variety of speculations one might offer like the one I just offered, but I don't think anybody really knows for sure quite what's going on with them.

BEINART:  I'm sorry.  Just -- who hasn't asked a question yet?  First Andrew Gray and then Jackie Northam.

QUESTIONER:  I'm actually interested just to hear a little bit more about your arrangements with General Petraeus and what capacity you were there, how much interaction you had with him and his staff and whether this is in fact a new approach by the U.S. military to have people like yourselves involved and how much influence do you think you had over the thinking going on there, and I guess what's your impression as to whether how much their analysis marries with your own, particularly with regards to September, because General Petraeus has said openly that he will give an assessment in September of how things are going.

BIDDLE:  Well, that gives me a nice opportunity to lay out some ground rules that I probably should have laid out at the beginning but will do now -- (off mike).

Max and I were there under very different auspices.  I'll let Max speak for his role.  I was part of a team of people that was assembled to advise General Petraeus on what's been going well, what hasn't been going well, what are the pros and cons and the problems and opportunities in current strategy for conducting the war.  But I'm not at liberty to discuss what the group recommended to the general or what the general's reaction was.  What I can do is I can speak for myself, which is what I've been doing, and tell you what I think about the war, but I'm not at liberty to characterize what my colleagues thought.

QUESTIONER:  Who else was in the group?

BIDDLE:  I'm also not at liberty to characterize the complete membership of the group.  Two members' names which have come out, I believe, are H.R. McMaster (sp), who was one of the coordinators, and David Kilcullen (sp), who's an Australian counterinsurgency expert and all-around good guy.

QUESTIONER:  (Off mike) -- brains trust.

QUESTIONER:   How long were you there for?

BIDDLE:  A little over a month.

QUESTIONER:  And that was last fall?

BIDDLE:   No, that was ending about a week and a half ago.

QUESTIONER:  Oh, really?

QUESTIONER:  And have you been asked to follow up back here with the Joint Staff or --

BIDDLE:  I can't characterize questions of follow-up or what's being done with -- (off mike).  Apparently the general is going to do his own roll-out at some point.  We've been asked not to preempt it. 

QUESTIONER:  So your work's not done, even though you're back.

BIDDLE:  We'll see.

QUESTIONER:  Does the group have a name?

BIDDLE:  Sorry?

QUESTIONER:  Does the group have a name?

BIDDLE:  We were asked not to -- (laughter).

QUESTIONER:  You guys really act like journalists.  (Laughter.) 

QUESTIONER:  (Off mike) -- wandering around the country together?


MR.      :  Based in -- (off mike) -- international zone.

QUESTIONER:   How many people ??


BIDDLE (?):  About 20.  I's not exactly 20.  I didn't count, but it's in that neighborhood.

Q    Do you have -- (off mike)?  I mean, what was your interaction?  What was your impression of whether their analysis of General Petraeus and the senior staff corresponds with your own?

BOOT:  Well, I can afford to be less quiet.  When I was there, it was really -- I mean Petraeus asked me to go over there, but it wasn't as part of this formal process, it was really just to be an outside observer and analyst and to soak up information and come back and offer my two bits to the public as well as to him privately. 

I mean, I think -- I mean, it was a great experience for me because I had very good access to General Petraeus, I sat in on a lot of his meetings, as well as getting out into the field, which I have certainly done before, but this was the most high-level access I've had.  So it was interesting to see more of the behind-the-scenes process.

And I think, you know, I was -- you know, obviously, you know, Petraeus wouldn't invite me over if we didn't have a certain level of trust to begin with.  And obviously that's there, but I was -- I've known the guy for a number of years, but I was even more impressed by seeing him in that environment than I'd been before, because I think he takes a very realistic assessment of what's going on and doesn't try to sugar coat a lot of the difficulties and isn't trying to be Pollyannish about it.  But I think he is pursuing really the only strategy I can see that offers any hope of success.  And it's not an overwhelming hope, as we've been talking about, but I think it does offer a hope.  And I think the issues that he's working on are the right issues.

QUESTIONER:  And how does that square with the September thing, where everyone seems to be saying late summer -- in September he will give that assessment, whereas you've said if we're expecting any results by September, we might as well go -- (off mike).

BOOT:  He will give that assessment in September, but it's going to be a very tentative assessment, I would expect.  He's not going to say, oh, the surge has succeeded, everything is great, or the surge has failed and, you know, it's time to pull out. 

I think it's going to be -- here are some indicators of how things are going.  And you know, I think nobody is thinking that the surge will end before early next year and possibly it might even go on beyond that.  So I don't think there's much chance -- I mean, essentially he's promised to offer that progress report, and I think he will do that, but you have to be realistic about what he's going to report.  It's not going to be like "Oh, this is the answer we've been waiting for."  It's going to be a slight improvement or not a slight improvement.  That's really the best we can hope for.

BEINART:  Jackie?

QUESTIONER:  Okay.  (Off mike) -- my question a little longer, but I'll push ahead anyway.  This whole idea about the cease-fires and moving off of what we're seeing evolving in Anbar right now -- I mean, you go over there, and Petraeus is presumably talking to the powers that be and the administration.  Is this -- would this be a departure from the strategy that we're seeing right now?

Also, you were talking about -- this is -- I've been out of the country a month on vacation, and this is the first time I've heard about peacekeeping functions.  I may have missed it.  It may have come up in the news.  But that -- is that something that you're saying that we need to lay the political groundwork -- is that something right now -- could that be our long-awaited Plan B that you -- (off mike)?

BIDDLE:  Well, again, I'm speaking exclusively for myself.  I don't see a peacekeeping function as Plan B.  I see that as the implication if success in Plan A somehow happens.

I mean, if we end up somehow or another pulling a rabbit out of the hat -- and again, I don't think it's impossible that somehow -- if we do pull a rabbit out of the hat and we get something like a negotiated cease-fire, in order for it to hold long enough to matter, it's going to require U.S. peacekeepers.  That's not Plan B; that's Plan A working.

MR.    :  That's being honest about Plan A.

BIDDLE:  Yeah.  I think that's just being honest with ourselves about what Plan A requires if it's going to succeed.  And because I don't hear many people talking about that in the debate right now, I think it's rather important that the nation start considering that, because if what we're doing is striving mightily to produce a cease-fire which we're then undermine in a month by pulling out all the troops that are required to keep it going --

QUESTIONER:  But you're talking about a series of cease-fires --

BIDDLE:  Well, yeah, by a cease-fire, I mean some corporate collection of these bilateral deals that in the aggregate produces a radically diminished scale of violence and radically increased degree of security around the country.

For even the best case to work requires that somebody from outside Iraq police it.  And if we're not prepared to make that possible somehow, then I think --

QUESTIONER:  Well, I wonder if the Iraqi population can distinguish between American peacekeeping troops and American military troops.

BIDDLE:  Well, I mean, I don't know that they -- I'm sure they could not.  But Iraqi attitudes toward Americans are actually more fluid, I think, than many Americans suppose them to be.  I mean, where Americans have showed up in density and created security through classic pacification tactics in an area, our troop presence has become much more welcome.

In Tall Afar, for example, Sunni Iraqis who initially were very hostile to our presence ended up begging us to stay as the 3rd Armored Cavalry came to the end of its tour and was ready to rotate out again, because they came to understand us as their defenders.

I think the notion that we are inevitably a force of hostile occupation that decent Iraqi nationalists will inevitably oppose, I think, is a mistaken perception.  I think, given the nature of the violence there and its causes, we've already observed enough changing of minds in Iraq about Americans to suspect that if Plan A were to work and you got something like a cease-fire to produce some security, Iraqis, my guess is, would tolerate an American presence in the same way the Bosnians tolerate an American presence.  They don't like it particularly, but they accept it, because they understand that it's what's standing between them and a resumption of extraordinary violence.  But then again, I don't think that's Plan B.  I think that's just what's required if Plan A is going to work past the point of getting a cease-fire.

BEINART:  By my count, we have about five minutes left.  So let's bundle these last two questions from Pamela Hess and Joe Tabet.  And then, if you try to make them short, and then we'll have -- you can use those as your opportunity for a final statement.

QUESTIONER:  What do you all see as the consequences of us failing over there?  And I would say both for U.S. national security and for the Iraqis -- because I think one of the problems you have is you posit this as now -- (inaudible) -- civil war, Americans go, "Well, it's not our fault," or "It's not our problem anymore.  Let's get out."  Because that's certainly what the antiwar crowd is saying -- not one more American life if it's between them.  So how do you -- what do you think?  And I know there's a range of possibilities, if you can sketch those for me.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah.  I wanted to ask about -- what do you think about the political solution based on three regions -- one for the Kurds, for the Sunnis and for the Shi'a -- in Iraq?  How much this solution could be helpful?

BOOT:  Okay.  Very quickly, the consequences of failure -- this will surprise you -- not good.  I think actually the best study I've seen on the subject was done by our colleagues next door, Ken Pollack and Daniel Byman at Brookings, who did a study of civil wars and had focused on the spillover effects.  I mean, I think the immediate consequence is going to be a dramatically increased degree of violence in Iraq, with -- you know, possibly reaching genocide proportions, certainly with massive refugee flows, basically the Lebanese civil war on steroids.  I mean, Iraq is a much bigger nation than Lebanon, with more to fight over in the oil, and I think it could be commensurately much bloodier and more destructive and would draw in neighboring states, just as the Lebanese civil war has, and would also possibly export terrorism and violence to the neighboring states. 

And of course there's also the not insignificant implication that people talk about -- I mean, Harry Reid and others talk about "Well, we've lost."  Well, if we've lost, then who's won?  And I think if you listen to the pronouncements of Ayman al-Zawahiri and others, they're pretty clear about who's won, that al Qaeda's won.  And if we leave any time in the near future, I think we will ratify that viewpoint and encourage more violence against us, because we will be seen as a weak target for terrorist attacks.

So I think -- you know, the consequences are pretty gruesome, and I -- you know, those of us who support the current surge strategy or support ways of trying to avert some of these catastrophic consequences are sometimes accused of wishful thinking.  But I would turn that charge around and say that I think people like Harry Reid and others are guilty of wishful thinking when they say that we can leave and nothing very bad will happen, that "Oh, Iraqis will get their act together."  I just don't know anybody who knows anything about Iraq or any Iraqi who thinks they will miraculously get their act together in the absence of American troops.  Rather, Iraqis are scared of what's going to happen.  And if you look at these polls that say they want us out, they all -- also say not until the security situation is stable, because they all know that if we leave right now, it's going to be a catastrophe.  And it's going to be, you know, possibly of genocidal proportions. 

I don't think the three-region solution is going to get anywhere.  I don't think Iraqis want that right now.  I don't think we should impose it on them.  I don't think those three regions, other than the Kurdish one, would be stable internally.  I don't think they would trust each other to share oil revenues between those regions.  Instead I think what you would see would be simply a continuing war between those statelets and within those statelets, with, you know, heavier weapons being hauled in a la, you know, the green line in Beirut, with artillery going back and forth.  I think you would see that happening if you were to try to create those Shi'ite and Sunni states.

BIDDLE:  Yeah, I'll start by agreeing with Max on partition.  I think if the Iraqis could agree on some division of the nation's resources into either three mini states or three federal regions or three anything, I would sign up for it.  The problem is the Iraqis can't reach an agreement among themselves, and if they can't reach an agreement among themselves, it doesn't end the fighting.  It just causes it to redistribute itself to the borders of the three regions in these states or whatever they end up being, and that doesn't serve our interests and it doesn't serve Iraq's interests either.  So I think partition is probably not the right answer.

With respect to the consequences of U.S. withdrawal and U.S. failure, I think Max's bottom line is the right one.  I would -- let me add a little bit of texture, though, to the nature of that outcome because I think it changes over time.  I mean, several of my -- of our colleagues who are Mideast political experts -- which I'm not, I'm a strategist or try to be anyway -- argue that you guys are overblowing the risk of intervention.  These states are timid, they're militarily underperforming, they prefer to buy people off rather than fight them.  So not to worry, if we withdraw, this thing will stay limited to Iraq and it'll just burn itself out within the borders.

And I think in the near term that's probably right.  If we were to withdraw next year, I think for quite some time what the neighbors would do is pump arms, money, volunteers over the border, but the war wouldn't internationalize in a formal way.  The problem is this is a dynamic situation and conditions change over time in ways that are almost certainly going to be for the worse.

The hemorrhaging of refugees that's already going on will accelerate.  These refugee populations are dispossessed, poorly housed, poorly fed and politically radicalized, and they take up residence in neighboring countries of similar confessional identity.  And over time, as the fighting within Iraq grinds its way to a conclusion -- let's just stipulate for the sake of argument that the Shi'ites are going to win.  So the Shi'ites are gradually squeezing out the last bits of the Sunni homeland, and these dispossessed, politically radicalized Sunni refugee populations now go to governments like the House of Saud and say, "If you guys are going to sit back and tolerate watching the last Sunnis get murdered within Iraq without taking action, we're going to get rid of you."

And I think the internal pressures on the neighboring governments as the process unfolds and as the end game gets near get much, much more to the point of danger of intervention than they would be in the first weeks and months following U.S. withdrawal.  And note that in the meantime, these countries are going to be arming themselves to the teeth.  There's already the beginnings of a big arms race going on in the region, as all the states try and hedge their bets against uncertainty in Iraq.  Civil wars of this kind left to their own devices would burn out, often taken five, 10, 15 years.  There's a lot of arms buying you can do in 10 years.  Moreover, in 10 years we may have an Iranian nuclear weapon to go into the mix.

So my concern is that down stream the risk that this war regionalizes grows progressively over time, and it may not be the likeliest single outcome even then.  Maybe it's only 30 or 40 percent likely, perhaps, that this war becomes a regionwide version of Lebanon in the next 10 years.  But the consequences of that are truly cosmic.  And given that, a significant possibility of a really, really bad outcome is something we need to take very centrally into account. 

And the last point I want to make about consequences is, there's a tendency for the debate to orient itself mostly around realpolitik U.S. national interest, which I understand is reasonable at some point.  But especially given the political alignment of this debate, the humanitarian consequences of a U.S. withdrawal are really awful.  I mean, I was asked the question for the first time some months ago.  If you look at this solely from a humanitarian perspective and ignore U.S. national interest, what's the right thing for the U.S. to do?  Well, if we pull out, there's a very high likelihood that the death toll in Iraq skyrockets. 

QUESTIONER:  Is that what you're saying, that that hasn't made it into liberal debate? 

BIDDLE:  I think it is.  Speaking for myself, I think humanitarian consequences are a human obligation when thinking about problems like Darfur and like Iraq.  I mean, if we're worried about humanitarian consequences in Darfur, how can we ignore them in Iraq? 

(Cross talk.) 

QUESTIONER:  But what about our troops?  What about our people, for Christ's sake?  I mean, how many more of them are supposed to die? 

BIDDLE:  Well, what we end up with is a very tough conflict of values, where we care not just, I think, about people who carry U.S. passports and our own people.  We also care about other human lives.  Can an expenditure of American lives help or not?  And one of the difficulties in this decision-making problem, if you command it the way I do, is I think there's -- I don't know.  These numbers are wholly arbitrary, but maybe there's a 10 percent shot here that this long-shot comes out. 

QUESTIONER:  But if you're the mother of one of those kids going off to war, you say, to hell with that 10 percent shot; let my kid stay home. 

BIDDLE:  Yes, and even if you're not the mother of one of those people, if you're going to end up with a humanitarian crisis in Iraq, with 90 percent probability either way, but you can get it plus another 1,500 human lives who happen to be Americans or without, then if that's the way -- but I think the calculation that needs to be made here amounts to, we're taking a gamble that the price of 700 U.S. lives a year, on a long-shot, that we can somehow prevent the strategic and the humanitarian consequences of Iraq from coming to be.  How long a shot are you willing to take in that gamble?  And at the end of the day, sitting here as an analyst and a strategist, I can't answer that question.  I can't answer that question for anybody.  It rests on individual's risk preference. 

BOOT:  Keep in mind, there's also the possibility of further U.S. casualties down the road if we pull out.  That's not going to be the end of the war. 

BIDDLE:  But either way --

QUESTIONER:  Assuming anybody would send them back in. 

BEINART:  I think we should probably end.  I would just end on the note that I think that our leaders would have a lot more credibility in making those kind of moral assessments that you've mentioned if they had more of their own children over there.  But thank you all very, very much for coming.  I really appreciate it. 








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