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Bremer: An Early Withdrawal From Iraq Would Give Terrorists ‘A Big Victory’

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: L. Paul Bremer
January 12, 2006

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L. Paul Bremer III, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq from May 2003 to June 2004 before the United States returned sovereignty to Iraqis, says terrorists would achieve “a big victory” if the United States pulls its troops from Iraq too soon. “To stop now, to set a deadline, to set timetables, would really give the terrorists a big victory, and we mustn’t do that. Whatever you think about the war itself—you can be against having gone in, I happen to be very much in favor of having gone in—but we are where we are now and we’ve got to see this through.”

Even though in his new book, My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope, written with Malcolm McConnell, Bremer describes his unhappiness with what he regarded as overly low U.S. troop levels and low quality of the Iraqi security forces, Bremer says there has been an improvement in the abilities of the Iraqis. He also says he believes the various political factions will find a way to include the different groups in a federal government.

Bremer, a career foreign service officer who has been involved in anti-terrorist work for twenty years, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on January 12, 2006. 

In your new book, My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope, you’re quite candid about the differences you had with Secretary of Defense [Donald H.] Rumsfeld and the Pentagon leadership over troop levels in Iraq, which you felt were too low. And in May, 2004, just before you departed for home you sent a personal message to Rumsfeld, again saying the troop levels in Iraq were inadequate. The troop levels since then have been about the same and the insurgency still continues. What is the problem with getting more troops into Iraq?

Well, the disagreement here is a view that I had while I was there that our primary responsibility was for law and order. In particular, in the aftermath of the invasion, we had not cracked down on the looting, which set an example on our apparent unwillingness to enforce law and order. On the other side of it, military people in our government argued that, first of all, they believed they had enough forces to accomplish their mission, and secondly, that adding more forces would, in their view, make the situation worse because you’d have more soldiers on the street and in their Abrams tanks. That’s a respectable view but I just don’t happen to agree with it. So, that was the key argument: Do the American troops actually need more troops—and by the way, I never heard a military man while I was there say he needed more troops. And the president had said and still says if they ask for more he will give it to them. So those are the two sides of it.

Since then, the insurgency has continued at the same or higher levels. Of course, now the sovereign Iraq government is in charge and the quality of the Iraqi troops, I guess, will be the deciding factor.

Yes.

I guess you can’t really tell at this time how good they’re going be, right?

No, but you can tell they’ve gotten a lot better in the last year and a half. Basically, I think the administration came to the realization that we needed to re-do the training for both the Iraqi army and the police. And the main way they have done that—and I think they’ve had terrific success—is to focus on leadership and on quality and a little bit less on the quantity. Obviously, you still need quantity, too, but the real key is to have good leadership. And I think they’re doing much better on that now.

Are the Iraqi armed forces now staffed heavily by former Iraqi army people? That’s been a controversial question since you disbanded the Iraqi army in 2003.

Yes, and they always were. I mean basically it’s something the news reporting has not focused on. If you go back and look at the statements that we made when we disbanded the Iraqi army—which was an unfortunate use of words, because there was no army to disband—they had already gone home and broken ranks. I said very clearly at the time that members of the former army would be welcome in the new security forces, the army, the police, the National Guard. And by the time I left, 80 percent of the enlisted men in the Iraqi army and civil defense force were in fact former members of the army and 100 percent of the officers and NCOs [noncommissioned officers]. So, there’s nothing new in that. They have in fact been there, but we weren’t going to recreate an army the size of Saddam’s, which was more than a half million strong, the fifth largest in the world.

So there was never going to be enough room in the new army for everybody from the old army, which was grossly overbalanced toward officers anyway. They had twelve thousand generals in the Iraqi army. We had, by the way, in an army of about the same size, only 307 generals at that time.

That’s an interesting footnote.

I thought I’d bring up just one other point. You read the book so you know it. We knew we had to make room in society for these guys, and so we established a system of paying them a monthly stipend as we called it, which was designed to be slightly more than they would have gotten if they’d had a pension from the Iraqi government. And that stipend was paid every month from then until the end of the occupation and then past that. So to argue that these people were sort of thrown out on the streets with no money [and became insurgents as a result] is simply factually wrong.

Another interesting point I thought you made was on the intelligence-gathering capability that was so heavily focused on finding weapons of mass destruction [WMD] that not until the end of 2003 did the intelligence agencies begin focusing on the insurgency. Did you have the feeling when you left, and since then, that the intelligence has gotten much better? Because we still seem to be surprised every time there’s an insurgency attack.

There’s no question that, certainly by the end of 2003, we had rebounded. The [CIA] station had gotten many, many more counterterrorist experts instead of just having WMD experts. These people are not fungible. It’s not as if we could just take the guys we already had who were experts in biological warfare and say, “OK, now, let’s see what you can learn about the insurgency.” We had to really get additional people with different skills. And by the end of 2003, the station had pretty well beefed up in that respect.

It’s still hard to get information on an insurgency like this because it is a highly diverse network; it doesn’t appear to have—or didn’t anyway when I was there—a central command and control you could get at, or if it did we were having trouble finding it. I think—again a somewhat underreported point in the last year—that the Iraqi people are now coming forward, just normal citizens coming forward with many, many more intelligence tips.

The figures that I’ve seen from the Pentagon suggest there are ten times as many tips coming in now as there were a year ago from Iraqi citizens. And in the end that’s really the key intelligence; it’s the people who come and say, “Listen, this crowd down in the third building in the right is speaking Arabic with a Yemeni accent or something; you know, these are bad guys over there and you ought to take a look at it.” That’s again how you begin to really pick it apart.

I’d like to also focus a little bit on the Iraqi politicians. At one point you quote yourself as being very disparaging of the Governing Council, the group that you set up in 2003. You say that they couldn’t do anything, but many of those same people are still high-profile politicians. Do you think they’ve improved?

I think the problem when they were in the Governing Council was more structural than individual. They just could not get themselves organized to hire enough staff to run the country, to oversee the ministers they had appointed. This takes a lot of work, they weren’t working very hard as I pointed out; at one point, I thought they worked as many hours in a week as we worked in a day. So it wasn’t so much that the individuals were incapable; it was that as an organization, the Governing Council simply could not bring itself to accept responsibility, particularly for overseeing the activities of the ministers. I think that that’s a different game now because now you have ministers who were appointed on the basis of the election a year ago, and you’ll get new ministers now in this new government. I think they’ll begin to function as a government, as they have basically in the last year or so, maybe not as effectively as you’d like, but they have been functioning.

Now, a key issue in this most recent election was whether the Sunnis would participate, and obviously they did participate, but now the question is how much of a share of the government they should get. What’s your feeling about the type of government that will emerge?

Well, I think it will be a federal system. And there are two things that have to happen. First of all, they have to reach agreement on the new government, and the constitution, which basically reflects the one we helped them write two years ago [the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL)]. The constitution is structured in such a way that there’s a lot of balance of power. You’ve got a two-thirds vote to approve the presidential council and so forth. There’s a lot of checks and balances built in that are going to force compromises and hopefully will force the Shiites and Kurds to pay attention to the need to get the Sunnis into the government.

I think they will do that; many of the responsible Shiites and Kurds have said “we need a government of national unity.” Then there’s the question of addressing some of these issues, like federalism, and defining it somewhat more precisely in the constitution. The constitution provides for this new parliament to revise the constitution as it deems appropriate and then put it to the people again in another referendum, a revised constitution, later this year. That’s where the question about the federal issues will come up—how much power the provincial authorities really have vis-à-vis the central government and so forth. That is an issue for the Sunnis, but they’re only 20 percent or so of the population and they need to understand that they’re not running the country anymore. Democracy means majority rule. It also means—the Shiites need to understand this—respect for minority rights.

There’s a story in the papers this morning about this key Shiite figure, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who doesn’t seem to want to do much compromising on the constitution. Or do you think this is just political posturing?

I think it’s probably largely part of the pressure-politicking that’s going on now in the very difficult discussions that are going on behind the curtains about how to put together the government. I experienced it a number of times, where they make statements publicly and it becomes part of their negotiating strategy and then eventually, hopefully, they take a more moderate position. It would be a real problem if they did not put together a government of national unity.

There’s another story in the press today about the Iraqi insurgents talking about having fights with al-Qaeda. Do you put much credibility in that?

Oh yes. I think we’ve seen that alliance beginning to come apart. The Iraqis have a strong sense of their own country, whether they’re Sunnis, Shiites, or even Kurds. You have to remember—and this again goes back five thousand years, however long you want to go back to the Mesopotamian culture—they are a proud people, and they don’t like foreigners coming in and mucking about in their country. The Shiites I often found to be very unhappy with Iranian meddling in the South. So it doesn’t surprise me that there’s a split out there, particularly in western Iraq where these foreign terrorists are operating, and I think it’s an encouraging sign to see them killing each other. I prefer dead terrorists to live terrorists in every circumstance.

Well, you certainly had enough experience with terrorism. How many years have you been involved in dealing with terrorism?

Well, it’s more than twenty years, now.

Is that when you first took on that job at the State Department?

Twenty years ago now [I was appointed ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism under Ronald Reagan], but I actually was involved in some ways when I was ambassador to the Netherlands, because there I had twenty-four-hour protection from police against terrorism. So it’s been a long time.

Do you think the public here appreciates the threat enough? Some Democrats have been calling for an early withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The president has been very firm on staying the course, and in your last chapter you say an early withdrawal would be very dangerous.

I go at it form the perspective of somebody who has been involved in this for the better part of twenty years now, and I keep pointing out that we are facing a very new terrorist threat. I chaired, as you know, the National Commission on Terrorism, a bipartisan group that reported fifteen months before 9/11 that we faced a new terrorist group, a new terrorist threat—Islamic extremism—that wanted to kill us by the tens of thousands, and that we should expect mass casualty attacks on the American homeland, which unfortunately came true on 9/11.

I think it is a new world and actually, if you look at polls, a lot of Americans understand that we really do have a major threat. It is, of course, sad that American men and women are still dying over there. But it’s an essential part of this war on terrorism, and certainly, as I say in my book, in that last afterward, to stop now, to set a deadline, to set timetables, would really give the terrorists a big victory, and we mustn’t do that. Whatever you think about the war itself—you can be against having gone in, I happen to be very much in favor of having gone in—but we are where we are now and we’ve got to see this through.

Your book gives an early eyewitness account of how the president and his top associates operated in this crisis situation. The president is often accused of not paying attention, that [Vice President Dick] Cheney runs the government and that sort of thing, but you had a lot of one-on-ones with the president. What’s your impression of him as a leader?

I was impressed with the president as a leader. I think the sort of cartoon portrayal of him as not focused, not very smart, all the rest of this, is just simply wrong. I did not know him before the war, before I went over there. But I was always impressed. He was very much engaged both in the National Security Council meetings and in the private meetings I had with him in person or by telephone. He’s on top of the details, and he has got a clear vision. He reminds me a lot, in many ways, of Ronald Reagan, with his clear vision of where he wanted to go. And Reagan was of course condemned, particularly by the Europeans, as a grade-B actor and nothing else. Well that grade-B actor got rid of the Soviet Union, which is not insignificant.

Also in your book [former] Secretary [of State Colin] Powell comes out more important than most people figured in the Iraq discussions. He was a major supporter of yours, right? He supported you very strongly?

I think he and I agreed on a number of things. He certainly shared—and he’s spoken publicly about it since so it’s no secret—my concern that we not underestimate the need to have sufficient combat capability on the ground, whether that meant more troops or better-trained Iraqi forces, elements of the same thing. He was quite clear on that a number of times.

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