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Defense Expert Korb Says Top Military Officials in Iraq "Very Frustrated" Fighting Elusive Enemy

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Lawrence J. Korb, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
November 12, 2003

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Lawrence J. Korb, just returned from a Defense Department-sponsored visit to Iraq, says that the military situation in Iraq is “much more difficult than we have been led to believe.” He reports that there are sharp differences between the Coalition Provisional Authority chief L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer III and the Iraqi Governing Council on how to proceed toward a new constitution. And he warns against rushing a new Iraqi security force into action.

A senior adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, Korb is also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 12, 2003.


You’ve just come back from a Defense Department-sponsored visit to Iraq. What is your overall impression of the political and security situation?

Basically, that it is going to be much more difficult than we have been led to believe. We are making some progress but not nearly as much as we should be. We are going to have to admit how difficult the job is and get our act together before we can really do what we need to over there.

Jerry Bremer was at the White House today and later told reporters he would convey the ideas of the president and others to the Iraqi Governing Council on how to get the political process moving. What is the relationship between the Governing Council and Bremer as far as you can tell? Is it strained?

Yes. They each have different outlooks on what needs to be done. Bremer is trying to get the Iraqis to write a constitution that would give the appearance that the Americans were ceding some sovereignty to the Iraqis. The Iraqi Governing Council, on the other hand, wants to have an election first, before it writes the constitution. If you wait for that, you’re talking about at least another year before a constitution gets written. Bremer would like to get the constitution started by the end of 2003; the Iraqi Governing Council is talking about getting it done by the end of 2004.

Can Bremer expect much to be done in the next six weeks?

He basically wants them to get going and to submit a plan on how it is going to get done. There is a United Nations deadline for doing this by December 15. The Iraqis don’t want to do anything until they have elections.

They want an election for a constituent assembly that would then appoint a group to write a constitution? Then there would have to be another election to ratify all that?

That’s correct.

And the Iraqi Governing Council doesn’t want to have sovereignty until when?

The Council would like to have sovereignty now. But the members cannot agree on who should be in charge. They rotate the presidency now. They don’t want to write a constitution themselves because of the various different viewpoints. They’re afraid it would not have much legitimacy if it is not done by elected people.

There is, of course, some merit in that argument.

There is. The problem you face is that we are trying to do this too quickly. You cannot go in and completely change a society in a year. It just cannot be done. We should have known that before we went in. We didn’t think it would be this difficult. We thought we’d be greeted as liberators, and that the people would take charge of their own security and go ahead and begin the transition to democracy. They don’t have the security situation under control yet. So it is very hard to do very much of anything.

How much is this rush due to the presidential election next November?

There is no doubt in my mind that the political calendar is basically forcing a lot of the decisions. The president had been led to believe by his people that if he had the invasion, as he did, in the spring of 2003, within a year, we’d be down to about 30,000 troops there and there’d be a tremendous amount of progress. Obviously, that is not happening.

You’re a former senior Defense Department official. You’ve talked to the military through the years. How do you describe the attitude of senior military people in Iraq? Clearly they have been unable to stop the escalating violence which is getting headlines at home every day.

They basically are very frustrated. They have overwhelming firepower, but they are not dealing with the enemy they have been trained to deal with. They had no idea it was going to be this difficult, and they are also frustrated by the fact that they have a dual chain of command. They and Bremer are reporting to the secretary of defense and to the National Security Council. And many times, things that they want to do, Bremer doesn’t like; the tension between Bremer’s outfit and the military is palpable.

Do the differences include how much force to use in populated areas?

That’s one thing. The more force you use, the higher the risk that you will alienate the population. The less force you use, the more you put your troops in danger. The military guys are mainly concerned about their troops and their military mission. Bremer obviously has a different agenda. You don’t get the idea that either side is willing to give in, and you don’t get the sense that the White House has said, “You’re in charge and you make all the decisions” to Bremer, or [the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo] Sanchez, or [the head of U.S. Central Command, General John] Abizaid.

Clearly, there is an argument over how many soldiers are needed in Iraq. Of course, the army is limited in size, but if the commanders had their druthers, what would they want?

If they had their druthers, they’d get more troops and use them to guard the border and to protect the infrastructure better than they have. The problem they have is that the army is stretched pretty thin. It’s going to be hard for the army to put more boots on the ground without keeping reserves on active duty longer than they would like to, or putting people on back-to-back tours. You’ve got troops there, like the 82nd [Airborne] and 101st Airborne, that have already served in Afghanistan. Now they are in Iraq for a year. So you look at the last couple of years, they’ve been away from home for three out of four years.

Reservists are called up for at least a year?

What’s happened is that the reserves they have just called up are for 18 months. They’re going to take six months to prepare the enhanced or most efficient brigades of the National Guard from Arkansas, North Carolina, and the state of Washington. Then they will spend a year over there. The rule of thumb for the reserves is no more than a year every five or six years. You’ve got certain units that in the past several years have been called up three or four times already.

The likelihood is that people won’t be re-enlisting with great enthusiasm in the reserves and National Guard, I suppose?

I think so. The Pentagon keeps saying the numbers of re-enlistments look good. But that’s because there is a [so-called] stop-loss provision in [the regulations] which means you cannot get out until you get home, regardless of when your enlistment expires and, therefore, soldiers now in Iraq haven’t yet had a chance to decline to re-enlist in the reserves. This is routine in any war. And the war is not over.

Does the U.S. Army have a built-in counterinsurgency force?

There was a Peacekeeping Institute at the Army War College that the Bush administration actually closed, and then, when [the decision was publicized], it had to reconsider that decision. This administration came in, criticizing the Clinton administration for getting involved in what the Bush administration called “social work.” One of the phrases administration officials used to use is, “We don’t do windows.” The idea was we’d go in and do the fighting, and leave it to the Europeans and other people to do the peacekeeping. It is sort of saying, “We’ll do the cooking, and you do the dishes.” Well, we’re having to do the dishes now, and we’re not as prepared for that as we would like to be, either by training or by disposition.

What are the Special Forces doing?

Special Forces basically are out looking for Saddam Hussein, as best as I can see, and also trying to get some intelligence. You don’t see Special Forces out on patrol as you see the other divisions.

Is it, as people say, better in the south, better in the north, and tough in the center?

It is better, but they would like you to come away with the impression that 80 percent of the country is great and that just the so-called Sunni Triangle is bad. That’s not true. Bremer tried to tell us 90 percent of the problem is in the Sunni Triangle. But having done my research, it seems to me about 60 percent. For example, you see the situation where the Italian policemen were killed [on November 12 when a car bomb exploded at their base in Nasiriya]. They were in the supposedly “safe” area. You had trouble in Mosul [in the north] last week. That’s the Kurdish area that is supposed to be safe. While we were there, a Polish officer was killed in the supposedly safe Shiite area. It’s better in those areas, but not completely under control.

Did you have a chance to walk the streets in Baghdad?

No. They wouldn’t let us do that. I guess they worried about our security. It was interesting. You couldn’t walk anyplace. When we flew into Baghdad the first day, we landed at the airport and were going over to the palace where Bremer has his headquarters. They put us on an Apache helicopter from Baghdad International Airport and flew us to within 100 yards of Bremer’s headquarters, and made us get on a bus. Even when we were in safe areas and were driving to see a Shiite cleric, they made us wear flak jackets, and they had Humvees and armored personnel carriers escorting us with guns pointed at the population. This is in the so-called safe Shiite area.

Where did you sleep?

We went to Kuwait every night for security reasons. We were on the road at 7 a.m. and did not get back until at least 11 p.m. We would go to the Kuwaiti airport— we have 20,000 troops in Kuwait— and get on a C-130 to fly to Iraq. We would then get on a Black Hawk helicopter that would take us where we were going. Then we would get into an armed convoy to get us where we were due.

What about morale? I realize this is subjective, depending on to whom you last spoke.

I would say this: it is not as good as the top guys tell you. And it is not as bad as the troops say. But I would say, it is probably closer to the troops’ feeling. If you press the troops, they’ll be honest with you. There was one National Guardsman, who has been in the guard for 18 years. He said, “We’ll be here 10 years.” The troops will tell you, “Well, our Iraqi interpreter is afraid to tell his family he is working for us because of what might happen.” When we were eating in the mess hall in the Baghdad area, the troops brought their rifles into the mess hall.

In summation, if Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called you and said, “All right Larry, what should we do?” what would you tell him?

I’d say: “You have two choices. You can internationalize this, and spread the burden around. If you’re not going to internationalize it, you need to be prepared to be there a long time and to take it one step at a time. When the Iraqis are ready, let them take over their security. But if they’re not ready and you put them in there, you will have the worst of all possible worlds.”

Did you see the training of the new Iraqi security forces?

The United States disbanded the old Iraqi force and is basically now taking kids off the street. I saw one of the groups that will be the Iraqi Civil Defense Force, which is like our National Guard. These are very earnest guys, but they were new to this, and you don’t have any NCOs [noncommissioned officers] or leadership to take command.

There are lots of acts of terrorism, and the administration calls this a war against terrorism. The other side would call it a guerrilla war. How would you describe it?

It is an insurgency. If somebody takes a surface-to-air missile and shoots down a helicopter, I don’t call that a terrorist act. You are not at war with terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic that is used. You are basically at war with people who have one common interest, and that is to get rid of us. They have different backgrounds. You have some of the old Baathists; you have some Sunnis who don’t want to live in a country controlled by Shiites; you have a lot of criminals who Saddam let out of jail; and you have people coming from other countries for the jihad. The military calls this asymmetric. They’re taking advantage of our weaknesses, and they are not playing to our strengths.

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