Council on Foreign Relations
JANE ARRAF: Welcome to today’s meeting. Thanks, everybody. Thank you. Good afternoon and welcome to today’s meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. Before we start, if I could ask you all to turn off your cell phones, BlackBerrys and all wireless devices. We also wanted to welcome our national members who are joining us by teleconference from across the country.
I’m Jane Arraf. I’m the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow here at the council, on leave from CNN in Baghdad. And we are incredibly lucky today to have three people who have very interesting thoughts on Iraq. But not only that, they’re actually our newest fellows. We have Stephen Biddle, senior fellow on defense policy; Noah Feldman, adjunct senior fellow and professor of law at New York University—Noah is going to be changing his name to Stephen—and Steven Simon, who is the senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies.
Right, this is definitely an interesting time, almost three full years into the war on Iraq. And if you look at the news, it’s being described as Iraq’s worst week, which, for those of us who have lived that story, is saying quite a lot. (Scattered laughter.) My question to all three of you: is this a turning point either in Iraq or here in the U.S.?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: Well, I mean, there’s a tendency in the debate to see it as a turning point, in part because so many people view the prospect of a civil war in the future as the worst-case disaster that’s to be avoided at all costs and, by assumption, that what’s going on there now is not. Today is something else, tomorrow could be a civil war, civil war could be a disaster.
And I think, in an important sense, we are already in a civil war in Iraq, and we’ve been in a civil war in Iraq for a very long time; that the underlying dynamics of the conflict are an intercommunal conflict between Sunnis and, at the moment, a Shi’ite-Kurd alliance that poses very different strategic problems for the United States than the kind of Vietnam-style, Maoist people’s-war insurgency that most Americans kind of, I think, reflexively assume when they think about guerrilla wars, guerrilla tactics, insurgencies. What we’ve been seeing for a long time in Iraq, I think, is a civil war being fought with guerrilla tactics.
ARRAF: So what’s different this week?
BIDDLE: Well, I think it’s an acceleration of what we’ve seen before rather than a fundamental break. I mean, the level of violence in this essentially civil conflict could be higher or lower. It’s been ramping up for quite some time; it ramped up quite a bit this last week. But what has not changed is the nature of the conflict, the combatants, what the combatants are fighting over, the stakes. All of these things—none of these things have changed. What’s changed is the intensity of the fighting taking place over those stakes between those combatants.
ARRAF: Noah, what are your thoughts? Particularly, is this a turning point in terms of the U.S. perception that could affect policy in Iraq?
Did I mention this is on the record? This meeting is on the record.
NOAH R. FELDMAN: Well, first a word about the turning point question, or the tipping point question, within Iraq itself. One thing that differed this week from previous weeks is that the radical insurgents, the jihadi part of the insurgency, finally found a strategy that would have the effect of driving large numbers of Shi’a into the streets to kill innocent Sunni civilians. They had not yet figured out what was the best way to do that. They had tried just killing lots of Shi’a civilians, and each time they had done that, Ayatollah Sistani had stepped up and said, this is terrible, we’re suffering, but we should not give in to the temptation to retaliate.
This time, by blowing up a building—which is counterintuitive because you might think that if you can kill civilians, what would be the big deal about blowing deal about blowing up a building—they actually generated the kind of strong counter-reaction from Shi’a, which included the killing, somewhat indiscriminately, of Sunni civilians. And—and this is the most important point—Ayatollah Sistani did not make his first public statement take the form of “hold back.” Instead, he said, if the government can’t protect us, then the militias may have to do it, which was—well, I mean, everything he says is carefully considered, and that was a change from his earlier positions.
So to the extent that we may have a technique here that’s capable of drawing Shi’a into a more overt civil war—and for me, a civil war is when each side is killing civilians from the other side—they may have found a technique that will drive things past this tipping point. If that indeed does happen—and I think we’re, you know, if more of this week—you know, if each day this week continues like the day before, it will have happened, I think—then that will be a major turning point, in my view, in U.S. perceptions because I don’t think, in the long run, that the U.S. can sustain its involvement supporting the government if the government is implicated, through its personnel, in regular, systematic massacres. I just don’t think in the long run that’s going to be a sustainable thing from the American perspective, and I think that the jihadis know this, and that’s why their goal is to bring about kind of systematic atrocities on both sides.
ARRAF: Steven Simon, you’ve written a lot about the threat of jihadists, the threat of Iraq as a breeding ground. Are you any more worried this week than you were a couple of weeks ago?
STEVEN SIMON: Well, I’m in my usual state of suppressed panic over what’s happening in Iraq. (Laughter.) I’m struck by how hard the Sunni insurgents have had to work to get this kind of reaction, and in that I’m very sympathetic to Noah’s analysis. Zarqawi—you know, the butcher of Anbar or whatever you want to call him—has been working hard, using extremely inflammatory language to stigmatize the Shi’a and incite violence against them. And for the past two years, as this violence has mounted, the Shi’a, with the exception of the activities of the Mahdi Army, for the most part—that is, the fighters who align themselves with Sheikh Muqtada al-Sadr—have—by and large, the Shi’ites, without exception, have responded with great restraint.
Now, the breaking point of Shi’a tolerance for this, or Shi’a patience, has not yet been reached, in my view. But the comments that the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, not long ago, to the effect that, you know, if the Americans didn’t get a grip on Sunni violence, then the Shi’a would take the gloves off, I think was—what can I say?—it was a harbinger of a weakening resolve on the part of the Shi’a to wait for a resolution to this problem.
ARRAF: Stephen, I’m going to ask you about what you’re proposing for Iraq. As a professor of military studies, you’ve obviously thought a lot about this, and your solution would be to actually slow the expansion of Iraqi forces and the police. Why would that work? It seems completely counterintuitive.
BIDDLE: Well, I think it seems especially counterintuitive in an environment where most of us reflexively think the way to success in Iraq today is to re-fight the Vietnam War the right way this time. For Americans, insurgency tends to mean Vietnam. Vietnam was a Maoist people’s war in which turning the fighting over to the locals arguably made a lot of sense. It didn’t work the last time around, and one could argue about why it didn’t work, but in principle, it’s a sensible course of action.
The difficulty in that approach in a conflict that’s not a Maoist people’s war and, instead, is an intercommunal civil war, is that it ends up throwing gasoline on the fire of the underlying problems giving rise to the conflict. The underlying problem giving rise to the conflict in Iraq right now is an intercommunal security dilemma in which each of the parties is desperately worried that if the others got control of the government, there could be mass violence and oppression of them by the others. In that environment, when we equip, train and expand what we see as a national military, but with a force which the Sunnis view as a Shi’ite-Kurd militia on steroids, what we end up doing is making them even more frightened for their security in a future Iraq, which makes them prone to fight back harder rather than less so.
So what kind of conflict you think you’re engaged in in Iraq has very profound implications for what sort of strategies make sense. And I think if we look at Iraq incorrectly as an echo of Vietnam, it leads us down a trail toward strategies that seem quite intuitive in a context where we think what we’re doing is re-fighting Vietnam, but in fact are very ill-suited for the war that we actually are in, which is a very different struggle with very different dynamics.
ARRAF: So how do you restrain the expansion of Iraqi forces and not put in more U.S. troops?
BIDDLE: If we had more U.S. troops to put in, I think that would be a fine thing to do. I think, under the circumstances, our option set that’s actually open to us amounts to retain our current strength in Iraq for longer than we would like or withdraw them on a more aggressive schedule.
I think, given that rather limited option set, the option that makes the most sense, given the nature of the underlying conflict, is our troops are going to have to stay for longer than we would like; we need to slow down the process of building up the Iraqi military in the meantime because the way out of this conflict, the ultimate solution to the real problem in Iraq, is a constitutional power-sharing deal; and if we build the Iraqi military up too fast and it becomes highly capable before we get the constitutional deal to allot power among the parties, that military instrument undermines our prospects for getting the constitutional deal. Because the Sunnis believe that a constitutional deal with a national military that constitutes essentially a massive militia in the hands of their ethnic rivals, ethnic and sectarian rivals, means that a deal involves giving up their weapons in exchange for a paper guarantee backed up with a tool of violence that’s exclusively in the hands of their enemies. And I think it’s unlikely that they’re going to consider that to be a good deal. I think it’s important that we get a strong Iraqi military, but it has to come after the constitutional deal, not before it, or it undermines our prospects of getting the deal in the first place.
ARRAF: What do you two think of this? Steven Simon, do you think that if you slow the expansion of Iraqi forces, you would be able to deal with the threats that we’re seeing now in Iraq?
SIMON: Well, to the extent that slowing the expansion of Iraqi forces means curtailing the rapid and significant growth of militias that are going to provide the muscle to sectarian conflict, I think, you know, you’re better off doing that. I guess I would have to agree with Steve—that is, Steve Biddle.
Nevertheless, I don’t see that as being viable for some of the reasons that have been discussed, namely that the United States is, as it were, out of Schlitz. We don’t have the forces to contribute to make up for what would be a slower growth to Iraqis in uniform. Let’s put it that way. And in the absence of that option, it’s hard to see, you know, the alternative of — it’s hard to see the feasibility of this alternative.
ARRAF: We obviously can’t separate the political aspect of it. Noah, you have sort of a place in Iraqi history; you helped draft the interim law which led, of course, to the constitution. Do you see, with what’s happened lately, any prospect that the Sunnis are going to be brought in? And will the constitution actually become a workable document at any time?
FELDMAN: Yes to the first, and probably not to the second.
The Sunnis are already drawn into the political process, and the fact that they came right back into the political process, even after the massacres this past week, suggests that those of them who are doing politics—and that’s obviously only part of the story—realize that they need to get this constitutional deal that Steve Biddle was talking about in order to go forward, and they want their piece of the pie. They realize not that elections are a good thing—they don’t particularly care for them; they’re a minority—but that they’re part of how you allocate power in the state. So they therefore want to be part of that process of power allocation.
I don’t think it follows from that, though, that the constitution is likely to become the effective document under which occurs. The constitutional deal will be memorialized in a series of informal agreements that will sort of cluster around the constitution, like a series of—I don’t know—particularly unattractive suburbs around an urban area. (Laughter.) They’ll be where a lot of the action—where the (allied ?) people will refer back to the document as though it told them something, but in fact it’ll be a series of kind of de facto agreements, very ad hoc, between the constitutional actors. And that’s in the best-case scenario, where we don’t get a full-on civil war; we get the kind of constitutional deal that Steve Biddle is talking about.
The good news is that that’s how most constitutions actually work. It’s not actually the written constitution that does the work, I would argue, in any constitutional scheme. It’s the de facto political agreements among the political elites that actually drive an effective system of government.
ARRAF: You’ve written a lot over the years about the compatibility of Islam with democracy. Is there anything in Iraq in the past while that has either affirmed or negated your view on that?
FELDMAN: There is. I think that the fact that the political parties that are most relevant in Iraqi political life, whether it’s the Association of Muslim Scholars and their political parties that are associated with them on the Sunni side or Ayatollah Sistani and the various Shi’a political parties on the other side, strongly indicates that there’s no reason that parties that are identified as Islamic parties can’t be effective in the—at least in the marshalling of votes on democratic grounds. And the official position of all of these parties, right up to and including Muqtada al-Sadr—who began by saying, way back when in 2003, that democracy and Islam were fundamentally incompatible—their official position now is that, why are we even talking about this? Of course democracy and Islam are compatible. Let’s just get on with the business.
Now, the vision of democracy they have in mind is largely a majoritarian vision—at least in the Shi’a side. That’s not so surprising. They have a majority; of course they want a majoritarian conception of democracy. The Sunnis, though, are starting to talk about, in democratic government how you have to place limits on what the government can do because they’re a minority.
So this suggests again the tremendous malleability of Islamic thought on this question. And I think that is not Iraq’s big problem. I mean, if you had said in 2003, Iraq’s biggest problem several years from now is going to have nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with a security vacuum producing an incipient civil war, I think a lot of people would have said, that’s crazy, you’ve got it exactly backwards. But in fact, it turns out that Islam has not been a serious impediment. In fact, it’s been a plus. It’s the security situation that’s the major problem.
ARRAF: You raise one of the central questions in the title of your book, “What we Owe Iraq.” What do we owe Iraq? Do we owe Iraq keeping the troops there if it becomes futile? Do we owe Iraq trying to prop up what seems to be spiraling—a situation where the political system is spiraling downwards, potential civil war?
FELDMAN: Well, I think I would say straightforwardly that what we owe Iraq is to not leave the Iraqis worse off than we found them. And that means that as long as it is possible for us to effectively control what’s becoming a serious, spiral out-of-control civil war, we need to—acting in their interest, not only in our own, although I think it’s also in our own interests—act in such a way as to stop that from happening and sort of broker this constitutional deal, and then remain to make sure the constitutional bill is actually enforced.
The trouble here, of course, is that we may not have enough troops to do it. And when it comes to that question, that’s where you get a real divergence between the ethical impulse, to me, that says you can’t leave people worse off than you found them, and the practical impulse that says, well, okay, but how many—you know, where are you going to get the troops to do it? And that I think is going to be clearer and clearer as a direct conflict going forward if the politics don’t manage to hold in the civil war.
ARRAF: Three years ago today, the Turkish Parliament voted against allowing U.S. troops. I was in Ankara watching them take that vote. And I have to say, everything since then, the three years I spent after that in Iraq, essentially, has been a surprise to me.
What has surprised you all the most about how this has unfolded? Steven Simon.
SIMON: I have to revert to what I said at the outset of the discussion. What surprises me most is how durable Shi’a restraint, self-restraint, has been in the face of mounting violence. And I think, you know, to some extent one can explain this restraint on the basis of a probable Shi’a belief that they were on the winning side, they had the U.S. in their corner, it was only a matter of time before they could consolidate their hegemony over an Iraqi state, so why push back when pushing back might jeopardize that goal or perhaps push it off a little farther into the future?
But whatever the explanation, this self-restraint has been remarkably durable. And the alacrity with which the parties came back to the table, which Noah pointed out a moment ago, I think bodes well, at least for the near term.
ARRAF: Steven Biddle.
BIDDLE: Well, I think I’d have to say on the basis of a lot of hard reflection over the period that I foresaw absolutely everything exactly the way it—(laughter). The only thing that surprises me is that I wasn’t right sooner, I guess. (Laughter.)
No, I mean, certainly I agree with Steve, which I try and make it a practice to do. The Shi’ites’ ability to contain escalationary pressures has been very impressive and certainly not something I would have anticipated. I’ll take the obnoxious speaker’s prerogative and spin the question just a little bit differently to make an argument that I think I is interesting that sort of vaguely answers the question you asked.
ARRAF: Please. It’s a television trick, too.
BIDDLE: So I’m told.
One of the things I find most paradoxical, I guess, about the situation, is that the Sunnis and ourselves are natural allies given the strategic reality of this country. I mean, in theory, if you were to just look at this as a strategist from Mars parachuting into the situation and just asking, what are the natural strategic alignments here, we stand between the Sunnis and a tremendous numerical disparity that they face against their ethnic and sectarian rivals in the country.
I mean, in principle, one might suppose, as the strategist from Mars, that the Sunnis would see us as an ally to be cultivated instead of turning on us, I mean, as the tool of a Shi’ite-Kurdish regime that they mistrust. And the Shi’ites would then have, of course, the reverse view. And obviously, it hasn’t worked out that way, and the particular historical and cultural factors that combined to create a result that surprises the strategist from Mars, I find interestingly paradoxical.
ARRAF: Noah, you have the last word before we take questions.
FELDMAN: Well, let me take off from the strategist from Mars. I think what I would say to the strategist from Mars—and this goes to my surprise—is the reason is democracy. We may have a natural strategic alliance with the Sunnis, but we said we came for democratic purposes. And when Ayatollah Sistani said, “Well, if you came for democracy, I know that involved elections somewhere, I read that in a book,” instead of saying, “Tough, we didn’t really mean it,” which is what the strategist from Mars would assume—I take it your Martian was a realist—would have done, instead we said, “Oh, good point. So sorry. Let’s hold elections right away, even though all of our planning suggests that quick elections are going to lead to bad results.”
Right? So my surprise grows out of that. I assumed—and this just shows you how naive I was when this all started—I assumed that the United States government could not afford a steady decline in security in Iraq to the point of civil war because it would drive the price of oil high, which would make the president terribly unpopular and would potentially destabilize the region in ways that were harmful to our our historic allies in the region. And I assumed that when push came to shove, we would never let that happen, no matter how strong the countervailing interest in democracy might be. And that was—I would call it the naivete of realism.
And it just was wrong, right? I mean, the administration has consistently let things get further and further and further out of hand, even though it was clear early on that more troops were needed to get control of the situation to stop this from happening. And then, when maybe it would have been possible—at least in a forward-looking way—to generate more troops, we just didn’t do it. And then when democracy seemed in some sense to be at odds with the process of bringing about democracy in the long run, we just gave in to the short-runism.
So the fact that this democracy ideal does all this work in these ways is—to me it’s really surprising.
ARRAF: I know there’s a lot here. We haven’t talked about the regional impact of all of this, Donald Rumsfeld’s comments here two weeks ago. But there are a lot of people in this audience who know a lot about Iraq and can ask these questions much more succinctly than I could.
So we’re going to take questions now. If I could just remind you, there will be wonderful people around with a microphone. If you could please wait for the microphone and if you could remind us of your name and affiliation when you’re asking the question. And there are a lot of amazingly knowledgeable people here. So if you could confine it to one concise question or comment, that would be great.
And shall we start at the back—way back. The gentleman on the right.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Zachary Karabell, Fred Alger.
I’m wondering to what degree there’s an over-generalization about Iraq, surely in terms of the Sunni Triangle in the center, and to what degree. When we talk about Iraq, Kurdistan on the one hand and Basra on the other, while maybe not representing the models that we would like for a democratic polity, are still in a very different situation.
If the panelists could talk about that and whether or not we should reconsider the way we talk about Iraq as a polity, on the one hand, and maybe confine it more to the Sunni Triangle rather than the generalization of the entire country. Or perhaps that’s a generalization you’d reject.
ARRAF: If we could have one of you answer that, that would be great. Who wants to take that one?
SIMON: Everyone is looking at me.
Well, first, in terms of violence, there’s violence across the country, although it tends to be most intense in the triangle of death. The “Bermuda Triangle” of Iraq. But the violence is rising as well in Basra. I mean, you mentioned that southern town. The British are having quite a difficult time there now.
So I think to think of — it’s well to think of Iraq as a country where the central government, to the extent we can talk about it, doesn’t have really solid control and there are a number of locations that are essentially ungoverned—that is, ungoverned centrally, although there are local forms of order that have arisen in these places. I don’t know if that answers your question.
ARRAF: Steven Biddle wanted to weigh-in.
BIDDLE: I think the need to disaggregate within Iraq is central to the whole issue. I mean, if you see this as an intercommunal civil war, it matters what regions and what sects and ethnicities you’re talking about.
And the fact that the violence is concentrated heavily in the Sunni Triangle—the Sunni heartland of Iraq—and that the south and the north are in a very different circumstance, speaks to the importance of the sectarian-ethnic divide driving the conflict in the first place. I mean, there’s a certain tendency for people to see Iraq as nationalist resistence against American or other foreign occupation, for example; and yet, nationalists who resent foreign occupation don’t shoot the foreign occupiers, by and large, except in the provinces that make up the Sunni heartland.
I think in order—one of the biggest problems, in fact, with the way the government has talked about the country so far and the way it releases statistics, for example, and polling as to Iraqi attitudes, is that they don’t disaggregate regionally, typically. You see a national-level poll on how many Iraqis think the future is positive as opposed to negative, or national level figures on how many Iraqis think the Americans should leave now or should stay.
If you disaggregate that into Shi’a, Kurd and Sunni, you get a very different picture and starkly different figures for the respective groups. And I think central to understanding the conflict and coming up with the right strategy is precisely that kind of disaggregation.
ARRAF: We’re lucky enough to have Iraq’s permanent representative to the U.N. here, Ambassador Samir Sumaidaie.
Ambassador Sumaidaie, did you have a question?
MR. SUMAIDAIE: Thank you, Jane.
Thank you very much. I didn’t intend to speak. I came here to learn.
ARRAF: That would be a waste. (Laughter.)
MR. SUMAIDAIE: Thank you.
In any discussion such as this, although it’s full of insights and really stimulating analysis, it remains removed from the realities and the complexities of the situation in Iraq. Unfortunately, this meeting is on the record, so I’m not going to be able to enlarge on some of the thoughts. But some—
ARRAF: Can you just give us a hint? Are you talking about political complexity?
MR. SUMAIDAIE: Let me just pick up a couple of points which were made here very well. One is that we are surprised by the patience exhibited by the Shi’a communities and the lack of retaliation.
Well, Iraq has a long history of Sunni-Shi’a—of multiethnic and multi-sectarian existence and there is no incident in the long history of Iraq of any sectarian war. No sectarian war. There were wars between the Ottomans and the Persians over Iraq and they had—and each had its own supporters, but no sectarian war per se.
And I think Iraq has exhibited—not only the Shi’ites, but Iraqi society as a whole has exhibited a unified abhorrence of this potential outcome. The extremists on each sides are, of course, pushing and provoking or trying to provoke one. But what we should acknowledge is that the Iraqi population as a whole—not only reflected in the Shi’a reaction, but in the recent return to the table of the Sunni political leaders, which shows that they are just as aware of the dangers. So that’s one point I’d like to pick up on.
The other point is particularly interesting, is the theoretical and in this case possibly practical possibility of more haste, less speed. Pushing democracy down the throats of people who are not quite ready for it, getting results which are perhaps counterproductive. There is something there to be thought about. A democracy is not only elections. It’s building of institutions, awareness, practices. It’s a culture. And the culture has to be developed over a reasonable period of time.
More than half of the population of Iraq were born and raised during the period of Saddam’s rule. They have known nothing other than absolute dictatorship. And to expect this population to suddenly acquire all the habits and trappings of democracy and have the institutions in place so that they can practice democracy and rule of law as naturally as they would in New Jersey is rather a tall order.
So there is another thought here to be considered, the question of how many troops. This game of numbers, whether it is on the American side or on the Iraqi side, masks, I’m afraid, a lack of understanding of what the troops do. Troops do not keep the peace, especially when they are equipped to fight pitched battles between armies, not to be in the community helping to uphold the law. For that you need a police force.
On the Iraqi side, the question was highlighted. And as you know, I was briefly minister of Interior during 2004, and the dilemma was how to recruit police who are then not becoming targets in the areas where insurgents are strong, targets to the terrorists.
It’s a complex situation and I very much appreciate the thoughts that are expressed here, but perhaps we need more time, we need more patience and we need deeper understanding of the dynamics of this problem. One of the biggest dynamics here is regional influences. In Iraq, as there was in Lebanon during its civil war, there is a possibility of war by proxy.
There are regional players who have a direct interest in making this project fail. They will pay lip service to the security of Iraq. They will make all the necessary statements to assure the international community that they are good boys, but in fact, they are—and they can and they are, in my opinion—playing the dangerous game of supporting elements in Iraq who are not at all constructive. On the contrary, they are fueling violence and — I’m sorry I’ve taken a long time.
ARRAF: No, thank you very much. Those are very interesting comments. Does anyone want to comment on any of those points? (Applause.) Don’t all speak at once, guys. (Laughs.)
SIMON (?): Well, I mean, I—first of all, I very much appreciate the ambassador’s contribution. I think it is extremely helpful. And just to play out one aspect of this question, which is the speed of democracy, speed of institution-building question, which has been a theme that we’ve been discussing, I think the one way to reconcile the ambassador’s comments perhaps with Steve Biddle’s thought is that building capacity in the police with a goal of facilitating basic day-to-day control in law and order might involve not giving them so many more guns, so much more material, so much more capacity to control the battlespace, to use the phrase that Steve was using earlier, that it might not create quite the same destabilizing effect on the constitutional process that might arguably be created by ramping up the military in a broader—in a broader sense.
The difficulty is this, and I think this is a core problem — it’s also very hard to get a constitutional deal settled when the sides don’t know how much power each has. And part of the reason they don’t know how much power each has is it’s not only determined by elections. It’s also determined by facts on the ground and by the use of force. So without an entity, whether it’s the United States military or a local police force, that can get people to freeze where they are in terms of violence and then turn their debate into who has got the most political power using ordinary measures of political judgment, it’s very hard to negotiate a deal because it’s very unstable. It’s hard for me to cut a deal if I don't know how much power you actually have.
ARRAF: Mm-hmm. Great.
More questions? Here at the front? Chris.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Chris Isham with ABC News. A question for the panel about counterinsurgency.
There’s been a bit of a development over the past year, and particularly a shift in focus on the part of the U.S. Army and the U.S. military in Iraq, from the kind of search-and-destroy missions that we saw early on into what they call clear-and-hold operations, where they actually try to go in and hold territory such as in Tall Afar. But it’s been unclear how successful that is. Obviously it’s varied, but particularly in the Sunni Triangle, I’d be interested in the evaluations of the panelists on where they think—how they think that is working.
ARRAF: Who wants to take that one?
BIDDLE: Well, let me—I guess I’ll start, anyway.
First of all, I think it’s important to distinguish between tactics and strategy. I mean, at the tactical level of war—for example, the conduct of the action in Tall Afar—I think the U.S. Army has been substantially more adaptive than people give it credit for. I mean, we clearly had not put a great deal of emphasis on counterinsurgency in the generations before 2003, so the Army that found itself dealing with this collection of problems after the statute of Saddam came down was not well adapted for it.
I think in terms of the troops learning how to wage this sort of conflict as opposed to major combat, destroying major mechanized formations in the open, they have had to learn the hard way. But they have been learning, and there’s been a fair amount of progress and adaptation. And again, the methods at Tall Afar I think are suggestive of that.
Now it’s a large institution, and across a large institution it’s difficult to get a uniformity of behavior, so there will be some battalions that are much more adept at this than others, for example. But I think across the Army as a whole, there’s been more adaptation than is often recognized.
What troubles me is that although at the tactical level I think we’re becoming more adept at the kind—at the skill set associated with guerrilla tactics, we run the risk of making incorrect strategic decisions about how to use these tactical implements. And in particular with respect to the idea of seize and hold as opposed to raids where we then turn the territory back over to the insurgents when we leave, I think the Army has become adept at doing that. The challenge is we don’t have the troop strength to do it over very much of Iraq. So most of those who believe that this is central to success in the country are forced to the conclusion that the troops needed to do the hold part of seize and hold are going to have to be Iraqi. And that’s one of the several drivers in the Iraqification policy and in the attempt to train and equip a large Iraqi military, is that that will provide us with the strategic-level wherewithal to fight the war tactically in this manner through a much larger stretch of the country.
And again, I think that runs the difficulty of making bad strategic choices in order to do tactics more proficiently in particular places because I think the development of an Iraqi military in the near term that can do the hold part of seize and hold over much of the country is going to fuel the underlying insurgency.
So I think we’ve gotten substantially better at the tactics, and I worry that in some ways it may even be counterproductive because it’s yet another incentive to make bad strategic choices with respect to the wherewithal to do the tactics right across the whole country is going to come from.
ARRAF: Steven Simon wants to say something.
SIMON: I just wanted to embroider on some of these themes.
In past successful U.S.-led interventions, the ratio of troops to population has been on the order of 20 to one. We are nowhere near that in Iraq. Just as a gloss on that statistic, a senior U.S. military officer was quoted the other day as answering the question what he would do with twice as many troops in country. And his answer was, hold Baghdad—(laughter)—leaving open what it would take to deal with the rest of the country.
The third thing I would add is that as we develop our tactics, the adversary develops his. There is a very popular theoretician now on the other side named Abu Bakaranaji (ph), who has written about the way in which insurgencies, particularly the one in Iraq, should not actually aim at holding ground, but should lure the adversary, in this case the United States and its Iraqi allies, into holding ground, and as soon as the enemy, the United States, has committed resources and forces to holding ground, then moving away and causing a problem somewhere else, thereby ultimately stretching the adversary, in this case the United States, to the breaking point. So we are in a dynamic feedback loop with an enemy that is very clever and adaptive.
ARRAF: You know, we talk a lot about what to do about Iraq, and just thinking of something the ambassador said, it occurs to me, do we really understand that country? What is there, if anything, that we still don’t know that we should? Anybody?
FELDMAN (?): Well, part of the problem, I think, is that to understand a country implies to understand it a particular point in time. And we didn’t have a clear understanding of the social dynamics just under the surface of Saddam’s regime, but those social dynamics are fundamentally transformed now, three years later. Political power has shifted. There are a new class of people who are involved in politics who weren’t before. Social norms, right down to what you wear, has changed. Identity and affiliation, which traditionally in Iraq tended to be quite fluid and was open to being quite cosmopolitan in large parts of the country, is gradually hardening, partly because of the difficulty of different ethnicities being at each other’s throats. So part of it is not just that, well, we don’t know. It’s that nobody knows including Iraqis, including Iraqi political figures who are trying to experiment by trying out new forms of argument, new rhetorics, new techniques and seeing whether they work or not.
Let me just give you one example. When Muqtada al-Sadr, who is not someone who I entertain some great personal loyalty towards or love for, said publicly that the United States should be blamed for the attack on the al-Askariya shrine, our natural instinct is to say, oh, there goes Sadr again, you know, saying something against our interests. But on closer inspection, that was actually a good statement for us because it was his way of saying that the Shi’a should not blame the Sunnis for it. I mean, that’s a — that’s a function of something that I think is non-obvious; it’s an experimental move he’s making. He’s always attacking the United States anyway, so it sort of fits in kind of naturally in that respect. But it was an oblique call for a kind of restraint, even as plenty of the Mahdi Army was going around and engaging in these practical—you know, in these attacks. I think it’s possible to pursue multiple strategic strands at once, and he was doing it in that case. But it’s a trial balloon. It’s a trial balloon from him, and it was unclear how it was going to be taken. I think it’s still unclear.
ARRAF: Can we have some questions in the back before we come back here. In the middle there.
QUESTIONER: Bill Luers, United Nations Association. Can you hear me?
Let me go to the ambassador’s comment about the regional intentions. You mentioned it, Jane, in your final remarks. You hadn’t touched on it yet. I’d like you to touch on it.
I assume that the Saudis have a deep stake in what’s happening with regard to the Sunnis. Most of the Sunni countries in the neighborhood are worried about Iraq being an extension of Iran. Whether rightly or wrongly, that’s what their worries are, that the Shi’a will grow enormously. And Turkey has a big stake.
Nothing has really been done effectively to try to find, how do you turn the nefarious purpose that each of these countries have in a war that is our war into something in which they see civil war, as we saw last week, actually having a profound effect negatively on their own security? And I’d like your thoughts on whether this is something that might be undertaken, and by whom.
ARRAF: Steve Simon, you want to tackle that one?
SIMON: Well, I think all of Iraq’s neighbors have a strong stake in the stability of that country, and in pursuit of their aims, they may meddle. And we know that the Iraqis—that the Iranians are certainly meddling.
I took some issue, I have to say, with the ambassador’s comments because I think he overstated the meddlesome and middlesome role of Iraq’s neighbors at the moment, although the temptations of more aggressive intervention on the part of those neighbors might increase over time, especially if conditions deteriorated quite substantially.
We do know, as Bill Luers pointed out, that the Saudis and others are concerned about the marginalization of the Sunni population of Iraq and the assertion of Shi’a prerogatives, and even predominance in that country. That is a source of concern.
But for my money, the best way to get round these issues is for political accommodation within that country, and that’s going to be up to the Iraqis themselves, and won’t be determined, it seems to me, by Iraq’s neighbors.
ARRAF: Nancy (Bearg ?) from the council, and then we’ll go across.
QUESTIONER: Nancy (Bearg ?), Council on Foreign Relations. I’d like to ask the panel specifically how you think that the U.S. can encourage a national unity government in Iraq.
Steven Biddle, in your Foreign Affairs article, you spoke about possibly threatening to withdraw our support if there wasn’t more unity in Iraq. But is that really a viable option when it is the stated interest of our administration to stay the course in Iraq? And exactly how would that work? And also there seems to have been some backlash with Ambassador Khalilzad’s latest efforts to try to encourage unity from Prime Minister Ja’afari.
BIDDLE: On this question of leverage, the problem we face is that the risks and the stakes to each of the communal parties are very, very high. If they compromise and the compromise goes sour a year or two years or three years out because of an election result they didn’t anticipate, the consequences could be really profoundly grave for them. So in order for parties that see compromise as being this risky and this freighted to reach a compromise, and for the United States to have a role in that, we have to find a source of leverage that has some real power associated with it. And the difficulty we’ve got at the moment is promises of economic aid, for example, just pale in significance to the potential stakes of a compromise in which they get taken by their rivals, and hence we have, you know, the logjam that we have.
I think when you look at our potential sources of leverage, in principle, the largest of them is military. The difficulty in using our military leverage in the country is it requires an extremely deft program of diplomacy to do this in a way that doesn’t paint ourselves into a corner. In principle we could threaten to realign as a way of encouraging movement on the part of whichever party doesn’t seem to be negotiating in good faith at the moment.
We can, in a sense, say to the Sunnis, if you do not negotiate in good faith, we will allow the Shi’ites to take the gloves off and to wage a much more ruthless war than we have been allowing them to wage so far, and we will even help them do it. On the other hand, if you bargain in good faith and are prepared to compromise, we will protect you against the prospect of Shi’ite violence, and we will stand between you and what could happen in an unconstrained civil war in which the Shi’ite majority acts as ruthlessly as it could.
We could then go to the Shi’ites and say, if you do not negotiate in good faith, we’re out of here, and we will leave you to the tender mercies to your sectarian and ethnic—your chiefly sectarian opponents, and that will have grave consequences for you. But if you negotiate in good faith, we will remain until and unless a constitutional deal has provided the political stability that will allow a safe handoff.
This sort of realignment, I think, is potentially a powerful form of leverage in the midst of an ongoing communal civil war. Military leverage is the most powerful form of leverage in an ongoing war. Actually pulling it off diplomatically and politically would be extraordinarily challenging, signaling the prospect of realignment without making pledges or promises that commit us in ways that paint us into a corner if things don’t go the way we like.
Whether or not either our diplomacy or the statesmanship of the parties in the country is up to this job is an open question. But I think to the extent that we’re going to generate the leverage that we need to create compromise in a situation in which compromise is as inherently risky as it is here, is going to require us to find some leverage more powerful than promises of economic aid or political isolation.
ARRAF: We’re just going to zip through a couple more questions, and I know the gentleman next to Nancy had his hand up for a while.
QUESTIONER: Thanks. I’m Ted Sorensen at Paul Weiss. The panel has superbly described the status quo, deplorable and dangerous as it is, and some wise thoughts on what might be done about it. But for us laymen, not much has been said about how we got to this point, how Iraq got to this point. Of course, deep divisions, whether sectarian or ethnic, have been there for a very long time but they weren’t bitterly at each other’s throats, as the phrase was used. There wasn’t the violence and the extreme hatred. What happened? Was Saddam keeping the lid on? Did the U.S. blow the lid off? Is al Qaeda stirring up hatreds, or is it all—all parties just developed this by themselves?
FELDMAN: I don’t think that it’s that this was about to happen and then we took the lid off. I think, to the contrary, it was the absence of strong central authority of any kind in the society, the security vacuum, that drove perfectly rational people who would not have preferred to give their allegiance to sectarian identities or denominational identities, to have no choice but to do it. Because if there’s no source of security, you’d better find some somewhere, and you will look for any form of alliance that you think is likely to be durable.
At the same time, you know everyone else is looking for such an alliance, and you’re all under a time constraint to do it right away. And under those circumstances, you start looking to ethnicity. Just one anecdote to support this, in the days after the fall of Saddam, there were banners all over Baghdad and other towns saying “Not Sunni, not Shi’a—Islamic unity.” And this suggested two things: one, that people were worried that it might be a Sunni-Shi’a thing; second, that they thought it might be possible to reason out of it, and it took several months for these identities to really begin to harden.
So I think we are responsible, but not in the sense that some people have suggested. I think we’re responsible in that we allowed the security vacuum to emerge and, under the circumstances of that vacuum, people had to find someone to defend themselves, and they ended up with these denominational identities.
ARRAF: Bernie, you had a question? (Inaudible.) One last one. Here?
QUESTIONER: Roger Kline, McKenzie (sp).
Given the constraints, including domestic political constraints here, how much time are you assuming we have to work this problem, and what if we can’t get a political solution over there in that amount of time? What’s the default option? Is it partition?
ARRAF: Let’s see if all three of you can answer that really quickly. (Laughter.) Stephen.
BIDDLE (?): Well, I’m closest to the moderator, so I guess I’ll start. The default option may be partition, but if so, you get an ongoing chronic conflict, because I don’t think the Sunnis will accept the partition that’s prospectively open to them. They’ve shown that they’re willing to fight to avoid that sort of outcome, and I think that that’s what would happen.
If we can’t bring about a constitutional compromise before either American domestic public opinion falls out from under the administration or before the Army simply exhausts itself—and I agree completely with Steve on the difficulties of the Army sustaining the program that I’m talking about—the necessary may not be possible. If the necessary isn’t possible, there may be some face-saving fig leaf presented as we withdraw. The result, however, is very likely to end up being a Lebanonization, if you like, of Iraq, with terribly grave consequences for U.S. foreign policy interests.
SIMON (?): I agree with Steve. (Laughter.) I find it wise to do so. (Laughter.)
ARRAF: You don’t have to stop—(word inaudible).
SIMON (?): It’s part of a reciprocal arrangement, and—(laughter)—it does look, given signals from the administration, both intended and inadvertent, that the U.S. force presence in Iraq will be drawn down quite considerably over the next two years. So to the extent that, you know, those troops provide us with leverage to shape events, that leverage will necessarily diminish.
FELDMAN: I think that the administration, if push comes to shove and the situation is as it is now, let’s say, will not withdraw troops, will remain firmly. But I think that the lesson for the Iraqis—and this is how I would refrain (sic/rephrase) Stephen’s (sp) suggestion about the threat—is not that this administration is going to back away or realign itself, it’s that they can’t speak to what the next administration’s going to do.
The threat is that if the public in the United States sees, instead of the emergence of consensus among the Iraqi political classes and the drawing down of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence, instead a move toward civil war, then the next president, whoever it is, but certainly if it should be a Democrat, will not be able to sustain anything like the troop presence that we’ve got now. That has the advantage of not being a direct threat; that’s just a prediction about how Iraqi events are likely to shape American political events. So I think that’s the key time frame.
ARRAF: Thank you very much. I wish we could continue till dinner, but we will all be fired if I don’t end this immediately. However, our panelists here, Stephen Biddle, Noah Feldman and Steven Simon will be staying for a little while, if anyone has further questions. Thank you very much, and thank you all, everybody. (Applause.)
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