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Interview with William L. Nash on the U.S. military’s strategy in Iraq

Interviewer: Lionel Beehner
Interviewee: Major General William L. Nash, U.S. Army (Ret.)
September 21, 2005

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Top U.S. military commanders in Iraq have called recent efforts to sweep insurgent strongholds in Tal Afar and elsewhere “great successes.” But some insurgency experts dispute that claim, arguing that the insurgency is surging and that large swathes of Iraqi territory still do not remain under U.S. or Iraqi government control. August was the third-most violent month in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, while the number of U.S. forces killed has eclipsed 1,900.

William L. Nash, a retired U.S. Army major general and former administrator for the United Nations (UN) in post-war Kosovo, says the military operations in Iraq should not come at the expense of political development and economic investment. “You do not win an insurgency through guns,” he says. “You win an insurgency through politics and economics and social equality.” Nash, the General John W. Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of the Council’s Center for Preventive Action , offers recommendations for undermining the insurgency, rebuilding Iraq, and eventually removing U.S. forces.

Is the U.S. strategy of sweeping cities that serve as bases for insurgents working?

I think it’s very important to understand that large operations such as the ones the military has conducted recently in Fallujah, Ramadi, Tal Afar, and the like, are but part of a strategy. If you deal with [this plan] in isolation, you can bring up all sorts of questions on their viability, sustainability, and the wisdom of doing it, in general. But if you look at it another way—that this is only part of what the United States is trying to do in Iraq to achieve its goals, and it’s got to be combined with economic investment, political development, etc., as well as efforts to sustain the security environment—then, as part of a whole, it makes more sense.

What do you mean specifically by ‘political development’ and ‘economic investment’?

The key issue with respect to political development is the fact that the citizens of Iraq feel they have no direct influence on the governance of their country and their lives. As you develop a political system that is, in fact, representative of the people, and they come to believe the government is a servant of the people, then they invest in that, buy that, and choose that over the alternative, which would be chaos, a repressive regime, or a sectarian environment that is debilitating with respect to individual capacities, either with respect to your lifestyle or your pursuit of economic gain.

With respect to economic development, the issue is whether people have the wherewithal and opportunity to go about creating better lives for themselves and their family. Are there opportunities for entrepreneurial programs that allow folks to be successful businessmen on a big or small scale and provide for their families, both now and in the future?

So your assessment is the U.S. military strategy is not being backed up by a successful economic and political strategy?

Right. It’s been very clear since day one—when the statue [of Saddam] fell, if you will, on April 9, 2003—that there has been a great deal of difficulty, primarily from lack of planning or poor preparation for the consequences of victory. [Because of this,] the true circumstances of the country after the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime gave opportunity for those who oppose what we advocate and support to present an alternative and create circumstances that make the achievement of democracy, market economy, and rule of law, very, very difficult to occur.

You mentioned earlier efforts must be made “to sustain the security environment.” How do you do this? With more troops?

It’s a more holistic plan. You can’t wait for sustainment if there’s a bad guy operating someplace. Certain circumstances may require you to go and act. But it will also probably mean you’ll have to go and act later if you are not able to sustain a secure environment, not so much through not having enough coalition forces, but through the establishment of Iraqi-based security in an area.

Andrew Krepinevich, a military historian, calls the U.S. military’s sweeps of insurgent strongholds a “whack-a-mole” strategy, where insurgents are scattered and then caught when they reappear in other strongholds. Krepinevich says this strategy will not work long-term.

He would argue, if I interpret him correctly, you need to focus on places where you can sustain the operation and create these oil spots, or ink spots, that gradually, over time, expand.

In general, experts seem to agree with this “oil spot” strategy. So why doesn’t the U.S. military implement it?

Well, the fact of the matter is they are implementing it, or they’re trying to implement it. If you go to the southeastern part of the country, you’ll find a lot of oil spots, if you will, that are relatively peaceful.

But those are largely Shiite, ethnically homogenous areas.

Right. As a theory, it’s very sound, but the fact of the matter is it takes longer to get the ability to stabilize or sustain. Now you can talk about time wasted, the appropriate strategy, and the fact that we didn’t have enough forces in the beginning, etc., but we are where we are. And where we are is that the number of American forces is going to remain the same or be reduced next year. And it’s essential that the Iraqi forces expand and improve; not only the military, but more importantly, the police. We don’t want a military state. We want the police as a civilian-based element and base of public security.

The U.S. military has hailed the recent sweep of Tal Afar a success because of the high number of insurgents killed or captured. But given the violence that followed, in Baghdad and elsewhere, would you agree with this assessment?

The sweep was a success, as far as the sweep went. But the enemy is not going to sit back. War is about action and counteraction and the dynamics of dealing with an enemy that is working very hard to combat what we’re trying to accomplish. So the point is, the enemy reacted to our advance and counterattacked. Like all insurgencies, they attacked where we’re weak and tried to avoid where we’re strong.

But why are we weak in Baghdad? Going back to the oil-spot analogy, shouldn’t we have secured Baghdad by now?

It’s not that we’re weak in Baghdad.

But we haven’t even been able to fully secure the road to the airport.

The fact of the matter is Baghdad is a big place. We’re faced with the need to defend everywhere. They have the option of picking the time and character of their attacks. There are very low resource requirements to conduct a suicide bombing, and they’re not easy to disrupt.

Does the United States have enough intelligence on the ground?

The United States will never have enough intelligence. There are Iraqi people who watch the road all day long from downtown to the airport. It’s the Iraqi people, the Iraqi police, and the Iraqi governing structure that have to establish the conditions where people say, “No, we don’t do that.” The fact of the matter is that that capacity is developing. Second, it will never be what we want it to be until there is a political buy-in by the citizens of Iraq that this government, created by a constitution, is responsible for and responsive to all citizens.

Give me one specific example of something the U.S. military is going right.

Ninety-five percent of what the American military is doing is right. The total cock-up on this thing has been the failure to establish the political and economic spheres, the inefficiencies that took place with respect to the post-conflict reconstruction efforts. You do not win an insurgency through guns. You win an insurgency through politics and economics and social equality.

If the constitution passes in the October 15 national referendum and the political process moves forward, do you expect this to have a calming effect on the insurgency?

The issue is that the battle that’s taking place is for the minds of the Iraqis with respect to what part of Iraq they identify with. One of the problems is that the mere presence of Americans is disruptive to this development process. There are some of us who argue that the removal of American forces would have a more positive effect on the insurgency, which would be intuitive from the force ratios. But the force ratios are not what are important. What are important are political and economic development and the identity of the Iraqi people with their own future.

What’s your timetable for a complete pullout of U.S. troops out of Iraq?

I have no idea when we will completely pull out of Iraq. I think by the midterm elections [for U.S. Congress] of next year there will be a sizeable decrease, but that will be a political, not necessarily a circumstance-based, process.

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