Kenneth M. Pollack, a leading expert on Iraq, supplied intellectual arguments for the 2003 invasion of Iraq but then turned quite critical of the war. He now says after his latest trip to Iraq that though conditions remain difficult, there were significant improvements on the ground as a result of the U.S. “surge” policy. “We came away feeling that Iraq was absolutely a mess, the situation remained grave, but that we did have the right strategy, and that if any strategy could create stability in Iraq, it was the counterinsurgency and stability strategy that General David Petraeus had brought with him,” Pollack said.
You and your colleague, Michael E. O’Hanlon, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times on your recent trip to Iraq whose headline says: “A War We Just Might Win.” That sounds very optimistic. Can you elaborate?
We weren’t quite comfortable with the word “win” when we talked about using it in the piece, but nevertheless we came away from this trip feeling that there was more progress than we expected, especially in regard to creating security in some important parts of Iraq, and to a lesser extent in terms of local, political, and economic developments. That said, to us there were enough signs of life in the “surge” that it was worth allowing it to continue for some additional months to see if it could continue to make progress. We didn’t come away having decided the war in Iraq was won, everything was fine, and it was just a matter of time before we could put up a real banner that said “Mission Accomplished.” Quite the contrary, we came away feeling that Iraq was absolutely a mess, the situation remained grave, but that we did have the right strategy, and that if any strategy could create stability in Iraq, it was the counterinsurgency and stability strategy that General David Petraeus had brought with him.
Let’s talk about some of the signs of real progress. Where would you start?
Starting with American forces, the first thing that was striking to me since my last trip to Iraq was the change in morale. In my previous trips to Iraq, I typically found American military personnel angry, frustrated, and confused, not really understanding their mission.
This time around, I was really struck by how positive a great many military personnel seemed. Now, this was not 100 percent. There are still some very frustrated people, and I’m sure there are many others who we didn’t get to meet. But the overall change in tone I felt was important. They seemed to believe they actually had a good strategy. They trusted General Petraeus; they felt the change in strategy and the change in tactics was actually accomplishing something. They could all point to tangible progress in their own particular corner of Iraq. A lot of that is attributable to this change in strategy, the emphasis on counterinsurgency, securing the Iraqi people, and helping them to rebuild their lives. Power, water, sanitation, all the things that I and other people have been talking about for years—these are now the principal mission of American military and civilian personnel in Iraq, and it does seem to be paying off, at least at the local level in certain important areas of Iraq.
Do you find the electric power is on more continuously?
We found there had been a real shift from trying to repair and defend the national power grid, which was extremely difficult to do. There now is a shift away from that toward helping the Iraqis essentially get their own local generators and bring local businesses and houses into those local generators.
There’s been a lot written by the journalists in Iraq in the last couple of months about Anbar province and how the Sunni tribal leaders have coalesced against al-Qaeda in Iraq. You saw this firsthand?
We did. I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t really have a full sense of just how far it had gone or how much of an impact it has had. As always in war, it’s important to be lucky, and this was one where it was mostly more about being lucky than being good--although the U.S. forces and General Petraeus did the right thing and took advantage of their good luck very quickly.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Salafi jihadist groups set themselves up as the new local government in very big swathes of territory across the country and started imposing their brand of Sharia law that the Iraqi Sunnis didn’t care for it. AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] started doing things such as kidnapping sons of local sheikhs and holding them for ransom, kidnapping daughters and giving them away to their loyalists as wives, and killing local sheikhs or other leaders who weren’t participating and cooperating with them as much as they wanted. None of this sat well with the Sunni Arabs. They basically decided among themselves that they were done with al-Qaeda and the other Salafi groups. They wanted to get rid of them, and they came to the U.S. forces.
So when you go into the streets of Ramadi, you can walk around safely?
We did walk around in the streets of Ramadi, where just a few months ago the Marines were fighting tooth and nail for every square foot of that place. Not only did we walk around in the streets, we actually were walking around without body armor, which is not something that American military personnel or civilian officials do in many parts of Iraq.
Now, what about in Baghdad itself?
There are parts of Baghdad that are pretty good, and there are parts of Baghdad that are absolute war zones. What does seem to be changing, even in the war zones, is that the U.S. and Iraqi forces are making a real effort to bring the ethnic cleansing under control. In most of those places they really can make a very powerful argument that at the very least they have stopped the major ethnic cleansing. They haven’t shut off all the suicide bombings, they haven’t shut down all of the assassinations, they haven’t shut down all of the violence, but they have stopped the major ethnic cleansing. They’re trying to slowly get control over the rest of the violence to the point where you can start to give people a breather and start to build political reconciliation and accommodation, first at the local level and then eventually moving up to the national level.
Now, let’s come to the politics a bit. How long can the U.S. political system accept the continued U.S.military presence in Iraq?
It’s pretty clear the surge is going to continue into 2008; beyond that, it’s all about rotations. But based on what we saw over there and what we heard from people, even if you come down from the surge levels, from 150,000 to 160,000 troops, you’re probably going to need to stay at 120,000 to 130,000 even after that to maintain the gains that have been made in Iraq and continue to work on these very big problem areas.
The Democratic candidates have been fighting among themselves over what to do. Your advice to the Democrats is what, to cool it until the election?
Certainly to cool it until early 2008. The thing about the surge, a point we talked about when last you interviewed me in January is, if it works, it’s the one approach to Iraq that could actually give us a good outcome: Iraq doesn’t descend into all-out civil war, the United States is not defeated and driven from the region, al-Qaeda doesn’t get a base in Iraq, there is no spillover from civil war, and it doesn’t destabilize the rest of the region. Obviously if we can get that outcome, that’s the best of all possible worlds. What we don’t know is whether the surge can actually do that. We found the surge was definitely making some progress and in some areas it was making quite good progress.
But we’re also saying, “Look, it is very late in the day; Iraq is a deeply troubled country and dealing with its problems is going to take, not just a lot of savvy and a lot of resources, but also a lot of luck.” And therefore you can’t just simply say, “The surge is working, we’re done, we’re just going to let it continue on until it produces inevitable victory.” Because there’s no guarantee it’s going to produce inevitable victory. Therefore, you have to keep reassessing, and it may be that in early 2008, the progress we saw on this trip peters out. If it peters out, that’s important and that means you’re going to have to reassess.
Let’s talk about Iraqi politics. I don’t know if you had the chance to meet with any Iraqi political leaders. Their parliament’s gone on vacation in August and their leaders don’t seem any closer to resolving key issues or even coming together. What’s preventing that?
That’s a good question. We did meet with a number of top Iraqi policymakers over there and we found exactly what you said, which was absolutely no progress at that strategic political level. These are people who know that if there were really free and fair elections, they might not win nearly as many seats as they have under the current prevailing conditions of a failed state and a security vacuum. I came away from the trip believing it may be necessary to have new elections in Iraq and maybe even a new electoral system that actually could produce a government that is more representative of the Iraqi people, with leaders who actually would be much more willing to make compromises.