OPERATOR: This is a recording of the Stephen Biddle teleconference with the Council on Foreign Relations scheduled for 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, November 20, 2007.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience in holding. We now have our speakers in conference. Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode. At the conclusion of the presentation we will open the floor for questions. At that time instructions will be given and the procedure to follow if you would like to ask a question.
I would now like to turn the conference over to Stephen Biddle. Sir, you may begin.
ROBERT MCMAHON: Thank you everyone for joining us. I’m Robert McMahon, and I’m Deputy Editor of CFR.org, and I’m going to preside over this Council on Foreign Relations press conference call. The subject, as you know, is the situation in Iraq, and we’re very fortunate to have CFR Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Stephen Biddle, to discuss the conditions there. He has some fresh perspective from a trip -- 10-day trip that concluded earlier this month. And we’re seeing, Steve, numerous reports now about how much calmer conditions are inBagdad especially with other places throughout Iraq. Today’s New York Times, for instance, front page story noting this, pictures of people in cafes, people playing what looks like foosball onHaifa Street. Steve, you were there, and you certainly saw a lot of these same types of conditions. But I’d like to ask you your analysis of the situation. Why does this calm seem to be prevailing right now?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: To get at the answer, I think it’s important to establish a little bit of context first. In particular, the conflict inIraq is a communal civil war. It’s already a civil war. It’s been so for several years. So, the policy problem in Iraq is one of terminating an ongoing civil war, and classically there are two requirements for doing that. First, you negotiate a power sharing deal that yields a ceasefire. Second, you police the ceasefire with outside peacekeepers. The locals can't trust each other with guns. That’s why you’ve got a civil war in the first place.
Twelve months ago, either one of these two requirements for terminating the Iraqi civil war looked like an extremely tall order for Iraq. Surprisingly enough, I think, though, as a result of the dramatic expansion outside Anbar Province, or what some people will be calling the Anbar model at the conclusion of these local essentially bilateral ceasefire arrangements between individual Iraqi combatant fractions and ourselves and the government of Iraq, has been a situation in which I think it has become plausible to think that we might soon be able to get the first two of the standard requirements for terminating this kind of civil war, something that resembles a nationwide ceasefire.
If in fact we continue to get the kind of good fortune that we’ve gotten so far in getting to this point and we in fact realize this potential, not a guarantee by any means, but a potential to get something like a nationwide ceasefire, that would dramatically change the nature of the war and the nature of the strategic problem for the United States from one of getting a ceasefire to one of keeping a ceasefire, which is in itself a very demanding but very different military mission than the one we’ve been engaged in so far. And I think one of the great challenges for U.S. defense policy looking forward is how do we go about making this transition to a new phase of the conflict in which our primary role becomes essentially peacekeeping as opposed to war fighting.
ROBERT MCMAHON: So, you had talked in the past about how there was a bit of luck involved with the surge coinciding with the emergence of the Anbar model. How much are you seeing the Anbar model at work in both Sunni and maybe Shiite communities as well?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: Well, I think the necessary prerequisite for what we’ve seen is a heck of a lot of good luck. Now, the surge has been important. It set permissive conditions. It’s played a valuable role in generating the decline of violence that we’ve seen, but I don’t think it would have been sufficient in and of itself. At least two key elements that were largely outside our control that broke in our direction have been really helpful here. The first is the Sunnis essentially lost the battle ofBagdad. There was a wave of sectarian violence that broke out, especially in the capital city following theSamarramosque bombing in February 2006 that of course most of us at the time viewed as a catastrophe, and certainly in humanitarian terms it was unambiguously a tragedy.
One wonders though whether 10 years from now looking back historians may conclude that that wave of sectarian violence which resulted in Shiite militias defeating Sunni insurgents in the city and largely, not entirely but largely cleansing Bagdad of Sunnis didn’t play a critical role by persuading Sunnis who previously thought that if this thing came to an all out fight with the United States gone they would win that instead their military fortunes were negative and that if this thing came to an all out version of today’s low-level civil war they would lose not win. In conjunction with that piece of good fortune in the form of a Sunni defeat in Bagdad at the hands of Shiite militias, we also had a series of serious mistakes by our enemies. It’s nice to know we’re not the only people who screw things up in Iraq.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq in particular was extraordinarily brutal with their own Sunni allies and was extremely ham-handed in interfering with the economic lifeline of many of, for example, Sunni tribes in Anbar. That combination of extreme brutality by what they thought were their allies and military defeat in the city of Bagdad, I think, played a powerful role in persuading Sunnis that they needed to make peace while they still could with their primary enemy, which they saw as us and the government of Iraq. Now, the surge, by creating a certain amount of population security in the capital city and especially by bringing troops out of big fortified bases in the desert and putting them on the streets where they could pacify neighborhoods created an environment in which it was safer initially for Sunni and then increasingly for Shiite groups to reach local ceasefire agreements and stand down. So, it played an important role, but I don’t think that role was sufficient. Without a lot of essentially good fortune, I don’t think we’d be where we are now.
ROBERT MCMAHON: On the Iraqi part of this security equation, there’s a group that’s been known, I guess it’s Concerned Local Citizens group or CLC. You’ve noted this as well. Can you talk about their role and just how significant that is?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: Yeah. When I talk about local bilateral ceasefire agreements along the Anbar model, this is what the Concerned Local Citizens, CLC movement is. What typically happens isU.S. commanders in particular areas, usually at the battalion or brigade level, are in conversation with local community leaders. At some point in that process a deal is reached wherein Iraqis agree in exchange for American paycheck and sometimes American training and organizational assistance, agree to not fire at the Americans, not fire at the Iraqi government, turn their arms and their activities against common enemies, originally primarily Al-Qaeda and Iraq, increasingly rogue elements of Shiite militias and especially the Jaish al Mahdi, and they agree to stay put, to remain within delineated areas of operation. And they literally, in many cases, sign contracts to this effect. That produces a local ceasefire policed by this Concerned Local Citizens group, who are already heavily armed. Every family in Iraqhas an AK-47. So, there’s plenty of arms available for equipping CLC groups with. And the result of that has been this kind of patchwork quilt of local deals wherein these very localized geographically specific CLC organizations again agree to stop fighting us, start fighting our common enemy, and go a long way toward providing security.
Now, in many cases, this name, Concerned Local Citizens, may be one of the single worst names in military history. It makes these folks sound like the League of Women Voters.
ROBERT MCMAHON: (Inaudible) group.
STEPHEN BIDDLE: Yeah, little old ladies in tennis shoes. They are not little old ladies in tennis shoes. In many cases, these CLCs are precisely the insurgent groups that were fighting us and killing our people six months ago. In fact, when I was there, far and away the most apparently war-like, most military-bearing, most disciplined and organized combat outfit I saw outside theU.S. military was the Concerned Local Citizens group in the southern belt. They looked like the (inaudible) by comparison with a lot of Iraqi military units I’ve seen; crisp, neatly pressed uniforms, military-bearing, disciplined organization and behavior. This is essentially a subset of the 1920s brigades that have been fighting us before that simply came over to our side wholesale when they stood up for local Concerned Local Citizens groups.
One of the things that happens though when the people who are fighting you switch sides and side with you is the threat goes away. Now, it may come back because these people are still there, they’re still armed, they’re still organized, they’re leaders are the commanders that were leading them in battle against us six months ago, but when they switch if the threat goes away the violence level then, of course, plummets.
But this is why I think the central strategic challenge now is how do we keep these deals stable, these Concerned Local Citizens groups are not self-policing and inherently stable. If somebody isn’t there to police these deals, enforce their terms, and punish violations, I think there’s a very serious risk that spoiler violence could play a catalytic role and cause all this to come tumbling back down again. It is of paramount importance for U.S.policy that we act in ways that reduce the danger of that.
ROBERT MCMAHON: Let me ask one more question before we get to open up the questions from media that are on the line. And this refers to okay, so the surge has bought the state seemingly that we’re looking for to bring about -- or to provide the means for reconciliation, political reconciliation. Now the pressure is on Iraqi politicians and so forth. It’s also occurring during a heightened U.S. election cycle, which we shouldn’t forget. So, what do we need -- what needs to happen now amongst Iraqi political leaders to sustain this?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: Clearly, it would be very helpful if they would get behind this, and they’ve been dragging their feet on it and are very wary of this movement. The Maliki government, Shiite-dominated as it is, tends to view a CLC movement that’s not exclusively Sunni but largely Sunni as a potential threat to them if this civil war escalates at some point in the future, and as a result they’ve been dragging their feet on supporting it in a variety of ways. It would be much better all around if they got more behind this.
But let me add two other dimensions to that which have been less discussed, I think. One is, it would be helpful if the Maliki government would support this. I am not convinced that it’s necessary that they do so. There are powerful reasons why local CLC groups are signing up for this. Sunnis think they are beat unless they do this. The idea that they’re out there, you know, spoiling to renew the fight the first moment they get and boy, if the Maliki government gives them a dirty look then they’ll be back on the street shooting, I’m not so sure. The battle of Bagdad taught them a pretty powerful lesson. So, I think there is the potential if the U.S. plays its cards right possibly to keep this thing stable even if the Maliki government continues to be dragged along behind this thing unwillingly rather than getting out ahead of it and facilitating it. Getting out ahead would be much better. Whether it’s necessary is less clear to me.
The second point I want to make though about the Maliki government and top-down reconciliation is that in some way I think their behavior is different than is commonly portrayed. The common portrayal is we’ve cut the violence level that’s created the environment, now the government needs to step up and reconcile with the Sunnis, why aren’t they doing it, you know, pick your favorite reason; they’re not serious, Maliki is (inaudible), or whatever. I find it quite fascinating though that we want the Maliki government to get on with the business of passing the big five legislative initiatives that we’ve all been so focused on, and they absolutely refuse to do it. And yet paradoxically enough, in many ways they’re behaving as these things were already in law.
They refuse to pass the hydrocarbon package, and yet they distribute oil revenue to Sunni provinces more or less proportionally to population. What in the world is going on with that? They refuse to pass the deBaathification law and yet they bring former Baathists into the Iraqi security forces and hire them into the Iraqi ministry. What in the world? If they’re willing to do these things, one might expect that they would be willing to pass the darn laws and get the United States off their back, whereas they’re apparently not. I think one possible -- I mean, who knows why, but one possible hypothesis to explain this counterintuitive and apparently anomalous behavior by the Maliki government is the Shiite regime remains scared to death of the Sunnis. They are therefore not willing to legislate into law a requirement that they fund and facilitate their enemies and their rivals, but they now feel safe enough that they’re willing to maybe dip their toe in the water and test it out by trying a little bit of it, wait and see what happens. If things go well, maybe they dip there too a little deeper. If things go well, maybe they go a little further, all subject to the condition that if they don’t like the result they can pull back and stop doing it because they’re not legally mandated to fund the Sunnis or to hire Baathists into the government.
One possible interpretation of this strange behavior of acting as though there were laws that they’re unwilling to pass might be that testing the waters for reconciliation is a lot safer if you don’t legislate it first. And maybe, who knows, if this process continues to move forward rather than backward, they might eventually get to the point where they’re comfortable enough that nothing bad has happened that they might become willing to pass the laws that today are just beyond (inaudible).
ROBERT MCMAHON: Interesting analysis. So, we’re talking with Steve Biddle, CFR’s Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, and we’re going to now open up to questions. Operator, could you open up for Q&A from our audience?
OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Ladies and gentlemen, at this time we will open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question please press the star key, followed by the one key on your touchtone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received, and if at any point you need to remove yourself from the questioning queue press star, two. Again, to ask a question please press the star key, followed by the one key on your touchtone phone now. That’s star, one on your touchtone phone.
Our first question comes from Guy Raz with NPR. Please go ahead.
GUY RAZ: Hi, Steve. How are you? I wanted to see if maybe we can get out of the weeds for just a little bit and look at the bigger picture for a moment. And I’m wondering if you can give us a sense of what these new statistics and trends ultimately mean. I mean, have we seen the worst -- are we over the hump? I mean, I can go on with other clichés, but ultimately, does this kind of trend -- is this kind of trend sustainable, and if it is then does it hasten the U.S. departure from Iraq? What kind of sense do you have about the big picture in Iraq right now?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: Well, I think the trends are potentially sustainable. It requires both a certain amount of continued good luck and a certain amount of continued astute behavior by the U.S. commanders on the ground, but I think there is -- it’s plausible now to imagine that these violence trends and these ceasefire trends may continue to the point where you get, again, something that looks effectively like a national ceasefire. The trouble is you could easily imagine that ceasefire breaking down once it’s established because the situation is so inherently unstable. And one of the easiest ways I could imagine it breaking down is if we respond to the temptation, to the incentive to take a peace dividend and to say the violence has come down, therefore we’ve won, and now we can bring the troops home.
Ceasefire situations in civil wars like this historically don’t police themselves, and if there’s not an outside party there to punish violations and persuade people that it’s safe not to reach immediately for your revolver the first time you see somebody looking crosswise at you, then all these CLC organizations really do become better armed civil war combatants and the thing goes south again in a hurry. So, I think A, it is possible, not a guarantee but it is possible that we could get this national ceasefire, but B, if we respond to that by accelerating the drawdown and taking it too deep, I think the result is it’ll collapse.
ROBERT MCMAHON: Thanks for your question. Next question please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Marcus Ziener with Handels Blatt. Please go ahead.
MARCUS ZIENER: Hi, Steve, Marcus speaking. I have a question related to the previous question. I mean, in terms of stability and in terms of how long is this going to hold. I understand that you also state that you’re paying the militia first to switch sides and to stay that way. So, my question would be do you have any idea how much money is actually spent for this purpose, and what’s going to happen if at some point the U.S. simply using, stopping paying both?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: At the moment, the going rate, if you like, for CLC membership is, I believe, $300 a month a person. Now, right now, as you point out, the United States is paying those salaries for 72,000 plus CLC members. We are trying to get as many as possible of the CLC members put on the Iraqi government payroll rather than the U.S. payroll. We’re doing that largely because we think that the thing is less likely to collapse in the future into renewed violence if especially Sunni CLC members believe they have a financial stake in the success of the Iraqi government.
So, for a variety of reasons we’re trying to get the Iraqis to pick up the tab increasingly. There’s been some progress there, but again it’s been slow, in part because the Maliki government has been dragging its feet on it. For my part, I happen to think U.S.salary payments to Iraqi CLC members is one of the best buys in the history of war. I think relative to what we spend per 30 seconds of military operations inIraq this is a drop in the bucket. Now, it’s a drop in the bucket that you could imagine becoming quite controversial here in the United States. You know, why should we be paying the salaries of all these Iraqis who ought to get their act in gear and generate peace just because it’s the right thing to do? Why are we engaging in this enormous government jobs program? Isn’t this a huge expansion of the role of government in Iraq? Which is actually an argument that many Iraqis in the Maliki government make right now. Milton Friedman is alive and well in the Maliki government. Not withstanding all that, I think this kind of salary payment has had an awful lot to do with a truly surprising and remarkable reduction in violence, and if this is the price we pay to get it, sign me up. I’m willing to keep paying that bill for a long, long time, not withstanding in an ideal world more and more of that responsibility will be shifted to the government of Iraq.
MARCUS ZIENER: Okay. Thank you.
ROBERT MCMAHON: Thanks a lot for that question. Next question please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Ann Tyson with The Washington Post. Ma’am, please go ahead.
ANN TYSON: Hi, Steve. I just wanted to get to the question of -- you mentioned you didn’t think that the, you know, Sunnis had the appetite for fighting war at the time, but I mean that certainly wasn’t true when some of the groups I talked to -- I mean, some spoke of reconciliation, but others made it clear that, you know, the national police, the international police, or other militia-type groups were sort of their next target. So, I mean, why are you so optimistic that they will not sort of, now that that immediate threat is gone, why they won’t take it -- why they won’t go after some of their enemies?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: Well, I think if we leave they will. I think the motivation on the part of the Sunnis is partly offensive in the sense that they’d like to expand their sort of influence. I think it’s largely though defensive. As far as I can tell, both in talking with some of the Sunni participants in CLCs when I was there and also in talking with folks in the command who have been tracking this very closely, my sense is the general perception among Sunnis is that they’ve been handed a serious military drawback as a result of the fighting since 2006, and part of the reason they’re willing to do this now, whereas they wouldn’t have a year ago, for example, is they’ve changed their assessment of their likely military prospects. Now, if one accepts the cliché you often hear around the command, the Sunnis have lost and they know it, the Shiites have won but they don’t know it.
But if you accept the first part of that, the Sunnis have lost and they know it, it’s one thing to talk a big game about what you’d like to do, especially if your new pal, the United States, helps you. I mean, theU.S. is clearly the most important military actor in Iraq. Some Sunnis think that they’re now in league with us against the Shiites. If they could get U.S. assistance, I’m quite confident that they would take advantage of that to take over the government if they could. These are not people who are pacifists, Jeffersonian democrats. These are brutal, cruel leaders who are extremely opportunistic. But I think because they’re coldly realists and because they see what happened to them militarily since 2006, I just don’t think if the United States leaves they think they’ve got the ability to gain any ground against the Shiites at this point, and I think that has a lot to do with their switching sides. Again, if they could get us to side with them and go to war against Shiites that they dislike they would sign up to it in a heartbeat.
For a lot of reasons, I think our behavior is critically important at this point to what happens with the CLC movement and these ceasefires. If we play our cards wrong in any of a number of ways, drawing down too fast, too deep, misleading Sunnis in CLCs as to what they can expect in the future, giving them too much capability -- there are a variety of ways in which we could ball this thing up, but I think if we play it right I don’t sense that realist Sunnis of the sort that have been switching sides think they can actually achieve very much. I think we have the capacity to keep them in their box.
ROBERT MCMAHON: Excellent question. Next question please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Andrew Gray with Reuters. Sir, please go ahead.
ANDREW GRAY: Hi, Steve. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about this change of roles for the U.S. military if what you believe may happen does happen, in other words, there is a de facto national ceasefire of sorts. What would be involved in policing that ceasefire, how would the role of the U.S.military need to change, and what size of force would be needed, do you think, to do that?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: Yeah, let me start with the last bit, and I’ll work backwards toward the first part of your question. The conventional wisdom on peacekeeping out there in the literature at large is, bigger is better. One sometimes sees a very crude rule of thumb, but nonetheless a rule of thumb tossed around of ideally one capable combatant per 50 members of the population, about what you need, interestingly, to pacify an urban area in counterinsurgency operations. Now, if you did that inIraq you’d get a requirement for a half-million peacekeepers, so obviously we’re not getting anywhere near that. So, what you’ve got though is a situation because ideally you’d like even more troops than you’re going to get, I think the right -- the best troop count for a peacekeeping mission inIraq is the most troops we can sustain in Iraq.
Now, it would take a good solid staff study by somebody on the Joint Staff or Service Planning Staff in the pentagon to tell you whether that number is 100,000, 90,000, 105,000 -- I’m not in a position to give you the exact number. I could give you wild guesses, but that would be all. But I think the right -- the ideal troop count for policing the stability of an Iraqi ceasefire would the most -- the largest troop strength we could safely sustain in Iraqwithout breaking theU.S. military. Now, the mission they would be performing, it’s critical to point out, would not be war-fighting; it would be peacekeeping. So, the expectation is that the casualty level would be very, very low.
Essentially, the requirement in that role is you’ve got to be in a position to punish violations forcibly, painfully, and visibly, especially early in the process. Early in the process, there are going to be plenty of violations as people try and test their limits, as Ann was pointing out, as Rivashists (sp?) try and expand their spear of influence at the expense of old rivals, settling old scores, all the rest, there will be plenty of spoilers out there trying to blow things up with catalytic bombings and other acts of violence.
Initially, there will be lots of violations, and there already are plenty of violations among the existing CLCs even right now. The peacekeeping force has to be in a position where when they see a violation they can arrive in force, round up the violators or their leaders, detain them or otherwise punish them in a way that creates a powerful and visible disincentive for further violation. Our experience in other places suggests that if you’re there in force and you pretty aggressively follow up on early violations you create deterrent effects that cause the violation rate to draw down over time. That then in turn allows you to draw down the peacekeeping force over time as the number of tests and trials and challenges and violations that they need to enforce goes down. But enforcement is the key function. Some part of that probably involves some degree of visible patrolling activity, so that potential violators know that you’re there and so that their victims know that you’re there. You don’t want spirals of violence resulting when spoilers try to create a catalytic event.
What you want is for people to say, yeah that car bomb just went off in the marketplace in ways that we hadn’t expected, but rather than immediately going and rounding up a bunch of Shiites from the nearby apartment building I’m going to wait and see what the Americans do about this. That’s the reaction we want, and to get that kind of I’m willing to wait and see reaction, it helps a lot if the potential retaliators know that there are Americans there because they’ve seen them on patrol and they’ve seen them enforce violation sanctions in the past and they’re confident that it’ll happen again.
So, the troop count, as big as we can get. The mission increasingly is punishing violations rather than offensively clearing neighborhoods and providing counterinsurgency missions in a more traditional tactical sense.
ROBERT MCMAHON: Steve, I want to ask you about something we didn’t talk about yet, which is the role ofIran. We’ve seen reports that the flow of weapons is down sharply from Iran, according to some U.S. military sources, and this seems to be quite a dramatic development, considering even last month the way the rhetoric was going on this. On your trip, did you get a sense from the military that Iran was starting to cooperate?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: The focus I asked for on this trip was the CLC phenomenon, bottom-up reconciliation. So, I wasn’t focused onIran per se. For what it’s worth, the sense I got is we have very little leverage with the Iranians to get them to reduce their meddling. The government at Iraq has more. For a variety of reasons, the Iranians are more responsive to Nouri al-Maliki than they are to Ryan Crocker, and Nouri al-Maliki personally asked the Iranians to calm things down some, lay off for a while, give us some breathing space, let’s see what’s happening here without our hand being forced, and apparently the Iranians responded to that by dramatically reducing cross-border throughput of arms and equipment.
Now, like all the rest of this, it’s all happening by the voluntary decisions of people. The stability in Iraq such as we’re getting it is not being produced by destroying the enemy or disarming them or driving them out. It’s happening by a collection of voluntary decisions by people who could decide otherwise tomorrow morning if they chose, and that includes the Iranians, just like it includes the Sunnis who are signing up for CLCs and Shiites who are signing up for CLCs, the Jaish al Mahdi standing down.
All these things are revocable decisions, which again is partly why I think it’s such a terribly important and in many ways new strategic challenge for theUnited Statesto behave in a way that maintains the interest calculus for all these players to continue to play ball and continue to choose ceasefire and stability over violence and aggression. Again, it’s not at all obvious to me that we will make the right choices and create -- and continue that outcome, but I think that’s the challenge for us.
ROBERT MCMAHON: Okay. Operator, next question please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Julian Barnes with the Los Angeles Times. Please go ahead.
JULIAN BARNES: Hi. Steve, I was wondering how much the CLC phenomenon is applicable to the Shiite community and whether it’s necessary to do these things to prevent intra-Shiite fighting between the Badr Corp and the Mahdi Army, say, and what you’re -- what you learned from your trip on that.
STEPHEN BIDDLE: Yeah. I think CLC participation among Shiites is on the rise. It’s obviously lagged well behind Sunnis, but the Sunnis were the originators of this whole phenomenon, and a lot of the CLCs elsewhere in the country were fairly explicit responses to what was perceived to have happened in Anbar. The news spread aroundIraq pretty rapidly about Anbar, and lots of other people signed on and said we want that here too. Initially, that was Sunnis. It’s now increasingly the case among Shiites as well, in part because as the Sunnis stand down the threat to Shiites from their Sunni enemies goes down and the perceived need of Shiites to put up with militia organizations that in many ways are about as brutal as AQI had been towards Sunnis goes down, and as a result Shiite tolerance of rogue elements of the Jaish al Mahdi, for example, gets much more tenuous.
So, for a variety of reasons, I think we’re seeing the beginning of what, again, if we continue to get lucky and if we continue to play our cards right, both of which are necessary, might be the spread of local ceasefire arrangements through Shiite communities, as well as Sunni communities. There are something on the order of 18,000 Shiite CLC members already. That’s actually quite a number of people who have signed on to this already. Now, in many ways an implication of all this is that the issues in the south and the north, which have historically been considered the safe, pacific, tranquil, peaceful parts of Iraq, may become the most problematic parts of Iraqif this movement continues. For a variety of reasons, the CLC movement is stronger in the west and the center than it is in the south and in the north.
So, this whole problem of intra-Shiite violence in the south, for example, in part because other previously bigger problems elsewhere in the country are getting smaller and in part because the British diminishment of their role in the south is making it easier for Shiite militia and it’s giving them more elbow room to compete with one another, these problems of intra-Shiite issues in the south and Kurdish PKK issues in the north are becoming more and more salient. In principle, I don’t see any fundamental barriers to something like stability and ceasefire in the south and north as well. The dynamics may very well end up being different.
For example, in the south our role, one possibility is to police what amounts to a mafia sphere of influence agreement between Badr, JAM, and Fadhila, in which they all agree to a particular distribution of corruption spoils from the port of Umm Qasr and the oil field at Rumaila, and what we’re there to do is to make sure they all stick to their knitting (sp?) and they don’t go to war with one another. I don’t know what the specifics will work out to be. But I don’t see any fundamental barrier to something that looks like a ceasefire in the south and the north as well, but again it will require both a certain amount of good luck and substantially astute U.S. behavior in navigating (audio interference) of the potential conflict between Shiite in the south and between PKK and the Kurds in the north.
ROBERT MCMAHON: Thanks for the question. Next question please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Tallah Dowlatshaha from Reporters Without Borders. Please go ahead.
TALLAH DOWLATSHAHA: Yes, Stephen. Thank you very much. I’m wondering, as members of civil society, local Iraqi journalists have been increasing targets, in particular to the case that I’m referring to of Bilal Hussein, who’s an AP photographer that has been held by theU.S. military since April 12, 2006. How are journalists locally, from your point of view, going to get out those human rights and human interest stories on ceasefire agreements in order to be able to get local members of civil society actively to participate in promoting peace rather than war?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: In many ways, I’m the worst guy to ask, because almost -- maybe every single word of interaction I’ve had with the (inaudible) state has been in theUnited States. When I’m in Iraq I’m typically out with theU.S. military and I don’t see a lot of reporters. So, probably most of the folks on the conference call have a better sense of the mechanics of reporting in a hostile environment inBagdad and also in Iraq than I do. So, I guess mostly what I would do is defer to the expertise of others in the group on a question that I don’t consider myself a particular expert on.
ROBERT MCMAHON: Do the Iraqis you talk to seem to be well-informed of what’s going on generally? You engaged with a few on this last trip.
STEPHEN BIDDLE: Some things are known with surprising speed. Again, the story about Anbar moved through Iraq, as far as I can tell, like lightning. But, of course, as everyone knows, this is the intergalactic capital of conspiracy theories. So, in addition to true stories about Anbar shooting around the country, you also get all sorts of weird accounts of odd conspiracies moving around Iraq. So, how the balance of public information works in Iraq between misinformation and true information, I’m in a poor position to assess, but I admit I’m quite struck by how fast information, be it true or be it false, moves around the country.
ROBERT MCMAHON: Next question please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Adil Awadh with Radio Sawa. Please go ahead.
ADIL AWADH: Yes. Thank you, Steve. On my weekly radio program, I had this week two leaders of the CLC groups, one in (unintelligible ). They actually both denied any relation to the big political groups in Iraqi parliament, and to my surprise they came across very bold and confident. They actually, for the first time revealed their names on the program. I’m hearing that some of these CLC groups are actually Al-Qaeda in some places of Bagdad, particularly (inaudible) area. Did you see enough measures applied that could prevent such infiltration?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: Some of it is infiltration in the sense that you mean. Others of it isn’t infiltration, it’s simply people switching sides. As far as kind of negative pernicious infiltration, covert penetration of organizations by people who have a hostile agenda, again I think a lot of this depends on enforcement activity by theUnited Statesand to some extent by the government of Iraq. I think, again, for a whole variety of reasons, including penetration, but not limited to it, these deals are not self-enforcing.
So, if penetration produces inappropriate behavior of whatever sort, be it raids on innocent people, be it penetration of adjoining CLC territory, be it ambushes of CLC personnel, any of these kinds of activities have to be enforced and sanctioned or else they will spread. Now, one of the several reasons why as a condition of CLC salary payment we require that people provide biometric data-fingerprints, retinal scans, names, addresses, contact information- is so that if, for example, there is an Al-Qaeda penetration of a CLC group and a CLC on the way to a checkpoint gets ambushed perhaps, we know everybody who’s on the payroll in that organization. We’ve got all of their contact information, and we can find them all. And if somebody gives us a tip that it was this guy we think who gave us away, we’re in a position to go get them, detain them, interrogate them, and punish them in ways that we wouldn’t have been before the CLC stood up.
Again, none of that’s to say that there won’t be A) infiltration, B) ambushes, violations, other untoward activity. I guarantee there will be. I am 100% confident that will be the case, and it has already been the case on a number of occasions. The challenge for us is to respond to it in ways that diminishes its frequency over time because people see it as having been a bad idea that hurt the people who tried it rather than helped them. So, again, I think in that sense the responsibility is all on us.
ROBERT MCMAHON: Thanks for the question. Next question please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from David Martin with CBS News. Sir, please go ahead.
DAVID MARTIN: Gates has talked about getting down to 10 brigades by the end of next year. Is that consistent with the kind of peacekeeping force that you’re talking about?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: I don’t know what the right brigade count is. I think I know the criteria though, and the criterion I would apply is as many brigades as we can sustain without breaking the military. Again, you’d need a staff study that I’m not in a position to do to tell you whether that number is 10, 12, 15, or 8. One thing I would say though is so far I haven’t heard a lot of the discussion about troop drawdowns and brigade counts being focused around a mission of stabilizing the peace. I hear people talking about a whole collection of things that a residual force is supposed to do, you know, hunt Al-Qaeda, train the Iraqis, defend the borders, look out for refugees, you name it.
I have not heard people talking about the central mission of the U.S. presence in Iraq post-ceasefire as being stabilizing that ceasefire, and I think it needs to be. All the other missions, it seems to me, take second place behind that. And my guess, without doing the staff study I think somebody needs to do, my intuition is probably stabilizing ceasefire is the most labor-intensive and most demanding of the missions people are not talking about. My guess is it’ll end up being the long pull on the tab. Whether that says 10 brigades is too few or not, I’m afraid I just can't tell you though.
DAVID MARTIN: So, this peacekeeping force is not something that the military that you talked to -- the U.S. military that you talked to inIraq is thinking about?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: My sense is that most of the people I talked to are very hopeful that positive inducements will be sufficient to stabilize these deals: building a financial tie to the Iraqi government, knowing that we’ve got their biometric data and can retaliate, being equipped with U.S. gear, that we could decide not to continue to support and sustain. I think there’s a lot of hope around the command that these kinds of positive inducements will be sufficient. I’m not sure they will be. I think they’re all good things to do, and I’m hopeful that they work. My sense of this kind of phenomenon in other places though has been that I suspect that they’ll require also a ceasefire enforcement role for U.S. soldiers on the ground in ways that I think need to become an important planning criterion when we talk about troop planning for the future in Iraq.
ROBERT MCMAHON: Thanks for the question. Next question please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Ann Tyson with The Washington Post. Please go ahead.
ANN TYSON: Hi again. I just wanted to follow-up on that last point, if you didn’t elaborate on it. I was absent briefly. On how specifically do you see the role of U.S. troops needing to change to emphasize peacekeeping, I mean, in important ways, things they’re not doing now, because I understand some units are essentially engaged in a lot of peacekeeping-type work?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: I actually think a lot of whatU.S. brigades are doing right now, especially in sectors where they have a lot of CLCs operating is precisely this. I talked to brigade commanders when I was there who are actually quite sophisticated about the need to police these deals, and a whole rich menu of sanctions that they have already imposed on CLC violators in their zone. So, I think a lot of what we’re doing right now is already substantially of this nature, again in places where there’s something like a ceasefire to be enforced. Again, that’s one of the reasons why I’m concerned that the temptation to realize a peace dividend and rapidly draw the brigade countdown could be problematic. I think what we’re already seeing in important parts of Iraq is the need for ceasefire enforcement.
ANN TYSON: Okay, and then could you talk about what has to happen within the ministry interior or the broader government for it to reach a state where it really can incorporate the CLC. I mean, what did you see as the (inaudible) or sectarianism within the MOI or elsewhere that’s stopping this or sectarianism within the Iraqi police forces, specifically the national police, and what changes do you see are needed there?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: Well, you’ve got two closely interrelated problems with the GOI, the government ofIraq here. One is sectarianism and reluctance to assist Sunnis. The other is just incapacity. I mean, there are in excess of 72,000 CLC members. That’s an enormous fraction of the size of the existing Iraqi security forces, from zero to 72,000 in what amounts to the blink of an eye. The sheer administrative burden of just getting all these people checked out, getting them vetted, getting them uniforms, getting them equipment, getting them trained, getting the payroll set up, just the sheer bureaucratic challenge of dealing with this huge sudden influx of people shouldn’t be underestimated for anybody, much less a government that’s shown as little institutional capacity as the Iraqi government has since 2003.
I mean, 72,000 people is about 70% of the size of the global British Army. So, even setting aside the whole problem of sectarianism, which I wouldn’t set aside for a moment, one should be aware of just the sheer difficulty of the administrative job here in getting the government of Iraq to take ownership of this phenomenon on the timetable we need. Now, in addition to that, you’ve got all the problems of sectarianism. You’ll note that I haven’t said very much about the Iraqi Security Forces as peacekeepers or deal-stabilizers or any of the rest, and that’s in large part because I remain very pessimistic about the ISF. On the ISF side, I think the issue, although there are capacity problems there just as there are with the ministries, I think the binding constraint, and this is probably in the long-term true with the ministries as well, is sectarian politics.
Where you’ve got problems with the national police and the Iraqi police is where you’ve got Shiite police units policing Sunni populations. That does not work. And in many ways what the CLCs are is they’re a substitute for Iraqi Security Forces that Sunnis think are Shiite-dominated, where you’ve got Sunni populations. They’ll trust the CLCs, they won’t trust the Iraqi police and the national police, where those are predominantly Shiite. On the other hand, the Iraqi police and the national police work quite well where they’re drawn from the local area, and in some places in the north, for example, you’ve got Iraqi army units, for instance, that were essentially raised from the local population, and they’re quite workable as stabilizers and local security forces for those neighborhoods because the whole problem with sectarian distrust doesn’t work.
In a sense, some parts of the Iraqi security forces act like CLCs in government uniforms, where the politics match, where they’re trusted by the locals. Where they’re not trusted by the locals, I don’t think we’re going to solve that problem anytime very soon. I think the problems of trying to create a hermetically-sealed Iraqi security institution that’s somehow divorced from the society around them and is a bunch of disinterested nationalists when the country as a whole is driven by factionalism and sectarianism I think is unrealistic.
ANN TYSON: Mm-hmm.
ROBERT MCMAHON: Thank you for that question. We can squeeze in one more question please.
OPERATOR: Okay. This question comes from Jim Barnett with CNN. Sir, please go ahead.
JIM BARNETT: Steve, Hi. How are you doing? I’ve been dipping in and out on this call, and I apologize if you’ve already addressed this, but on a personal note, this is your second trip to Iraq this year. How safe did you feel walking the streets and moving around the city?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: Yeah. I mean, it’s not Hanover Street and Carlisle, where I live. It is a combat zone, so you have to move around in body armor. We were there with a personal security detachment that followed us around with drawn M4s and helicopters -- there’s all the panoply of a war zone. So, you’re aware of your environment in ways that you would not be in Tyson’s Corner, for example, although maybe you should be. Who knows? But, relative to the spring, there was a big, big change in atmospherics. When I was there in the spring I did a lot of the same kind of stuff. We spent a lot of time on battlefield circulation, out doing patrols through neighborhoods. We were fired on occasionally, not when we were on foot though, and the people we were dealing with when we were walking through marketplaces were tolerant of us but clearly wary, and you didn’t get the impression that they really wanted to sit down and drink chai with you and look at pictures of each other’s kids. You got the distinct impression that I was walking by a lot of JAM militia in civilian clothes who would have killed me if they were in a position to but chose not to.
This time, the atmospherics were quite a bit different actually. The most striking example, interestingly, was Fallujah. In Fallujah, there were groups of little kids that came rushing up to us as we walked down the street. They wanted me to take pictures of them with my digital camera so I could turn it around and show them their image in the viewfinder. And when these kids came up and were just having fun with these soldiers and me, their parents would stand back in the background and smile. This kind of blew me away. I hadn’t seen anything like that in Iraqbefore. This is a place where there have been two major battles in which most of the city was flattened and where 12 months ago, I suspect, the same people who were smiling at me while their children played soccer with me and the Lieutenant Colonel I was with and mugged for the camera would have been just as happy to see us blown apart in an IED or a sniper ambush. The atmospherics now, even though again it’s obviously still a war zone, are quite a bit different.
Now, as they say in physics, what goes up can come down. The fact that these people who were previously quite happy to have seen me be blown apart in the street in Fallujah were now smiling at me while I played with their kids probably means they could go right back to the other way again in six months if things break the wrong way. I think one needs to be careful about assuming that Iraq has become a benign environment or that Iraqis have suddenly decided they love Americans. Neither one of those things are true. I think what you’ve got though is a collection of choices by people under pressure that lately, for the last six months, have been for the good, and that the challenge, given that choices can change and minds can change, is to keep them from changing. And again, my concern is that if we don’t play our cards right we won’t do that.
ROBERT MCMAHON: So, with that bit of qualified travel endorsement from Steve, we’re going to end. I want to thank everyone for taking part today and thanks very much to Steve Biddle for his perspective on Iraq. Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you, Ladies and gentlemen. This does conclude today’s teleconference. You may disconnect.