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White: Time to Set a 2008 Date for U.S. Troop Withdrawal

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Wayne White
February 28, 2006

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Wayne White, who was the State Department’s top intelligence analyst on Iraq from 2003-2005, says he is “very gloomy” about the situation in Iraq, and advocates that the United States set a “date certain” two years from now for a U.S. troop withdrawal. He suggests that Washington use the intervening time to condition U.S. support on the Iraqis putting aside sectarian differences.

“If things haven’t shaped up at that point, there’s not much we’re going to be able to do beyond that date to make this thing work,” says White, currently an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Institute. “It does give us time to phase down our presence, to adjust, and one thing that should be done throughout this process is to make our support conditional.” He praised U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad for doing just that.

What’s your general appraisal of the situation in Iraq? Do you see some light at the end of the tunnel?

I’m very gloomy about the situation, and frankly I’ve been fairly downbeat from the beginning. There has been continual mismanagement in Iraq. But I think the most disturbing thing happened very early on in the occupation. As we entered Baghdad, and immediately thereafter, there was this massive looting of the country. And there are provisions in both The Hague and the Geneva Conventions for the protection of civil order—etc. plunder, looting, things like that—which should be brought to a halt. It wasn’t, and effectively every ministry of government, with the exception of oil, which of course has started various conspiracy theories on why it was protected, was burned and sacked, along with the National Bank, the archives, also state industries, and the national electric grid. That put us so far behind the eight ball that there was no possibility within any reasonable amount of time for the occupiers to present Iraqis a better and higher standard of living than they had had even under sanctions. And in many ways, it set us back so far that even after the efforts of three years, dogged all along by insurgents, we have not returned to the [prewar] levels that prevailed in Iraq of industrial activity, jobs, and electricity generation.

I was just reading the article in Foreign Affairs by your former colleague at the CIA, Paul Pillar, and he says—which surprised me—that the intelligence community before the invasion had actually laid out all the problems that were going to happen, including the disruptions, the difficulty of keeping order, keeping a unified Iraq together, etc. Were you part of that team?

Actually, no, but there’s an interesting answer. First of all, I do not think the intelligence community warned as thoroughly as it could have before that time. I was actually deputy director of the State Department’s Intelligence and Research (INR) office and was only drawn heavily into the Iraq loop in February 2003, well after I learned some of this was going on, and then I finally took over completely in March.

And having been anIraqanalyst in the 80s, and run the division on Iraq in the 90s, I was basically asked to drop all my other responsibilities and take over as head of our Iraq team.

I see. So you were a pretty latecomer to this.

Exactly. I was aware of what was going on but I was a latecomer and was not seated at the table in the prewar estimates. But I was in enough, in the last two months before the war, particularly in chats, in conferences over what would be done in a postwar scenario and during hostilities with the military and others, to sense there was a significant lack of knowledge of some of the basic responsibilities even under the Geneva Convention on the part of our military, which I found very striking. For instance, in the course of two meetings, I discovered there were a number of people within the military, CENTCOM to be specific, that were under the impression that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were responsible for the treatment of enemy wounded and not them. And I had to say: one, you better read Chapter 16 of the Geneva Conventions, and two, there aren’t too many NGOs who operate on active battlefields. I was stunned by some of this very basic lack of grounding, far above and far from the estimates that people often talk about. We’re talking about very basic things here, and that’s one of the reasons why I think looting was allowed to go on, because people weren’t sufficiently aware of their responsibilities.

And, of course, the argument has been made there weren’t enough troops present either.

That’s true. There absolutely were not enough troops, and I think that the claims that the military’s requests were honored with respect to the number of troops required are somewhat suspect, considering the fact we know that occasionally what happened was somebody asked for a certain amount of troops, then they were told that was not going to happen and they were asked to come back with another number.

We know that the Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki, was pushed out, and the same for the Secretary of the Army, Thomas White, for advocating considerably more invasion troops.

Exactly. There weren’t enough troops there and what I found out anecdotally myself is that particularly absent in this extremely lean force were what we would call CivAd, civil administrative military units, MPs, things like that. And that was a very, very bad mistake. I know, for example, a battalion commander of an entire CivAd unit—he was a reservist—and he was begging to be deployed with his unit, sensing himself the responsibilities that would be needed, and he could not be deployed.

Well, let’s jump to the current situation. The administration has outlined several approaches: one is to build up the Iraqi military and police; second, to try to get a more cohesive government, getting the Sunnis involved in working with the Shiites. That second goal seems very dicey right now.

Terribly so. And I have to admit the efforts on the part of those vicious aspects of the largely Sunni Arab insurgency, most specifically Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s people, have been rather successful in stoking Shiite anger, sending tensions as high as possible. But there have been other mistakes. Because we don’t have enough troops in the country, in a number of military operations, such as the operations along the Euphrates River this past summer, the U.S. Army used ethno-sectarian militias alongside them.

And in many cases the units being listed as part of the Iraqi army that are ready for combat alongside coalition forces, the vast bulk of them are overwhelmingly Kurdish or Shiite. And past practice tells us that if they are moved into combat in Sunni Arab areas where they’re going to have to go into towns, like Fallujah and Ramadi, a lot of the Sunni Arabs that were originally in the unit, desert, unwilling to fight their co-religionists. And so now you’re stuck with Shiite or Kurdish units; if we continually turn over duty to such units we’re really setting the stage for a civil war. They’re essentially deploying units that almost, as they stand now, could function as Shiite or Kurdish units in the context of a civil war. And a lot of such brigades have operated alongsideU.S.forces in the upper Euphrates.

I didn’t realize that.

Kurdish militias have been used to restore order in Mosul, in Sunni Arab neighborhoods, when the police fled in 2004 during the Fallujah operation, and Kurds were used to put down insurgents on the Syrian border. And so this deployment of militias, which are lopsidedly Kurdish or Shiite units of the regular army, is a very, very disturbing trend. We have to remember when we tried to put together a Lebanese army back in the early 1980s what happened was that either units that were already heavily of one sectarian group or another simply were moved to areas of their own people or other units simply fragmented, with people just simply joining up with the relevant sectarian militias. Not enough attention has been given to balance in these units. In other words, instead of just saying a unit is battle-worthy because of what its capabilities are with its weapons, we should add another condition: balance. And that, as far as I can see, is not being done.

In other words, you don’t think there are really any really solid units out of mixed Sunnis and Shiites?

No, I can’t point to one. And frankly, all the ones that are fairly well along, fifty some, are only in a second category anyway, not being able to operate alone, which at this late date is not very encouraging to start with, but even among them, I would say, as they become operational they could become operational in a very dangerous fashion. If left to themselves, they could engage in human rights violations, what-have-you. They’re training in the context of their ethnic or sectarian affiliation.

It does sound like Lebanon, doesn’t it?

There are other reasons behind what’s going on, and one is governance. And I think when you really look at the entire situation across the board, what you see is a political system that has failed to mature. It is very frightening to me and a number of other people inside and outside of government, three years after being in Iraq, after all these political benchmarks have been passed—elections, referendums, etc.—that now, finally, what is supposed to be a permanent sovereign government for four years, is a political field dominated by the same exile parties, the same parties affiliated with Iran and other outside powers or exclusively with certain ethnic and sectarian groups dominating the situation. And all of us, even the most pessimistic analysts and observers, thought that by this time we would have seen a large surge of people who had been indigenous to the country, who weren’t exiled, and represented people with much different ties to their communities,

Why do you think we haven’t seen new faces?

That’s a very good question. I can’t completely answer it. But one is just simply the way the relationships have developed as this political process has moved along. Opportunities have been given to people who already have existing structures giving them a significant advantage. And there are many Iraqis who are looking at this situation, seeing the violence, seeing the fact that a number of these political parties have militias to support them, who are afraid to get involved in politics because of the perils involved in doing so. In Sunni Arab areas, the threat of assassination is so serious that not only have a lot of people not stepped up to join in the political process, but many who have, have either been killed, kidnapped, or they have been threatened to the point where they have stepped down from city councils and other jobs. Look at al-Anbar, the huge province in northwestern Iraq, dominated by Sunni Arabs, where you find Fallujah and Ramadi. We’ve had a governor assassinated, assassination attempts against another governor. It’s a very dangerous occupation, being in government, in certain areas.

If the U.S. troops announce a pullout day, which has been advocated by a number of different Iraqis, would that change the situation or not? Would that help or make it worse?

It depends on how that’s handled. I have actually advocated doing so myself. I find myself in a middle ground. There are those who advocate an immediate withdrawal. I think people who say that often are people who do not appreciate that the country has not stabilized sufficiently to avoid a civil war to permit a rapid withdrawal. Nor do they understand the costs of a withdrawal. Withdrawing 140,000 troops and millions of tons of what the military justly calls impedimenta along with them in the face of a robust resistance, and in the face of probably increased anger and resistance on parts of even the population that had supported us and now would be angered by being abandoned, would incur a tremendous number of casualties.

I could easily see 500 killed and maybe 2,000 or 3,000 wounded on the part of just American forces trying to pull out in a sixty to a 120-day period. So it’s a very dangerous scenario. My feeling is we should set a date certain about two years out. If things haven’t shaped up at that point, there’s not much we’re going to be able to do beyond that date to make this thing work, and it does give us time to phase down our presence, to adjust; and one thing that should be done throughout this process is to make our support conditional.

I have to admit that I am glad to hear what I’m hearing from U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad right now, which is something he’s been much criticized for, and that is saying if there are human rights violations, if there are going to be abuses on the parts of ethnic, sectarian militias, then we will withhold support. And this is the way it has to be. It’s an unfortunate development that maybe we have to become adversarial to some degree. But if nothing else works, you have to make your support—meaning financial, and training and other things—conditional on certain acceptable modes of behavior on the part of the government, and I think he’s doing that.

And these are the kinds of things one could do during that kind of a period. People who want to stay for the duration tend not to have much of a plan [to] use that time wisely, and that’s why I don’t think staying indefinitely is a good way to go. And the other thing is, I think, putting a date two years out there is so far out that if the insurgents are waiting for opportunities, they’ll wait so long that large numbers of Iraqi forces will become deployable during that period. And so I’m not as frightened about setting a date certain. And then finally, it lights a fire under people in Baghdad. The Americans are not going to be here in order to muck you up, and so you have to take a lot more seriously getting your own act in order. Some people would argue that people would think, well, you see, we’ll just basically fight from our own ethnic or sectarian perspective, but I think others recognize the price of that, and actually might think that to avoid devastating violence, getting down to business with say, Sunni Arabs and have compromises and real concessions might be the way to avoid a very, very serious situation.

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