IRAQ: Editorial Briefing with Robert C. Orr

February 16, 2005

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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Robert C. Orr

Robert C. Orr the director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Washington program, was a member of a five-person team sent, at the U.S. government’s request, on a June 27-July 7 fact-finding mission to Iraq. The team’s report recommended a series of measures to "win the peace." On July 17, 2003, Orr participated in a Council-sponsored conference call to brief editorial-page editors at U.S. newspapers on the trip and the report’s conclusions. Following is an edited transcript of the briefing: Other Briefings

What is the headline from your trip?

There are a couple headlines. This is an amazingly large and ambitious project that the United States has undertaken in Iraq, and the challenges that we are reading about in the papers every day are very real. At the same time, the challenges in the different parts of Iraq look different. We’re reading most about the heavy security challenges in what is generally called the Sunni triangle in the middle of the country. There’s a very different reality in the north, as well as in the south-central and the southern regions.

We need to look at all of those different pieces to understand that, after addressing the security concerns, there is a screaming need to get economic activity restarted in Iraq. There is not a functioning economy at this point, and idle hands do not bode well for the future there. I think also there is agreement among all of us on this mission that now is the time to build a new reconstruction coalition. There was a very successful coalition that won the war, but we need a brand-new coalition, a much broader coalition, to win this peace. And that will have to involve a number of countries and institutions that were not involved in any way during the war.

Are you optimistic about the prospects of the United States and Britain turning over the governance of Iraq to a local authority within the next two or three or four years?

This is a huge challenge. The time frame that you mentioned is very important. If you’re talking two to five years, then, yes, I am optimistic that we can make this work. A lot of people are talking about six months, a year, eighteen months; I think that is much less realistic. This is a long-term commitment. The United States will need to keep a significant presence on the ground. The Iraqis are ready to take some things over. But the fact is, when Iraqis say, "We want you to leave as soon as possible," and we reply, "Okay, when should that be?," they push the timeline back a few years. They know that they won’t be ready to manage the security situation for years. I think we have to be in this for the long haul.

Tell us about what you found in the north and south of Iraq, and give us an idea if the picture we’re getting is generally more pessimistic than it should be because most of the stories are coming out of central Iraq.

Up in the north, things are much more prosperous. The Kurds and other populations in the north have learned how to work together over the last decade. They’ve built a base of prosperity, and there is a budding democratic politics, so it feels and looks very different from the other regions. In the south, as well as south-central, the majority Shiite areas, there are great expectations. [Shiites] understand what democracy means for them, that if promises are followed through to have a democracy, the Shiites will have an ability to control their own destiny for the first time in decades. That is very appealing to them. That said, there are a lot of other agents working in each of these zones. It’s not that we only have to worry about the triangle and the active resistance there. In the Shiite areas in the south and in the central area there are still violent attacks, there are moves by groups outside Iraq to try to influence the population; certainly Iran is involved with that. We saw evidence of Wahaabi [a conservative school of Islam] influences from Saudi Arabia. A lot of people are trying to shape the Shiite environment in the south and the south-central part of Iraq.

Is our view too negative because we’re focused on the triangle? I don’t think it is. Until we get the security situation straightened out in the triangle, and in Baghdad, normal politics and normal economics won’t be possible throughout the country.

Does the United States need to increase the number of forces it has in Iraq? Did the team address that?

We did look at this question. Our conclusion on it was that there is a military review under way. While I am not an expert [on] force numbers, we did note that American and coalition presence was very light in a number of areas where the people on the ground said they needed some more support. Perhaps even more important than the troop-numbers question is the troop-composition question. You can meet security needs through different sources. You can do that with American troops, you can do it with international non-American troops, and you can do it with Iraqis. A lot of the uses of American forces currently are to defend static positions: to defend electricity pylons, for example. There are two-and-a-half battalions defending the palace in Baghdad, to secure that. If we can hire Iraqis, many of whom have the skills and are unemployed, to provide a lot of that static security, it would release a number of American forces to go do other things that are necessary. The Pentagon is definitely looking at this question right now and [at] numbers. I would think our competence is really to say that the numbers question is one to be looked at but so is the composition question, internationally and inside Iraq.

And the effort to win "hearts and minds?"

That is absolutely crucial. The military officials on the ground and in CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] have said that the attacks [on soldiers], while organized, are no strategic threat to this mission. While that is true, I think militarily we have to keep in mind the parallel reality of the politics of the country. There is a large, frozen group of Iraqis in the middle who did not support and hated Saddam Hussein but who are not actively supporting the coalition or the United States simply because they’re terrified that Saddam might come back. They’ve seen this before. And those fears are being fed by clandestine tapes and rumor mills. Until people feel safe enough to step out and put their necks on the line, I don’t think we can be said to be winning this either. The hearts and minds campaign is, really, first providing security, and second providing basic services. Electricity, water, sanitation--all are in short supply, and a number of Iraqis expressed great frustration that, even after the first Gulf War, as one Iraqi put it, "Even those thugs of Saddam got the services up and running in two months. Here we are three months later and you Americans, who are magic workers, still haven’t managed to do it." So we need to get the security straight, and we need to provide some basic services. Then the political opportunities and the hearts and minds will take care of themselves.

Are you optimistic that the United States can find a compromise with France and Germany and perhaps other nations that are refusing to send troops unless they are placed under the umbrella of the United Nations?

A number of countries would like a more explicit U.N. blessing of this mission and an outlining of rights and responsibilities before they commit troops. India [on July 14] said it was not willing to do so without another U.N. resolution on this. The Defense Department is negotiating with a number of other countries. [Pentagon officials] and Secretary [of State Colin] Powell are looking at this question: is another U.N. resolution possible and would it bring in a whole new set of troop contributors? India saying "No" was a wake-up call, one that we need to heed. Once [administration officials] find out from other troop contributors that a U.N. resolution might help, I think there is some flexibility on that within the U.S. government now. And if [a new resolution is passed], I think they can get a significant number of troops.

The parallel issue that isn’t getting [as much] attention is the need for qualified civilians. There’s a huge demand on the ground for everything from agricultural engineers to electricity engineers, road builders, accountants, and bankers. Because of the security situation, not all those civilians are getting into the theater. We need to get serious about recruiting not only American civilians but international civilians who can start to meet some of those needs. In our report we recommend a decentralized model. We need to set up 18 little [L. Paul] Bremers [the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority], one in each of the provinces. People who can deliver the services.

Did you meet with Sergio Vieira de Mello, the special U.N. representative to Iraq?

Yes, we had a brief meeting with him and then a couple of follow-up meetings with some of his people. The United Nations has a relatively small team there. They are a very expert group. They have a high percentage of Arabic speakers, which are in short supply in the coalition. The United Nations has had people on the ground for a number of years, so it has a number of connections and linkages to the people that we need to take advantage of. I think [there will be negotiations about] which specific tasks the United Nations takes a lead on and on which things it [takes a supporting role]. The United Nations has run the largest and only effective food distribution system in all of Iraq in recent years.

Is food still being distributed?

Yes. [When we asked Iraqis] if it was important that this food continued to flow or was it becoming irrelevant [because] other opportunities were springing up, the answer we got back, from those of higher means and lower means, was that they continued to need the food baskets that the United Nations was providing through the Oil for Food Program.

What is your opinion about the progress being made pacifying the country, especially in Baghdad and the area north of Baghdad? Do you have any recommendations to speed the pacification effort?

The key security issue is, first, protection for the coalition so it can do its business. Second, [protection] for Iraqis, in particular key Iraqis working with the coalition. And also providing a general sense of security among the population at large. There is no sense of security in any part of the country except perhaps the north. Even in the Shiite areas that are terribly happy to be liberated of Saddam, [people] can’t move around freely. We need to provide a level of security that gets average Iraqis feeling like they can live their lives.

In terms of how we might speed this up, the military strategy of going after the bad guys needs to continue at the same time [that] we dramatically expand and accelerate the hiring and training of Iraqi police and security guards. [And] we could bring in a lot more outside private security [personnel to] oversee a lot of the training and the follow-up of getting these Iraqi forces stood up. That is not necessarily something American soldiers have a comparative advantage in.

Is the situation getting better generally, gradually, or is it pretty much the same?

On the security side, it’s not getting better in the triangle, and there’s kind of a status quo feel to large parts of the country because of this phenomenon of the frozen population, as I call it, that just doesn’t want to commit itself to anything yet.

The one area that Ambassador Bremer has rightly targeted and has really been pushing is the Iraqi Governing Council. Getting that set up was a huge effort and a very important one. That council is going to have a lot of weight on its shoulders here, and we’ll have to see if they’re up to it. But the fact is Iraqis want to see Iraqis in control, so making that process succeed is very important. The U.S. military and the coalition forces have set up town councils all over the country, and Iraqis are getting involved in expressing their views and starting to take control of their destiny. We need to make sure that those local views are getting reflected up to the national level and that there’s not a split between the national governing structures and these incipient local structures. We need to make sure that there are some resources so that when the local folks decide that sewage and schools are their top two priorities that in fact we can make sure that they can pay for sewers and schools and that their views on the constitutional process get pushed up the chain to this national council.

Is one of the problems in Iraq that no one defines the postwar tasks as their job?

Certainly, in historic terms, you’re absolutely right that postwar missions tend to be orphans. The troops have not been trained to do a lot of the things they’re being asked to do. That’s the bad news. The good news is that they have jumped into areas and made things work that is not in their bailiwick and you don’t hear a lot of grousing among the troops. A lot of the young soldiers feel very good about being able to rebuild communities, but they’ve done just about everything they can do on that front, and to take this to the next step, we really need to get civilians in there with pots of money who can really make an economy work, who can train a police force, who can make sure that the electricity supply is uninterrupted.

Would it be useful to hire American civilians, police officers, people like that, to perform policing duties in Iraq?

Absolutely. We need not only American police officers, we need Jordanian police officers, we need Italian carabinieri, you name it. We need police and we need them now, both to train and to walk the beat with existing police. We are hiring back a lot of the old police. They are not terribly proficient at a lot of things, and they are not terribly trusted, but with proper oversight in some areas they’ve shown promise. We need to get a lot of police out there and we need to, as we say in the report, open all spigots. We need a full-blown recruiting effort on an international basis.

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