Iraq: Assessing the Surge

Thursday, December 4, 2008

DEBORAH AMOS: I'd like to welcome you today to the Council on Foreign Relations meeting. Please enjoy your coffee while we are talking. In about 25 minutes we will ask for questions from the audience.

Just a couple of housekeeping announcements: Please turn off your cell phones, not even on vibrate. And this meeting today is on the record. These are two book authors, and so what they have to say is also contained in books, so we have put it back on the record.

We have two very distinguished authors. Their books are outside. Bing West says you have to buy one. (Chuckles.) And I'll mention it again at the end of our talk, to remind you that books are on sale.

On my left -- both are on my left -- on my far left is Linda Robinson, and she's the author of "Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq." Linda is now an author in residence at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at John(s) Hopkins University. Her previous books focused on the U.S. military, and she's also a contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report.

And Bing West -- his latest book, "The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics and the Endgame in Iraq" -- has had a long and distinguished military career. And I didn't think you could actually do this. He also has a long and distinguished career as a journalist. He was named as one of the top 10 journalists covering the war in Iraq by the L.A. Times.

Our topic today is "Assessing the Surge." And there's not two better people in the world that I can think to talk about this. They've both written extensively about it. And in preparing for the meeting today, I did some surveying of opinions among people who care a lot about this topic, and one comment sticks in my mind, from a young officer, a specialist in counterinsurgency. And you'll recognize his -- the way he phrases this. He said his assessment was the surge was operational genius but not political success.

And let's start with you, Linda. I wonder if you agree with that assessment.

LINDA ROBINSON: Well, I would put it in the following way. I think that what the surge did was to provide a chance for an acceptable outcome, an acceptable endgame.

I think that they, in the course of 2007-2008, General Petraeus and all the people associated with the effort, including some Iraqis and including Ambassador Ryan Crocker, managed to undo or mitigate many of the errors, of 2003-2006, that gave rise to what had become a civil war by the end of that year.

But really what's left to be done and what I outlined, in the last chapter of the book, is what I would call the political endgame. I think the military part of the mission is largely done. We can talk about that in more detail. But I would say roughly that's how I see it.

AMOS: All right.

Bing, would you say that it was operational genius but political failure?

FRANCIS "BING" WEST: I'll leave the politics to Linda.

I wouldn't use the word genius. If you drop back and say, what was the surge and why was it a success, the critical variable was the turn of the Sunnis, who had been our enemy, into our ally. And that actually -- there were always two wars that were entirely separate in Iraq.

There was the western front in Anbar province, where 40 percent of our casualties came. And then there was the Baghdad and the region around Baghdad, with 40 percent.

The war was over in Anbar, in 2006, before the surge ever began, because the Sunnis had swapped sides and come over to our side. Then the surge began and the surge had three variables in it.

The first was the decision by the NSC staff, going around the Pentagon, to as they put it change the dynamic, by persuading the president to put in more troops, which signaled that he was going to try to prevail.

And the second was General Odierno and General Petraeus taking half of those troops and not putting them in Baghdad but using them in the ring around Baghdad.

And the third was, I thought, the brilliance of Petraeus simply coming up with what he called his big idea which was, don't commute to work.

Now why, in the Baghdad region, they had withdrawn, when they hadn't in Anbar, always remained unanswered. But once the American troops got back out there, and you had this attitude among the Sunnis that they now wanted to cooperate, it totally changed. And al Qaeda had no place to hide, and it became an unraveling of al Qaeda and, I would say, definitely a military success. But I agree with what Linda said; it's problematical, still, on the political side.

AMOS: Let me just ask the two of you quickly -- today in the paper there's a headline that the November attacks fell to the lowest levels since 2003. How would you order the reasons for the lowering of violence? Look to the Sadr cease-fire, the awakening, the surge, and ethnic cleansing to the extent that Baghdad became a predominantly Shi'ite city as the Sunnis left. How would you order them?

ROBINSON: I think it's very common in the debate here to separate these phenomena as unrelated, when in fact they're all related. And looking at it, and taking off from some of the things that Bing said, what the strategy of 2007, 2008 was, was to harness all of what -- they're called lines of operation -- to producing a political accommodation, and this outreach to the Sunni population was the critical thing that changed the tide of the war.

The violence of 2006, though, set the stage for that. The Sunni population was then ready to come in from the cold, the Sunni insurgents and their support base within the population. So you had what amounted to eventually 90,000 individuals coming in and signing up for the Sons of Iraq.

But there were also a series of other tactics that were employed simultaneously, not only the dispersion of the units into Baghdad neighborhoods where the violence was greatest, but a series of measures of securing the population, the walls around those neighborhoods and the markets, and biometric registry of the suspected insurgent population -- anyway, a whole constellation of things that combined to produce a counterinsurgency policy that was strategic in effect rather than simply tactical. What had been going on largely before then was the application of counterinsurgency principles in a tactical fashion episodically for certain tours of duty in certain areas, and it just wasn't coming together to produce the effect nationwide.

I do agree with Bing; there was the flipping of the insurgency in Anbar before Petraeus got there. And this is again one of these other things that turns into a debate that I think is not a real debate, because there were things then done critically in 2007 that produced the consolidation of the success in Anbar. Most notably, there was the operation in Ramadi on the military side.

But what I give most importance to were three steps that really institutionalized the coming in of these former Sunni insurgents.

One was the giving of seats on the Anbar provincial council to some of the awakening members. These were non-voting seats, but it was a critical foothold for them in the political system.

The second thing was Maliki's agreement to let large numbers of these former insurgents come into the police and the military in the -- and serve in the army in Anbar for at least their first tour of duty there. So they had a foothold in the security system of the new Iraq.

And then finally, Barham Salih and some other individuals -- the embassy worked very hard on this -- pumped a lot of money through supplementals out to the provinces, including very heavily to Anbar.

And those are the three ingredients that I think really are needed to apply nationally so that the Sunni population has a stake in the political system of Iraq, the security system and the economic system as well.

The other fact -- phenomenon that was going on on the Shi'a side that is very poorly understood -- and I think, frankly, has been poorly covered in the press -- was the very delicate work going on that resulted in the splitting of the Maliki faction and the Sadr faction, which culminated in Karbala in August 2007, where Sadrist forces had attacked the guards at one of the two shrines in Karbala. And for Maliki, that was the last straw. There had been the assassination of two governors in southern provinces over the summer of '07, and there had been the capture of a Lebanese Hezbollah operative and intelligence that was given to Maliki to show what Iran was doing and what Crocker, Ambassador Crocker, calls the Lebanonization of Iraq.

And that, I think, was really the key moment. Maliki decided that, whatever assurances the Iranian government had given about not arming -- and if they had been arming, they weren't going to continue arming -- he'd had it. And he personally went down to Karbala and led the counterattack, and then you had within two days Sadr declaring the cease-fire, which has held more or less.

And that's not to say that Sadrist forces don't have a political base, and they're part of a nationalist Shi'a base, which is a good thing. We can talk more about the Shi'a political spectrum there. But as far as the armed politics, the challenge now -- and I think this was the first step toward channeling the intra-Shi'a competition into the political realm rather than into the -- in the military realm.

AMOS: I know that -- I think you don't want to talk about the politics so much, and we'll come back to that. So let me just take one diversion. When I listen to Linda, those are very specific, and it sounds almost like a nation, Iraq. How much of that moves into Afghanistan? How much of the model that Linda just described can David Petraeus take with him?

WEST: I've only been to Afghanistan twice -- I was 15 times to Iraq -- but I've talked to a lot of the people there and I'll be doing a lot more work there. But I think we have to be very careful and very humble about what we're doing.

Look, David Petraeus is a good general, but the Sunnis had already decided to come over before he got there. If you look back, war is all about killing, and both sides have -- want to -- have to want to kill. Once the Sunni tribes decided they no longer wanted to kill us, that was about 65 percent, 70 percent of our casualties that just went away.

(Lengthy audio break.)

So the critical variable that caused everything in Iraq doesn't apply, and bringing over a general, no matter how brilliant, isn't going to change the dynamic on the ground. And so I think that we'd better prepare ourselves for kind of a long, hard slog, so to speak, in Afghanistan as long as we have that sanctuary.

AMOS: Let me go back to the politics, because I think neither one of you really addressed the second part of the earlier question, which is: The surge is one thing. It was supposed to open a space for a political reconciliation. Nobody even uses the word "reconciliation" anymore, hoping that we get something less. But there certainly has not been an accommodation yet that the Sunnis are comfortable with or happy with or think it's their share of the pie.

The SOFA agreement -- the Status of Forces Agreement -- comes into effect; the clock begins to tick. American influence in Iraq will be less and less and less. Is it possible for America to still have any way to influence a political settlement?

ROBINSON: Yes. I think that there has been an incremental process here that is perhaps somewhat obscured to people who don't follow this very closely. The -- what Petraeus did is he stopped treating the Sunni population as the enemy. Okay? He made that policy a nationwide policy against the wishes of the Iraqi government. So what had begun in Anbar, he applied country-wide.

At the same time, he was working, along with Crocker, behind closed doors. I mean, they went through a month-long process with the political deputies to the political parties and also a lot of head-banging with Maliki, but to hammer out some legislative compromises that have, in fact, been passed -- and the provincial powers law was one of them, a somewhat problematic de-Ba'athification law that probably still requires some amendment, and some other steps forward. But granted, this is just the beginning of the process.

And Petraeus never used the word "reconciliation," but they did use the word "political accommodation." And the -- to me, the Iraqi hero of this particular chapter is Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister, because he was -- as many do know -- the Kurdish politician who has most clearly articulated the vision that is going to hold Iraq together. He calls it the "grand bargain," but it's putting together these different moderate and secular segments into a governing coalition. He's been out front, but Talabani has backed him in many respects in terms of putting the Kurdish parochial interests second.

Now there's still a problem with Massoud Barzani, and there are a lot of parochial interests, and they're playing out right now. And that's going to be, I think, very -- part of the delicate work ahead, which is to walk back some of the maximalist designs on Kirkuk and reach a settlement there.

But there's much more that I think has been done behind the scenes and that can, if we are willing to stay the course politically and diplomatically, along with the U.N,, help them work out some of these bargains, because, on the part of the Kurds, the farsighted Kurds understand that their future is, for better or worse, tied to the future of Arab Iraq. To go their own way invites certain war with Turkey. That's the bottom line. They understand that for now they have to reach an accommodation that is going to hold Iraq together. And therefore Barham and other people have been working very hard to fashion some of these compromises between the Arab Shi'a and Sunni, and reach out to elements within those two factions that will -- that they can forge compromises with.

Many people just have this very monolithic view of the Iraqi political spectrum, and in fact each faction has numerous subsets. Many people don't know that the UIA, the Islamist coalition that won the December '05 elections, only had 128 seats out of 275 -- a plurality, not an outright majority. That coalition has since fractured and, I believe, will remain fractured.

The Sadrists, the much-commented Sadrist bloc, has 30 seats. You have another partly, the Fadhila Party, that has 15. It's a small but important party because it has a very strong claim to the Sadrist mantle as well.

So again, this is really going down into the microlevel of Iraqi politics, but it is what gives the possibility of forging new coalitions.

The Fadhila Party left the coalition in -- the coalition government in March '07, precisely because they were tired of the sectarian politics and did not like the sectarian direction the government was going. And so they are a force for good.

I firmly believe the Islamist parties are going to be part of any future coalition government. But I do not believe even the Shi'a population in its majority wants an Islamist sectarian or theocratic government. I think we've overplayed the sectarian aspect of Iraq. I can't tell you how many hundreds of Iraqis have told me, you all make too much of this. I have a Shi'a cousin. I have a Sunni neighbor; my, you know, intermarriage.

This is very much the reality of Iraq. And I think that we need to remain open to their own evolution. And we've also, I think, underplayed the nationalism of Iraqis. They do not want to be the 51st state of Iran. And that is going to, I think, help pull together some of these coalition governments of the future.

A key goal, I think, should be to ensure that the December '09 elections are carried out in the free and fairest manner and under the same electoral rules that have been adopted, for next month's provincial elections, i.e., open-list elections, so that you do not have the party bosses naming the political leaders.

What you need are the independent and grassroots politicians to rise up and be representing those local areas. And the Shi'a party, in particular the ISCI party, has its own designs that are not conducive to stability in Iraq going forward. So we need to be very clear about who's who in the Shi'a spectrum.

AMOS: You are fairly optimistic. There's debate about that. I read plenty that says it's not as good as that. However where it is has as much to do with American pressure, diplomatic pressure over these years. We are now in the endgame in Iraq. And there are two things, two parts to it; exit and strategy.

Is the military ready? And do they, in getting ready to leave, have a different way of dealing with the politics of Iraq? That, you know, what Linda just described, has to do with General Petraeus and Ryan Crocker spending every waking hour beating these guys into submission. And still and still there is no accommodation.

WEST: Look, the war is over. We're back to Middle East politics. And you have more or less interest, in Middle East politics or geopolitics, depending on how much leisure time you have. (Laughter.)

Given our economy, we're out of time. So this whole issue is going to be page 15 of The New York Times for the next several years. It's no longer going to be page one.

The amount of leverage has gone down tremendously because of the Status of Forces Agreement. People like the Marines just want out of there. There's no more fighting. They don't know what they're doing there. So we're using them, to a large extent, because we feel we owe the Sunnis, who were our enemy, a buffer against the government that we put in, the Shi'ite that is so oppressive toward them that when we get out of there, they're really going to grind them down.

Maliki is Maliki. He's overconfident. His goals are not our goals. And how that sorts itself out, as Linda was indicating, depends upon six to seven different variables in a calculus that will go on and on and on as politics go on, but it's not a war. It's not a military problem. So I think you're going to see the Pentagon doing all they can to get us out of there on a steady glide path and leave the State Department to deal with the politics.

Our military now is focused toward Afghanistan and western Pakistan and they're concerned about it, because it's a ticking time bomb. The issue is, when do we get a Bombay in New York City? I mean, if you look at it in those terms, it kind of sort of says where our military's going to be focused. A problem that they recognize more than anything else is our enemies -- al Qaeda and al Qaeda are sitting in western Pakistan, not in Iraq. Iraq is yesterday's newspaper for our military.

AMOS: I'm going to open up to questions -- to all of you. I figure you finished with your coffee. Please identify yourself when you stand up. You were first? And the mike will come quickly.

QUESTIONER: My name is Roland Paul. I'm a lawyer. However, a long time ago, I was at the Pentagon in ISA. But you made a -- maybe you can explain something. When they decided on the surge -- and you mentioned this, Mr. West, that the Pentagon wasn't in favor of the surge. It was General Jack Keane and a guy at the NSC. Why was the Pentagon taking that kind of position? In other words, they were reconciled to defeat, and that surprises me a lot.

WEST: You know, I spent a lot of time with them, talking with them. And I like Casey, who's the -- who's the chairman of the Army. And Linda was tougher on him than I was in my book. And I can understand both sides of it. But Casey kept saying something, and I think -- I think it was shared by -- it was shared pretty widely, which is, he kept saying, "I don't want to see one American dying because an Iraqi soldier isn't dying."

In other words, it -- there was a resentment that was building up there, and it was this notion that yes, things were really bad in Baghdad, but you couldn't get Maliki or the government to do much about them. And I think that this whole notion of going a different way was bumping into a lot of resentment, and the Pentagon was just really unwilling to say, "We're going to put more troops in there." That really came right out of the NSC. And then General Keane came from the outside, but the NSC really started it.

And then later, gradually, the military came on board a little bit at a time. By mid-December, Casey was saying, "Okay, I'll take two more brigades." And then General Odierno was doing back-channels with General Petraeus and saying, "No, no. Give us all five, give us all five." So it was a gradual thing that was going on. But I detected more than anything else what was -- the reason there was reluctance was that they were just pissed off at what the Iraqis weren't doing. Excuse my language. (Laughter.)

AMOS: Back there.

QUESTIONER: Jeff Laurenti at The Century Foundation. Does the seeming improvement in security in Iraq also redound to the political benefit of the current Iraqi political class, the Baghdad political class? That is, do they look stronger politically in the eyes of Iraqis? Do they get kind of bonus points going into next year's provincial and parliamentary elections?

We recall that a few years ago everybody was talking about the secular Iraqi strengths, and it turned out to be a piffle, you know, a couple percentage points for Allawi, Washington's favorite son. How do you see next year's two sets of elections rescrambling the Iraqi political omelet?

ROBINSON: Well, I think Maliki, no doubt, comes out stronger. And Dawa, that party is currently attempting to enlarge itself by recruiting some of the Sadr nationalist base to grow their grassroots in the turnout, in their showing in the elections. But I think we're obviously -- with all these parties, we're looking at coalitions of politics as the wave of the future. And the grand bargain that -- (name inaudible) -- would like to cut is to peel off elements of the main parties, including the ISCI party, the Adil Abdul-Mahdi faction.

But he's not the major portion of ISCI. And a major portion of that has a very set agenda. They're the closest party to Iran. And they have still the vision of having a large super-region, in the south, that in my view will really increase the centrifugal forces, in that country, and would probably be the worst thing that could happen to Iraq.

The much-promised constitutional revisions never occurred. And I think that has still got to be looked at. And that will be something that, I think, while Iraq is going to move off the front pages, and that's actually a good thing, actually the endgames of wars are often better done diplomatically, with low profile and not a lot of heat and more light.

So I think that's a good thing. But what they have to do is really hash out the nature of the Iraqi state that's going to balance the federal, the central and regional powers. And I think that there's been a lot of dialogue. But I think that the U.N., a good U.S. diplomat not just in the embassy, but I think there needs to be an envoy that will be devoted to Iraq, to try to broker this deal.

I think that the Iraqis -- if we just leave Iraq alone, there will be very likely a consolidation of the Islamist-Shi'a control. And they do -- there are definitely people there, people around Maliki, who are all about the winner take all.

You know, Iraq is a very rich prize. It's a very important country. And they do not want to let go of it. And I believe that the danger with that scenario is, it's not stable internally, because you have these very substantial minorities, the Sunnis and the Kurd. And they will, they will resist that. And I believe the war could very easily start up again.

It also makes for regional instability, because the Arab-Sunni states around Iraq will not embrace that new Iraq. And there will be continued hostility from Jordan and the gulf states. And instead, if you are willing to put your shoulder to the wheel diplomatically, and I'm not suggesting, at all, this is going to be easy.

But if you can get Iraq stabilized through some additional political accommodations within Iraq's power-sharing agreement -- that's really what we're talking about -- you would then get more Arab-Sunni state support for Iraq, and then this natural balance starting, the geopolitical balance of power that is necessary to stabilize the region.

And I'm not talking about a hostile coalition against Iran. You know, it's just Iran is there and it's going to have its role in the region. But I think this has to be part of the vision for the broader Middle East. And I say this knowing the council has just put out a Middle East report yesterday, which I was on a plane and didn't get to get a copy of, so I'll read that with interest.

But I do think -- and I know there are other things going on -- Afghanistan. There is going to be a military focus there, although if I may put my two cents in quickly, if we put a lot of boots on the ground there and misinterpret the lessons of Iraq as simply pumping in troops there, we're going to go badly wrong. And I think there are very important lessons to learn from Iraq for Afghanistan.

I would suggest that we need to be very cautious about what our objectives are in Afghanistan, because that is a -- for anyone who's been there, it's an extraordinary place, but it's in the 17th century, it has warlord politics, an opium economy. And if we think the American people are ready for a massive endeavor over there, we got another think coming. We need to be clear about our objectives, and I think we need to focus on the FATA in Pakistan and be modest about Afghanistan.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. I'm Malcolm Wiener and I'm unemployed. Thank you both for -- (laughter) -- thank you both for really splendid, fine-grained presentations.

I'd like to ask quickly -- first, Dr. Robinson mentioned Kirkuk, and I wonder how you visualize the accommodation, the possibility of accommodation there.

And secondly, you've just spoken about the tensions within Maliki's coalition and the fact that there are still some Shi'a around him who want to take it all. But his thinking also seems to have evolved. Initially he was furious with Ambassador Crocker's predecessor for reaching out towards the Sunnis, and then seemed to have tried a preemptive strike by arresting some of the leading Awakening sheikhs at one point. Has he come around, or is he still rather torn between two approaches?

ROBINSON: Maliki is evolving. And I appreciate that comment because I did say people around Maliki. And I think it's quite possible Maliki could be the next prime minister. We don't know. I'm not going to make any predictions. But there are three individuals who are extremely sectarian and they have -- and they're often quoted in the press without any mention of what their actual role and inclinations are.

But the evolution Maliki's undergone is he's understood -- and this was really an eye-opening for him when he saw what Iran was doing, and he is a nationalist first and foremost, which is another thing in favor of his continued leadership.

The Kirkuk problem is -- and I think that -- Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy, has taken this on. And I think it's -- there are some potential formulas that are in development. But Massoud Barzani has got to be put back in the box and their expansionism has to be reigned in. And that's just absolutely critical. It is -- I think it's really going to upset the apple cart if Kirkuk is just simply annexed to Kurdistan and you're going to have a conflict there.

What's the job of diplomacy? Find creative solutions. And that's why, again, I just make my plea -- everywhere I'm going to talk -- is, you know, we have no doubt the combat mission in Iraq is over. I mean, I wouldn't go so far as to say the war is over, but I think our job now there is to influence, through a residual force -- influence and gain awareness of all these complicated politics and do a major diplomatic mission to try to reach the political end-game.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. It's my impression from reading --

AMOS: Identify yourself, please.

QUESTIONER: Oh, sorry. Sam Speedie (ph). In reading media coverage, it's still my understanding that electricity provision is sporadic at best, that schools, hospitals, and roads are unbuilt. Leaving aside whether the United States is currently capitalized to take on that element of reconstruction, where does that stand in the recently negotiated security framework, as a kind of a fundamental promise to Iraqis?

WEST: You mean in terms -- you mean in terms of reconstruction?

QUESTIONER: Yeah. In terms of the --

WEST: We're out of that business.

QUESTIONER: We're out of that business.

WEST: We pumped $20 billion in and in went down a sinkhole. And you know, what Linda was saying about, you know, be careful and modest in what you're doing with your objectives, I couldn't agree more. I mean, why should a country awash with its own petro-dollars that we know is saying behind the scenes, "Let the Americans spend their money," why should we be doing that for them? So they can't get electricity. Leave it up to them to fix it.

And when we look at Afghanistan, if we're going to be modest about our objectives, we better be gosh-darn careful. I mean, 17th century -- maybe the 9th century, they're hurtling into. But this idea that the American military is going to go in and go nation building and economic reconstructing, et cetera, I think is a bridge too far. I think we've gone too far with some of our objectives. I don't know what we got for the $20 billion that we've put in.

QUESTIONER: Yeah. Just to follow up, I couldn't agree with you more, but what are the long-term strategic -- what's the long-term strategic downside for the United States, given that --

WEST: Well, if they don't have enough electricity, pfft, nothing. Because they'd figure it out for themselves.

ROBINSON: If I might just add, there is a major contract, actually, $8 billion contract, I believe. The major -- Siemens and other companies are going in there. Iraq's a rich country, and there'll be a private-sector solution to it.

But there actually was great progress made increasing the power available during the '07-'08 period. And of course, as the violence went down -- and I'm sorry I can't quote for you the megawattage that they're up to now, but it is back up to prewar levels, as is the oil output.

Now, that's not to say that's a great outcome for that amount of money and that amount of time, but -- and this is one of the things about Petraeus's leadership, and I do think that it's important to note -- here was a man who was willing to wade into the politics. He was willing to do a lot of things that other generals would not be willing to do. And I think that is important to note, that this particular type of general -- it's not that he doesn't have his personal flaws; he's a very politically ambitious man -- but his willingness to take things on and his tenacity.

And this power problem was one thing. There was a Tower 57 that was supplying power into Baghdad and it was constantly being attacked by the Sadrist militia, JAM, and he would not let that problem go. And he called the minister of electricity and said, you know, "Your job -- I'm going to be going after your job if you don't get onto this." And he had back channels to the Sadrist militias and said, "If you guys don't start attacking -- stop attacking this and let these repair crews get in there, I'm going to send the Iraqi special operations forces after you."

I mean, he just kept on it. Every day in the BUA, he would ask at morning briefing, "What's up with this? What's going on? Who did what last night?" And that kind of follow-up eventually produced results there. So I think, you know, even while it's not great, Baghdad -- when I was there in September, I was astonished at how much better it was even since my previous trip early in the year before I had to wrap up the manuscript in June. So I think that we just always need to be -- it's easy to reach facile conclusions about Iraq. But it's a lot more complicated picture than people realize.

(Cross talk.)

WEST: I keep harkening back to Anbar.

Anbar had nothing, I mean, nothing. The Baghdad government wouldn't give them the back of their hands. And yet it was out of Anbar that the Sunni tribes first said, we're swinging over, not out of Baghdad, where we were trying to build up the electricity.

So I am not persuaded of the emerging doctrine that you proffer economic good to people, for nothing, and that you win their hearts and minds. And then you give them good governance. I'm not persuaded that we can get all that, that way. Nor am I persuaded that we have to, in order to have an effective military.

(Cross talk.)

QUESTIONER: What do you see as Iran's endgame? I mean, they can watch the clock also and see us prepare to leave. To what extent could they sabotage this very fragile political progress that we've seen, sabotage the endgame?

ROBINSON: Well, the SOFA of course represented a setback for Iran, which did not want that accord to occur. And there were even threats made, of fatwas being issued, against Iraqi leaders who would vote for that accord.

But they're the neighbors. They're going to be there. And there are obviously, as everyone knows, historic, cultural, religious, economic ties. And they're going to continue to have influence.

It's just a question of whether this scenario, of the Lebanonization of Iraq, will occur. And I think that a key determinant is the willingness of the U.S. to remain engaged politically and diplomatically. And that's why, for example, Mowaffak Rubaie, the national security advisor, e-mailed to me, when I was writing an op-ed for The New York Times a couple weeks ago.

And he said, when I asked him, does the SOFA accord mean you don't want any U.S. security assistance after December 31st, 2011? And I recalled, to him, the fact that they had signed an accord, a declaration of principles, in November 2007, which was envisioning an ongoing security relationship. And he e-mailed back saying, it's too early to tell. We will cross that bridge when we come to it. You know, be careful about Iraqi political discourse. It's one thing in public and then there's another thing.

And the reality is they know they need us for now in practical terms, in terms of the combat enablers, but more critically, no matter what progress they make in the next three years, they want the U.S. as a political counterweight to Iran. And I can't emphasize this strongly enough. If we decide to abdicate, we are then inviting the consolidation of an Iran-Iraq axis that's going to keep that region unstable.

WEST: Iran was killing American soldiers in Baghdad in mid-2006. And all the Americans were angry -- I mean, really angry, including the generals. And then we let loose the Special Operations Forces. Now, there's one thing you don't do with Americans. You don't get us into a war for five years and not think that there isn't a great learning curve, because there is. And throughout the Middle East, everyone is scared to death of our Special Operations Forces. And we tracked them down and got some of them.

So what Iran then did was it pulled back inside its own borders and said, "Okay, going across that border was really dumb. I'm going to try to train Iraqis over here to go back with weapons to kill those Americans." That didn't work either, because once Sadr's organization was split, the amount of intelligence that we began to gather on these people was such that we knew who they were.

So now Iran has a couple of camps where they have people from Hezbollah training these punks, but they're afraid to go back over the border. They keep saying, "Well, we're not quite trained yet," because they know when they come back over the border, they are targets. But we've done a very good job of getting the higher levels.

The other thing that's happening with Iran is its own economy. And I think we've done something somehow with the banking system that has really gotten their attention, because they haven't been as bellicose toward us in late 2007 and 2008 as they were earlier.

AMOS: Sir.

QUESTIONER: John Temple Swing, Foreign Policy Association. It's primarily a question for Bing. I'd like to go back and think about the surge. We all know that the Awakening preceded the surge. What would have happened to the Awakening if the surge had never happened? How -- in other words, how essential was the surge for the Awakening to really take root and have the effect that it has done? It's always been a question in my mind, and I suspect it's still lurking in the minds of others, as well.

WEST: You know, that's an interesting question, because Casey was aware of the surge, and so was Odierno. Not to take anything away from Dave Petraeus, but Odierno was there in December; Dave didn't get there until February. Odierno and Casey went out to Ramadi in mid-December and said, "Holy smokes." And they said (the war's over ?) out here. You could just walk down the street, take off your helmet, take off your flak jacket, the war is over.

And Odierno and Casey both came back and said, "Well, we'll take two more brigades." That wasn't the surge. And they were already thinking in terms of how they would entice the Sunnis to keep coming forward. But they weren't in a league with what Dave Petraeus did; I agree with Linda.

What Dave did was he took it to an entirely different step when he got there. He was sworn in on the 4th of February -- 4th or 5th. And on the 7th or 8th, he popped out to Ramadi, he took one look at what was happening, he turned around and said, "We're going to do this all over Iraq."

And the Marines, of course, had Anbar, and the Marines are as poor as church mice and always squeeze the buffaloes off nickels. And, you know, their budget is teeny-tiny. And it was General Petraeus who said, "And we're going to pay them." Paid them $300 a month. And that started -- that just -- that rippled all the way across Iraq.

And the other thing that happened was -- and I put this to West Pointers -- that gradually they got back to their construction engineering roots and they realized, when we started putting up those large concrete barriers in order to stop the blast of the car bombs, that this was the first insurgency that was vehicular mounted. Every insurgency has a style. Every guy who fights -- if you go into a ring against anybody, you're always looking to see what his style is when you take him on. The same is true when you get into a war.

And they were so different, for insurance, from the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong would walk 20 kilometers to get into a fight with you. There's nobody in Iraq who'll walk 20 kilometers to get into a fight with you. They drive. They even drive to the battlefield in taxicabs. I'm serious. (Laughter.) And they have breakfast before they come, they fight you and then they go home about 5:00 at night. It happens to be their style. I mean, they just have a different style of fighting.

Once the barricades went up, all of a sudden the vehicular ability of the death squads and of al Qaeda to move -- and they move in their small, little packs of cars -- they could no longer get into these individual areas. So if you go to places that Linda wrote about and I wrote about, like Amiriyah, et cetera, you would see that the whole place was surrounded. So it would be like taking every single, small, little district where you have a police precinct here in New York City, 67 of them -- and there were actually just about that many in Baghdad -- but you surround every one of them with concrete walls; that cut commerce and caused a lot of complaints from the poor people who had to carry their food on their back, et cetera. Every car was searched. But it absolutely put a huge damper on the ability of either the death squads or al Qaeda to move from one area to another.

And so you put all that together, and I agree -- what Linda said earlier -- you can't just take one variable. There was a whole set of variables that built on each other.

And once their ability to move anywhere was restricted, they could be plucked. And so they -- for instance, in Fallujah, the first time they did one area, they captured four people inside. They did the next area about two weeks later -- and each of these areas is about 400 meters by 400 meters -- they caught two more. The next 17 areas they did, they caught zero, because there was a learning curve on the other side. They said, "The hell with this, we're getting out of Dodge."

So that's basically how it evolved. Would it have evolved the same if we only had two more brigades instead of five brigades and we had Dave Petraeus -- you know, coulda, shoulda, woulda? Hard to say. But Petraeus really put it all together.

ROBINSON: If I could just make a quick footnote, because I think that the numbers of troops ultimately did matter, but it was more how they were used. If you didn't have more troops, though, you couldn't have dispersed that many out into Baghdad. And those troops were the ones that did the outreach to the Sunni insurgency and the support base there over the course of the summer of 2007 through the end of the year.

WEST: See, and if I (pull ?) that together with Afghanistan -- just to tell you what bothers me a little bit, okay, people are saying, "We're going to do that in Afghanistan."

(Sighs.) The problem is, Afghanistan is bigger and more wide-spread-out. So what you're saying is you're going to be putting -- are you saying you're going to be putting individual American platoons out there in these bases and then expecting them to patrol from those bases?

I do believe, as a society, as a nation and as a military we've become much more risk-averse, much more. And we have rules like you wear 80 pounds of gear all the time. Whether there's a threat or not, you wear it. And you have a hard time humping anywhere up a hill with that much gear on. And you do not go out on night patrols unless you've gone all the way up to the colonel or a general to get permission. Look, you're becoming very risk-averse.

Are we going to flip over again in Afghanistan and take higher risks? I don't know. I'm from Missouri; I'd have to see it before I believed it.

AMOS: Suzanne?

QUESTIONER: Suzanne Nossel from Human Rights Watch.

Going back to the question of the learning curve, I'm curious -- kind of having looked so closely at what ultimately worked in Iraq, how you go back and evaluate the immediate post-invasion period, and whether you agree with kind of -- I think what's become the conventional wisdom about what the critical mistakes were that were made at that time, you know, one of which was dismantling the army -- and there were others -- or whether you see that differently in terms of what those errors were; and to what extent you think there were mistakes that were avoidable or -- versus just a matter of confronting entirely new and unanticipable conditions, and having to go up that learning curve in more or less the way that we did.

ROBINSON: My catalog is very simple. I mean, aside from the decision to go in, which my book doesn't get into -- but for the record, obviously I think it was a huge mistake. But we're there, and now the point is, what do we do?

Once there, though, I think we ensured that a Sunni insurgency would occur through decrees 1 and 2, abolishing the security forces and the Ba'athist Party, throwing out of work hundreds of thousands of people.

And then we compounded that by allowing the January '05 elections to go forward, once we knew the Sunnis were going to boycott, and then we used that elected body to write a constitution that did not take into account Sunni interests. And we enshrined an Islamist Shi'a collection of parties and people in power. The stage was then set for civil war.

We, I think, treated the Sunni population like the enemy in our approach. Our counterinsurgency approach was entirely self-defeating, the way we conducted that war. And I think the -- my little bumper sticker is the application of COIN principle -- counterinsurgency principles was carried out tactically and episodically and sporadically, and there was no real strategic counterinsurgency vision until Petraeus got in there.

And it was not made in Washington. I'm sorry. Jack Keane gets credit for pushing through, against the Army bureaucracy, that -- for more troops, arguing that a failed war is just as dangerous as a broken army for U.S. interests and the U.S. military.

But the policy was made in Iraq. The Joint Strategic Assessment Team that then -- their report was used to make the Joint Campaign Plan, and this thing was constructed in Baghdad. So I am very passionate on that point, as you can tell. (Laughs.)

WEST: Well, I agree with Linda.

In my book, I try to start in 2003, when I first started going there, and keep going back to the same cities, the same units over time. In my judgment, the most critical mistake we made was disbanding the army. But notice, we keep using the word we.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, I said this time and time again, to our four-stars, and it just wasn't getting through. I said, look, I don't, I don't get this. We're here fighting and dying for them, because they're incompetent. You know, they're just totally screwed up.

They're not a sovereign nation because they cannot protect their own sovereignty. We have to do it for them. So why don't we have a joint board that sits, to determine which officers are capable of being promoted and which should be fired? Because we know we're dealing with a bunch of bums, in many cases, and yet we tolerate it.

And to this day, I just don't understand it, because we spend half our time, in Afghanistan or Iraq, dealing with people who are incompetent that we know are incompetent that we can't change. And we're dying for them.

So I think that was an essential mistake, we made, that in both cases, I think, very early on we could have agreed, as long as we have to have the preponderance of military power, we should have the ability in a joint board to say which guys should be out of there and which guys should be in command, in order to change things.

The other thing we have to keep in mind though, good as Dave Petraeus was, et cetera, that the Sunnis had already changed before they ever got there. So we were doing something right.

I try to point out that it wasn't just the counterinsurgency beginning. Some people say BC and AD meaning, before counterinsurgency being 2006, then AD, after Dave, after Dave Petraeus beginning counterinsurgency.

No. There was also counterinsurgency going on before because that's what persuaded the Sunnis to come over. But of all the mistakes, I think, if we're going to be in that kind of a fight, we shouldn't allow people that we know are corrupt and we shouldn't allow people that we know are bad leaders to continue to be the corrupt, bad leaders.

(Cross talk, laughter.)

QUESTIONER: I'm Brooks Entwistle from Goldman Sachs India.

I wanted to come back to the topic of Pakistan.

WEST: Excuse me. Goldman Sachs has gone to India. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: We're in India. And actually Richard was there last week as well. We were there for the --

WEST: Better not tell my son. He thinks he's still working down here. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: We all saw in Mumbai, over the course of the last couple days, saw a whole new form of terrorism, as it relates to urban warfare, 10 people holding a city of 20 million hostage essentially for 60 hours. And I'm questioning.

You both have brought up Afghanistan. I appreciate there are no true lessons -- you can kind of put a blanket over the Afghanistan situation -- of what will happen there.

But I'm curious what David Petraeus has learned that might be important or effective, in dealing with the Pakistan situation, might be applied there once he gets in and really takes control of Afghanistan.

WEST: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Break, break, break. Okay, I'll address the question, but we should understand that hagiography only goes so far. General Petraeus has a tenuous relationship to what we're doing, in certain ways. All the forces in Afghanistan are under a four-star by the name of McKiernan who reports to Belgium. He reports to General Craddock because NATO was supposed to be in charge in Afghanistan.

The way that General Petraeus tries to insert himself a little bit is by having some say about how we train the people who are going to be the trainers in Afghanistan, but even they, now, we've put under McKiernan. So General Petraeus really now, in his -- in his new hat as the theater commander for Central Command, is really back off the battlefield.

And then if you really look at the situation in Afghanistan -- Pakistan, too -- we have two different commands. We have our Special Operations Command that has authority to go -- and uses it -- to go anywhere they want at any time in Iraq or Afghanistan -- and, it's been reported in the newspapers, other places -- outside of theater commander. Now this, ticks some people off, because you'll be out with what they call the real estate owner -- you'd be out with the brigade commander and say, "Those gosh-darn SOF guys were in here again last night. They just came in, gave me their plan. Now they're out there doing something." But they had all the authority, because they were the supported command wherever they go in both Afghanistan or anything that might be happening in Pakistan.

They, too, are separate from General Petraeus. They report only to -- the Special Operations Command reports to the Pentagon.

So all in all, it's not exactly clear in these things. It gets to be -- I just asked a person day before yesterday, preparing for this, a general down in Washington -- I said, "How do I summarize this?" He said, well -- he said, you know, things -- you understand, he said, "We all talk to each other." Okay. So it's -- they all get along together. They get along well together. But it isn't like you can just take General Petraeus and say he's in charge, because that's not how -- not the deal.

In terms of the face of the terrorism you're looking at, I mean, what has many of our military worried -- if that happened here in New York City, I think the cops here would shoot them down in about two hours, because I think they're that much better trained. But if you think that kind of an issue could strike in the United States again sometime in the next eight years, then I would argue all bets are off about saying that west Pakistan is a sanctuary.

AMOS: All the way in the back.

QUESTIONER: I'm Stan Heginbotham.

I think Linda Robinson rightly focuses on the issue of whether, as we withdraw, the accommodationists or those who I think have a -- more communitarian-oriented politicians will dominate the scene.

One of the people and forces you didn't talk about was al-Hakim, who is also traditionally associated with Iran and with a much more regional federalist kind of solution. Could you maybe say a word about him and whether we can learn something from the forthcoming provincial elections that you referred to, next month?

ROBINSON: Yes, certainly, and I apologize if I used the acronym ISCI. What -- that is for the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution, which is their -- actually, they've removed "Revolution" from their name now. That is the party of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. And they still do -- they're the party closest to Iran, and they are very much still wanting this superregion in the south of Iraq to be formed. And they represent, I think, the most organized faction that is pushing the -- both the regionalism or federal -- extreme federal version of the new order of Iraq, and would like to have as theocratic a government as possible. They recognize Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, I -- pushed him and some other people have pushed him, and he says: Well, we -- recognizing that Iraq is a mosaic of different ethnic and religious groups, but they still would very much like that, and I think that would be what they would try to impose down in the south.

My view, though, is -- and this is where the elections are critical -- we will see if their number of governorships is reduced in the provincial elections, if they retain the number of provincial governors that they have. I doubt that they will, but they are quite organized. And they represent the educated and the elite of the Shi'a population. But I think that it's a toss-up.

I won't -- I'm not really, I think, willing to go out and say what the numbers are going to look like. There are factions within the party, but Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and his son are clearly the strongest ones.

AMOS: We are at the last question stage, because I want to leave a moment to plug their books. So anybody else have a question? We'll put a few of them to them, and they can choose which ones to answer.

You and you. Let's just do a couple of questions, and then you can wrap up, the two of you.

QUESTIONER: Anita Wien. Do you consider Iraq stable enough for the Iraqis living outside the country to return from Syria and Jordan?

QUESTIONER: Hi. Bernie Gwertzman. I just was curious whether you'd like to speculate a bit about whether there'll be any changes, with a new president coming in, on how the Iraq war -- no longer a war, but how the Iraq situation evolves.

AMOS: Okay. You have about two minutes to wrap that up. (Chuckles.)

ROBINSON: Good. Well, I'll go first. I think I can actually answer both of these questions with my view of the way ahead that the Obama administration needs to adopt -- is to finally impose some conditions, some quid pro quos in return for our support and the massive contribution we have made over there to Iraq getting a second chance.

And those conditions include incorporation of the Sunni insurgents who come in from the cold. And they have not done it. They've done about 10 percent of what they agreed, and I think they need to give all of them jobs in the security services and in the economy. But the security piece is important, because a lot of those people -- the neighborhoods want to be secured; they want their local security by these folks.

Secondly, they need to put money into providing services and infrastructure in areas that have been deliberately starved of services. And the Iraq government has money to do it. It's a question of political will.

Third, they need to go all out in trying to resettle people, if not in their own homes, in homes and areas they want to live in. And the violence has just gone down dramatically. And of course, Deb's an authority on this, as well. And we, I think, just have to be -- the sooner you do it, the better, I think, once these things harden. The problem, though, is a lot of people moved into much nicer houses, so there's a lot of conflict down at that level.

And finally, we do really need to require open-list elections in December '09, because that's going to set the table for, I think, any political negotiations successfully writing the endgame for this war.

AMOS: Bing?

WEST: I agree entirely with everything Linda said. And the critical variable that she said was, find the leverage to do this. And so far, we haven't been able to find the leverage. And God bless President Obama if he can find that leverage.

ROBINSON: (Inaudible) -- but I believe we have it.

WEST: Okay. Well, I hope so, because that would be terrific if all that happens. But what just tears at me when I go through Baghdad and these places is that they stole those houses. To any Sunni or any Shi'ite, the house is 95 percent of all the -- all the value he has in the world. And those son-of-a -- they came street after street and drove them out, and then they put in Shi'ites from other areas. And they have control of it, and I don't know how we're going to rip their fingers off to get control out so that you can go home. And every time somebody tries to go back by himself, they get popped.

So the idea that they're going to have this moment of revelation, "Well, I'm going to play by American rules," is something -- I -- I hope it'll be true -- I hope it will be true -- but I doubt it.

AMOS: Thank you both. Excellent presentation. (Applause.) Linda Robinson and Bing West. Buy their books.

WEST: Yeah, none of you can leave if you don't buy a book.

AMOS: (Laughs.)









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