Iraq Reconsidered: Ten Years After the Surge
Experts discuss the successes and failures of the 2007 U.S. military surge in Iraq, its implications for U.S. strategy in the region over the past ten years, and lessons moving forward.
The Lessons from History series uses historical analysis as a critical tool for understanding modern foreign policy challenges by hearing from practitioners who played an important role in a consequential historical event or from experts and historians. This series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.
BARKER: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Lessons from History Series meeting: “Iraq Reconsidered: Ten Years After the Surge” with Christopher A. Kojm, Meghan L. O’Sullivan, and Raymond T. Odierno. The Lessons From History Series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.
So I know that like you can—I could tell you and read their bios to you, but I figure you all can read, so I’ll just do a brief introduction of each of our presiders. Christopher Kojm was on the—was a former senior advisor to the Iraq Study Group. Meghan L. O’Sullivan was the former deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan for the White House. Raymond T. Odierno is a senior advisor for JPMorgan Chase and a consultant for the NFL, and he’s done some other things as well in the past—(laughter)—which I’m sure you’re all familiar with.
What I’m going to do for the next half an hour is basically have an on-the-record conversation with these three, and it’s going to be a conversation. And we’re going to stick back at the surge, because the whole idea of this—of this series is to do lessons from history.
And then I will open it up to questions, and you can feel free to ask your questions. I’m going to be a militant moderator. I will not let you make a speech. I will not let you ask more than one question. And I’m going to try to keep it on topic.
With that, let’s start by going back to 2006, at a time where many people in America were against what was happening in Iraq. You had a crushing defeat for the Republicans in the midterm elections and a real sense that the bulk of the country just wanted to get out. Yet, the surge happened. And I wanted to start by asking all of our panelists to basically put us back in that time and what was happening behind the scenes, how the surge came about, and who they had to lobby, and what they had to do to get people to actually go with this idea that it’s hard to imagine, but was very—it was very much pushing against the tide at the time. It was fairly revolutionary.
So, General, if you could start by talking about what was happening.
ODIERNO: Sure. Well, first, in 2006, I was then on the Joint Chiefs, Joint Staff, and I was the political advisor to Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state at the time. And about May of 2006, the—General Pace came to me and said, I want you to go command III Corps, and you’re going to go to Iraq as the operational commander inside of Iraq. And that was supposed to happen in November of 2006.
So I moved to Fort Hood and I started—what I started to do is I started bringing people in who had different thoughts on what was going on, because, frankly, I said to myself, what have I gotten myself into, because in my mind everything was going the wrong way. Violence was increasing. You had sectarian violence. People were calling it a civil war. And the policy at the time was we’re going to turn more control over to the Iraq, which we knew they weren’t ready to do yet, and we’re going to pull back.
And so I’m trying to think to myself, what is a successful strategy that you can execute as the operational commander on the ground? And, frankly, I didn’t have any good answers. So I started bringing people in once a week from September—August/September/October, I brought a group of different people in to give me their opinions on what should happen in Iraq. And after about a month or so, it became very apparent that I believed the only solution was to double down on what we were doing, and the only way we would resolve this problem was by increasing U.S. commitment. But that decision in no way was made.
So I deployed to Iraq in November of 2006, and when I took over I was getting a lot of visits from congressmen and senators. And the one I remember most was I got a visit from Senator McCain, Lieberman, and—South Carolina.
ODIERNO: Graham, thank you. And they specifically—they had all—I’m not going to say names, but they had four generals in the room, and they specifically started talking about, what are your thoughts? And the other three said we think we should continue with the current policy: turn it over to the Iraqis and leave. And I said we should—I think we should think about bringing more people in, and this is what I would do.
Then, about a month later, which I think was a very important point—and Meghan might be able to talk about this—is secretary of defenses changed. So, in December, Rumsfeld was taken—was fired or asked to leave, and Secretary Gates came on to be secretary of defense. And the first day as secretary of defense, he flew to Iraq. And myself and—General Abizaid, who was the Central Command commander; and General Casey, who was the MNF-I commander; and then myself, as the Corps commander, met with him to talk about what we need to do as we move forward. So I’d been on the ground for about a month. And so, when he got to my turn, I laid out for him what I thought we should do by increasing the amount of people—why we should do that, what are the—what are the improvements and implications of that. And I was by myself. I was the only one that gave that type of opinion. What I appreciated about General Casey and General Abizaid, though, is they knew I was going to do that and they absolutely wanted me to do that, because they wanted me to give an option to the new secretary of defense as he came in that was different from what their—they were currently believing as their policy. So I really appreciated that.
So they left. I didn’t know what decision was going to be made. And then, about a week later, I get a call from Secretary Rice. And she said, well, I’m against the surge; tell me why you think we should conduct a surge and why it will be successful. And I explained to her two or three separate things.
One is, over the last month it was clear that the Iraqi government, with U.S. forces, was now going after both Sunni and Shia extremists, which was very important because that would gain the confidence of the population.
Secondly, the Iraqis were growing tired of the violence, and they were ready to work with us. And that’s hard to explain, but they—it was almost fatigue. And I knew that we had an opportunity that they would help us now to solve this problem.
And then, third, I believed that the problem we were having is we didn’t have enough U.S. forces to partner with Iraqi forces, which meant there was one Iraqi for one U.S., we would do it together. And that made them much more capable. And if we had more forces, we’d be able to take ground and hold it, and then—and then build on it after we did that.
And so I explained all that to her in much more detail than that, and then we hung up. I didn’t—I didn’t really know if I had convinced her or not. She said thank you, and then later on she told me that I had actually changed her mind on supporting the surge.
I was not aware of what was going on in Washington. I mean, I knew they were having a discussion about the surge, but I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. I was focused on the operational piece to this, and what we had to do, and what I thought the best solution was. And oh, by the way, I knew that everyone was against this—(laughter)—and that very few people—
BARKER: But that never stopped you.
ODIERNO: Well, because for me it’s about what is—what I thought was the right solution. And I think you have to—if that’s the case, you don’t—as a military person, we should be giving, you know, bipartisan, honest advice to our leaders. And whether they take it or not, that’s up to them. And I think that’s really important, and that was important to me that I did that. And so that’s kind of where I was coming from at that time.
BARKER: Which leads us to Professor O’Sullivan.
O’SULLIVAN: Great, thank you. And let me just say good evening, and it’s great to see everyone here tonight, and such a pleasure to be on the panel with General O, as we call him, and with Chris.
And it’s actually very nice to be on the panel with you for lots of reasons, but one of them is people tend to like to sell competing narratives, right? So the narrative that we just heard from General Odierno, which is completely consistent with the facts that I had, is kind of—there are two narratives going on: there’s a Washington narrative and there’s a field narrative. And the story in Washington begins maybe I would say about—leading up to the surge process, maybe nine or 10 months before the actual decision was made by the president, which was 10 years ago just two weeks ago. And that was, you know, this increasing sense on the part of policymakers that the conflict in Iraq was intensifying and that our strategy wasn’t working.
There was a lot of initial resistance to this idea because there was a lot happening in the political realm at the time. The Iraqis hadn’t been able to form a government for nearly six months. And so it wasn’t a crazy idea to say, well, once the Iraqis form a government, we’re going to be able to put things in place. This is the summer of 2006, May 2006. We’re going to put things in place, and then we’re really going to be able to make progress. But that came and went, and the situation continued to deteriorate.
And in the meantime, there were people in Iraq in our military who were doing novel and innovative things that, frankly, were not consistent with our national strategy. They were doing counterinsurgency techniques. And at the beginning of 2006—so a year before the surge decision was announced—I had an opportunity to hire a deputy, and I wanted that person to be from a military background because I did not have a military background. And I had my eye on someone named Kevin Bergner, Brigadier General Kevin Bergner. He had been serving in the north of Iraq around a place called Tal Afar, and the violence there had been declining. And I had been watching that, and I said, what are these guys doing that’s so different than the rest of the country?
So, after a lot of heartache, he came onto my staff, and he was a font of ideas for me and for other people about what’s actually working on the ground. And these people are similar to the ones who I’m sure you tapped into as you were thinking about what we could do differently.
But then there’s a second challenge. So there’s developing the whole counterinsurgency strategy in the operations, but there’s then the political challenge, which is how do you get this to be a national policy. How do you get the president to decide this is the way we’re going, against enormous opposition—and not just from Democrats, from nearly all Republicans as well, and from all sectors? And how do you get resources committed so that General Odierno could do ultimately what he did on the ground and in the field? And how do you get Congress to kind of hold off?
All of these questions kind of led us to a policy process which went on, intensified over the course of several months, but led to a very formal process in the fall of 2006. Began initially in my NSC office, where we were doing an under-the-radar event—not event, actually; that’s too public, it was the opposite of an event—recommendations, a series of options that we developed. And then that went to a deputies level committee, and then it went to the principals, and then it culminated in a series of NSC meetings at the end of November, beginning of December, right before Secretary Gates was named. So all of these things kind of built on one another.
But just to respond to, you know, the question of how do you get people to look at a situation differently. And I would say this is the—was the really big challenge, at least from the Washington perspective, is that we had been involved in Iraq for a long time, and people had come to understand the situation in a certain way, and that a lot of people—Bob Jervis, who is a professor at Columbia, writes about how individuals tend to process information. They tend to be more receptive to information that’s consistent with the way they see the world, and they tend to discount information that’s inconsistent. And that’s a human tendency, and there was a lot of that going on.
So how do you get people to look at the situation and recognize, as General Odierno said, that the situation had changed fundamentally? And one of the things that we found most effective—that’s my team and I at the NSC—was starting at the foundation, asking people: let’s examine the assumptions upon which our strategy is based. And we looked at those assumptions, and people kind of looked at me like, we know you’re an academic and you like to do this assumptions work. But it turned out to be pretty fruitful, because the assumptions that we had based it on—there was a whole raft of them, but they were things like the source of the violence is the presence of a foreign occupation force when, in fact, the source of the violence had morphed to become sectarian violence, to be violence between Iraqis, not to be primarily focused on the affront of a perceived foreign occupation.
And, you know, what comes first, politics or security? We had been operating on the assumption that you had to get politics right before you’d get an improvement in security. And we re-looked at this and thought, well, maybe security can be so bad that you can’t get political progress.
So it was exercises like that that I think helped open people’s minds to the idea, well, if our assumptions are wrong, it is so surprising that we have a strategy which is actually making things worse rather than better? And that opened up—and I give credit to President Bush and Steve Hadley, the national security advisor, for really being open to a very thorough, very intense, multi-level policy review which, you know, one of the legitimate critiques is it took—it took longer than any of us wanted. But I can describe later why it took long and what the stages were that led to a policy which I think was possible to implement.
ODIERNO: If I could—if I could just—I want to follow up on one of the comments that Meghan made. One of the big mistakes, I believe, we made early on was this idea of establishing security first. And the reason we made some mistakes in judgment is we wanted to try to get out of there as quickly as possible, and we felt the way to get out of there was you train the Iraqis to take over the security themselves. But because of the disintegration of the military inside of Iraq, that was not going to happen over the short term. So time and time again we made a mistake that we thought, OK, so we’ll pour money into their economy, that will solve the problem. Well, if you don’t have security, that’s not going to work. We’re going to—OK, we’ll solve it politically, but we won’t quite have security, and that will solve it. Well, that didn’t work either.
And so the lesson for me was: in order to do this you have to provide security where people believe they are safe, and then allows the economic development to occur, and then the political process to occur. Now, they can happen simultaneously, but you can’t completely say we’re going to—we’re going to make it completely separated from the security element. And I think that’s the mistake we made, and we lost—we poured billions of dollars into economic development that was wasted because we didn’t establish the appropriate security first, because we were in a rush to leave for a lot of reasons. And I think—I think that’s one of the real important lessons that I think we should take from that as we move forward with other things we might end up doing here in the near future, potentially.
BARKER: Professor Kojm, could you talk a bit about the Iraq Study Group in 2006?
KOJM: Sure. And thanks very much for the opportunity to be here with such a distinguished colleague—colleagues.
So the Iraq Study Group’s origin is, in early 2006, Congressman Frank Wolf on the Appropriations Committee got money and—for what he called the Iraq Study Group to rethink where we were going in Iraq—that members of Congress, the public, Republicans and Democrats had serious questions about the direction of policy. And so the co-chairs of the Study Group were former Secretary James Baker and former Congressman Hamilton, and that’s how I got drawn into it. I had worked for Congressman Hamilton for many years on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And the Study Group really formed soon after the bombing of the mosque in Samarra, and Iraq was going to hell in a handbasket in sectarian violence, which worsened throughout the course of the year.
The Study Group came up with its recommendations and issued them in December of 2006. Key recommendations were a diplomatic offensive, working to train and transition the mission to Iraqi forces. But above all, what the Study Group focused on were three words, or three concepts: national reconciliation, security, and governance.
And for the Study Group, national reconciliation across sectarian lines was really the heart of seeking to achieve an Iraq that would, one, hold together; two, reduce violence; and, three, have a path forward for the future.
And on the question of the surge, it was clear that discussions were underway in the administration that were contemplating a surge. Secretary Gates was a member of the Study Group. He traveled with the Study Group to Baghdad in September of 2006. So he was quite familiar with both the Study Group’s thinking and administration thinking. And the Study Group was open to a short-term increase in the deployment of U.S. forces for the purpose, from the standpoint of the Study Group, of creating the conditions that could lead, through a reduction of violence, to efforts at political reconciliation.
I know my colleagues will talk more about the details of the surge. I just want to say one thing about it, and that is that Steve Hadley underscored for the Study Group how things were changing in Anbar with the Sunnis, and how they were turning away quite decidedly from al-Qaida, and they saw the threat of the Shia and looked to American armed forces in a difficult situation as their protectors. And so this was the origin of the Anbar Awakening, the Sunni Awakening, and the Sons of Iraq militias. I think, from the standpoint of the Study Group, one of the best things about the surge was this taking advantage of political change in the Sunni community, and using it as a powerful tool to reshape the political dynamic and to reduce violence.
And my last comment before handing it back to the—to the moderator here is simply that our military efforts, which were well carried out, and very competently, and quite wisely and effectively in that period of time, ultimately their success all hinged on political change. And the Sunnis, for a period of time, were working with us and working with the government of Iraq. And I think that was a key component, in addition to successful military options, in a dramatic reduction of violence.
ODIERNO: If I—if I could just—I agree with you.
So there’s four things that—it wasn’t just the additional military forces that allowed us to have success. There was four different things.
I mentioned one already: the fact that the prime minister, who was Shia, was now allowing us to target both Shia and Sunni extremists with our Special Operations capability. That was significant because it built trust with some of the Sunni leaders that were in Anbar.
The second, the first week I was on the ground I went out to Anbar and I talked to a brigade commander, Sean MacFarland, and Brigadier General John Allen, a Marine who was out there. And they walked me through the relationships they had built with some of the Sunnis out in Anbar, which later became known as the Awakening. And that discussion was really important because it reinforced my view that the Sunnis were ready to work with the U.S., and they saw us as the honest brokers between them and the government, and they saw the military as the protectorate of them as they started to move forward with this element.
The third thing that we did was we changed our tactics. We had been—we had moved into large bases, 10 to 15 of them, with 20,000 people, or 10(,000) to 20,000 people in each one, and we’d drive to work every morning. And the other thing we did was—this was one of the most difficult things I did. I had to go tell everybody, we are now moving into 240 small bases in every little town and city, and you’re going to live with the Iraqi people. And the reason that was is I wanted them to know that we were in this with them. This was the counterinsurgency philosophies that we had learned.
And then, finally, the last thing was the increase in capability by the increased number of forces that we were going to have.
O’SULLIVAN: If I could build on that, I wanted to respond—sorry. We told you we would do this. (Laughter.)
BARKER: One question in half an hour. (Laughter.)
O’SULLIVAN: About the Iraq Study Group. But instead, let me build on what you’re saying, General Odierno, about what really was behind the changed security environment. And obviously there was the change not just in the number of troops, but in the strategy in how they were deployed. But there was also a big political piece to the surge, which gets a lot less attention. And there, you know, in some respects, the political change had to do with just putting more civilians—actually, they ended up being reservists initially—putting more civilians, actually embedding them in our brigade teams, something that hadn’t happened before, increasing the number of what we called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which really focused on capacity building and economics.
But there was also a conversation that I went out at President Bush’s request to initiate about the long-term vision that the Iraqis wanted to have with us. And that’s where we began talking about a potential SOFA and we began talking about what’s known as the Strategic Framework Agreement, which is the vision for the non-military bilateral relationship. So that was part of the surge; that this wasn’t just a tactical moment, this was—we were seeing this as a step in a longer-term relationship.
And then, finally, there was this real awareness about the politics, and how we were hoping that this new security environment would lead to a politics that was organized more around nationalism than sectarianism. And given everything that has happened and the tragedy that has unfolded, I think we forget that there were hopeful political side effects of this.
One is the fact that actually the Shia prime minister, Maliki, took on the Sadrists, which was the Shia political force that actually got him the prime ministerial job. This didn’t just happen overnight. This was the work of President Bush and multiple meetings/conversations/videoconferences where President Bush said to Prime Minister Maliki: I need to know that you’re going to allow our forces and tell your forces to go after Shia with the same force as Sunnis who break the law. And once that happened, you broke the Shia political bloc. And that means that you had Shia political parties competing against each other, which makes it harder for politics to be based on sectarianism. So you actually see in 2009 and 2010 provincial council elections and national elections where you have Iraqi parties, some of them are on a sectarian basis, but some of them are actually arguing about national concerns, and we see a movement towards politics as we had hoped and many Iraqis hoped they would unfold.
This, of course, was reversed by subsequent actions. But I think that the political piece of the surge is really important to understand as well.
BARKER: General Odierno, I’m going to ask a question and I want a brief, brief answer.
BARKER: Can you talk about what happened in 2010 and 2011, then, which I think builds on what Professor O’Sullivan is talking about?
ODIERNO: Well, so in—yeah, 2010, so violence was way down. It was the lowest it had been. The economy was growing. The export of oil was going up. We had just had a successful election and things were starting to play out. And then—in fact, the election was very close, and in fact Maliki lost the election actually. But he then built a coalition that allowed him to gain the—regain the prime ministership. It was a clearly democratic election where people voted on issues that were important to them, not sectarian lines.
But what happened in 2011 is we decided to withdraw our military. And the issue with that was—is when our military left, we still had our engagement with our political leaders, but it did not hold the same weight because you no longer had the influence of the military and potential influence of the military to ensure that people would stay true to the nationalist view. And what you had is you then slowly drifted off into sectarian political views again, which slowly divided the country over time.
BARKER: OK. And, with that, I’m going to ask one yes-or-no question, and then I’m going to open up the discussion to members for questions. The yes-or-no question: Yes or no, do any of you now believe in the concept of a unified Iraq?
BARKER: Just yes or no.
ODIERNO: It’s not a yes or no.
O’SULLIVAN: Yeah, it’s not a yes or—I agree with you. I agree.
BARKER: Yes or no—
ODIERNO: It’s not a yes or—I absolutely—I will not—so I won’t answer. I’ll give you a short answer. So I think—
BARKER: I don’t know if I believe you. (Laughter.)
ODIERNO: Well, I’m going to tell you what I told you the other day, is that in 2010 I believed there was a potential for a unified Iraq. I got myself in trouble when I retired, because when I retired I said I no longer believe there’s a potential for a unified Iraq because of the split between the Sunni and Shia, and Iranian influence. I think it’s become much more difficult. If that can turn around and you can move back to a nationalist idea, then you can have potentially a unified Iraq. I just don’t see that right now myself.
O’SULLIVAN: I also reject the yes or no—(laughter)—but I’ll give a short answer as well. I believed strongly in a unified Iraq for a long time, and I still think it’s conceivable. We can imagine the circumstances under which it would make sense for all Iraqis. I also think that it is increasingly unlikely.
But the silver lining here is that one scenario which has emerged actually very recently, as I’ll call it kind of—I’ll say two scenarios that are front-runners, maybe, is, one, a velvet divorce. You actually have conversations happening in Baghdad between the current prime minister and Kurdish elites about a Czechoslovakia-type situation. I think it’s going to be very difficult and complicated when they get to the details, but those conversations are happening, and that’s a positive thing. The other silver lining front-runner, if there can be two front-runners, is the idea of a confederation. And a lot of Iraqis like that idea because it would be essentially two basically independent countries under the umbrella of one country. And this would appease or at least—what’s the right word?—it would ease a lot of the concerns of regional players which just don’t want to see a Kurdish independent state, but it would allow the Kurds to feel like their future is really in their hands, which has been their objective all along.
KOJM: Well, I guess my answer would be that it’s really up to the people and the leaders of Iraq. They need to decide. We’ve spent a lot of blood, a lot of treasure, and a lot of time trying to shape Iraqi politics, and I don’t think the record shows that we really can answer that question about the future of Iraq. And it’s—I think we should offer good offices. We should endeavor to help them decide peacefully. But it is, in my view, very much their decision.
BARKER: With that, I’m going to open it up to members. Remember, this is on the record. And wait for the microphone, and please stand and state your name and affiliation when the microphone comes for you.
Q: Hi. Jeff Glick with Foursquare.
A question about—you took us back to the political situation. Karl Rove was not in those meetings, as I understand it, as the process was going. Could you talk about the NSC structure and how political influences or campaign-type issues were kept out of that process, and how that affected the process?
O’SULLIVAN: Maybe I’ll take that one.
BARKER: Yeah, I think that’s for you.
O’SULLIVAN: Thanks, Jeff, and it’s good to see you.
There’s a—I think this is now in the public domain, but President Bush actually had a rule that Karl Rove was not allowed into NSC meetings. Now, this does not mean that there weren’t discussions about the domestic implications of what we were talking about and that there wasn’t an appropriate venue for domestic politics to influence the outcome of the president’s thinking. But in the NSC room, in the years that I was there, I never once saw Karl Rove. In fact, I rarely saw Karl because he and I lived in two totally different White House worlds.
There was one occasion where I made some comment to President Bush about political viability or something, and he said, Meghan, I don’t need your political advice, which is probably true. And I mean—it’s definitely true and probably a good thing. (Laughter.) And he said, I just need you to tell me what we need to do to change the trajectory in Iraq, and I’ll handle the politics.
So there was—at least in the Bush NSC, there was a very clear distinction about where these conversations should be held. And I think that is important because in other conversations I’ve noticed how domestic considerations and questions of how do you explain this to the American people, that they can kind of hijack national security conversations. And that’s, I think, what President Bush wanted to avoid.
Q: Thank you. My name is Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer. I’ve been in the U.S. government a couple of times in national security related positions.
This question’s either for General Odierno or maybe Ms. O’Sullivan. You mentioned in your remarks that your aide who had been in the field conducted successful counterinsurgency operations and reduced violence. Since this is a program of lessons learned, what are the more like—more successful ways of counterinsurgency operations than ones that have worked in the—not worked in the past?
ODIERNO: Yeah. So number one is you’ve got to be out there. The people have to see you every single day. And you got to be out there with them, and you got to build trust with that population, and you got to work with the leaders inside of that population. And so that’s one of the real key lessons, is you just have to be there. We had kind of removed ourselves because we were trying to get rid of the term “occupiers,” which was a mistake. And we had to get back out there and build relationships that allowed us to work together.
The other thing is, is you have to help them to understand that they’ll be safe, and that you’ll then help and be involved with creating economic opportunities and education for their children. Those are the three key elements, and you got to figure out how you do that. And you might not come up with the solution yourself, but you’re able to bring the people in that can help with that solution.
And also you become, in my opinion—in this case, Iraq is a little bit different because there was a government that was elected that we were supporting, and we had to then try to relate them back to the government and connect them in some way.
And I think—so, for me, those were the key things that were a bit different and the lessons we learned, from my viewpoint.
O’SULLLIVAN: That’s a great answer.
BARKER: Purple. (Laughter.)
Q: Thank you. Albert Knapp, NYU Medical Center.
For three millennia, there’s been a fine balance between what would be called Persia, or Iran, on one side, the Solusans (ph) on the other side, the Roman Empire, and now the Iraqis. How would you reset that balance, which got hit in the 1980s and especially since the Iraq War?
BARKER: Professor Kojm, do you have any thoughts on that?
KOJM: Well, I think the best way to address that would be that there needs to be, as you state, a balance in the region. And it is between, in some respects, the world of Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. Iraq, of course, is right on the fulcrum, in both worlds. And here Iran is going to be Iraq’s neighbor for a long, long time to come, and it will have a voice and influence there. And I invite my colleagues to join in here, but Iraqis don’t want to be Persians. They’re a separate people with a separate identity. If they are successful in reconstructing their country and society, that will add to the necessary balance in the region.
BARKER: You, sir.
Q: Charles Ferguson, Representational Pictures.
A question primarily, I guess, for Ms. O’Sullivan. How much of the subsequent violence in Iraq and the region do you think could have been avoided—would have been avoided if there had not been the dismantling of the Iraqi army and the de-Baathification order, and more generally the incredible incompetence with which the first year of the occupation was conducted?
O’SULLIVAN: Wow. It’s like, how do I—how do I answer that succinctly?
BARKER: You can take a little bit longer than succinctly. (Chuckles.)
O’SULLIVAN: OK. I’ll begin by acknowledging that there were many mistakes that were made in that first year. I would also like to say that I think the context in which a lot of those decisions are made is not fully understood. And I might take a moment to describe it to you just because it might be a conversation that you haven’t had on this particular topic, because I know—I know generally how the conversations go.
Let me take the de-Baathification or disbanding the army. I think in retrospect we—and I say we in the U.S. government sense or the coalition sense—would have undoubtedly done things differently. There were many things that were done poorly there. But the context in which these decisions were made were the fact that when we arrived—and I came to Baghdad, I think, nine or 10 days after Saddam fled. And when we arrived, we were faced with a population which was very skeptical about us. So maybe 80 percent of the population, Kurdish and Shia, and they thought we’re hiding Saddam somewhere, we’re going to invite him back in, anybody who’s cooperated with us will be killed. You know, these are real concerns if you are in Iraq at this particular moment in time. And so the question was, how do we gain the confidence of 80 percent of the population? And at the time I think the sense was there needs to be a demonstration of the commitment to building a different kind of Iraq.
Then two number one, if that’s possible—number one and number two: requests/demands made of the Iraqis at the time was de-Baathification, and for the Kurds disbanding the army. And Jalal Talabani, who became the president of Iraq, said the best thing America ever did was disbanding the army because this was an army that had basically waged genocide on the Kurds. And we’re trying to get the Kurds to stay inside of Iraq at the time. And on de-Baathification, you had a Baath Party which had really conducted so many—I mean, when I went to Iraq I thought that Saddam will have negatively affected people’s lives, but I had no idea that almost every Iraqi I met in the two years that I was there had personally been affected by somebody in the Baath Party or Saddam’s regime. And so, actually, I look back and I think if we had not been there, one thing I can tell you with certainty is that the de-Baathification would have been even deeper and longer, and the destabilization would have been deeper and longer.
So we did absolutely make mistakes in how it was executed, and I do think disbanding the army was a mistake generally speaking. But I think kind of trying to understand the conditions under which people—and I didn’t make either of those decisions—but the conditions under which people were making decisions is important.
ODIERNO: So I was a division commander on the ground at that time.
O’SULLIVAN: That’s how we met.
ODIERNO: That’s the first time Meghan and I met.
ODIERNO: So I have a little bit different take on it. And I’m not going to—I’m not going to get—I wasn’t involved with the politics of the leaders of Iraq with our government, but I’ll give you the local viewpoint.
I was in the worst area of Iraq. I was in northern Iraq from Samarra to Tikrit, up—it was the—it was the most violent part of Iraq. And I’ll tell you two things. I believe that we were very—disbanding the army was a mistake, not—we should have disbanded the leadership of the army. See, we never made a—we never chose between those who were the real, real Baathists, and leaders who had suppressed and had done terrible things to the population—they should have been gotten rid of, but the foot soldiers who depended on that money to support their family was a different issue.
And the same thing with the de-Baathification. And, in fact, I don’t know—even know if Meghan remembers this, but I actually wrote a—so the de-Baathification was not just about the army or political leaders. Every doctor, every teacher, every—were de-Baathified and were thrown out of their jobs. So not only did you irritate the families of that, you irritated all the people who were no longer getting health care, you irritated all the kids who were no longer getting an education. We had to close the schools. And so this was a really terrible decision on the ground because I felt if we had done this better it would have changed.
So I actually wrote a letter that said we’re not going to do de-Baathification in my area. We’re going to allow the teachers to stay. We’re going to allow the doctors to stay. And I published this letter, and of course about a week later I got called on the carpet to say I don’t have that authority to do that. But it made a significant difference.
ODIERNO: And so I think—it’s not that we shouldn’t have done de-Baathification, I just think we did it absolutely wrong and we didn’t understand the different levels of the Baath Party. Listen, everybody was a member of the Baath Party. Shia were members of the Baath Party. Kurds were member(s) of the Baath Party. That’s how you survived Saddam’s Iraq. But we never were able to distinguish between that, and I think that’s one of the real mistakes we made. And I think if we had done that differently, it might have turned out differently.
O’SULLIVAN: And I—I mean, what I’m saying is in accord with that, that essentially you had to have some measure of de-Baathification in response to the people that you’re trying to partner with, and essentially the idea was those policies came out when revenge killings started to increase. And the idea was to simply say don’t take these matters into your own hand, there’s going to be a process to deal with it.
But exactly as General O said, we didn’t have a good sense of who actually had committed crimes and who joined the party because they needed to to further their—you know, their own family living. And so we used different ranks of the party as proxies, and it turns out we got those ranks wrong. You know, we set the bar—well, I could go into this. We set the bar in the wrong place. And I think that later we did try to correct it in the sense that people got exemptions, but we made a second mistake: we turned it over to the Iraqis. We said: We don’t understand the Baath Party; let’s let the Iraqis implement this. And the Iraqis used it as a political tool, and it became—it became that people who were not actually supposed to be de-Baathified got de-Baathified because it became a political football. And really we should have turned it over to Iraqi judges, who actually were reasonably respected in society and probably would have been the best-positioned people in the whole context to make those decisions about not what rank somebody was in the Baath Party, but whether they had actually—they had actually done something that amounted to a(n) egregious crime against another Iraqi.
Q: Hi. Jove Oliver with Oliver Global.
In some sense was Joe Biden right when he was sort of pitching the loose confederate structure? Were there better conditions on the ground to realize that, you know, seven, eight years ago? And feel free yes or no, or go into it.
ODIERNO: So Senator Biden absolutely had that idea. When he became Vice President Biden, he had a little different position on that. But I would say at the time he was not right because I believe the conditions were very different at that time.
And we—and this idea—the point of nationalism wasn’t—what we were trying to build was this idea of Iraqi nationalism, and I think we were having some progress on that. And if that had continued, I believe a unified Iraq was the right answer. What’s happened subsequently, when we left, and the fact that now Iran has such influence, and I believe that it’s going to be difficult to ever reunite the Sunni and Shia together, I believe now that thought process is close to being right than it was before.
BARKER: Do either of the rest—others of you have—no?
O’SULLIVAN: I’ll just say I’m having a little bit of a flashback because almost exactly 10 years ago I was speaking here at CFR right before I went out to Iraq at President Bush’s request, to try to lend a hand on the political side of the implementation of the surge and talk to people, and they asked that exact same question: you know, is then-Senator Biden correct? And I agree completely with what General O just said, that at the time—and then, you know, being in Iraq around that time, when that op-ed was published, most Iraqis were irate. You had a lot of Kurdish people who thought, oh, that’s good, we have a champion for our idea. But I didn’t know a single Sunni or Shia who thought that it was appropriate for a foreign government to advocate splitting up the country. And at the time there was no one in the Arab part of the population who was advocating that. And so it really struck a negative chord.
And frankly, if you had looked at operationalizing it—and I did: what would this take—it would have been incredibly difficult because, A, the Sunni part of this new Iraq, or this Sunni state, has no resources. So, again, how does that work? These parts of Iraq had no independent institutions. The Kurds did. They had a parliament, et cetera. So who do you hand over to? How do they govern? They have no ministries. It’s a very high—it’s a highly-centralized state. There was no infrastructure or governance architecture. So, practically speaking, it would have been very difficult. And sadly, at the time Iraq was a much more—particularly Baghdad—a much more integrated country. And so what happens to Baghdad, where you have millions and millions of people living next door to one another?
So I agree completely that at the time I think it was an ill-advised recommendation. Now it makes more sense, but I still think if it were to unfold it would be in a very different manner than was advocated.
BARKER: Actually, I’m going to go with a woman. (Chuckles.) Sorry, my prerogative. (Laughs.)
Q: Joan Spero, Columbia University.
We haven’t heard a lot about the Defense Department and about the change from Secretary Rumsfeld to Secretary Gates, although I think it was mentioned. How did that play out in the decision process in Washington?
BARKER: I think that would be you.
O’SULLIVAN: I think it was a significant factor, though actually, if you look into the details, the surge strategy and the strategic review in front of the president actually happened at a very odd time. The big decisions were made subsequent to the November elections.
And we had a situation where, in the room, the National Security Council room, you had Secretary Rumsfeld, who was still secretary, and you had Bob Gates, who was the nominee. So you had both of them in the room at the table. And this is obviously an odd situation. But I think it did obviously impact the force at which, at the time Secretary Rumsfeld had objections, that they were articulated. But it also meant that Bob Gates wasn’t in a position to actually articulate forcefully an alternative view.
So in some ways you had a muted—you had a muted civilian side of the Pentagon. You had a very active chairman. And so I think, you know, that did shape the dynamics in a significant way. It also shaped the timing of the announcement that—and I think President Bush writes about this in his book—that essentially he wanted Secretary Gates to become secretary before he made the announcement. And he wanted Secretary Gates to be able to go out to Iraq to talk to people like General O before the announcement was made.
So this actually—if you go back and you look at the history, there was this really long, awkward period between the Iraq Study Group being—announcing their recommendations and when President Bush made his speech in January 10th—on January 10th. And that was, in large part, to allow Secretary Gates to get comfortable with the shift and to have some ownership of it as well.
Q: John Vandershefsky (sp), Associated Press.
Professor O’Sullivan, when you were talking about the velvet divorce, you spoke about two countries. Does that mean that we do not see the Sunni portion of Iraq being reintegrated? Because presumably sometime this year Mosul will be retaken by the central government. So what are the chances for reincorporating the Sunni areas, recovering some of that awakening spirit?
O’SULLIVAN: I’m sure General O will want to chime in on this as well.
So it’s not for me to say—back to Chris’s point, it’s not for me to say where the boundaries would be drawn or anything along those lines. I think the general notion is perhaps a Kurdish state or confederate—you know, part of a confederation. And the general sense is that most of the Sunni population, where the Sunnis and the Kurds kind of bump up against each other, would remain part of Iraq.
And again, this is a very notional idea. I want to underscore that this is not something that there are plans out on the table or anything like that. I’m just talking about how people are talking about this issue. And I really don’t hear—I have not heard any talk of creating a state out of the Sunni-dominant areas of Iraq.
What you do hear talk about, and which I think is interesting and also positive, is the idea that the areas which are predominantly Sunni may become regions in Iraq. And this is an interesting characteristic of the Iraqi constitution that you can—you meaning Iraqis—make a region in Iraq, and that region will have a lot of the powers that the Kurdish region has had.
This is an interesting development that came about when we were negotiating the constitution and Iraqis said, well, why should we give the Kurds all these special powers if the rest of Iraq doesn’t have it? And then we said, well, do you want to be a federal state? You know, do you want there to be federal states in Arab Iraq? And they said no, but we at least want the option in case, in the future, we desire that.
And for a long time the Sunni community really resisted the idea of federalism because they really identified with governing from Baghdad. But I think there’s been a big change for a lot of obvious reasons, and the sense is actually maybe having a lot more autonomy or decentralization or even a federal region would make a lot more sense for the Sunni community to figure out how they want to make decisions, how they want to organize themselves, how they want to spend resources.
So, you know, if I were involved in political discussions for the future of Iraq and advising either our government or Iraqis, I think this is a fruitful way to go and actually doesn’t require constitutional changes. Those provisions are already there.
ODIERNO: So I’d make two points. One is that I believe eventually the Kurds want an independent state. The Kurds also realize that they could not manage an independent state right now because they’d have Turkey on one side, Iraq on the other side, and Iran on the other side, none of them who want them to have an independent state. And it would be too difficult for them. I think they would come under significant military threats, political, economic, sanctions potentially. And I think they realize that. And so I think they have to—(inaudible)—and Syria plays in that a little bit as well.
The second point I would make is that until—my worry now—I’m going to talk a little bit about now—ISIS will be defeated at some time in the future here. But my concern is, until you solve the governance problem, that we’ll be right back where we are again in two years. That’s my prediction. I’ve been through this once before. And we had it to a place where we thought we had it. But you have to come up with a governance structure that is going to appease and allow the Sunni and Shia to get along.
The Kurds will work through it. I mean, they might not like all the—they’ll work their way through it. They are smart and they understand. But unless we can solve the Sunni-Shia issue by some governance structure, I don’t see how that can happen. Right now the Iraqi government is highly influenced by Iran.
And one of the problems—you know, and I’ll just say one of the things that I would say about Prime Minister Maliki is he did heroic things in 2007 and ’08 going after Shia groups, as well as al-Qaida and Sunni groups. But remember, he actually lost the election in 2010. And I believe his thought was it’s because he was seen as somebody who actually partially turned his back on some of the Shia populations.
So I think what you saw after we left was his change to ensure that everybody understood that he was going to support the Shia population against the Sunnis. And I just don’t see, as I watch the Iranian Quds Force commander running around Iraq today, wherever he wants to go, and a guy named Mohandes, who blew up the U.S. embassy in Kuwait, running around Iraq today, making decisions on how we possibly could believe that there’s going to be a government in place as currently structured, that will at all allow the Sunnis to participate.
And so, in my mind, we have to fix that problem. And we can’t fix it. The U.S. can’t fix it. It’s got to be a group of nations that fixes that problem, and they have to go come together and try to solve it. And it’s going to be hard, difficult, and it might require redrawing lines. But it could be very, very difficult in the end.
BARKER: OK, we have time for one more question, maybe two. Yes, you had looked at me several times. I feel guilty when I look at people and I don’t call on them. (Laughs.) It’s nothing personal.
Q: My name’s Roger Hertog.
My question is around the political situation that was going on in Washington around the time of the surge and four key actors that haven’t been mentioned in this discussion—Vice President Cheney, General Petraeus, Fred Kagan, and—well, that would be—they were three. And the—
BARKER: (Off mic.)
Q: No, no.
KOJM: Jack Keane?
Q: Jack Keane. What was their influence on President Bush in creating what we today know as the strategy of the surge?
O’SULLIVAN: Sure. I’m going to have to be very brief here. And also I need to say the obvious, which I can’t speak for President Bush, but I can tell you some of what I saw. Vice President Cheney became a supporter of the idea of the surge. And I know that there’s a common narrative out there that he was really pulling the strings and making decisions.
I joined the White House in the second term, the second Bush term—at the very end of the first, the beginning of the second—and there’s no question in my mind that President Bush was making these decisions. And I’m sure he consulted with President (sic) Cheney, but this was—you know, this was counsel that he sought from one of a number of his close confidants.
General Petraeus was an important figure. I mean, he was a hugely important figure in the implementation of the surge, along with General Odierno. At the time of this actual strategy review, he was a figure that I consulted regularly. He was someone that I knew. I knew both General Odierno and General Petraeus from the early days in Iraq, and General Petraeus was someone that I saw often; I talked to all the time. I was aware of the counterinsurgency manual that he was revising when he was out in Leavenworth. And that’s where he was for most of this time.
So there was this interesting dance, which is now out in the public in various books. But there’s this thing called the chain of command. And it’s very controversial to be giving advice to the White House that runs counter to the advice that people at the Pentagon might be giving the White House.
So, again, it’s now public, but it was very quiet at the time. I was in regular contact with General Petraeus, and I believe President Bush and Steve Hadley knew that. They would ask me questions. I think they knew I would consult with General Petraeus and that some of what I report back to them was reflected in those conversations. But he wasn’t actually part of the review. He was appointed to be the commander after the review had been done and the decision was made.
And President Bush—this was part of, I think, implementing the strategy. We had had people, General Casey and others, who had done incredible service in Iraq and had already extended their tours, and it was time for a new team. And President Bush was really interested in who’s going to execute the strategy. And a lot of the ideas were ideas that people like General Petraeus and General Odierno had generated.
Just lastly on Fred Kagan and General Keane, they played an important role on the outside. So for those of you who may not follow this as closely, they were working in conjunction with American Enterprise Institute, and they were really important because they were almost our only public allies.
And again, it’s so hard to recreate how controversial this decision was and how people—I remember talking to President Bush a few minutes before he gave his speech to the nation. He knew that America, Congress—there were just a few exceptions of people who were going to support this idea at the time. And Fred Kagan and General Keane—and General Keane, of course, having a lot of credibility—were supportive of this idea.
They generated ideas, but they were apart from the policy process, which was going on for quite a long time before they were able to meet. I think they met with Steve Hadley and the president kind of late in December, and so fairly late in the policy process. But, again, they were very important people to have in the public domain, respected people, who believed they could work.
ODIERNO: So I would tell you first, General Petraeus and General Keane are very close.
ODIERNO: So my guess is they were talking during this whole time. General Petraeus got to Iraq in February, so the surge had already started. But I would tell you that the burden that he had was quite significant, because on his shoulders he had the burden of a public face of the surge. And he’s the one who—and we had this conversation. He goes, you do the ground stuff. And, you know, obviously he wants to approve it and everything. But I’m going to deal with making sure we have the top cover in order to finish and execute the surge.
Now, he spent so much time talking to Congress, talking to other political leaders, explaining why this is the right thing to do. It was an incredible burden if you think about the political times we were in. And, you know, and we’ve known each other. We’re friends, and we’ve worked together several times. And the fact that he was willing to turn all the rest over to me and allow him, and understood that, was an incredible decision, and frankly a great burden that he took on during this process. And I think we don’t talk about that enough.
To me it’s the political burden he took on his shoulders that was the important thing for me that allowed us to do the things we needed to do on the ground.
BARKER: With that, thank you very much for coming tonight; appreciate everybody being here—(applause)—and all your questions. And sorry to the members I didn’t get to. And thank you, panelists.