- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Col. Michael J. Meese, a member of Gen. David Petraeus’ team assessing progress in Iraq in advance of the general’s report to Congress next week, says violence in Iraq is down due to cooperation between U.S. soldiers and local tribes. But security gains would be lost in the event of a “non-conditions-based withdrawal.”
Conditions on the ground in Iraq are changing at a blistering pace, ‘fluid’ in military terminology. How is Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) assessing conditions given the rapidly evolving environment?
In an old-fashioned linear battlefield it was pretty simple to measure how far you advanced or how far the enemy advanced, and when objectives were taken or not taken. That’s not the case when you’re fighting the kind of war that we have in Iraq, probably best characterized as a counterinsurgency, although it’s even more complex than that.
For a fair amount of time, starting by the beginning of 2006, we have developed a very robust set of metrics that went into large databases. There are army operations research folks who literally spend all their time doing daily reports, weekly reports, monthly reports, so when the benchmark reports were put on top of that, that was a different slicing of the data that was already being fairly robustly collected by the command.
In July, when the White House issued its initial benchmark assessment, the message from the administration was “Give us more time, we’re making progress.” That seems to be the same message we are hearing now. What will we hear from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker next week that will differ from what we heard just a few months ago?
We’ve given suggested ideas in drafts of both of their testimonies to them, and both of them are doing it personally and individually. I don’t know what either of them is going to say. They will assess what has happened, where there has been progress, and where there have been setbacks. I would advise them to put it in a broader context. In other words, this is not, “Oh, they didn’t meet x, y, z benchmarks and so let’s pull out all of our forces.” By the same token, if [the Iraqi government] passed all five major benchmarks in legislation tomorrow, it is unlikely to me that the people here in Washington who are opposing continued troop deployments would suddenly say, “Oh, they just passed five laws. Let’s keep the troops there.”
These benchmarks are useful ways to get the Iraqi government to move forward, and they’re kind of useful catchphrases for politicians in Washington, to have a metric to be able to argue one side or the other on. But people should look at the broader framework, at what it would be like if you had success in a progressive, democratically elected state in Iraq that was generally an ally in the war on terror and generally moving in the right direction forward, versus the condition where you might have a failed state in the middle of Iran and Syria and Saudi Arabia, where you’d have huge problems getting oil to the world market, where you’d potentially have a humanitarian disaster with huge amounts of ethnic cleansing, potentially much worse than what we saw at the height of December 2006.
A number of progress reports have been released in advance of the general’s testimony. Military commanders have taken issue with one of them specifically, a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which seems to cite different statistics measuring progress in Iraq. Can you help explain the divergent views?
The first thing that’s factually important and is on the front page of the GAO report is that they have a different standard for benchmarks than MNF-I. Congress asks [the GAO], “Has the Iraqi government met or not met the benchmark?” The standard for the MNF-I and the embassy to report is, “Has the Iraqi government made progress towards meeting the benchmarks?” Those are different evaluation standards: Theirs is an achievement grade, ours is an effort grade.
The GAO, in their draft report, document that there has been some progress made but they just haven’t achieved the mark, which, using their draft report, could be an appropriate characterization. I have not read the report that was actually published, just the prepublication copy. My impression from the prepublication copy was that there were not a lot of updates after the end of June or the middle of July. We spent about six days with them [GAO staff] on the ground and things have changed pretty substantially since June 15th when the surge [was fully implemented]. And when I say “changed substantially,” attacks and security incidents are down significantly. I think eight out of the last eleven weeks, attacks have been dropping. They are now at the lowest level since June 2006.
General Petraeus doesn’t want to paint this better or worse than it is. December was the height of the ethno-sectarian violence. So we’re comparing the worst possible month with the current situation, and it has dropped dramatically, which was the intent of the surge, to stop the over-all killings, and ethno-sectarian violence is down even more. In other words, all civilian casualties and all civilian deaths are down 17 percent and 48 percent, respectively.
Many credit the relative drop in violence to the willingness of some tribes to take up arms against al-Qaeda. This “bottom-up” approach to stability seems to be gaining traction in Washington policy circles. Is this becoming the preferred U.S. strategy?
Bottom-up reconciliation has had an important effect in Anbar. And that has happened not just in Anbar, but in other smaller pockets in the suburbs of Baghdad, what we call “the Baghdad Belts,” such Abu Ghraib, where 1,700 people who used to be Sunni insurgents—some of them were targeted on our target list—have put down their weapons, or taken their weapons and turned them on al-Qaeda, and we applaud that. They are now joining part of the legitimate Iraqi security force.
How can U.S. forces ensure they are not simply nurturing the next American enemy?
This is not just “Oh, we’re going to look the other way,” as some have portrayed it. These are individuals who would swear an oath to the Iraqi government. They get vetted, which includes the biometric analysis. They get their fingerprints taken, their retinas scanned, their pictures taken, so that if their fingerprints show up on IED [improved explosive device] residue or things like that, we’ll know who they are and all the information about them. It is a fairly invasive procedure of these individuals turning away from al-Qaeda and turning toward the coalition and more importantly, the Iraqi government.
We’re not arming them?
Are we providing training?
There are some six-week police courses that the Iraqis are putting them through. The Iraqis are giving them blue shirts with numbers and badges and we’re making them look like police officers.
How are these troops improving security?
I was in Fallujah on Saturday with Katie Couric and this place was amazing. We would walk down the streets and there were all these guys with all these different kinds of weapons. They had all the weapons from before, but they were now guarding the place. The markets were open, and these were the local neighborhood volunteers and they had orange vests almost like school crossing guards, but it made them look official and they were very proud to be there.
In fact the brigade commander said, “You know, six months ago Ms. Couric, we would never have dreamed of bringing you down to where you were going.” And as I drove out with the Marines he said, “Right where we went over this crevasse, that’s about the first time that we would have a shot taken at us, an RPG [rocket-powered grenade] fired at us, four or five months ago. And now it’s a very secure city.”
In terms of future troop reductions, how much of this success in Anbar and elsewhere is contingent upon a continued U.S. presence there? Would the Sunni tribal leaders feel confident offering up fighters if they knew we were leaving tomorrow?
I don’t think they would be as confident if there were a precipitous, non-conditions based withdrawal. A non-conditions-based withdrawal would lead to a climate of circumstances in Iraq that would be very bad for United States policy. Just from a moral perspective if nothing else, we’ve essentially, because of policy choices in the past, foisted this on the situation in Iraq and would probably be rightly blamed for what happened. In addition to the fact that the instability in the Middle East would not be something that would be good for United States foreign policy, even if we were not the ones that caused the problem to begin with.
Why did these tribal groups decide to come to us in the first place?
They rejected the Taliban-like ideology of al-Qaeda. They were attracted to it when it looked like everything was going against them, and in fact many things were. The disbanding of the army was. Their new minority position in the government was. And so al-Qaeda seemed to be their champion. Then they found out that the al-Qaeda ideology was a very strict sharia law ideology. They were doing forced marriages of daughters, they were beheading individuals, they were not returning the bodies, as is the custom. They were even prohibiting smoking. So a lot of this tipped when al-Qaeda overreached. They made folks do things they didn’t want to do and massacred a bunch of folks, and the people said, “Enough’s enough. We may not be very friendly with the occupiers but they seem genuine, let’s see if we can make a deal.”
Observers have begun to paint the bottom-up strategy as a major policy shift. Do you agree with that characterization?
I was looking at some slides earlier today and, literally, we talked about it in February. Now obviously we didn’t think it would be the hallmark that you would be touting in September, but it was part of what you do in terms of the approach. In warfare you don’t know what’s actually going to happen. There are positive shocks and surprises in the fog and fiction of war, and there are negative shocks. And the fact that bottom-up reconciliation has worked and links to national reconciliation is a positive thing. And let me mention how I think it links to national reconciliation. I told you about Vice President al-Hashemi coming out to Fallujah with Katie Couric: He actually learned that when he comes out there, he can do like a Washington politician going to Peoria. He can promise to bring jobs and he can promise to bring money or a new highway project and then the people out there, the constituents, like him and applaud him.
This local turning is forcing demands on the national government, and that’s leading to the national government starting to do some of their own reconciliation. Even if it is not reconciliation and the de-Baathification law and the provisional powers law and the sort of thing that meets the criteria of the benchmarks, it is a slow step in the right direction.
Continuing on this security vein, what is your take on the development of the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces]? There’s been a lot of criticism of their ability to function without coalition assistance. And this turning toward a bottom-up solution—does it suggest the United States is turning away from a national-security-force focus in favor of a more localized solution?
I don’t think people are turning away from the Iraqi army, which is actually making substantial progress in terms of deploying brigades to Baghdad. U.S. commanders in Baghdad have asked the Iraqi brigades that deployed to stay and be extended because they are very good. It’s uneven to be sure, and all units are not as good as the others, but there are some very good Iraqi army units. That is progressing slowly. But again, you’re rebuilding an army of 120 battalions in less than two years, which is a fairly phenomenal feat, and by and large their combat capability is very good. The problem is enablers—like logistics especially—because their logistics system is very problematic, and things like fire support and air support and those sorts of things that they’ve got to develop.
In terms of local reconciliation and the police, the best way to do policing is when local people are guarding local people. As long as you have them controlled enough that they are watching their own neighborhood and not the ethnically different neighborhood across the street, that is a great step in the right direction.
The national police are, I think, generally acknowledged as a problem. I don’t know what the government of Iraq is going to do with them. Some proposals are to integrate them into the Iraqi army. Other proposals are to disband them or to have them be kind of a paramilitary force. It is an institution that takes itself seriously, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen to it in the long term.
The opinions expressed in this interview are those of Col. Michael J. Meese and not necessarily those of Multi-National Force-Iraq.