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U.S. Generals Discuss Strength of Iraq Insurgency

February 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: The post-election state of the Iraqi insurgency. Kwame Holman begins.

KWAME HOLMAN: Suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices or IED’s, rocket-propelled grenades and kidnappings and assassinations– those are the tools of the insurgents waging their war in Iraq.

Just over a week after the elections, Iraqis and Americans still are under attack from local and foreign insurgents. And in what now has become a well-established pattern, especially targeted are Iraqi security forces.

Yesterday, 21 people died at a recruiting center for national guardsmen in Baghdad. And on Monday, more than 30 people died in various assaults on police and security officers around the country. At a Pentagon briefing today, Lt. Gen. Lance Smith confirmed the target shift toward Iraqis.

LT. GEN. LANCE SMITH: We see violence sort of at the pre-election levels right now, although the focus is — appears to be right now on the Iraqi security forces and civilians. And the civilians in many cases are not just civilians in the street, but those civilians that are around Iraqi recruiting stations, either in lines to sign up– which we have seen a good surge in after the elections.

KWAME HOLMAN: But he also said since the election U.S. forces seemed to be getting more help from local Iraqis on pinpointing the insurgents.

LT. GEN. LANCE SMITH: In Fallujah, for instance, there are Iraqis that are Fallujans that are clearly Sunni that are pointing out caches, some significant ones, of weapons. There are people in Fallujah and Samarra and other places that have pointed out bad actors of some sort, whether they’re extremists or former regime elements. And then there are others that are pointing out IEDs and taking us to IEDs.

KWAME HOLMAN: Estimates of the number of insurgents range widely, but tens of thousands are believed to be operating inside Iraq. U.S. officials say some 1,000 of those are foreign fighters, many motivated to kill for money.

LT. GEN. LANCE SMITH: There’s also a large criminal element out there that is just out there, you know, doing things for money, and their motivations are mixed. Some are ideologues. Many, we think, are doing this for money, you know. “Here’s 200 bucks, here’s an RPG, go out and shoot somebody in a coalition,” or something like that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lt. Gen. Smith added the U.S. would continue training Iraqi security forces to help prepare them to fight the insurgents.

JIM LEHRER: For more, we’re joined by two retired Marine Corps generals with extensive experience on Iraq: Retired Gen. Joseph Hoar was commander-in-chief of central command from 1991 to ’94. That’s the headquarters for U.S. forces in Iraq.

Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong was deputy commander of central command a decade later. He’s now with Shaw Group, which has construction contracts in Iraq; he’s also the author of the book “Inside CENTCOM.”

Gen. Hoar, is there a military solution to the insurgency problem in Iraq?

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR (RET.): No, I don’t think so, Jim. I think to have a successful counterinsurgency program you have to have three elements: A political element, a security element, and a development element. The development, of course, is jobs and infrastructure and things like this.

I think one of the reasons why we’ve seen an increase in the good feelings about what’s going on in Iraq is elections are a political element. And this is really what should drive a successful counterinsurgency program is the political side of it. The difficulty is that the security can’t do it all by itself despite the fact that we have probably the best military that we’ve had in the last 50 years, better trained, deeply committed. You can’t do it just with the military. You’ve got to have first and foremost, you’ve got to have the right political decisions.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Gen. Delong, that you can have a great military in there but that isn’t going to get the job done against the insurgency?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (RET.): I do agree. And the reason I agree is the same thing is you see what’s going on right now with the people there in Iraq at least about 60-70 percent of them are very comfortable the elections went well. The people that are targeting the police forces are trying to disrupt the second peace, the security peace that Gen. Hoar is talking about. And if you don’t have that second peace, you can never get to the third peace which is the infrastructure or the jobs for the new Iraqi people.

JIM LEHRER: But, Gen. Delong, explain to lay people why the U.S. Military now with Iraqi forces can’t find these insurgents and destroy them. What is the military problem that prevents that from happening?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (RET.): Well, you’ve got a country the size of California; you’ve got people embedded in some of the — whether they’re the same religion or the same sect or the same tribe, they’re hiding them. Right now though after the elections, you heard Gen. Smith who replaced me in CENTCOM — what’s going on right now is the people there in Iraq are now starting to give up some of these insurgents so it’s starting to go the way that the coalition wants it to go.

JIM LEHRER: So meanwhile, Gen. Hoar, what does the U.S. Military do, just continue to help the civil side, help the political side and lay off the military or what?

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR (RET.): Well, I think the first thing is you’ve got to provide security for this brand new military and security force that we’re trying to stand up for the Iraqis.

You can’t have twenty or thirty of them killed every time they get on a bus to go home on leave or go from one place to another so there has to be some security for these fellows until they’re well trained and ready to begin assuming some responsibilities for security around the country.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read — the same question I asked Gen. Delong — how do you read the problem? Why can’t that security be provided? Why are these people still dying there every day?

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR (RET.): Well, I think that the first thing is that we’re still perceived as an occupying power, number one. Number two, there are varying numbers of how many insurgents are in the country. But they’re certainly in the thousands. And the places where you’ve seen successful counterinsurgency operations, the number of bad guys has never amounted to that many people.

This is an enormous and very daunting task to root these people out. And of course, as Mike suggested, the key is intelligence. Now whether or not this is going to last is another question entirely, which I don’t believe it will.

JIM LEHRER: But what will last — will not last?

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR (RET.): This euphoria -

JIM LEHRER: Euphoria -

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR (RET.): — we see coming out of the elections because when we think about democracy, we think about rule of law, protection of rights of individuals. In a tribal society, democracy means that one side is going to win perhaps at the disadvantage of another side and so the Shia population is delighted with the outcome.

They voted in large numbers and they believe correctly that they’re going to run the country. On the other side, the Kurds voted in large numbers and they’re looking for autonomy. Those two things may not be possible to exist side by side in the new democratic Iraq. We’ll have to see.

JIM LEHRER: And in the meantime, Gen. Delong, you also have the Sunnis who didn’t vote at all and who are at least — well, you tell me — how much involved they are in encouraging or being even involved in the insurgency.

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (RET.): Well, in the last week I’ve talked to about six of the Iraqi leaders over there; four of them were Sunnis. Most of the Sunni population were the ones that were under some sort of — they were afraid of the insurgents and so they didn’t come out.

But approximately about 10 to 15 percent of the Sunnis did vote. Their concern is, as Gen. Hoar said, is what they really want right now is they want this constitution to come out and they want the Sunnis and the Kurds to be a large part of how the government of Iraq is going to be formed in the future. But the other thing that these Iraqi senior leaders did tell me after the elections, there used to be about — there’s arguably fourteen to sixteen different insurgents groups there. Two of them — one is the Zarqawi and the other one is the al-Qaida group. They’re there to kill and they’re there to get rid of anybody over there that has anything to do with western forces.

But the other 14 groups, about four of them have dropped out as a result of the elections because they feel that the constitution will allow the Sunnis to get back in. So right now things are getting better but that doesn’t mean that they’re out of the woods yet.

JIM LEHRER: Do you share Gen. Hoar’s pessimism?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (RET.): I’ve been there seven times in the last six months. I meet with the senior Iraqis. Last time I was there, I inadvertently met with two insurgent leaders that were brought into the room unbeknownst to me. We had discussions about the elections.

As a result of my discussions, they went out and talked to their groups. Those two groups were two of them that have stopped fighting after the elections. So, yes, I feel better about Iraq, but because I’m there but I also am concerned that if this does not go right, there could be another civil war. It’s possible.

JIM LEHRER: Another civil war. Senator — or I mean Gen. Hoar said that their idea of democracy over there is winner take all. And if that happens, then there would be a civil war, right? In other words, if they do not allow the Kurds or somehow figure it out for the Sunnis and the Kurds to be part of this government there will be a civil war. Is that what you’re saying?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (RET.): Well, some people have argued before the elections there was a civil war anyway. The Sunnis were leading most of the insurgent groups and the only reason there wasn’t mass civil war is because of the coalition forces, the U.S. and the then trained Iraqi army and Iraqi police. So that’s what’s kept it down so far.

I still think talking to the people over there that the large Shia population is willing, because they know they have to allow the Sunnis to have a percent of the government and the Kurds to have a percent. Is it going to be perfect? No. Will it take three or four years? Probably. But that’s best case. I mean, Gen. Hoar’s position was what I think is worst case.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, your case is the worst?

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR (RET.): I don’t think it’s the worst case. The worst case, of course, is that the whole region is inflamed. When Turkey gets into it working with Iran against the Kurds to prevent –

JIM LEHRER: Everybody starts choosing up sides.

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR (RET.): Exactly, yes. The Israelis come in and are involved because they have concerns about what’s going on in Iran. The small states that aren’t capable of taking care of themselves, Jordan and Kuwait are endangered. That’s the worst case.

JIM LEHRER: So beginning with you, Gen. Hoar and then I’ll go to you Gen. Delong, what in the world does the United States do to make sure that worst case does not happen? Is there anything we can do?

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR (RET.): Of course we have to continue to work to train Iraqis to begin to take over the security requirement. But once again, the political side is the most important. Fairly soon, we’re going to have to start relinquishing political decisions.

The new prime minister is almost certainly going to be a Shia. Now, what are his policies going to be? Are we going to see Shia law? Are we going to see an Islamic state? Are we going to see an aggregation of what the CPA tried to put together with respect to –

JIM LEHRER: That was the first group –

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR (RET.): Yes, the first group under Mr. Bremer, to put together some sort of a confederation that gave autonomy to the Kurds? The Kurds’ view of this is more autonomy, how much autonomy? Certainly to control the northern oil fields in the city of Kirkuk; these are all very dangerous possibilities.

JIM LEHRER: I didn’t see a plan coming from what you just said. In other words, is there a way for the — I mean, to train — the United States is doing that right now. Is there anything besides that that can be done?

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR (RET.): Well….

JIM LEHRER: Except pray and hope it works out.

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR (RET.): One of the things that you do when you have an election is you relinquish some control. And it remains to be seen what’s going to be the outcome. My judgment is that the Shia after years of oppression….

JIM LEHRER: By Saddam Hussein and the minority Sunnis.

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR (RET.): And the Brits and the Ottomans are going to step up to this.

JIM LEHRER: And do what?

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR (RET.): And try and run the country and do it their way.

JIM LEHRER: What do you see down the road, Gen. Delong particularly in terms of how the United States could influence worst case, best case, any case?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (RET.): Well, first of all, being over there in the last ten years, as Gen. Hoar is an expert over there, the thing that I have been most encouraged about is Sharon and Abbas getting together. That is the fuel in the beginning of terrorism. Once that’s either… there’s a compromise made or they get together and come up with some sort of a peace settlement that will be a huge, huge weight lifted off the backs over there.

JIM LEHRER: How — excuse me, General – how would that affect –

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (RET.): The Sunnis I’ve talked to over there want this government to work. The hard part is getting it to work. If they do not include, as Gen. Hoar said, if the Sunnis are not included in the proper percentage, whether that’s 20 or 25 percent and the Kurds are not included in their percentage, then you’re going to have a huge problem. How do we do that? Right now, I see the people I’ve talked to — the Shiites right there know this has to happen for their country to flourish.

Arguably, they have the largest oil reserve in the world. That allows them to be a huge member of the world’s population. So, I think that’s what has to happen plus as Gen. Lux went over there as the — working for the secretary of defense made some recommendations, we’re going to insert some of the U.S. troops into the police forces, into the army to help bolster up them and make them just a little more courageous. That should help also.

JIM LEHRER: You mean kind of embed them as trainers of these various Iraqi units.

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (RET.): That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: I want to come back — the point you made about Abbas and Sharon; that’s a psychological development, right? In other words you think that would have an effect in Iraq in an indirect way because it would — in what way?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (RET.): Well, you could also ask this same question to Gen. Hoar. Every time I go over there in the last ten years, I get a finger pointed in my chest saying if you fix the issues between the Palestinians and the Israelis, there will be no terrorism in the world.

JIM LEHRER: Do you go with that, Gen. Hoar?

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR (RET.): It is the elite motif that you hear every place you go in the Arab world that if you could solve the Arab-Israeli problem, the view is that we always support the Israelis at the expense of the Palestinians. I have said again and again that the road to stability in Baghdad leads through Jerusalem.

JIM LEHRER: You both agree on that. Gen. Delong, Gen. Hoar –

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (RET.): I agree on it — 100 percent.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you both Generals very much