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Experts Analyze American Progress with Iraqi Insurgents

June 11, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Now a two-part look at efforts to quell the Iraqi insurgency. We begin with a report on U.S. efforts to engage Sunni tribal leaders in the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq. We get that from New York Times Baghdad Bureau Chief John burns. I spoke with him earlier this evening.

John, welcome back. So what we understand here is now that the United States forces are trying to work out a plan where they engage or they pay Sunni groups in order to go after al-Qaida. How is that going to work?

JOHN BURNS, Baghdad Bureau Chief, New York Times: Well, it’s an expedient, of course, that has been tried before, in fact, quite frequently before in counterinsurgency wars of this kind. If you can split the insurgency, if you can, if you will, suborn some elements of it by giving them arms, ammunition, cash, fuel and other supplies, obviously you change the balance of the equation.

The problem here in Iraq is that the people that they are trying to recruit, if you will, to the American side of this war — or, if you will, the Iraqi side of this war — are Baathist insurgents who have been fighting the United States forces here now for four years and who have played a considerable role in killing more than 3,500 American troops.

It’s an enterprise fraught with risk, obviously, because, how long do these people, in effect, stay bought and stay loyal? The intent is to split the insurgency and have the Baathist insurgents, if you will, go after al-Qaida and to drive al-Qaida from the battlefield. It’s a long shot. It’s not hard to understand why American generals want to give it a try, but it is certainly fraught with risk.

GWEN IFILL: What precautions have been put in place, John, so that they know who is friend and who is foe?

JOHN BURNS: Well, at the front end of this, to answer your question a little obliquely, the problem is that it’s very hard to know who you are talking to, who you are negotiating with, to whom you are supplying arms, because there’s very little forensic evidence.

There is a supposition, and more than a supposition in some areas, that these people belong to Sunni Baathists or elements of the insurgency that have, in fact, fought and killed Americans. It’s altogether likely that, in most cases, that will not be provable and that these — if you will, these deals will go through.

They’re going to attempt to, if you will, fix the loyalty of these groups to whom, you know, support is given by various forensic means. They’re going to subject all of the members of these groups to biometric tests. That’s to say retina scans, fingerprints, and they’re going to record the serial numbers of all weapons that are transferred.

The hope is, of course, that, should these groups in effect betray their new American patrons by attacking American troops or attacking, for that matter, Iraqi troops, that it will be possible, ex post facto, to caught onto that fact.

GWEN IFILL: Internally, is this something that the Shiite-led government, the Army and the Iraqi police, are in league with, or is this something they have some problem with, seeing as how these are their enemies?

JOHN BURNS: They have a problem with it. This began in al-Anbar province to the west of Baghdad, counting for something like 30 percent of the territory of Iraq, crucially important stretch of territory bordering Jordan to the west, Syria and Saudi Arabia, which, as I think many of your viewers will know, was for a very long time the most dangerous place in Iraq. It’s overwhelmingly Sunni.

Now, a deal with tribal sheikhs there who have recruited what in British imperial times would have been called tribal levies, and among them former Baathist insurgents, has worked very well in Anbar. The levels of violence in the last four or five months have really plunged.

Where it involves an overwhelmingly Sunni population, the Shiite-led government in Baghdad doesn’t have much of a problem with it. They do have a problem when you try and introduce this in mixed Sunni-Shia areas, and that, unfortunately for the Americans, includes many of the areas they are now attempting to replicate this procedure in, in central and north-central Iraq, which is to say Sunni-dominated areas on the approaches to Baghdad, where there are significant Shiite populations.

And not surprisingly, the Shiite leaders of the present government don’t much like it, because they are looking beyond the American troop presence here, a year or more down the road, to the point where I think it’s now rather widely assumed here the struggle for power will become, in fact, an all-out civil war between Shiite and Sunni groups. And weapons and ammunition passed now by the Americans to Sunni groups, of course, are going to empower the Sunnis in that, let’s hope avoidable, but widely expected, if you will, cataclysm.

Knowing your enemies

John Burns
The New York Times
They are saying that they will not knowingly arm anybody who has American blood on his hands.

GWEN IFILL: So does this mean that the United States forces have essentially given up on any pursuit of Shia militias, who have theoretically been linked in some ways to these al-Qaida groups?

JOHN BURNS: That's a very astute question, Gwen. We've not heard nearly so much from across the river from where I'm standing now, in the Green Zone, the American command complex, about militias in recent months. And I think that's because it came to be understood that the Shiite leaders of the present government, with their militias, would simply resist it. They were not going to stand down, the armed wings of the Shiite religious parties.

So American pressure, if you will, has shifted to such other things as oil or as constitutional revisions and so forth. The Shiite leaders having resisted standing down their own militias, most obviously the Mahdi Army militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, are in a weaker position to resist the American forces here, in effect, giving weapons to Sunni militias.

But you're quite right. There is a contradiction here. But you'd have to say, how many options are left to American generals? Their surge has not gone as well as they hoped. It's only four months into the surge. We know the surge is not going to last beyond April '08, but the returns on that surge to date have been discouraging.

Sectarian violence went down; it's back up again. The other main killer in this war, suicide bombings, have gone down in Baghdad, but up elsewhere, as al-Qaida has moved elsewhere. So the generals are looking for ways to turn the tide in this war.

And what they're doing with this venture in attempting to arm Sunni Baathist militias, if you will -- see, you could say it's an act of desperation. You could say it's an act of realism. It was tried in French colonial Algeria. It was tried in British Balaia. It was tried in Vietnam, with varying results, most of them negative. So we'll have to see where this goes.

But I have to say, it's understandable why American generals who are under pressure to prevail in the war and to prepare to get American troops home are not closing off any avenues. And they are, by the way, saying -- and it's crucial to be fair in this -- they are saying that they will not knowingly arm anybody who has American blood on his hands.

General Rick Lynch, the commander of the Third Infantry Division, whose forces guard the southern approaches to Baghdad, the worst of the worst badlands in this war for very long periods of time, said yesterday in a briefing that -- he said, any negotiation with any group that has people in it who've killed American soldiers -- and his soldiers included, those four who were killed in an overwatch position a month ago in a Humvee, and three who were abducted, one of whom was found floating in the Tigris, subsequently, two of whom are missing, and sadly I think you'd have to say now are unofficially presumed dead -- General Lynch said here's how the negotiation is going to go if we run into people like that. It's going to be, "You're under arrest, and you're coming with me."

So they're going to try, if you will, apply due diligence here. But that's very difficult to do in a war where the American military has never known exactly who their enemy is.

GWEN IFILL: John Burns in Baghdad for us once again tonight, thank you very much.

JOHN BURNS: Thank you, Gwen.

Two views on the "surge"

Stephen Biddle
Council on Foreign Relations
The real challenge for Iraq is not, will the surge work where it is? It's, what do you do about the rest of the country?

GWEN IFILL: Now, part two of the Iraq counterinsurgency story, a look at how the Baghdad surge strategy is working. Margaret Warner has that.

MARGARET WARNER: More than four months into the U.S. troop buildup in Baghdad, generals in the field have started tamping down expectations of how quickly progress can be expected. We get two assessments now of how much progress the surge has made so far on the all-important Baghdad security front. And they come from Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was in Iraq in March and April, advising top U.S. commander General David Petraeus.

And former Army Captain Phillip Carter, he served in Iraq until last September and was a skeptic of the administration's surge strategy when it was announced.

Welcome to you both. Stephen Biddle, we just heard John Burns say that the results of the surge so far have been disappointing, discouraging, and he suggested that even commanders in the field feel it's not going as well as hoped. How does it look to you?

STEPHEN BIDDLE, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, I think where we put the surge, it's reasonably likely, given enough time, to have the effects we hope it to have. I think if you put enough troop density into a community, you can pacify it, if you're willing to be patient enough to allow people's expectations to change.

The problem is not so much where we put the surge; the problem is the rest of the country. And that's what we're seeing in Baghdad, as well. Parts of Baghdad where we don't actually have U.S. troops on the ground in high density, we can't control, and the violence has returned to, as militias that stood down voluntarily have now changed their mind and decided to contest control of these areas.

But the real challenge for Iraq is not, will the surge work where it is? It's, what do you do about the rest of the country?

MARGARET WARNER: And, in fact, Phillip Carter there have been reports that the U.S. forces or U.S.-led forces only have control of really less than a third of the neighborhoods in Baghdad itself. What does that tell you? And how does that fit into your overall assessment of how much progress you can measure so far?

PHILLIP CARTER, Former Police Adviser in Iraq: The one-third number is significant, because it reflects the projections a number of us made at the surge's beginning, that we had too few troops by about two-thirds and that they would only be able to secure a part of Baghdad. And as Professor Biddle says, what's happening in those other areas, the other two-thirds of Baghdad, is that you have sectarian militias and Sunni insurgents flowing in where Iraqi security forces are simply not sufficient and not up to the task of policing those areas and controlling them.

MARGARET WARNER: And on the violence, as we heard John Burns say, Stephen Biddle, sectarian killings were down, and then they're up. In the first six months -- for instance, let's take Baghdad -- in the first six days, excuse me, of June, there was something like 167 bodies found on the street. Now, that's less than before the surge, but more than in March and April. So what does that tell you?

STEPHEN BIDDLE: Well, I think what it tells us is that the initial drop in sectarian murders wasn't because we were preventing them. We didn't have troops in Sadr City to prevent these people from carrying out murders. Muqtada al-Sadr decided that it was in his self-interest to tell his people to stand down and wait and see. Well, they've waited and they've seen, and they've decided to come back.

So to the extent that we're going to have to deal with the Mahdi Army, with the Jaish al-Mahdi, by direct force of arms, that battle hasn't taken place yet.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you agree with Phillip Carter that it's -- well, let me just ask you. Do you think this is because it was a flawed strategy or do you think it lacks resources?

STEPHEN BIDDLE: If you were going to pursue it as, "We're going to win this war. We're going to solve this problem by pacifying the country through U.S. force of arms," then it's a flawed strategy, because it has too few resources. If we're going to get out of this with something that looks like peace and stability in Iraq, we are not going to get there by pacifying the whole country, by putting a U.S. soldier on every street corner. There has to be another way of doing it.

One of the reasons why what's going on in Anbar is so interesting is because that's a window, a glimpse into another way of doing it. Bringing about a solution to the problem of Iraq, not by putting a U.S. soldier on every street corner, but by negotiating a series of bilateral cease-fires between particular combatant factions and ourselves and the government of Iraq, for people who retain the military capacity to resist if they decide to, instead decide not to -- to stand down, as Muqtada al-Sadr did for a while in Sadr City and has now reversed -- stand down, engage in a cease-fire, shift their military activity against our common opponent.

The only way we're going to get out of this with something that looks like peace and stability is if we can replicate that model piecemeal through most of the rest of the country.

Arming Sunnis

Former Capt. Phillip Carter
U.S. Army
And now, as we consider a U.S. drawdown or pullout, to consider arming them now is really, I think, to add fuel to the Iraqi civil war, which may be looming on the horizon.

MARGARET WARNER: Phillip Carter, what do you think of arming the Sunnis, some Sunnis against the other Sunnis, the strategy that's been followed in Anbar and, as John Burns reported and the Times reported today, U.S. commanders now want to extend to other areas, including, in fact, one of the neighborhoods on the road to the Baghdad airport, so really pretty close and in Baghdad? Is it something that would work in Baghdad?

PHILLIP CARTER: I'm also skeptical of this, both for the reasons that John Burns espoused, and also because of something that Stephen Biddle wrote about two years ago. This is merely training and equipping the partisans who will fight Iraq's civil war.

Whether that happens now or whether that happens in a year or two when the U.S. pulls out, I don't think that we can afford to pursue this kind of a strategy. The key is really to broker these local political deals with the local insurgent factions and the local religious leaders, who have controlled the groups of young men on the ground, and to get them to voluntarily stop the killing. Arming the factions so that they can better protect their neighborhoods merely ensures the level of violence will spiral increasingly out of control.

MARGARET WARNER: But to pick up on Stephen Biddle's point, does it, in fact, at least create an incentive for certain factions to stand down voluntarily? In other words, if they are meeting violence at the hands of another side -- I think that's what you were suggesting -- then it becomes in their self-interest to voluntarily negotiate their own cease-fires.

PHILLIP CARTER: I think that's the theory, but unless it's followed up with something to the effect of embedded advisers with these Sunni insurgent groups or some other sort of oversight mechanism, this really has the potential to blow up in our faces. One can only imagine the implications of arming these Sunni militias four years ago. We would have been fighting that all along.

And now, as we consider a U.S. drawdown or pullout, to consider arming them now is really, I think, to add fuel to the Iraqi civil war, which may be looming on the horizon.

MARGARET WARNER: Let's go to the Iraqi piece of this, Stephen Biddle, because the other part of the strategy to start with was that the Iraqis were going to help pick up the burden, both in terms of security, and also that this was going to create the political space for them to reach reconciliation on the political front. Fair to say, not sufficient progress on either one of those?

STEPHEN BIDDLE: Oh, I think that's more than fair to say. I think, with respect to space, political space for bargaining, if the parties wanted to do a deal, and the only thing in the way was a high level of background violence, then if you could depress that background level of violence in the national capital, you would create a space in which they would all naturally come together and we'd get a deal.

The problem is: They don't want a deal. They each see compromises being too risky and too dangerous for themselves. Given that, simply passively creating room in which people can talk to each other isn't enough. If we're going to get the kind of negotiated cease-fires that I think are the only way out, we're going to have to much more forcefully push them towards each other by conditionally offering sticks and carrots, making our behavior conditional on their behavior in ways that give them incentives to reach deals that they otherwise don't want to reach. Simply depressing the violence level so they can talk isn't going to be enough to get that done.

"A threat to leave"

Stephen Biddle
Council on Foreign Relations
Our military behavior has to be a combination of sticks, if you won't cooperate, with promises, if you will, to change their behavior.

MARGARET WARNER: But by that do you mean a threat to leave? What are you talking about? What's a stick?

STEPHEN BIDDLE: Well, a threat to leave is too blunt an instrument. The problem is, it looks like a threat to some and a promise to others. Muqtada al-Sadr wants to us leave.

MARGARET WARNER: So give an example.

STEPHEN BIDDLE: Well, an example would be, for example, what we've been doing in Anbar. We go to Sunni tribal sheikhs who are considering changing sides and we say to them, "If you change sides, and if you do a cease-fire negotiation, we will help you. We will arm you; we will equip you; we will train you. If you want them, we'll give you U.S. troops to defend your home neighborhoods. On the other hand, if you will not cooperate and you will not cease firing against us, you can expect an offensive American military action against your home neighborhoods."

So our military behavior has to be a combination of sticks, if you won't cooperate, with promises, if you will, to change their behavior. We can't just behave uniformly, irregardless of how they behave.

MARGARET WARNER: Phillip Carter, what is your assessment of why the Iraqi piece of this is not working, even as well as was expected?

PHILLIP CARTER: My assessment's even more blunt and undiplomatic. I think the Maliki government is rotten to its core. I think all of its ministries, but particularly the defense ministry and the interior ministry, cannot provide for the Iraqi people. And the Iraqi people know this, and in particular the Sunnis know this.

And as long as the Maliki government continues to pander to its base and resist any sort of meaningful reconciliation, we will see no long-term political progress in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Phillip Carter, very briefly from both of you, but, as you know, Republicans on Capitol Hill are saying, if when General Petraeus comes to give his report in September, he can't say real progress has been made with this surge, that it may be time to reassess the entire U.S. commitment there. If current developments continue on the current trajectory, do you think there's any reasonable expectation that he's going to be able to say that, in fact, the surge is working?

PHILLIP CARTER: Well, I think he'll come back and say the evidence is mixed. And here's where I think that the article on Sunday's Washington Post front page is so significant. It talked about the adviser model and the "go long" option, and I think that that option will become increasingly attractive as we realize that the current trajectory is not leading us towards success.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think there's a chance he's going to be able to say it's successful?

STEPHEN BIDDLE: I think it's certainly going to be a mixed bag. What I would like him to say is to talk about the progress or lack of it in negotiating cease-fires. The kinds of metrics people usually talk about -- casualties, violence, incidents -- they're not very helpful. If the way out is negotiation, we need to hear about the negotiation.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there. Thank you both, Stephen Biddle, Phillip Carter.