JUDY WOODRUFF: As President Bush heads to meetings with his top Iraq commanders, U.S. forces have launched two big offensives.
South of Baghdad, American aircraft have been pounding suspected al-Qaida targets. North of the capital, in Diyala province, thousands of U.S. troops have taken on al-Qaida fighters.
U.S. officers said today they are preparing to hand over command of Anbar province in the west — once among the most dangerous in Iraq — to Iraqis.
Along with the offensive, 17 U.S. military deaths have already occurred this month, and there has been an increase in terrorist attacks since the beginning of the year in Baghdad and other cities.
All this as the first snowfall in living memory blanketed Baghdad today, surprising residents and temporarily stealing attention from constant security worries.
For an assessment of the military situation outside of snowy Baghdad, we go to Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and the author of numerous books on warfare. His latest is “Never Quit the Fight.”
And Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, he was assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration.
Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.
Goals of the new offensives
JUDY WOODRUFF: Colonel Peters, you are in frequent contact with the U.S. military leadership in Iraq. Tell us what they hope to accomplish with these offensives.
RALPH PETERS, Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel: Well, what they're trying to accomplish is to build on the accomplishments of 2007, with the really remarkable turnarounds we saw, the improvements in security, without pretending for a moment that the end is in sight in Iraq.
2007 was a great year. Al-Qaida is on the ropes. Much of Iraq is vastly more secure. Al-Qaida has suffered a strategic embarrassment.
And the key in operations of this kind, counterinsurgency, is to keep up the pressure. And this series of operations we're seeing now, Phantom Phoenix, is to try to keep up and redouble the pressure.
As al-Qaida was driven out of Anbar, driven out of Baghdad, into more rural areas, you have to push them again. Never let them have a chance to recover.
Also, we're trying very hard to hit the infrastructure of the people building the improvised explosive devices that kill Americans.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean by that?
RALPH PETERS: Well, the targets yesterday, the 42 targets, the initial bomb damage assessment tells us that 52 major bombs, IEDs, were destroyed along with two key bomb-makers, executioners.
In fact, what's not making the press is that, before these strikes, the people in the area were warned so they could get out of the way. We didn't want to kill civilians.
And so we could have killed more al-Qaida members, but we got the civilians out of the way, and the key thing was to get rid of the bombs and the infrastructure.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Lawrence Korb, how do you see -- how do you assess these offensives?
LAWRENCE KORB, Former Assistant Secretary of Defense: Well, I think this is more of the same, and it's disconnected from the ultimate goal.
When you use military force, it has a political objective. The objective of the surge and these increasing military operations was to give the Iraqi national government the breathing space to make the political compromises. If anything, they've gone backward in the last year.
And while people talk about the success in 2007, the fact of the matter is more American soldiers died in 2007 than in any previous year; more Iraqi civilians died than in any previous year.
And it's not just the success that they talk about. It's not just because of the military operations. We made an unholy alliance with a group of Sunnis, particularly in Anbar province, even though they don't pledge loyalty to the central government that we're there to support.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But, again, you see these new offensives as, in your words, more of the same.
LAWRENCE KORB: In other words -- yes, I mean, what's going to happen is, you know, particularly in the north, in Diyala, they'll go in. And, by the way, they're supposed to turn over after our forces go in to the Iraqi security forces.
We have so little confidence in the Iraqi security forces we would not even let them know what we were doing, because we were afraid that they would tip off the operation.
U.S. prepares to hand Anbar back
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of that -- and, Colonel Peters, I want to come to you -- the U.S. did announce today that they are preparing to hand over command of Anbar province to the Iraqis. What's the significance? We know this is the site of the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of U.S. soldiers.
RALPH PETERS: And this is -- Larry, easy now, it's campaign season. I got it. But, look, the Anbar -- we didn't make an unholy alliance.
The people of Anbar, the Sunni Muslims, tried al-Qaida. These are the former Saddam backers. They tried life with al-Qaida. And they decided that life with the great Satan is better.
Right now, our former enemies, the former Sunni insurgents, are killing al-Qaida. When I was last there in August and September, the change, the mood swing was phenomenal. And we actually had U.S. commanders trying to restrain Arabs from killing al-Qaida so we could do it in an orderly manner.
Now, Larry mentioned casualties last year. They were in the first half of the year, because it was -- we'd had a bad three years. We had to make up for it. The casualties in the second half of the year were way down. Iraq is much more secure.
And I would ask Larry to come with me next time I go to Iraq. I hope to go back in two months.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, rather than debating that -- and I know that is a subject that the two of you disagree on -- you are seeing -- we're at a point now where U.S. forces are going to continue to be drawn down further. And I guess the next question is, are the Iraqi forces able to pick up the slack there?
LAWRENCE KORB: I don't think so. I mean, not only were we afraid to tell them about this operation, you actually had Iraqi security forces kill an American soldier in the last week.
Listen, it's not a question of training the Iraqis. It's really a question of motivation. Are they motivated to support the central government?
These Sunni tribes, we could have had this arrangement with them two years ago. We turned it down because they wouldn't pledge loyalty to the central government. We took it this time, even though they didn't pledge loyalty. We're creating a long-term problem for that government, and possibly ourselves.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying the Iraqis are not prepared to pick up the slack?
LAWRENCE KORB: The Iraqis are not prepared.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And how do you see that?
RALPH PETERS: Well, so far, the Iraqis have taken over nine provinces and done a pretty good job.
The Iraqi army isn't perfect. It's got a long way to go. But neither of us can sit here and tell you, Judy, that it's going to succeed or it's going to fail. We will find out.
But the indicators, I've seen with my own eyes, what I hear from my colleagues serving, my comrades serving in Iraq today, is that the indicators are remarkably good on the military and security side.
One thing Larry is right about, though, is that ultimately the politicians and diplomats have to step up. The military can only take you so far.
Our military has done a great job. The Iraqi military is doing a good job, but now it's up to the Iraqi government. And that is a problem.
Ideal troop levels
JUDY WOODRUFF: Number of troops, what is the best number for the months to come?
LAWRENCE KORB: Well, for American troops?
JUDY WOODRUFF: For American troops.
LAWRENCE KORB: Well, I mean, basically we -- because we never sent enough troops in there to begin with, because of the fact that the administration resisted increasing the size of the Army, you basically have peaked out.
Actually, we ended up putting a -- the surge was not just 30,000. It was 50,000. We ended up with 180,000 troops in Iraq in November.
We have started to draw down. And by next summer, unless you want to go to a draft or continue to extend people there more than 15 months, you're going to be down to 50,000 in brigades, as opposed to 20,000 at the height of the surge.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying the right number, from your perspective, is...
LAWRENCE KORB: Well, the right number is 500,000. That was in General Petraeus' counterinsurgency manual. If you really want to control...
JUDY WOODRUFF: But given the reality?
LAWRENCE KORB: The reality is that the number that you have, you can't go above 130,000 this summer.
JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see the number?
RALPH PETERS: Well, I think we are ready to go down to 130,000 because things militarily are going very, very well. General Petraeus has already said he's going to do that.
Now, I've known him for a long time. We've disagreed on a number of things. But he's a man of integrity. And if he said we can draw down, it's not for political reasons. It's because he believes the Iraqis can pick up the ball.
Now, Judy, it just frustrates me so much because this shouldn't be about Republicans and Democrats. The empirical reality on the ground is the security situation is remarkably improved over last year.
But now, again, it comes back to, can the Iraqis themselves step up? We put the training wheels on the bicycle, but they do have to ride it themselves.
Different perspectives on situation
JUDY WOODRUFF: You're saying this is -- what Larry Korb is saying is political. You're saying this is a political discussion.
LAWRENCE KORB: The Iraqi political leaders will not step up unless you set a date for withdrawal. As long as they can look on us as a crutch, they will continue not to make the hard decisions.
Remember, when this surge started, the president said by the end of this year they'll have all 18 provinces. The president said they're going to have an oil law. The president said they're going to have de-Baathification. They haven't done any of it.
And the reason they're not is because they know that they can rely on us. And in my view -- and I've held this since 2005 -- you've got to set a withdrawal date. And you've got to also...
JUDY WOODRUFF: We're not going to be able to have that complete discussion here, we've only got --
LAWRENCE KORB: And let me say something about General Petraeus.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And I need to let Colonel Peters get a word in.
RALPH PETERS: Let's not hold the Iraqis to a higher standard than we hold our own Congress. How many laws did our Congress pass last year?
For the Iraqis, this is a struggle from ground zero. I mean, they have so many old hatreds to overcome. And they may not overcome them, Judy. But the prognosis at the moment is very promising, more promising than it's been since April 2003.
LAWRENCE KORB: I'm just saying President Bush put them on notice to do it this year. They did not do it, and that's the key thing.
And this is hurting our security. The longer we stay there, the worse our military posture around the world is going to be to deal with the real threats.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Two very different perspectives on this, and we appreciate it, both of you. We appreciate both of you being here. Thanks very much.
RALPH PETERS: Thank you, Judy.