TOPICS > Politics

As Violence Peaks and Dips, Debate Over ‘Surge’ Persists

March 11, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
Loading the player...
President Bush said Tuesday he believes last year's surge of 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq -- which has been attributed with helping reduce the violence in some parts of Baghdad -- is working. Military policy experts debate the effectiveness of the surge strategy.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And now the surge. We start with some background narrated by NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: The news out of Iraq in recent days has been grim. Eight U.S. soldiers killed in bombings yesterday in Baghdad and Diyala province. A Sunni Arab tribal sheik murdered yesterday by a female suicide bomber. More than 50 Iraqis massacred in a Baghdad market attack last week. And, today, at least 16 Iraqis died in this roadside bombing targeting a bus in southern Iraq.

While violence has spiked in recent days, the number of deadly incidents actually has declined over the last nine months. According to the Associated Press, it’s down 60 percent.

Monthly numbers for Iraqi deaths vary, but most reports put the number killed at about half of what it was a year ago. And U.S. troop deaths have dropped from a one-month high of 300 in April 2007 to 110 in February.

The Bush administration and top U.S. generals in Iraq attribute the decline to the U.S. troop build-up that began last summer, known as the surge.

It added 30,000 more U.S. soldiers and Marines, bringing the total U.S. force to 168,000, the highest since the 2003 invasion. The military since has trimmed that number by about 10,000.

The surge coincided with the decision of some Sunni leaders to ally, at least temporarily, with U.S. forces in western Iraq and around Baghdad and a cease-fire called by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army. As a result, many insurgents have moved out of Baghdad and into northern provinces.

President Bush frequently has praised the surge and its results. Today, he spoke in Nashville.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Since the surge began, sectarian killings are down, al-Qaida has been driven from many strongholds it once held. I strongly believe the surge is working, and so do the Iraqis.

KWAME HOLMAN: The surge and the question of future U.S. troop levels in Iraq also is part of the rhetoric of the presidential campaign. John McCain has championed the surge from the start.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Frankly, the decision making on the surge, the decision that I felt was the most — the only way we could salvage a debacle in Iraq and a severe defeat that would have had profound consequences for our nation’s security.

KWAME HOLMAN: But on the Democratic side, candidates Clinton and Obama have questioned whether the surge has achieved its political goal of Shia-Sunni reconciliation in Iraq. Both stress the desire to lower troop levels promptly if elected president.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: The purpose behind the surge was to create the space and time for political reconciliation for the Iraqi government, but there has not been a willingness on the part of the Iraqi government to do what the surge was intended to do: to push them to begin to make the tough decisions.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: We have essentially gone full-circle. We had intolerable levels of violence and a dysfunctional government back in 2006. We saw a huge spike in violence to horrific levels. The surge comes in. And now we’re back to where we were in 2006, with intolerable levels of violence and a dysfunctional Iraqi government.

KWAME HOLMAN: The current commander-in-chief is expected to decide by summer whether to maintain a force of 140,000 or possibly make even deeper cuts.

Measuring success

Nir Rosen
New York University
No, I think it's absolutely a failure, the surge. I think that less violence is actually a sign of the failure of the surge.

JIM LEHRER: And now, two very different views of the surge. They come from two frequent visitors to Iraq. Both are experts who have written extensively about the situation on the ground there.

Nir Rosen is a fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security. Frederick Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a former professor at West Point.

Mr. Kagan, to you first. You agree with the president that the surge has been successful, correct?

FREDERICK KAGAN, American Enterprise Institute: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: And why do you say that?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, the main purpose of the surge was to get the sectarian violence in and around Baghdad under control so that it would be possible for the Iraqis to start making political progress.

You have to remember that, when the surge went in, the purpose actually was just to get Baghdad under control. It was initially called the Baghdad security plan.

A variety of developments, including the turning of the Sunni Arabs against al-Qaida and the insurgency, have allowed us to be playing for much more than that. And so we've actually managed to stabilize a large swath of central Iraq.

And there has also been remarkable political progress. There's been progress on almost every one of the major pieces of benchmark legislation.

And so -- and the Iraqis are -- there's a new fluidity. When you look at the Iraqi political dynamic in Baghdad now, at the senior levels and throughout, there's a new fluidity in the equation, which comes from the fact that the Iraqis certainly feel that violence has dropped to levels where what they are starting to care about is less security and more moving forward with their country.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Rosen, do you see the same -- do you look at the scene and see the same thing, less violence, more political possibilities on the Iraqi side?

NIR ROSEN, Fellow, New York University Center on Law and Security: No, I think it's absolutely a failure, the surge. I think that less violence is actually a sign of the failure of the surge.

The violence during a civil war was very logical. It was an attempt to remove Sunnis from Shia areas and Shia from Sunnis areas, and it's been incredibly successful. There are virtually no mixed areas left in Iraq.

You have what Americans call gated communities, effectively a Somalia-alike situation, where you have different neighborhoods surrounded by walls, controlled by a militia or a warlord. And they're sectarianally pure, all Shia, all Sunni. There's no reconciliation between the two communities.

You have, fortunately for the Americans, the Mahdi army decided to impose what they call the freeze, so Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader, could sort of clean his house, get rid of some of the bad elements there, and prepare for the next round.

Likewise, the Sunni resistance realized it had lost the civil war. Sunnis were basically expelled from Baghdad. They had lost their resistance to the occupation.

And beginning in 2006, you saw them being much more introspective in Damascus, in Jordan, and in Iraq, thinking, "How do we proceed? Our main enemy is what we call the Iranians." When they say Iranians, they mean basically all the Shias.

JIM LEHRER: The Shiites, yes.

NIR ROSEN: They call the government Iranian. They call the security forces Iranian. "That's our main enemy. The Americans can wait. We'll have a huddanah (ph)," a temporary cease-fire, "with the Americans so we can regroup, collect weapons, collect territory" -- thanks to the Americans, in this case -- "and then fight the Shias and sort of retake Iraq."

JIM LEHRER: So you see this as just a temporary thing that was not even caused by the American increase of troop -- the increase in American troops?

NIR ROSEN: Well, Muqtada al-Sadr's decision to declare the cease-fire was, in part, a result of the increase of American troops, because he realized that he was going to face more pressure from the Americans. So he might as well lay low, wait the Americans out. And when the Americans reduce their numbers, then you can continue this purge of Sunnis from Baghdad and elsewhere.

Sunni, Shia tensions

Frederick Kagan
American Enterprise Institute
The fact that we've seen the violence drop even though you still do have mixed areas in Baghdad, Baquba, Diyala and so forth, tells you that there has to be something more here than the cleansing has been done.

JIM LEHRER: So, Mr. Kagan, what Mr. Rosen is saying, essentially that both sides are laying low, the Sunnis for their reasons, the Shias for their reasons, that this is not a permanent thing.

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, there's a magnificent myth out there that Mr. Rosen just reiterated for us that there are no mixed areas in Iraq anymore and that the cleansing is completed.

And it's astonishing to me that someone who's been in Baghdad for as long and as much as Mr. Rosen has been could say something like that. There are still Shia areas in western Baghdad, not only in Kadamiyah, around the Kadamiyah shrine, in which there will always be Shia, but also in west Rashid.

JIM LEHRER: What does that mean?

FREDERICK KAGAN: It means that you still have -- in neighborhoods that are predominantly Sunni, on the west side of the river, which is historically the Sunni side of the river, you still have Shia enclaves that are within those neighborhoods.

Now, they're more consolidated than they had been before, certainly. At a low level, you certainly have seen that kind of consolidation, but there is no natural dividing line between Sunni and Shia in Baghdad, let alone around Baghdad, let alone in Diyala.

And the result is that -- for those people that want sectarian conflict, there are more than enough sectarian raw edges, both in Baghdad and around the capital, to be generating that kind of conflict. The fact that we've seen the violence drop even though you still do have mixed areas in Baghdad, Baquba, Diyala and so forth, tells you that there has to be something more here than the cleansing has been done.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Rosen?

NIR ROSEN: Well, it's true that there are Shia areas in western Baghdad, but that's because the Shia militias made a lot of inroads even in western Baghdad. And they control more and more neighborhoods within the west.

But what's really frightening is that, indeed, when that sectarian fighting will resume -- and it will -- there's going to be nowhere to run to, because Syria and Jordan have closed their borders to Iraqi refugees; 11 of Iraq's 18 governors have closed their borders to internally displaced Iraqis. So when the fighting resumes intensively, it's going to be a slaughter.

JIM LEHRER: Why are you so sure it's going to resume?

NIR ROSEN: When you talk to people on both sides, to the militiamen, they're quite clear about their motives.

The Sunni groups, the Americans call them concerned local citizen or other euphemisms; they call themselves the awakening. They're quite clear. They're not just security forces that are cooperating with the Americans. They're temporarily not fighting the Americans because they want to regroup and prepare themselves to fight the Shias.

The Mahdi army is there. And this is their worst nightmare. The Sunnis, who we defeated -- and this is actually the Iraqi government in general, all the Shia Islamists who control the security forces and the government, and the Mahdi army, this is their worst nightmare.

We defeated the Sunnis. We kicked them out of most of Baghdad. We certainly got them out of power. And here they are coming through the back door, thanks to the Americans.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see the resumption coming, as Mr. Rosen does?

FREDERICK KAGAN: No. I think it depends very much on who you talk to in Iraq and how you talk to them about what kind of responses that you get. And I've spoken with Sunni local citizens and various people, and you get some responses that are along these lines. And you get some responses that are along other lines.

I think what's very important to understand is that this is a very local phenomenon. People have decided to join these movements because of local conditions on the whole and not because of some big pan-Sunni "Well, you know, now this is how we're going to get them this time" plan, because you have to keep in mind people also forget the sequence of how these guys become concerned local citizens.

The first reason why they become concerned local citizens is because they don't want to be killed, because they're in a middle of a war that they're losing. And so the first and only deal that we give them is we will agree not to kill them.

We aren't paying these guys to come over to our side; we certainly aren't arming them. What we're doing is promising not to kill them in the first instance. Now, that happens on a local basis.

And then I have to contradict Mr. Rosen. There is reconciliation happening on lower levels. When you go out into Diyala, where you have mixed tribes and where you have tribes on both sides, you do have CLCs from both groups. In areas to the south of Baghdad, you're starting to see some reconciliation initiatives reaching out to one another.

JIM LEHRER: You don't see that?

NIR ROSEN: There are exceptions, of course. And Iraqis were never sectarian. They've been pushed into this by various militias.

But when you hang out with the Sunni militiamen, with the concerned local citizens, when you hang out with the Mahdi army, when you're not with the American soldiers, but when you're with them naturally, and then you ask them who they were and why they joined these forces, they're quite clear.

They're former Islamic Army of Iraq, former 1920 Revolution Brigade, former Army of the Mujahedeen, the Iraqi Resistance. Some of them are even former al-Qaida.

And, yes, they realize they have lost the war against the Americans and they have lost the war against the Shias. "And we have to get the Americans off of our backs so we can control some territory."

So now they have territory inside Baghdad and elsewhere and they can use this as a foothold. And they are attempting to become a political movement. I accompanied some of these guys from Dura (ph), guys who controlled 150, 300 men who had been in the resistance.

They went to Ramadi to pay homage to Abu Risha, one of the main leaders of the awakening, and to try to join his political movement. And why? "So that we can fight the Iranians. So we can fight the Shias."

Impact of U.S. troop presence

Nir Rosen
New York University
It's an occupation. A foreign occupation is never a positive thing. It's a systematic violence that's imposed on an entire nation. Now, the American occupation was much more brutal the first few years, that's true.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Let's talk about the role of the Americans now.

As we said in the setup piece, there's a presidential debate going on about the withdrawal of U.S. troops. First of all, what is your reading, Mr. Kagan, of what the role of the United States military is on the ground now and how important it is to the stability and all things of the future?

FREDERICK KAGAN: It's critically important. And I think that the role that we've moved into is one of armed mediation. Increasingly, we've managed to persuade both sides -- and if you bring in the Kurds, all three sides -- that we are actually relatively impartial, relatively neutral force, which is a change, because a lot of the Sunni community had not been trusting us and had seen us as the enemy.

And now what we're doing at the local level, at the provincial level, and at the national level is working to create bridges between Iraqi groups of both sides and bring them together.

JIM LEHRER: A positive force.

FREDERICK KAGAN: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: You see the U.S. troops as a positive force...

FREDERICK KAGAN: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: ... among all Iraqis now?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, there are still people shooting at us.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

FREDERICK KAGAN: Still people who don't want us to be there. But among the majority populations, we definitely are playing a very positive role.

JIM LEHRER: Positive role?

NIR ROSEN: It's an occupation. A foreign occupation is never a positive thing. It's a systematic violence that's imposed on an entire nation.

Now, the American occupation was much more brutal the first few years, that's true. Abu Ghraib-like scandals aren't happening anymore. They've slightly softened their approach, but they're still killing innocent Iraqis everyday. They're dropping bombs on Iraq.

They have 24,000 Iraqis in American-run prisons. They haven't been charged with anything. They haven't been found guilty of anything. So still a very oppressive, systematic violence that Iraqis are enduring.

However, it's true that the American presence does mitigate some of the violence that would otherwise occur between Iraqis.

JIM LEHRER: How do they mitigate the -- just by being there?

NIR ROSEN: Well, these days, the Mahdi army is lying low. It's lying low, and not because it wants to stop killing Sunnis or stop seizing control over Baghdad, but because the Americans are there and the Americans were very clear that the Mahdi army is one of their main targets.

So they decided to become legitimate. And now the American leadership speaks with respect about Muqtada al-Sadr. So he might as well wait them out.

Debating withdrawal

Frederick Kagan
American Enterprise Institute
Our presence is still essential in terms of this mediation role and also in terms of the support that we provide to the Iraqi security forces, which still need us for logistics purposes, for training, for a variety of other things.

JIM LEHRER: I know neither of you are politicians, but the political debate come November is going to be based, if it's still a hot issue among American presidential candidates, it's going to be John McCain on one side and one of the Democrats on the other.

John McCain is going to be saying, "We may have to have a U.S. military presence there," he says, "for 100 years, it's going to go on," versus either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton saying, "No, we want to start taking troops out."

How do you see this?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, I hope that the debate will at least occur on the basis of reality on the ground and not these same sort of storylines that we've had for a long time. The American presence in Iraq is not an occupation. We are there by power of the U.N. Security Council.

JIM LEHRER: So you disagree with Mr. Rosen's reading?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Absolutely, in terms of international law and in terms of the reality on the ground. We're there under a U.N. Security Council resolution.

We hold detainees, not prisoners, on the basis of that resolution. And that's why we don't charge them with people. And there's a lot of international law here that people are not tracking on.

The violence has dropped; we agree on that. Americans are playing a role in continuing to have the violence drop and stay down; we seem to agree on that. Political progress is being made in the center; that's pretty clear.

So the question is -- and if we leave, the situation will deteriorate.

JIM LEHRER: In what way will it deteriorate?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, I do believe that our presence is still essential in terms of this mediation role and also in terms of the support that we provide to the Iraqi security forces, which still need us for logistics purposes, for training, for a variety of other things, and also for the partnership that we play in help them become better forces.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Rosen, how do you see -- if U.S. troops begin to be withdrawn by a new president, what happens on the ground?

NIR ROSEN: I think, frankly, they'll never be withdrawn by any of the candidates. Even the Democrats speak of maintaining a presence for the embassy, for training Iraqi forces, for counterterrorism, which is tens of thousands of soldiers already. So there's never going to be a full withdrawal.

Now, should there be? I think most Iraqis want there to be a full withdrawal. And they always have.

JIM LEHRER: Most Iraqis want...

NIR ROSEN: Leaving aside the Kurds, most Sunnis and Shias want that.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

NIR ROSEN: One interesting development, however, the last couple of years was Sunni friends of mine who were vehemently opposed to the occupation, as I was, began to worry that, "If the Americans leave, we're going to be slaughtered." And...

JIM LEHRER: The Sunnis are going to be slaughtered?

NIR ROSEN: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: By the Shia majority?

NIR ROSEN: Yes, I began to hear that in 2006, so Sunnis worrying about the debate in the U.S. on the Democratic side. People who had opposed the occupation who had fought the Americans worrying that, "If the Americans leave, we'll be slaughtered."

So it's a difficult -- it's a dilemma, because the occupation is a brutal presence that's imposed on the Iraqis. And they're arrested, and they're not charged. And that's a problem, actually.

And, of course, they're not handed over to the Iraqis, because that would be much worse. The Iraqis are actually grateful, relatively, to be arrested by the Americans and not to be handed over to the Iraqi forces where they're more likely to be tortured and killed.

But I think there's really no happy ending here. If the Americans stay, then they're only postponing the inevitable, which is fulfillment of the civil war.

But the Mahdi army is growing impatient with the cease-fire. Mahdi army men are losing control, losing their power and influence. They're still being arrested by the Americans, so they're growing resentful.

The Sunni militiamen feel like they're not getting anything from the Iraqi government, so why are they in this bargain? The Americans forced the Iraqi government to promise to integrate 20 percent of the Sunni militiamen into the Iraqi security forces. That's not really happening.

There's no reconciliation. In fact, the Iraqi government just acquitted two famous death squad leaders from the Ministry of Health. I mean, they're basically an insult to the entire Sunni community.

JIM LEHRER: No happy ending, Mr. Kagan?

FREDERICK KAGAN: I completely disagree. I think if you come at this from the standpoint of re-fighting the question of whether we should have gone in or not, continuing to say "occupation, occupation, occupation," which is a false statement, and presenting the view basically of the Sunni insurgency, then, you know, there's no happy ending for the Sunni insurgency.

I think if you look at what's actually going on, on the ground, and you look at the progress that's been made, and you look at the breakthroughs that have taken place, I think it's perfectly possible that we can work together with a large segment of the Sunni and Shia Arab Iraqi community and the Kurds to move forward in a very positive way.

JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.