Iraq Troop Drawdown
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MARGARET WARNER: Now to our Iraq stories: Political and military. We get an update on the political situation one week after parliamentary elections from John Burns, the Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times.
Ray Suarez talked with him earlier this evening.
RAY SUAREZ: John Burns, welcome.
Reports from Baghdad today have been all about the street demonstrations. Who were the demonstrators, and what did they want?
JOHN BURNS: Well, the Sunni political parties that participated in the elections last Thursday challenged the results, particularly in Baghdad where something like 2.4 million people voted, saying that the sweep that seems apparent by the Shiite religious parties who appear to have taken over 50 percent of the vote in the capital, represents ballot box stuffing and other irregularities.
The protests are important; they are large scale and they certainly empower American enterprise here because, of course, if the Sunnis do not come into the political process then there is not likely to be any winding down of the insurgency.
RAY SUAREZ: Is this just a question of a political faction in a complex country just having a hard time dealing with the disappointment of not doing as well as they expected?
JOHN BURNS: No, I don’t think it’s just that. I think there is an element of that, as an American diplomat said to me today, the Sunnis are having a hard time coming to grips with the demographic realities of Iraq, by which he meant that there is a common belief amongst Sunni Arabs in this country that they do not represent as most other groups and most outside observers believe about 20 percent of the population but more like 40 percent or more. So there is that problem.
They are having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that they are a minority in a country where the Shiites represent, we believe, a majority of about 60 percent.
But there is also a real, it seems, objective problem with the way the election was conducted in some places including in some areas of Baghdad. There are 1500 complaints outstanding with the Iraqi Election Commission that are being reviewed, of which about 50 are regarded as red complaints, that’s to say serious issues of ballot fraud or other irregularities which could materially affect the outcome of the election. So it is a bit of both. It is perception and reality, but the Sunnis are very unhappy.
RAY SUAREZ: Preliminary counts have begun to come out. Are there results that some of these disaffected parties can point to and say this is an indication that something was wrong in the way this was done?
JOHN BURNS: Well, let’s look at the disappointment. I think the Sunnis had hoped and certainly the Americans hoped that there would be a strong enough showing in areas like Baghdad that the center here, the secular center here represented by the former prime minister, Iyad Allawi, could or possibly might combine with the Sunnis who like Allawi because he is a former Baathist, he is a man who believes it is time to make a reconciliation with the Baath Party, make a reconciliation between Allawi, the Sunnis and the Kurds and head off the religious Shiites from forming a government.
There is very little hope that the Sunni parties or that the Sunni population as a whole will accept a Shiite religious-led government here, which is for many Sunnis synonymous with Iran, which has been the principal backer of those parties.
RAY SUAREZ: A senior Sunni cleric today promised that there would be more demonstrations and bigger demonstrations. Is this an indication that these are not spontaneous but organized and pushed by the big Sunni coalitions?
JOHN BURNS: Oh, yes, they’re definitely organized. We can assume since these mass gatherings in the streets are rather unusual in a time of insurgency when so many crowds and gatherings have been attacked by suicide bombers, that the people who led these marches had at least the tacit assent of the insurgent groups and that points to the wider problem here, which is that even if the Sunnis do come into the political process, even if they overcome their disappointment and their anger about an election result which is going to leave them in a position of a minority, roughly the similar size of the Kurds even if they accept that what does it mean?
Are they coming into the political process with a genuine purpose of working together and attaining a political reconciliation and a stable Iraq, or is it as so often been suggested a kind of Sinn Fein-IRA solution where you have a political party that works inside the process and guerrillas, rebels, insurgents who work outside it in both cases to disrupt?
RAY SUAREZ: John Burns of the New York Times, thanks for joining us.
JOHN BURNS: It’s a pleasure.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, the military story in Iraq and the announcement by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld of a cut in the core American force there.
For more on the numbers and their implications, we get two military views. Retired Col. Thomas Hammes served in the Marine Corps for 30 years. He is now a consultant and author of “The Sling and the Stone,” on war in the 21st Century. Retired Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis served in the Army for 30 years. He is now a consultant. He visited Iraq this past October under the auspices of the Pentagon.
And. Col. Maginnis, let me start with you. What is the size of the cut announced today and how is it going to be achieved?
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): It is a small cut, no more than 7,000, but the reality is we are going to have security companies that are coming out of some of those units. And one of those brigades is going to stay in Kuwait.
So the reality on the ground is by spring of 2006 you may have something closer to one hundred and thirty-two, thirty-three thousand. The implications are we are going in the right direction, according to what Mr. Rumsfeld said in Fallujah. He says we have a political process that has hit all its marks. The Iraqi security forces – he’s fairly pleased with that.
And, given those performance factors, he seems to be fairly upbeat and he compelled the president.
But the bottom line is the commanders on the ground, Gen. Casey, Gen. Abizaid were the ones, they say today, and I talked over there to them, that they were the ones who went to the president and said it is time to do this.
And we’re going to hold a reserve of sorts down in Kuwait in case something goes wrong.
RAY SUAREZ: Just to be clear, there’s actually going to be a net drawdown of that number, of actual American human beings in Iraq? Because when the announcement was made earlier today, the first announcement indicated that some of the cuts were going to be achieved by simply not sending over people who had been assigned to Iraq.
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): Well, we had about one hundred and sixty or close to that but we’ve built up over the last few months for the elections.
We’re going to downsize that back to the baseline to one hundred and thirty-eight, and then when you don’t send the brigade out of Ft. Riley, about thirty-five hundred people, right to Iraq, then that’s some.
Then they already have the brigade in Kuwait that came out of Germany that was another 3500. They are going to sit down there in case they are needed. So net you are going to have a reduction. The total number may not be 131,000; it may be a little more than that.
RAY SUAREZ: Col. Hammes, What do you make of the move and does if show things are going in the right direction in Iraq?
COL. THOMAS HAMMES (Ret.): I think what it shows is an understanding that there is enormous political pressure in the United States, as well as within Iraq for a drawn-down. That’s a reality.
They are going to have to deal with that and this is probably a logical way to deal with it by taking out only 7,000. The danger is that we don’t draw down then too fast. And Gen. Casey’s statement they won’t even look at it again until spring is a very positive thing.
If you draw down too fast, the fundamental problem in a counterinsurgency is security for the people. We are not providing that security. We don’t have enough forces in Iraq to do that. As the Iraqi forces stand up we are getting enough forces or we’re getting an increase in forces, still not enough. So to stay as they stand up, we’ll stand down is the wrong approach.
As they stand up, they will reinforce us until we get real security, at that point we can draw down — if I’m going to draw down the first people who need to go are the armed contractors, they are the real source of irritation.
I mean, our forces are a source of irritation but the armed contractors from the Iraqis I worked with when I was there, they really don’t like those people. They need to go.
RAY SUAREZ: Now by ascribing it at first to politics, are you saying that the reasons given by Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Casey, that is that there are more Iraqis both in the pipeline and ready to stand up today, and that the political process is going in the generally right direction, that those are not really present factors?
COL. THOMAS HAMMES (Ret.): They are present factors. But again, keep in mind we’re not providing security for the people of Iraq. And that’s the fundamental role of the government and counterinsurgency. It must provide security and promise of a better future.
But conversely, we have to balance the political aspects, which is both the will of the American people and the patience of the Iraqi people for our forces being there.
So to say it is a political decision is a misunderstanding of insurgency. Insurgency is a political struggle, not a military struggle.
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): It needs to be understood that about 46 Iraqi battalions now control little spots all over that country. And it’s growing all the time. You know, hopefully that’s going to double in the next year.
You know, yes there are 217,000 so-called Iraqi security forces but they really control space. And the more space they control, the less we have to control, and all we have to do is sit back in our forward-operating bases and react to any crisis that may occur.
And that’s why when the first ID was told don’t go over there that you are going to basically — that void is going -
RAY SUAREZ: The 1st Infantry Division?
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): Yes, the 1st Infantry Division -that void is going to be filled by Iraqis. And that is essentially what the strategy is — the more and better they are able to do this, the fewer Americans have to be on the ground.
RAY SUAREZ: And when you say 46 battalions, how many Iraqi forces is that? Roughly?
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): Five to seven hundred — you know, they are given those numbers. So you multiply it times 46, and it really varies on the type of battalion and the composition and what their missions are. So it is not as cookie cutter solution but it is quite a few people.
RAY SUAREZ: Now you heard Col. Hammes posit that there weren’t enough troops in the first place and there still won’t be enough troops when this drawdown begins.
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): Well, there are not enough Americans on the ground to do everything that the Iraqis are doing, that’s true. However, there are enough Iraqis on the ground and they are growing to 350,000 — which is the plan — along with the U.S. forces there, so as they take more battle space, we can pull back and then we can shrink our forces.
And hopefully in a year or so we will be able to just occupy certain reaction, you know, forward-operating bases or whatever so we can react to crises, especially on the border where unfriendly neighbors may try to interject some type of activity.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, Col. Hammes, part of the announcement today was also information that they were going to change the mix of forces on the ground. It is not just the raw number that is in play. It’s the kind of Americans who will — and the specialties that will be deployed on the ground. What does that tell you?
COL. THOMAS HAMMES (Ret.): I think that is an important thing. Again, the exit strategy is effective Iraqi security forces that provides security for an effective Iraqi government. You’ve got to have both sides. You’ve got to have security plus good governance.
My concern is if you draw down in response too rapidly, draw down in response to American political pressure, instead of as the Iraqis take over area, then there are other areas of Iraq that don’t have a government presence that desperately need one, and rather than bring our forces home we should be moving into those areas.
When we have all of Iraq with a security presence, that is significant enough to make a big difference, then we can start drawing done our forces and again I would first start with the contractors.
RAY SUAREZ: Now Col. Maginnis, Gen. Casey said the Iraqis are increasingly capable, that’s how he referred to them, but he also said that this is a gradual thing that is going to play out over the next year or two; is that enough to answer Col. Hammes’ worry?
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): Well, they have to be better than the thugs that they are fighting. And you know, for instance on the border, we have worked with some of the sheiks from some of the tribes and they started to provide intelligence and work with our Marines off on – near al-Qaim and along the Euphrates River Valley and in fact here recently you had an entire Iraqi brigade that was on operation independent of us except for logistics and air support of coalition forces on the ground.
So they are really doing a lot more, we are bringing the Sunnis some of the tribes in there. You know, it is going to be a long haul. There is no question that the insurgency is not going to die tomorrow or next year or for a number of years.
However, the Iraqis are getting better. I spent time with an Iraqi 9th Division. I was impressed by what I saw. We have imbeds; our advisors are working very closely with them. I mean every one of their commanders, we are trying to bring them to a standard that they can sustain and keep the fight up against the insurgents.
Now the politics is real and it’s tough, and the Sunnis hopefully will come and join the government, the Sunnis hopefully will, you know, turn off the insurgency where they can. We have already cut the rat lines coming out of Tal Afar, and Syria and some of the other places and leadership, as I understand today, has now set up operation in Syria because it is too dangerous because our Marines and the Iraqi security forces are pursuing them very quickly.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you heard Col. Maginnis and you heard John Burns a few moments ago talk about a very rough year if the Sunnis don’t join the process. Are you as optimistic as he is?
COL. THOMAS HAMMES (Ret.): Not quite. It’s almost the hardest place in the world you could pick to conduct a counterinsurgency. You have enormous ethnic and religious tensions. You have the entire mindset of kind of “me against my neighbors” that is characteristic of that part of the world. So it is a very tough place.
There has been progress. It’s been steady. What I’m concerned about is we’ve got to be careful that our desire to get our troops home, we don’t now throw away what is a winning hand, I think, long term.
I agree, one year doesn’t make a difference. And that’s why no more withdraw until spring makes sense. We have got to look at this as insurgencies take — optimists say nine years, pessimists say decades.
But we’ve got a long-term investment here. We have just got to preserve American will and American resources because, frankly, the United States Army is heavily strained and they should be getting more resources than they are getting. That comes from a long-term Marine.
RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you very much.
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): Thank you.
COL. THOMAS HAMMES (Ret.): Thank you.