Iraq War Status Report
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MARGARET WARNER: Joining me are the two leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee: Republican Chairman John Warner and the ranking Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin. Welcome to you both, senators. And, Sen. Warner, I’d like to begin with you. Were you reassured from what you heard today that the Pentagon is pursuing the right strategy in Iraq?
SEN. JOHN WARNER: I’ve been with this team namely Rumsfeld, Abizaid and Casey yesterday here in the Senate about 60 senators were briefed by the team, then again on the House side early this morning for a breakfast briefing and for four hour today before our committee. These two outstanding officers Gens. Abizaid and Casey came before not only the Congress but appearing before the American public to set forth in specific detail again what our goals are and how we’re going about it.
And they also added, and I think most importantly, their own note that this is going to be in their own professional opinion a very tough going for the next 90 days because we’re seeing a referendum on the 15th of October, odds are that that constitution will be adopted by the people. And that’s to be followed by a very important election on Dec. 15, when the new and hopefully last government, in other words it will be there for four years, is elected by the people.
So there’s been progress on the military front and progress on the important of necessity of establishing a new government in that land.
MARGARET WARNER: What was your view, Sen. Levin, on whether there’s been progress in Iraq, whether the strategy is the right one?
SEN. CARL LEVIN: I don’t think there’s been progress in Iraq. I think as a matter of fact that things may be worse than they were even a year ago in terms of the insurgency; it’s gained in strength. We’ve got the reports now from the CIA that are published, printed, that say that Iraq has become a training ground for terrorists, which are being exported. So I don’t think things are going well on the ground.
I think we heard a lot of rosy scenarios which were again painted today — hopes, everybody hopes that things will go better. But where we did get some daylight finally was when Gen. Casey and Gen. Abizaid acknowledged that you’ve got to have political progress in order to have military progress and that this vote on the constitution if it is approved by the majority but disapproved by a strong minority of the Sunni Arabs could actually make things worse; it could actually create more conflict by hardening the sides, putting into the constitution provisions which are divisive rather than unifying.
They acknowledged that today and I thought that at least was important acknowledgment because without a political coming together in Iraq our military leaders have said that we cannot win militarily.
MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Warner, what about the topic that occupied so much of today’s hearing which had to do with the training of the Iraqi troops, and there was a lot of back and forth about whether the US was gaining ground on that front or losing ground. What conclusion did you come to?
SEN. JOHN WARNER: I’m glad you raised it because that’s a very important question because any strategy we had for the future is pinned on our ability together with coalition forces to train sufficient number of Iraqis in the military profession as well as the policing profession to take over that country so our troops can come home.
I was there just three weeks ago and I respect my good friend and colleague’s views, but in a way I disagree. I think, I saw progress with my own eyes. I talked to a great many people from the prime minister on down through the various ministries; I talked with our senior officers; I talked with the privates and the sergeants. And I talked with some of the people — just the merchants in the streets.
There’s a better feeling that this government which will be elected this fall will finally take over and bring this land together in a cohesive way and rule it as they desire, as the Iraqis want and desire — not the way the Americans want and desire.
So let’s go back to the question of the training. We started about two years ago really in this training. And it has not been, and I think my colleague shares this, as successful as we had hoped. But in the last 120 days I think there’s been great progress.
We now have well over say 170,000 who’ve received some degree of training. But the most important statistics that we received today is that 75 percent of the battalions and there are 80-some odd battalions now actively in training, finished training, going into the field, 75 percent of them are working with our forces engaged daily in combat and risk taking activities — risk taking to the extent where really many more Iraqi soldiers are killed as opposed to coalition soldiers.
So they’re bearing the brunt of this conflict, they’re showing courage and a willingness to some day take charge.
MARGARET WARNER: Did you see that kind of progress, Sen. Levin, on the training of the Iraqi forces?
SEN. CARL LEVIN: It’s spotty in some areas, the statistics sound better but in one key area that’s no improvement at all, and that is the number of Iraqi battalions that are able to independently take on the insurgents on their own without our support. That is one battalion four months ago and it’s only one battalion now. So in that area there’s been no progress at all. So I’d say it’s uneven progress.
But what’s critically important is again that even if there is progress in training which we all hope for so that there could be a transfer, we can’t succeed in transferring this responsibility to the Iraqis unless the Iraqis politically come together and make the compromises which are essential.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: Otherwise, if the Sunni Arabs, for instance, continue to be disenchanted and are out of the deal and don’t participate, then we’re not going to see the kind of unity politically which everyone acknowledges must take place. And what I think is missing so far and what the military leaders today — at least Gen. Casey acknowledged — really is missing so far is a forceful statement to the Iraqis that unless they put their political house in order, make the compromises necessary to produce that unity by the end of the year that we then would have to consider a timetable for withdrawal. Only that kind of pressure on the Iraqis I believe will lead them to make those compromises which are critically essential to winning this battle over the insurgency.
SEN. JOHN WARNER: Margaret if I could just reply.
MARGARET WARNER: Please.
SEN. JOHN WARNER: Sen. Levin’s thesis is correct. The degree to which we have political unity between the three central factions, namely the Kurds and Shia and Sunni, the stronger the government will be. And the Sunnis by their own choice stayed away from the elections last January — those historic elections that we all saw where the people put their finger in the ink and proudly came out and a very substantial number of Iraqis voted — but the Sunnis did not have a major participation. This time -
MARGARET WARNER: But do you think –
SEN. JOHN WARNER: This time in the referendum it’s likely they’re going to vote against the constitution. But all the odds makers say it will carry that constitution, that then the Sunnis have made decision, and we know for a fact they’re registered in large numbers; they’re going to participate in the Dec. 15 election and at that time I’m hopeful I say to my good friend, by virtue of that election they will have a sizable representation in this new government.
MARGARET WARNER: What about his idea – go ahead –
SEN. CARL LEVIN: What Gen. Casey acknowledged today; however, is that even if this constitution is adopted by a majority, that if the vast majority of Sunnis continue to oppose it and vote against it, that the adoption of the constitution could make things worse rather than better. He didn’t say they will; he said it is possible — that things would be worse if the adoption, if that constitution is adopted over the strong objections of the Sunni community.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Sen. Warner, briefly just on Sen. Levin’s point, do you think more pressure would have to be exerted or should be exerted by the US on the Iraqis, some kind of a timetable, some kind of benchmark?
SEN. JOHN WARNER: Well, I think quite properly we’ve stayed away from timetables because the insurgents are carefully watching to seize upon any, any indication that we might be withdrawing substantial forces and leaving that war torn land to the devices of the insurgents. I think, yes, I believe in the 15th of December elections, there will be sufficient Sunnis; they may have had a dissatisfaction with this constitution; the new government, which will last for four years, has a mechanism by which they could change that constitution to bring more evenly into balance a framework of law that is to the liking of all three factions and is perceived by all three factions as properly allocating say the resources like the oil revenues or other means by which to hold that country together and avoid a civil war.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me conclude by a question to both of you that really deals with your relationship with the Pentagon and perhaps the Pentagon’s relationship with the American people. There seems to be a subtext in today’s hearing of skepticism amongst some of your colleagues about the kinds of things they have been told in the past by Pentagon officials like these, whether it’s on US troop strength and whether more is needed or the strength of the insurgency or the training. I think Sen. Graham, Lindsey Graham, said his attitude now was one of trust but verify.
Sen. Levin, do you share any of his skepticism? Do you think there’s a lack of confidence about whether the Pentagon’s really got a handle on this?
SEN. CARL LEVIN: Of course. The Pentagon has been giving optimistic scenarios from the beginning. We had from the Pentagon, at least the civilian leadership in the Pentagon, the scenario before the war that we were just going to be greeted with flowers and embraces.
And that rose-colored scenario and those looking through rose-colored glasses has been a consistent pattern in the Pentagon, particularly among the civilian leadership and not only the civilian leadership. So I’ve been skeptical before we even went to war that we were going to get objective assessments either from the civilian leaders in the Pentagon or from the intelligence community.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Sen. Warner, how much confidence do you have in the assessments?
SEN. JOHN WARNER: I have a very high degree of respect and confidence in the manner in which the Department of Defense conducts its responsibilities in Iraq and elsewhere. And I predicate that, for example, on the following: I served in the Pentagon some four or five years in the Navy Secretariat. And now Sen. Levin and I have been together 27 years on this committee with a number of secretaries of defense and chiefs of staff and others coming before us.
There’s always going to be dissension between Congress and the Department of Defense. That’s the part of our democratic system of government — the ability to disagree and express our individual opinions. But I want to close with the observation made by two officers today. The first: Gen. Myers finishing 40 years of extraordinary service in uniform and he said this war is unlike anything that we have ever fought before; it’s non-state sponsored, in other words no government is behind these terrorist organizations directly.
Now, maybe there’s aid going to them as we think Saudi Arabia and other governments are providing aid, but basically the al-Qaida is operating in all of the nations in the Middle East, they’re growing in strength and we have to change our tactics and do a lot of things different. And, as such, maybe mistakes are made along the way. Gen. Myers said he’d made some. But on the whole, as Gen. Abizaid, said we have no, absolutely no other course of action than to take on head on these terrorists wherever they are in the world. If we fail to do it, they will most assuredly cross our shores.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: The question isn’t whether we do it; the question is whether we do it smart and effectively and are going prevail with the current strategy and I think I’m afraid that things have not gotten better with the strategy of this administration.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Sen. Levin, Sen. Warner, we have to leave it there. Thank you both.