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Military Analysts Debate Proposed Shifts in Iraq Strategy

December 8, 2006 at 6:15 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: Among its many recommendations, the Baker-Hamilton study group proposes a major shift in the U.S. military role in Iraq, calling for significantly increasing the number of U.S. military personnel embedded in and supporting Iraqi units.

With this shift, the report says, “By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq.”

To look at those ideas, we turn to retired Army Colonel Paul Hughes. He served in Iraq in 2003 and directed the military and security section for the Iraq Study Group. He’s a program officer at the U.S. Institute for Peace. And Phillip Carter, who served as an Army captain and police adviser in Iraq last year, he’s written widely on national security issues and is a lawyer in Los Angeles.

Welcome to both of you.

COL. PAUL HUGHES, Security Secretariat, Iraq Study Group: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Colonel Hughes, starting with you, the section in the report on military strategy begins with a rather blunt statement: “There is no action the American military can take that, by itself, can bring about success in Iraq.”

Now, let me put it to you bluntly: Is the report saying that a change in military strategy is required because the war is no longer winnable militarily?

COL. PAUL HUGHES: No, the war is winnable, but you cannot win it just through military actions. Insurgencies are the most political form of war that take into account a wide variety of societal activities, whether they’re economic or civil society activities, things of that nature. To think that you can win it militarily is only one part of the solution.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Phillip Carter, you wrote in an article in Slate magazine yesterday the ISG — that’s the study group — “failed to study the war at its most critical level, that of the grunts.” Now, what did you mean by that? And what errors do you think that led the group to?

PHILLIP CARTER, Former Police Adviser in Iraq: Well, Jeff, you know, like politics, all counterinsurgencies are local. This is really a street-level fight. It’s a city-level fight. And I think the group failed to study the realities outside of the Green Zone well enough to really judge this question of whether the war is still winnable, either militarily or holistically, as Colonel Hughes says.

My conclusions are somewhat different. As someone who was on the ground at that level, I don’t really see things the way the panel saw them.

JEFFREY BROWN: In what way? Why don’t you give us an example?

PHILLIP CARTER: Well, I think there’s a lot of bad blood in Iraq that we can’t simply paper over or work over. You know, if we pulled every play out of the counterinsurgency playbook, if we delivered security, and water, and electricity, and the rule of law, I still don’t think that will be enough not to win hearts and minds and not to create the kind of stability that we need for victory there.

Placing U.S. advisers with Iraqis

Col. Paul Hughes (Ret.)
Iraq Study Group staff
The use of American advisers with Iraqi units is important because that will ... help them gain the experience both in leadership and tactical experience, so that they can conduct operations by themselves at some point in time in the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: You want to respond, first, on the people that you talked to, how you came to these conclusions?

COL. PAUL HUGHES: Well, the study group has provided a list of all of the -- the people that we spoke to in the book. But we also provided a great deal of input to the study group members that came to us via reports or notes that were e-mailed to us from a lot of different military personnel.

Additionally, one of our members made two days' effort outside the Green Zone, both in Fallujah and Dora, meeting with ground commanders and soldiers.

Additionally, the United States Institute of Peace has a very extensive civil society program. And through that program, we brought in Iraqi religious leaders and civil society leaders into the Green Zone to meet with the ISG principals. And I can assure you: Those meetings were well-received by the ISG. They understand what the Iraqi feels.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, one of the chief recommendations here is to increase the number of advisers from about 5,000 now to as many as 20,000 I understand.

COL. PAUL HUGHES: That's correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why would that work better now -- and as quickly as you suggest -- than it has up to date, where the situation seems to have only deteriorated?

COL. PAUL HUGHES: The use of Iraqi advisers is important -- or, I'm sorry, the use of American advisers with Iraqi units is important because that will provide a stiffening element to some of those Iraqi units and help them gain the experience both, in leadership and tactical experience, so that they can conduct operations by themselves at some point in time in the future.

I am not sanguine that the first quarter of 2008 is the target that will be achieved. I think we all need to be realistic about that. But it's a mark on the wall. It's a mark now that the American people and American leaders can now enter into dialogue over, discuss, debate, and decide what's best for America's interests.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Carter, do you think it's possible to build up the security force with the -- the Iraqi force, that is, with American advisers that quickly and that effectively?

PHILLIP CARTER: No, I don't. I think putting more advisers in is the right answer, but I think we really need to have realistic expectations about how this is going to work.

For one thing, building the army is a task that the military has done fairly well in Iraq, but that isn't enough. We also have to think about building the police, and building the provincial-level governments, and building all of the other elements of civil society, and these are things which both the U.S. has neglected in Iraq, and I think which the panel neglected, as well.

It had some recommendations for how to reform the interior ministry and how to work better on the police, but I don't think those can be done in time, and I'm not alone in this. General Barry McCaffrey went to Iraq about six months ago, and he produced a memo which said at least five to 10 years would be realistic for how long it would take to build the police up to where they need to be.

Troops out by 2008?

Former Capt. Phillip Carter
U.S. Army
We will transition the fight and the control over the fight to the Iraqis, but they won't fully have the capabilities to deal with it at that point, and so they'll be stuck, literally, between a rock and a hard place.

JEFFREY BROWN: So staying with you, you're not realistic about this early 2008 possibility or a deadline for pulling out most of the combat brigades?

PHILLIP CARTER: No, I'm a little bit worried about that. I see the possibility of a transition gap -- that is, we will transition the fight and the control over the fight to the Iraqis, but they won't fully have the capabilities to deal with it at that point, and so they'll be stuck, literally, between a rock and a hard place, and we won't have the capacity left in country if we pull out our combat brigades to really put a lid back on the violence.

So, in fact, I do agree with the critics that say that this could really precipitate a much broader war much more quickly.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you're suggesting, Colonel, you yourself have doubts, in spite of the fact that the report is pretty clear that it's possible.

COL. PAUL HUGHES: People need to recognize that there is wording in the report that caveats the 2008 date. It's going to be left to the commanders on the ground to make the decision as to when the combat forces have to come out.

As I said, it's a mark on the wall. You have to begin somewhere, so here it is. Let's let the commanders make the call, as they see the situation on the ground develop.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the risks that I've read -- it was also from General McCaffrey, who we just heard referred to -- was that, in leaving many of these people, advisers, behind with the combat brigades out would be putting them at even greater risk of killing and of kidnapping. And he called it a "recipe for national humiliation."

COL. PAUL HUGHES: This is not a risk-free strategy. And Congressman Hamilton made that point yesterday in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But, again, with Iraq, there are no risk-free strategies out there. We have to be willing to assume some of them.

Now, the United States Army has conducted similar adviser missions without tremendous loss of the advisers. We did that in Central America during the 1980s. We can do this again, but let's be prudent about it. We will have force protection units left behind, and it's to the commanders' discretion to decide what those force protection units should be.

Debating troop numbers

Col. Paul Hughes (Ret.)
Iraq Study Group staff
If the Congress and the president want to entertain the notion of expanding the size of the Marine Corps and the United States Army, then they need to come forward and tell the American people that's what we need to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Phillip Carter, Senator McCain yesterday said that the study group's decision not to put in more troops was a -- and this is a quote -- "recipe that will lead to, sooner or later, our defeat in Iraq." Would you go that far?

PHILLIP CARTER: I think Senator McCain may be shooting the messenger here. The panel is trying to describe what it saw and come up with some recommendations. I don't know that the panel's recommendations themselves would lead to defeat, and I don't know that putting more troops in is necessarily the right answer, either.

If we're not willing -- and I think the panel says this -- if we're not willing to put a lot more troops in, something on the order of 100,000 to 200,000, then I think we do need to start thinking seriously about what the outcome will be.

And whether we call it a defeat or we just call it the end is really up to historians, but we shouldn't shoot the messenger for telling us that things are going badly.

JEFFREY BROWN: But I notice that in your piece in Slate magazine, you expressed some disappointment in the study group, in saying that they -- in your word -- "punted" on the main issue of whether to increase the military commitment or to call for withdrawal.

PHILLIP CARTER: Yes, I think that's because it's the hardest question. No one wants to tell the American people or to tell Congress or to tell the president that we've lost the war, and no one wants to wrestle with the implications of that.

So, instead, I think they've kicked that can down the road by arguing for a strategy that merely substitutes Iraqi police and army units for American ones. And that's a good withdrawal strategy, but it's not a victory strategy, and it doesn't necessarily lead to any sort of definitive outcome. It really just stalls that decision another year or two.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a brief response on this question of the charge of punting?

COL. PAUL HUGHES: The ISG spent a great deal of time studying this issue of the size of the force that's necessary for Iraq. They do agree that there is some goodness in the idea of surging troops into Baghdad, for the purpose of stabilizing Baghdad, because Baghdad is the central front in Iraq.

As far as a larger number going in, quite frankly, we don't have that force available. If the Congress and the president want to entertain the notion of expanding the size of the Marine Corps and the United States Army, then they need to come forward and tell the American people that's what we need to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Paul Hughes and Phillip Carter, thank you both very much.

COL. PAUL HUGHES: My pleasure.

PHILLIP CARTER: Thank you.