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Deadlines and Dependency: What’s Ahead for Iraq After U.S. Troop Pullout?

August 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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After seven and half years of combat and thousands of U.S. troops killed, the American combat mission in Iraq is set to wind down by late August. Gwen Ifill gets two views on the road ahead for Iraq and the U.S. mission there from former Clinton and Bush administration officials.

GWEN IFILL: Now, for more on the complicated nature of the U.S. drawdown, we turn to Brian Katulis, who worked for President Clinton’s National Security Council and advised the Obama presidential campaign on Iraq. He’s now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. And Michael Rubin, an adviser to the U.S.-led occupation authority in Iraq under President George W. Bush, he’s now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

When the president says to today, Brian Katulis, that we are moving from the combat mission to the diplomatic mission, what does that really mean?

BRIAN KATULIS, senior fellow, Center For American Progress: Well, President Obama is trying to send a message that what he promised as a candidate, that we will implement a phased withdrawal of troops, but we will commit to enduring support, diplomatic, economic, political support for Iraq, this is what he is explaining to the American public.

We are in this transition phase, and that the combat phase has ended. We’re going to fade to the background and we’re going to offer support to the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people over the long haul.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Rubin, are you hearing fade to the background when you hear that?

MICHAEL RUBIN, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute: I most certainly am hearing fade to the background.

We could certainly have a debate over whether it’s wise to fade to the background or whether it’s wise to adhere to this deadline, which is a political deadline which President Obama came out during his campaign, and is quite different from the legal deadline, which is…

GWEN IFILL: Well, you obviously don’t think it is wise. Tell me why.

MICHAEL RUBIN: I don’t think it is wise for a few reasons. Number one, Iraq’s government hasn’t formed yet. There is still a lot of fault lines along Kirkuk, around Mosul, and whether we like it or not, U.S. influence is tied to the number of troops we have on the ground.

That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t withdraw, but we have got to be prepared, if we do withdraw them, that we’re not going to have that trip wire in place should Iraqi crises break out in this time without a government.

GWEN IFILL: What about that, Brian Katulis? It has been five months since that election.


GWEN IFILL: They are still trying to make sense of it, trying to make it — sort it out. How do we know that we can afford to pull back, as the president had promised?

BRIAN KATULIS: Well, look, I think we can afford to because U.S. troops for the last year in essence have not been on Iraqi streets.

One of the biggest marker points — and Michael wrote about this last summer — was when we withdrew from populated areas. And much of our drawdown has already been implemented. And as Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of Joint Chiefs staff said last week, he said, he is pleased with the progress there.

So, our top military commander says, everything is going OK. And the simple fact of the matter is that this timeline is something that the Iraqis actually wanted. They demanded this from the Bush administration. The Bush administration didn’t want to have a timeline. And it was the Iraqi government that forced the United States’ hand.

And they said, look, we want to take back control of our country. And Iraqis are doing that. They are a proud nation. They actually want to take control of their country. They have substantial political differences in forming a government, but we shouldn’t stand in the way in the efforts of Iraqis to take control of their own affairs.

GWEN IFILL: So, he’s arguing that it doesn’t matter whether everything is fixed completely. It’s time to go because the Iraqis want the U.S. to go.

MICHAEL RUBIN: Well, the Iraqis certainly do want the U.S. to go, and that is why they agreed to a deadline of December 31, 2011. The August 31, 2010, deadline was President Obama’s campaign rhetoric back when he was a senator.

GWEN IFILL: But there will still be 50,000 troops there.

MICHAEL RUBIN: There will still be 50,000 troops there. But influence is proportional to the number of troops we have on the ground.

Now, what President Obama is also doing is a bit of smoke and mirrors, because, when he says these aren’t combat troops — they are going to be involved in training, they are going to be involved in protecting our diplomatic forces and so forth — this is what our troops have been doing for the last year regardless. We can call them what they want, but one of the lessons learned from early on in Operation Iraqi Freedom is that every troop has to be combat-ready. And that’s not going to change.

GWEN IFILL: That is actually one of the questions I was going to ask, which is that you would have 50,000 troops on the ground. Are they supposed to sit around and watch the Iraqi forces engage, and, what, they don’t engage?

BRIAN KATULIS: Well, look, again, I think the key deadline was last summer. And we have already adopted a posture of training and advising. I think we still have targeted operations against insurgent groups and terrorist groups, and these have been quite effective, even as we are drawing down the force there.

And I think the real challenge in the next year is making sure that the Iraqis stand up. And I think everybody talks about the surge of U.S. forces in 2007. The real surge that mattered was the surge of Iraqi forces. The U.S. surge was about a 15 percent increase. The Iraqi forces during that same period doubled.

And that is what matters the most, is that Iraqis have a strong impetus to take control of their own affairs.

GWEN IFILL: But the president opposed that surge. Did it work in the end?

BRIAN KATULIS: It didn’t in terms of — actually, you look at the political divisions in Iraq, and one of the goals of the surge was actually to reduce the violence, to get Iraqi leaders to bridge their political divide.

I argue that the surge actually froze those divisions in place. And, also, for those who like to talk about a counterinsurgency strategy achieving results on the ground in Iraq, there are millions of Iraqis who don’t see the benefit of basic services and increased security.

Counterinsurgency didn’t succeed in the way that it’s, I think, portrayed here in Washington.

MICHAEL RUBIN: Well, I think counterinsurgency did succeed to some extent in giving the political — the political elite space to move. There is still a lot to be done.

One of the most interesting and important statistics from the Iraqi elections last March is that only 20 percent of the incumbents returned to office. Some of that is because they chose not to run again. Some of that was because they were thrown out of office, as the younger generation and as the Iraqis basically say, enough of this ethno-sectarian strife. We want results.

GWEN IFILL: But they haven’t been able to form a government.

MICHAEL RUBIN: This is the main problem. But so far, until this point, they’re combating themselves politically. They are debating. They’re arguing.

The question is, if we withdrawal in the midst of that, whether some might decide to try to impose, through force of arms, what they can’t win on the floor of the assembly.

GWEN IFILL: Why is this divide so stubborn, so wide? And what difference does it make whether the U.S. is there or not in order to close it?

BRIAN KATULIS: Well, look, I think we should take a step back and look at the Iraq war and its impact on U.S. national security.

And more than seven years later, it is still a net negative when you measure it for U.S. national security interests. What we have is emboldened Iran. Some of Iran’s best allies are now in power in Baghdad. We helped create for a while there a live training ground for terrorists, who are now using some of the tactics they tested on the battlefield against us in Iraq at this point.

So, for those who argued seven years ago that we’re going to have tsunamis of democracy and that the region will be completely changed, they were proven wrong. And I think what we’re now trying to do is take a sad song and make it better.

MICHAEL RUBIN: I will disagree with that, obviously.

Certainly, I think it’s a mistake to assume that Iraqi Shia — even Iraqi Shia leaders are necessarily pro-Iranian. If the Americans underestimated the psychological impact of occupation, the biggest mistake the Iranians have made is not understanding the importance of Iraqi nationalism.

What we are seeing is a correction, after decades of Saddam Hussein dictatorship, and the fact of the matter is, Iraq is now the largest Arab democracy. And it has succeeded in that term, even though it still has a way to go.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about deadlines.


GWEN IFILL: We have deadlines which are now, the president says today, being met in Iraq, and deadlines which are looming in Afghanistan. And there is quite a debate going on about whether that is a good idea or not.

Based on what we have seen in Iraq — and I know there is a lot of differences in the two situations — but, based on what we have seen in Iraq, is it a good idea to be setting a deadline for a pullout in Afghanistan?

BRIAN KATULIS: Absolutely, because, if you don’t, you foster a culture of dysfunctional dependency on the United States. You send the wrong message, that we are going to be there and we’re going to spend billions of dollars, no matter what. And that actually, I think, fosters among the political elite in these countries the sense that we have a security umbrella.

And we need to send a clear message that we are going to support you, but under certain conditions and if you act in a certain ways. And this has not been the case, I think, in Afghanistan, which is a real danger, I think, at this point. Even this timeline that was set for next summer is a soft timeline. It is not a true timeline. We need to send the signal that you have got to take care of your own affairs.

MICHAEL RUBIN: Deadlines are important, but it depends on how they are imposed.

I certainly agree with Brian that you don’t want to create a sense of dependency. But if you are going to have a deadline, you don’t make it based on the American political calendar. You make it based on the reality on the ground in Iraq or in Afghanistan.

You asked before, what will it take for Iraqis to make a decision? Well, in the past, whenever there has been a deadline, they went behind closed doors two days before the deadline. They smoked. They drank lots of tea and perhaps some other things, and they emerged 24 hours after that deadline with a government.

The problem right now is, there is not that external pressure, and we’re about to remove even more external pressure, allowing them to delay their decisions.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, Brian Katulis at the Center for American Progress, thank you both very much.