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Hearings Rekindle Debate on Military Progress in Iraq

April 8, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Gen. David Petraeus recommended a halt to future troop withdrawals to "preserve the still-fragile security gains" in Iraq during Senate hearings Tuesday with U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker. Military experts analyze what the testimony reveals about Iraq's security and progress.
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MARGARET WARNER: We have two people with us who both watched today’s hearing, and they’re two people with strong views on the subject of the troops in Iraq and their mission there.

Frederick Kagan is a military historian and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He called for a troop surge even before the president did.

And retired Army Lieutenant General William Odom is a former director of the National Security Agency. He’s now an adjunct professor of political science at Yale University.

Welcome to you both.

General Odom, Professor Odom, let me begin with you. In advocating a pause in the drawdown of troops today, General Petraeus and also Ambassador Crocker essentially said that there had been security gains, progress, but it was significant, but uneven, and it was fragile, but reversible, and, therefore, this was a reason to pause the drawdown, say, come July.

You don’t share that view, I gather?

GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.), U.S. Army: The uncomfortable truth is beginning to dawn on them. The surge has sustained military instability and achieved nothing in political consolidation.

Allowing these sheiks in the Sunni areas and other strongmen to sign up with the United States to be paid, where we protect them from Maliki’s government, diffuses power, both political and military.

The possibilities for the Shiite camp to break up have been there all along. Sadr’s forces, his Mahdi Army, were standing by to see what would happen. Maliki, against the best advice of both Ambassador Crocker and Petraeus, General Petraeus, went ahead, rushed down, and got into a fight in Basra, which he lost.

Now that is a huge political setback for Maliki, and it shows you how fractured the Shiite camp is, not to speak of the multi fractures within the Shiite-Sunni area.

So the things are much worse now. And I don’t see that they’ll get any better. This was foreseeable a year, a year-and-a-half ago. And to continue to put the cozy veneer of comfortable half-truth on this is to deceive the American public and to make them think it’s not the charade it is.

Signs of Sunni, Shia unity

Frederick Kagan
American Enterprise Institute
The Sunni community turned and started to work with the Shia against al-Qaida. And now you've had a Shia community that was tolerating and supporting Iranian-backed militias, has united with the Sunni, and formed a coalition against those militias.

MARGARET WARNER: Frederick Kagan, is that what we heard today, the coziness of half-truth, essentially, the cozy comfort of half-truth?

FREDERICK KAGAN, American Enterprise Institute: No, I think you heard the straight truth from a very respected general and a very experienced and respected ambassador. It tracks what those of us who've been following the situation very, very closely and going to Iraq periodically have been seeing.

And the situation, I think, is just the opposite of the cozy half-truth, with respect, that we're hearing from New Haven and from a variety of other places where people who oppose the war from the outside or oppose the surge are unwilling to recognize obvious gains.

It's inconceivable to me that you can say that there's no political progress in Iraq. Stepping back from the question of how many benchmarks have been met -- that it's something like 12 out of 18, they've passed four out of six laws, you've had all kinds of grassroots reconciliation -- let's just step back from that for a minute and see initially you had a Sunni Arab community in Iraq that was supporting al-Qaida and fighting against the Shia.

The Sunni community turned and started to work with the Shia against al-Qaida. And now you've had a Shia community that was tolerating and supporting Iranian-backed militias, has united with the Sunni, and formed a coalition against those militias.

This is not fragmentation; this is the reformation of Iraqi political order in a very positive way.

Lessons learned from Basra

Lt. Gen. William Odom (Ret.)
Yale University
The idea that they will aggregate these groups of awakening communities up to a central government without great conflict -- I don't see any prospect -- I don't know any historical precedent for that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, gentlemen, hold those thoughts. I'm now going to go to Gwen. I think we have our audio back up.

Thanks, Gwen. And I am back with General Odom and Fred Kagan.

General Odom, let's pick up on the major point of the focus of the hearing, which was Basra, and what are the lessons of the Maliki government offensive in Basra.

You heard Carl Levin say it showed the incompetence of the Maliki government. You heard General Petraeus say it wasn't well-planned, but it actually showed their willingness to take on the extremists. What is your assessment of it?

GEN. WILLIAM ODOM: It showed how impossible it is to expect anything productive out of the Maliki government. Let me make a key point about this government: When this is all over, the people in the Green Zone now and the Maliki government will not be in charge.

The future successful government in Iraq is not one of our allies. It will be somebody who wins the civil war. And we're trying to ally with all sides to prevent it.

When you say that the Lebanization of Iraq is taking place, yes, but not because of Iran, but because the U.S. went in and made this kind of fragmentation possible. And it has occurred over the last five years.

Another point, as you assess the overall strategy, is that we don't have the forces to continue any significant large presence there indefinitely. We don't have the Army to do anything about Iran if we wanted to, which would be a big mistake, the kind that Kissinger and Nixon made by widening the war in Vietnam in 1970 and '80.

So any way you look at it, it's grim. The idea that they will aggregate these groups of awakening communities up to a central government without great conflict -- I don't see any prospect -- I don't know any historical precedent for that.

Outcome of Maliki, Sadr standoff

Frederick Kagan
American Enterprise Institute
There isn't a new civil war. This is the struggle that has been going on within the Shia community since Sadr became a powerful figure with a large force in '04. Sadr learned a lesson in '04 that having a straight-up slug-out with us...is a bad idea.

MARGARET WARNER: Fred Kagan, are those the lessons you take from the Basra offensive and the way it turned out that, in fact, you just -- we're causing further or at least a party to further fragmentation of Iraq, and it's just going to explode when we leave?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Not at all. This is an astonishing misreading of what's been going on, considering that Congress and the very people who are criticizing the Maliki government now for going into Basra have been consistently criticizing the Maliki government since it was seated in May 2006 for not going after the Jaish al-Mahdi and for not going after the Sadrists and for being too reliant on the Sadrists.

And it was, in fact, a key benchmark whether the Maliki government would go after Shia militias. And this was supposed to be a key litmus test. So then it does go after Shia militias and we say, "Look, it's a catastrophe. There's a new civil war."

There isn't a new civil war. This is the struggle that has been going on within the Shia community since Sadr became a powerful figure with a large force in 2004. Sadr learned a lesson in 2004 that having a straight-up slug-out with us -- and now it's been transferred to the Iraqi army -- is a bad idea, which is why however ill-planned and ill-conceived and ill-executed this operation was, it ended when Sadr, at the behest in part of the commander of the Iranian Quds force, stood his forces down.

It has not played in the Iraqi street as it has played in the American media, as a defeat for Maliki and strength for Sadr. It is very hard for me to imagine anyone who is not actually a Sadrist to believe that, when this fighting ends because Sadr, sitting in Qom in Iran, stands his fighters down with nothing in particular to show for it that the feeling in the Iraqi street is going to be, "Well, way to go, Sadr."

That's not the way he's behaved in the past when he's always made a show of trying to come back and show himself in Iraq. He didn't even try this time.

And it's not the way -- as Senator McCain rightly said, the side that's winning a conflict like this doesn't generally call a timeout and say, "Hey, you know, we've had enough. Thank you very much." And it's not the way it's playing on the Iraqi street.

Weighing progress

Lt. Gen. William Odom (Ret.)
Yale University
The Maliki government uses its Ministry of Interior like a death squad militia. So to call Sadr an extremist and Maliki a good guy just overlooks the reality that there aren't any good guys.

MARGARET WARNER: General Odom, the two gentlemen testifying today did make that point that actually Maliki has been strengthened in the eyes of the Iraqi people and that this, at least, showed that this government -- and I take your point that it won't be the permanent government -- but was willing to step up to the plate, let Iraqi forces really try to take on responsibility and lead these operations. You don't see it -- no merit in that?

GEN. WILLIAM ODOM: I don't see that at all. The Maliki government is worse off now. How it plays in the street is beside the point. The point is how the Maliki government does and Maliki's army and how the U.S. plays in this.

And sitting on the side, not even involved in this, waiting, holding their weapons, regaining their ammunition, and filling their coffers at our expense are these Sunni groups.

So the number of future actions like this, fragmentations, is just -- it's multiplying. So the notion that there's any kind of progress here is absurd.

Second, the Maliki government uses its Ministry of Interior like a death squad militia. So to call Sadr an extremist and Maliki a good guy just overlooks the reality that there aren't any good guys.

MARGARET WARNER: General, let me give Fred Kagan a final word here just for equal time. We're about out of time. What's your response to that?

FREDERICK KAGAN: I take most exception to this characterization of what the Sons of Iraq in the Sunni community are doing, because what they're actually doing, day in and day out, is being attacked by al-Qaida operatives who are trying to come back in, fighting them, dying, staying at their posts.

In the recent conflict in Baghdad, the Sons of Iraq in Sunni neighborhoods stood at their posts, protected their neighborhoods, did not engage in sectarian cleansing.

They are fighting our enemies. The notion that we have created some Sunni force that is going to be an enemy to us and we're just funding this army that is ultimately going to bite us completely misrepresents what the reality on the ground actually is.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Fred Kagan, William Odom, thank you both. We have to leave it there.