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Reaction to Newly Public Iraq War Documents

October 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The media is combing through confidential documents on the Iraq War released by the website WikiLeaks, including accounts of abuse against Iraqi civilians and "hard evidence" that the United States turned a blind eye. Margaret Warner gets perspectives on the issue.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on lessons from the leaked documents, we get two views.

Retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor led a U.S. brigade in Iraq in 2003 to 2004, then returned as executive officer to commanding General David Petraeus during the 2007-’08 U.S. troop surge. He’s the author of “Baghdad at Sunrise” and now teaches military history at Ohio State University. John Mearsheimer, a West Point graduate and former Air Force officer, is a professor and co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago.

Welcome, gentlemen, to you both. Colonel Mansoor, beginning with you, what are the lessons that we get or what do we learn from this trove of documents about the Iraq war that we didn’t know or fully appreciate before?

COL. PETER MANSOOR (RET.), U.S. Army: Oh, I don’t think the documents provide any new information, if you have paid attention to the good reporting out of Iraq.

Most of what’s been revealed has been reported before. But what the documents provide is a lot of the detailed granularity that was perhaps absent in sort of the general reporting from the theater.

MARGARET WARNER: And Professor Mearsheimer, struck you?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER, University of Chicago: Well, I agree with Peter that what these documents are very good for is filling in the details. We had a rough understanding of what was going on in Iraq. And we had certain intuitions.

For example, I think most people felt that there was a good reason to think that Iran was supporting the Shia in Iraq. But we didn’t have a lot of hard evidence of that. And what these documents do is provide evidence.

But I would say, as far as the specifics are concerned, it does make it very clear how horrible the violence has been in Iraq since we invaded in 2003. And it also is quite clear from the documents that the United States has played an important role in making that violence happen.

Not only do the documents show that American soldiers and airmen have killed large numbers of civilians. It’s also clear that we didn’t do much at all to stop the Iraqis from torturing and murdering prisoners. This was a huge mistake on our part.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me go to Colonel Mansoor on that particular point.

This report, or these — all these documents, which are really unedited kind of field reports, does lay out in excruciating detail the brutality, torture, beatings, sexual abuse of Iraqis by Iraqi security forces, first of all, while American troops often looked on. Why didn’t American troops intervene in those situations more often?

COL. PETER MANSOOR: Well, there’s a couple of reasons. One is, Iraq was a sovereign state. And we didn’t have necessarily the legal authority to stop the Iraqis from doing their business.

The other reason, though, I think there was a huge disconnect between our strategy, which was to transition security responsibilities to the Iraqi security forces, and the reality on the ground, which was, those security forces were fundamentally incapable of securing Iraq, and, in some cases, were complicit in the sectarian violence themselves.

So, our troops perhaps were disincentivized from reporting or from acting on what the Iraqi forces were doing, because their own strategy said we were supposed to — our — our way out of Iraq was to support these forces.

MARGARET WARNER: Is — what — do you agree, Professor Mearsheimer, that this indicates something about the cost of the sort of surge-and–transition strategy that we’re now following in Afghanistan, where you surge in a lot of U.S. troops, you try to secure things enough, but then you pretty quickly start handing off responsibility?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, I disagree with Peter.

First of all, Iraq was not a sovereign state. The United States invaded Iraq. And we basically ran Iraq for many years, including many of the years in which these abuses were taking place. We were in charge.

Secondly, it’s quite clear from the documents that numerous cases are found where Americans were reporting these abuses. The problem is that people further up the chain of command, both the military and civilian individuals, didn’t do anything to stop it.

There is no question that the Americans knew what was going on. It’s not like this was happening in the dark, and we only suspected it and didn’t really know about it. We knew about it, and we didn’t do anything to stop it. We effectively turned a blind eye. And this was strategically foolish and, I think, morally bankrupt.

MARGARET WARNER: Colonel Mansoor.

COL. PETER MANSOOR: Well, you could see, going back to the strategy, when the strategy changed in 2007, and we began the surge strategy, with the fundamental priority to protect the Iraqi people, that all of a sudden these — the blind eye wasn’t turned to these abuses.

General Petraeus engaged the Iraqi government. And the worst of the sectarian actors, the Iraqi National Police, every brigade commander was fired and two-thirds of the battalion commanders were fired, and some of them more than once. And we were able to help clean up that organization, which today functions much, much more smoothly and with far fewer abuses than it did from 2004 to 2006.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Colonel, what about Professor Mearsheimer’s point that, at least ’04 to ’06, that Iraq really wasn’t a sovereign state?

COL. PETER MANSOOR: Well, we can get — we can debate the legal definition, but we gave Iraq its sovereignty back on the 28th of June 2004, and it did have a sovereign government, by the legal definition of the term.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor, back to you — and let’s pitch this forward now firmly into Afghanistan — what lessons can we take from this, from what we have learned, as we are in the midst of — as the United States is in the midst of this surge-and-transition strategy in Afghanistan that might at least minimize the human toll of a war and occupation and transition out?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, it seems to me, from looking at these documents and reading all the press reports, that this kind of wanton violence just goes hand-in-hand with civil wars and with counterinsurgencies.

I mean, anybody who has studied the history of counterinsurgency knows that those who are engaged in that kind of warfare invariably commit all sorts of crimes. So, I would think that what this tells us about Afghanistan is that, as we increase the number of forces, and as we begin to move more and more against the Taliban, what we will end up doing is killing more and more civilians.

And Afghanistan will end up looking a lot more like Iraq. I don’t see much hope at all that we will learn any positive lessons from what we have done in Iraq and then apply those positive lessons to Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Colonel Mansoor, is this sort of violence, especially to civilians, endemic to counterinsurgency, as the professor says?

COL. PETER MANSOOR: Well, these are very difficult wars. And it is war. People die in war, and because they do — every insurgency has an element of civil war to it. He is right in that regard.

But I would have to take exception to the fact — to his statement that we haven’t learned anything and that civilian casualties in Afghanistan will — will undoubtedly increase in the years ahead, because we have learned a great deal from the Iraq war.

Under General McChrystal, a policy began whereby our troops would actually take more risks on the battlefield in order to protect civilians. And what we have seen in the last year is that the number of civilians killed at the hands of the ISAF forces, the coalition forces in Afghanistan, has dropped dramatically.

So, I think there has been lessons learned, and they are being applied.

MARGARET WARNER: And final word from you, Professor Mearsheimer. I mean, there has been a change of strategy, at least vis-a-vis the civilian — the civilians being put at risk.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, there’s a couple of points to be made, Margaret.

First of all, the American military has always been a firepower-heavy military. And many of General McChrystal’s subordinates were complaining about the fact that they weren’t using enough firepower. And I would be willing to bet a lot of money that, as the war goes on in Afghanistan, we use more and more firepower as a way of preserving American lives.

And the end result is that more and more Afghani civilians will die. But even when we try to use military force in a discriminating way — take the Predator aircraft that we use to kill terrorists from the sky — all of the evidence is that we’re killing about 10 civilians for every single — quote, unquote — “terrorist” that we kill.

So, what you see is that we’re killing lots of terrorists. And I bet, five or six years from now, when the next thump of documents comes out from WikiLeaks, we will see much of what we have just seen with regard to Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Brief — very brief — Colonel, from you, a brief final thought about…

COL. PETER MANSOOR: Well, again, I think what the documents show, in an unfiltered way, is the messiness of these kinds of wars. But they are wars that the United States is engaged in, in the 21st century.

And it’s the kind of wars we’re likely to engage in, in the next two, three decades. And we are — we can’t just wash our hands of them.


COL. PETER MANSOOR: We have got to be able to engage and fight them effectively.

MARGARET WARNER: Colonel Mansoor, thank you so much, John Mearsheimer. Thank you both.