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NOW on the News with Maria Hinojosa

Transcript: Lt. Col. Isaiah Wilson III on More Troops in Iraq

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HINOJOSA: Welcome to Now on the News, I'm Maria Hinojosa. Today we're talking with a decorated combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Lieutenant Colonel Isaiah Wilson, III. Lieutenant Colonel Wilson is a former Army aviator, and a military strategist and historian. He's considered the official Army historian of the Iraq campaign. Wilson was also one of the first high level officials to publicly criticize the lack of a strategy following combat operations in the Iraqi War, a war that he served in for a year as the Chief War Planner for the 101st Airborne Division.

He joins us today from his offices at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Where he's a professor and the Director of American Politics, Public Policy and Strategic Studies. Lieutenant Colonel Wilson, thank you for joining us on Now on the News.

LT. COL. WILSON: Thank you for having me.

HINOJOSA: As you know, the big news now is the "surge" in the troops that are being proposed by President Bush.


HINOJOSA: Some in Congress are weary; they've proposed to introduce this kind of symbolic measure, stating that the increase in troops goes against national interests. What do you think of this?

LT. COL. WILSON: There's a—there's a lot to think of, and frankly that's part of why I am—and have been for a while—quite surprised at anyone's ability, frankly on either side of this proposed increase in troops, to speak coherently, much less evaluate the potential gains or potential losses in the—in the—in this troop increase. In this case the 21,500 troop increase outside the context of a broader, comprehensive, and frankly transparent policy—

HINOJOSA: So you're—so are you saying Colonel that essentially we as a country have not yet had a transparent—conversation, revelation about where we are with this war right now?

LT. COL. WILSON: I would feel comfortable saying that, yes. That's not to say that there's not a plan there. That's not to say that there's a comprehensive grand strategy. What I am saying is that it's—it's not clear and—and transparent again, to the general public, what policy, what policy parameters and what grand strategic plans are behind the programmatic or operational shifts that we've been attempting over the past four years. And without that context it's very difficult to evaluate the—the potential—gains or loses that would come from this—proposed increase in troops.

HINOJOSA: In 2004, Colonel Wilson, you wrote a paper in which you stated that the government did not have a confirmed strategy for the period of the Iraq War, following combat operations. What was it that drove you to make this critique of the way the war was proceeding?

LT. COL. WILSON: I would characterize it not so much as an absence of a strategy, but the ob—the absence of a very particular type of plan, an operational plan. It was part of my mandate working on the—the Iraqi—Op—Operation Iraqi study group, back in 2003, during the first part of the war to chronicle, basically do combat interviews on the ground from the level of Privates all the way up to the Four Stars. And do interviews to gather lessons for what was going well, what was not going quite so well, to bring that back in for lessons gathered to be learned, and make some immediate changes.

But also to collect the data particularly relating to the planning behind the war. And as part of that mission I rapidly came to find that what we were calling at the time, Phase Four Transition, was tro—we had clear concept plans for that—but nothing resembling what we call in the military, what we consider and define as an operationalized plan where that—those concepts are fleshed out, and where importantly so, resources are put against the tasks that are required to bring about the full completion of a campaign.

HINOJOSA: As one of the Army historians of the Iraq War, do you think from a technical position, as a military man, that we rushed into this? It was too fast?

LT. COL. WILSON: I'm—I think that the—the timing—and I—don't—don't get me wrong, I'm not tryin' to dodge the issue here. I just think it's a very important—how we—how we shape the dialogue entering into an analysis like this, particularly one looking back at what happened and could have been. We clearly, in hindsight, got the timing—the timing was off, the allocation of resources was off, the sequencing of and the packaging of available force and different forms of power, military being only one of them, getting that not quite right. That all speaks to opera—the operational level, that absent operational plan that I spoke about back in 2004 and—and have been speakin' about and working towards ever since.

HINOJOSA: Okay, but you're a soldier let's say. We just did a story with—The 3rd Infantry Division going back for the third time. You've got soldiers who are—are gonna be—I mean these are infantry, they will be foot soldiers. They're going to the frontlines, and they hear you saying—and other critics saying, "We have this—this lack of a plan, we have this failure." What does that do—what should it do to the morale of those troops who are on the ground?

LT. COL. WILSON: Well I think—I think hopefully what they're hearing is not just the lack of something. But hopefully they're hearin' the full story, and that is identification of things that aren't working, but understanding that those same folks that are identifying things that aren't working are, at that very moment, in the business of finding s—new solutions.

HINOJOSA: And you—you believe that in such a short period of time that there can be actually some change, in terms of as you say what's operationally happening on the ground, the mentality of these soldiers on the ground? Do you believe it—it can change now?

LT. COL. WILSON: Frankly, the evidence does show that locally there has been great progress made, in all at aspects of—of the campaign program. And that's exactly what the soldiers are seeing, that's exactly what the soldiers are reengaging in—when they—when they are going back into the same neighborhoods that they probably where—were maybe 18 months or so again, ya know maybe on their second or third—rotations. At local levels progress is being made.

The—the interesting paradox, and the—and the irony is—our challenge to make those local victories, those local wins additive, in a way that provides a strategy level of program, country-wide, Iraq-wide. That yet at the same time, at local levels, can do your days work, if you will—in a place like Iraq and come out of that days business of feeling, "We—we really accomplished something. We got the water working again, we got a few more hours of electricity consistent. We build some I—relationship with the Iraqi people that we're tryin' to help in our little neck of the woods here."

HINOJOSA: You posed a—a controversial question about whether or not we, the United States, the Bush Administration, should simply give civil war a chance in Iraq. Essentially you were saying a civil war can sometimes be part of what is historically necessary for a particular country. You got a—quite a response to that.

LT. COL. WILSON: (CHUCKLE) What I was tryin' to do is kinda reshape the dialogue and to actually help all that were engaged in the discussion and the debate to consider what exactly—the context of what's going on in Iraq, at least by our—our stated—political goal, to assist the Iraqis in a democratization process. And so what I was tryin' to do pose—in posing the question, "Should we give (civil war) a chance in Iraq," as a question, not a statement, not—not something that I necessarily believe in, but as a national—an international thought experiment. To consider what d—a democratization process sometimes brings.

And if we are going to choose to use historical analogy, particularly—reflections of our own experiences as we try to move forward to assist the Iraqis in their own democratization process, let's look hard and honestly and fully at ourselves as a historical analogy. Again, we're born of insurgency. We went through a revolutionary period. We went through a period of necessary Confederation. We didn't jump right into a constitutional form of united governance, and that was important for us. We've had critical moments in our history—in our own democratization progress where it was—it was dire straits. We didn't know how it was gonna turn out at certain moments.

HINOJOSA: I wanna take you back, before we end, to what's happening on the ground I—in Iraq. Because the reality is we are a country at war. You're talking about a lot of big ideas. But the plan right now—as I understand, is that the primary mission of the American combat forces in Baghdad is going to change now. They will be there to protect Iraqis living in the cities. Is this an effective change, is it realistic, can it happen?

I'm—I'm hopeful in the fact that—we're gonna be approaching this from a counter insurgency approach—operations approach. And that is AC—exactly the approach that is appropriate for this kind of war—

HINOJOSA: But with all due r—

LT. COL. WILSON: —counter insurgency war.

HINOJOSA: —but with all due respect, so we're—we're going into the fourth year of this war, and now is when there's a kind of analysis or reanalysis of, "We have to change?"

LT. COL. WILSON: When you look at it more broadly and historically, Iraq is one data point, if you bear with me for a moment, and you l—and you consider the history of the West and these types of wars of insurgency and counter insurgency, it usually takes a number of years of fits and starts to arrive at the right operational calibration of the—the approach—

HINOJOSA: And Colonel—

LT. COL. WILSON: —to the puzzle.

HINOJOSA: —and Colonel Wilson when—when the mothers of those soldiers say, "Well that's—that's fine, but the point is that my son or daughter is on the frontline, perhaps going to lose their life—and you're talking about data points and a historical projection." But right now perhaps these people may feel as if their children's lives are on the line for a change in military tactics, and they're just sayin', "Well wait a second, is that what we really bargained for with my son or daughter's signing up for the military."

LT. COL. WILSON: I don't wanna be characterized by someone who's not considering the blood and treasure calculations, I mean I bore it. I've been to Iraq, I—I understand. And my primary focus is on—I mean I—I see the cadets—I mean I'm seeing cadets coming back here, frankly, to West Point, being buried, on a monthly basis at this point. And it's very human based, so I—I don't wanna be characterized as someone who's only lookin' at data points for the sake of data points. I'm tryin' to raise the level of the dialogue so we can understand the full parameters of the issue here.

And I would say that that is exactly—you raised the point—and—and I like the point you're raisin' because that is exactly the types of questions that need to be asked. So that we can elevate the level of discourse in this country and beyond it, in terms of really deciding whether and how this Iraq War fits into a broader national interest. Are we at the point of this becoming a nation at war, or is this going to remain particular national instruments power at varying points in time being at war, but not the national fully being engaged in it.

This is the type of dialogue that, ya know frankly representative democracies have and that's what makes them great. We're tryin' to help the Iraqis to attain some semblance of their own for of that, for—for their own benefit. So I guess I think—I think those same mothers and—and fathers, the parents of—of the soldiers, and any other person that is on the ground in Iraq and places like Iraq and Afghanistan, who are committing their sons and daughters to these types of enterprises, that is part of the American way, that's part of the democratic way. They should be asking those questions, and they should be wanting to see an elevation in the political and public discourse over this war and war in general, on more than just is—should we stay, should we go or is a troop increase good or bad. We need to be having this discussion and b—based off of a premise of what is a political objective. What's the goal that we seek to attain?


LT. COL. WILSON: Not (COUGH) for ourselves but—not only for ourselves but the people of Iraq as well.

HINOJOSA: So I guess Colonel Wilson, that when a reporter like me would ask you a very simple, straight forward question like, "Well should we stay or should we go," you would say?

LT. COL. WILSON: It depends. (NOISE) And it depends on the political object. I know it on—on face it seems like it sounds like a skating of the question, but it certainly does depend. It depends on the political purpose and the national, international interest in the intervention policy itself.

HINOJOSA: Wow. Lieutenant Colonel Isaiah Wilson, thank you so much for spending time with us on Now on the News.

LT. COL. WILSON: Thank you for having me.

HINOJOSA: I'm Maria Hinojosa, we'll talk to you again next time.

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