Bush's War

John Burns

photo of burns

Burns covered the Iraq war for The New York Times from the 2003 invasion through late summer 2007. He is the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes for his coverage of the Sarajevo conflict and the Taliban's rule of Afghanistan. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Feb. 5, 2008.

The unimaginable now seems imaginable, that after this terrible experience in Iraq, there may yet be ... a landing which preserves something for the United States and something for Iraq out of all of this.

First of all, let me ask you about [the March 19, 2003 bombing targeting Saddam Hussein at] Dora Farms. When did you realize that the war had begun and what was going on?

... As usual, I was up very late that night. ... Because of the time difference with New York, the Times correspondents are usually up well into the small hours of the morning, until dawn. So I was actually up when there was this gigantic explosion and clouds of black smoke about two or three miles away from the hotel. ... This was the attack on Dora Farms, which I later discussed with President Bush himself.

What aspects of it?

I've known him for a very long time, since he and I both were young men ... when the first President Bush was the head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in China, and the present President Bush came and spent a summer there. I was introduced to him by his parents, and we spent some time together. ...

I had an encounter with him in the White House a few months ago in which he talked about the attack on Dora Farms. He said the intelligence that they had that night looked pretty good. ...

The Iraqis took us out to the site of the bombing and [were] claiming it was a recreational area and that this was an outrage. They showed us what they claimed was a restaurant, as I recall, which had been utterly destroyed. They claimed that all those killed were innocents but wouldn't allow us to range over the area. ...

It was clear on that instance, as so often was with Saddam and his information propaganda people, that what they were telling us had nothing to do with reality, that there had to have been some other target there. And it was, as I recall, a matter of not very long, perhaps only 24 hours or so, before the first reports in Washington surfaced as to who the target really was. ... The Iraqi regime never acknowledged that he was actually there. ...

Do we know whether he actually was there that night?

What we do know is that when he did appear, the next occasion that he appeared was on Iraqi television, and he was in a bunker. He looked like he had aged about 20 years. He looked shaken. It was very unusual, because his television appearances were usually very carefully scripted. And he babbled; he didn't make a great deal of sense. He looked like somebody who had been severely shaken.

Was he there? Was he not there? I don't know. I don't know if American intelligence knows. But reading back from that television appearance, something had happened to really shake him up.

What was the feeling on the streets of Iraq at that point? ...

I think a good deal of history, history as I experienced at the time, has been rewritten by what happened subsequently. And I think it needs to be remembered.

The people of Iraq, by March 2003, had endured, if we count Saddam's time, 24 years; if we count the entire sweep of the Baath Party rule in Iraq, over 30 years, not just of autocracy, dictatorship, but of a brutality that is almost beyond imaginable. Saddam Hussein was widely hated, ... not just by Shi'ites and Kurds, what he'd done to them, but by Iraqis. ... He had turned the government of Iraq into a killing machine. ...

They had tried in various ways to rid themselves of him. There had been numerous who attempted to target Saddam. The perpetrators, the would-be assassins, had all themselves died, usually in the most terrible way, as had many members of their family. If they were lucky, they escaped and went abroad.

As one very senior official of the Saddam regime said to me, at that time, in one of these brief interludes where candor was possible, he said, "The Iraqi people have done everything possible to try and rid themselves of this murderer, and we have failed." And he said, "The only people who can do this are the Americans."

So, of course, much of this has been rewritten. … There have been plenty of Iraqis subsequently who have said, of course, in the miseries that have ensued, that they would have been better off under Saddam. But I've always wondered, if you actually held a referendum ... up until Dec. 30, 2006, when he was hanged, and you'd said, "OK, here's the deal: Over a six-month period, United States troops, coalition forces will withdraw; Saddam Hussein will be released and will be placed back in the presidential palace, along with his Mukhabarat [secret police], along with all his means of enforcement; and Iraq will once again be restored to the status pro ante. How about that?" My judgment is for all that has gone wrong, such a referendum would have been met with an overwhelming, resounding "No." ...

Where are you when that famous statue of Saddam falls? ...

... For the Iraqis, it was a moment of liberation and a great joy. It's become, I think, quite common amongst opponents of the war in the United States to mock the notion that American troops entering Baghdad would be met as American troops crossing France into Belgium and finally into Germany were in World War II.

Well, for a brief time, they were. There were flowers; there were shouts of joy. There were people clambering on the tanks and kissing the tank crews. But by the time this happened, and within a matter of an hour of the Marine tanks coming up the Canal Expressway, of course, the looting had begun. Tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, had flooded out of what was then Saddam City, Sadr City now. It's a place where 2.5 million Shi'ites, most of them very poor, live, and they're only about two and a half miles from the center of the city. And they flooded past the American tanks. The American tank crewmen had orders, in effect, to do nothing -- not to move forward deeper into the city, not to stop the looting.

There was a kind of a carnival and festival atmosphere reflected, I think, at about that time in what [then-Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld had to say about things happening. There was an expiation, if you will. There was a catharsis. Some aspects of it were sad and tragic in the early hours, some of them less. ...

Then the ministries were looted. Some of the early looters got things of some value. The latecomers, which I always thought somehow characterized this better than anything else -- I remember seeing one young fellow who got an office chair out of the Ministry of Oil and had loaded on top of it about eight, nine or 10 filing cabinets, and was pushing it back to Sadr City. I was just imagining what his mother would say when he arrived with this entirely useless collection of stuff. But he had taken something back from the regime. ...

It was very difficult to foresee that Saddam and his military, who had vowed to defend the city -- and given every sign that they were going to do it; they took us out, in the run-up to the war, and they showed us the preparations to defend the city. ... They were preparing to fight war. ...Of course when the 3rd Infantry Division rolled into Baghdad, and then the Marines came up from the southeast, there was no resistance.

Where had they gone? Well, we know where they went. The terror went underground. And no matter how much we may blame the Bush administration, the United States military, the Pentagon for the chaos that ensued, for the insurgency that followed, I think it's wise to remember that what happened was the roots of the insurgency was that the terror that was overground, that was the government of Iraq, by careful, precise planning, funded by $2 billion in cash that had been stolen from the Central Bank as American troops moved into the city. It went underground. You had a ready-made insurgency there. ...

Let's talk about [Lt.] Gen. [Jay] Garner, [director of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, March-April 2003], for a second. I'm assuming you got pretty close to Garner, as well as everybody in power?

Yeah. As a matter of fact, I remember my first inkling of just how ill-prepared the American military and the American civil presence headed by Garner was for the governance in Iraq came when, as I recall, about 10 days after the invasion, we got a notice that Garner and his people would meet us at the Republican Palace, Saddam's former seat of government, which had [been] taken over, and is still now, five years later, the seat of American power in Iraq.

So we went over there. We were taken to a vast chamber, underneath chandeliers, where we met the principals of the new American civil administration. We were absolutely shocked, by this time, [about] the failure to stop the looting, the failure of American forces -- even the ones that we could see -- to do anything effective in terms of restoring law and order. ...

Now, to be fair, Gen. [David] McKiernan, 3rd Infantry Division commander -- subsequently, and I think currently, commander, U.S.-Europe, four-star general now -- when we questioned him as to why there had been no greater attempt to impose order, he told us, ... counting military and paramilitary, secret police and others, Saddam had 250,000 people to maintain order, and the U.S. military had arrived with 7,000. ... He just didn't have the troops to do it.

On the civilian side, to give you the notion of how underequipped they were, the American bureau chiefs had gathered that day in the Republican Palace for our first briefing, said, "We need communications; we need to be able to talk to you; it's very difficult to get to you," because of the security that had been posted around them. They had only one satellite telephone available for communicating with us; there must have been 1,500 journalists in Baghdad. ...

This was the first day that Garner gets back into Baghdad, right?

By the time that I met with him and his officials, it was probably, I'm thinking, two or three days.

So he already knows he's out the door, knows that [Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul] Bremer is coming.

Of course we didn't know that at the time. All we could see was that they were completely underequipped, undermanned, and seemed to have very little idea where to start. ... But I have to say that if I had been Jay Garner or Ambassador Barbara Bodine or the other people who were put into this situation, it was a completely impossible situation for them to be placed in, highly damaging, I have to say, to the careers of many of those involved, and very unfairly so, because of the magnitude of the problem and the sparse tools that they had been given to do it.

And they're in between the State Department and the DoD [Department of Defense]?

And the DoD. And there's a story that goes with that, too. We had learned in that first week that Gen. McKiernan had issued a decree, a [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur-like decree, that he was in charge; that he was the sole lawful authority in Iraq, and that disobedience to his authority would be met, if necessary, with deadly force. Now, we heard about this because there were reports on the Iraqi media about it.

We, of course, wanted to get the text of this statement. We couldn't get a text of it. I remember staying up late into the night that night, thinking this is the lead in the paper story: There is going to be an American Caesar here. ...

Well, when we were summoned to the Republican Palace for our first encounter with Jay Garner, Ambassador Bodine and others, ... I wondered what had happened to Gen. McKiernan's decree. We couldn't get a copy of it; there had been no further mention of it.

And then I'd found it on these hand trolleys, handcarts, lined against the wall of this great chamber, tens of thousands, I'm inclined to say, hundreds of thousands of copies of it, Arabic and English ...

I asked, "Why have these posters not been posted around Baghdad?," much less anywhere else in the country. I was met with a mocking response: "Do you think we have nothing better to do than to go out with paste pods and stick these things on walls?" Well, of course, the fact is that outside the gates of that palace, you had tens of thousands of Iraqis who would have loved to go and post up these posters and get the word out. They didn't do it.

This is surmised, but I got strongly the impression that day that the real reason that those posters had not been put up was because the new civil governance of Iraq, in those very, very early days within a week or 10 days of the invasion, did not want the authority to be vested in the American military or to be vested in the Pentagon, and they didn't want a MacArthur-like decree. They wanted to hold true to the notion of a light American footprint, headed by civilians. I think that was a disastrous mistake. Whether it was civilian or military, you needed a big American footprint, and that declaratory statement by McKiernan, had it ever reached the Iraqi people, would have been a big step in the right direction.

Gen. [Tommy] Franks says U.S. forces will be out after 120 days. What is going on there?

Look, any journalist who sits and tells you how smart we were -- and I may have done that already, some of these conversations -- needs to check himself, because some of the misapprehensions that the American military and civilian governance brought with them from Washington were misapprehensions that were sown by people like me. Which is to say, I think we had embedded in people's minds, insofar as we have any kind of influence, the notion that the problem of Iraq was vested principally and overwhelmingly in one particularly tyrannical and murderous figure; that it was a highly sophisticated country, that it had all these oil revenues, it had a governing system that worked pretty well; and that right up to very high levels of this governing system, there was a great hatred and loathing of Saddam; and if you removed him, that Iraq might default rather quickly to something like the Iraq before the Baathist overthrow of the old regime; in fact, before the overthrow of the king in 1958. ...

I think that what we failed to do was to look beyond the immediate that we could see and touch to understand what a fractured and fissured society Iraq was. Somebody, not me, has used the analogy of picking up a rock and finding very nasty things, creepy-crawly things underneath. That's what America did in Iraq. Those things, those nasty things, those fissures that were, ... to be fair to Iraqis, the [result of the] deep traumatization of 30 years of violence -- all of those [were] things, I think, that we journalists had failed to properly explore. ... We journalists failed, really to give a kind of three-dimensional picture of this society. …

What was your point of view on the effects of CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] Orders 1 and 2?

I think that probably the history of this is already written and is immutable, that there was this grotesque mistake made in dismantling the Saddam army, and that ... denied tens of thousands of militarily capable people, who might otherwise have been loyal to the Iraq state, the new Iraq state of livelihood, and it drove them into opposition. No doubt there's some truth to that.

But I think that there is another truth, possibly a more cogent truth. … Let's assume that this army had not virtually disintegrated, which it did. ... I think you need to ask yourself, what is the real difference here between an army that had effectively disintegrated and whose Sunni leadership had already prepared to go underground? … Many of the people leading the Sunni insurgency subsequently were former Saddam military officers. Would they have come back to serve a new Shi'ite-Kurdish-led government with no certainty that the American summons to return to serve in the army would ultimately be honored by the new rulers of Iraq?

It seems to me this is a very complex issue and that there's a danger here of this thing simply being set in stone that there was a gigantic mistake.

Some who were there say ... they wanted these individuals to do some of the jobs that we couldn't handle without the appropriate number of troops. Security issues would have been easier to deal with.

Yeah. ... Clearly this is an issue that deserves to be seriously debated. But I think that some of the discussion and debate that has gone on since 2003 has been sort of cartoonish, and largely because, let's face it, what occurred, the invasion of Iraq, has come at gigantic cost to Iraq, but also to the United States. As we talk, what are we talking about, $600 billion? Whatever it is, it's gigantic. ...

I understand why, in the wake of this, with a deeply unpopular president, people have been looking around for places to apportion blame. But I think perhaps an unfair amount of blame has fallen on people like Ambassador Bremer. It's [not] fair to go back to the point of his arrival in Baghdad, in the midst of all of this chaos, with far too few troops, with initially too little money, and to say, you know, he made mistake after mistake after mistake. In the ideal circumstances, if all those volumes of State Department planning for the postwar phase had been cracked open and applied, if they hadn't disbanded the army, I think you would still have had a very serious emergency there, knowing what we now know about Iraq. We certainly would have had a very serious insurgency, because that was pre-prepared.

And I would think that when history comes to some kind of more settled and moderate view of this, there will be a little bit less rush to condemn some of the people involved in this. ... The decision to disband the Iraq army was made at a time of just tremendous pressure, and it wasn't made by fools. It was made by people who were looking at a situation that looked just about impossible.

Now, it may have been that if they'd made the other choice, some of what occurred would have been mitigated, maybe even mitigated substantially. But I don't think we can be sure of that. ...

Were you there for the CPA ceremony [handing over power to the Iraqis]?

No, I wasn't there at the ceremony. ... But I traveled with Bremer immediately before that. The previous day I'd gone on a helicopter trip with him to Fallujah and attended a rather comical briefing -- he had given a handover briefing to Ayad Allawi, who was to be the transitional prime minister of Iraq -- where Bremer laid forth, if you will, all the elements of the Jeffersonian democracy that he had set out to construct. There was a great deal of talk about audit commissions and accountability and fixed terms of tenure for senior officials and about statutes that he had put into effect through power of decree, and so forth.

And Ayad Allawi, this tough ex-Baathist, former thug, perhaps reformed thug, rather charming fellow, actually -- he was an enforcer for Saddam -- made almost no pretense to be interested in any of this. His was a different game. His Iraq was a different Iraq altogether. He had no illusions. He wasn't interested in any of this. Bremer might as well have been talking to the wall.

[Bremer] showed no sense of disillusion, no sense that I could see, at least, that he'd been really building castles in the air. Whether that is because Jerry Bremer is an accomplished diplomat or because he'd become a prisoner of his own illusion, I don't know.

Bremer started to develop a plan to turn over sovereignty that would have taken years before he was reined in by Washington. Did he ever show the understanding that the route he had taken had been foreshortened?

I can't say we saw that. I think we saw some of the first glimmerings of second thoughts, certainly on the question, for example, of de-Baathification. In his last weeks and months, he had begun to speak quite frankly to us about the road not taken. ...

If you went to see Bremer in the palace, it was an odd experience. ... [Y]ou'd find him in his office pouring over maps of the pipeline system or the electricity grid, trying to figure out, you know, OK, we've got a break in the pipeline or a break in the grid here; how can we reroute power and oil and so forth? This was a man, a very accomplished man, a very accomplished diplomat, a former United States ambassador, with experience in counterterrorism. But he had no experience of running, any more than I do, of running a power grid or oil pipelines or any of that.

But he had got himself deeply invested in this. Now, was that megalomania? Probably not. I think it was a reflection of all else that was wrong, which was, there weren't -- or he felt there weren't -- others who were competent to take care of all of these problems, particularly Iraqis. He had some very skilled Americans coming in, but the man was overwhelmed, absolutely overwhelmed. Does a president of the United States sit in the Oval Office worrying about the power grid and how to restore it, or how to repair a fractured oil pipeline? If he does, he's not doing his job. That's what it had come down to for Jerry Bremer.

Compare Bremer's idealism to [Gen. David] Petraeus' agenda.

At the high point of Jerry Bremer's time in Iraq, the illusionism about the construction of a democracy in Iraq reached ludicrous, I'm inclined to say comical proportions. One thing that I remember very plainly was that -- and you only have to read Bremer's book about Iraq to see it -- he became very attached to a particularly devious Shi'ite cleric in Hillah. Hillah is about 100 miles, as I recall, south of Baghdad.

And this guy with the big bushy beard had become one of Jerry Bremer's favorite Iraqis. His name was [Sayed Farqad al-]Qiswini. He had pledged himself to the ideal Jeffersonian democracy to the extent that he had taken over the former Saddam mosque ... and turned it into a democracy training school.

Jerry Bremer was so impressed with this that he actually sent this chap, Qiswini, to Washington, to the Congress, at the head of a delegation of similarly luxuriantly bearded men to impress the Congress with the progress of democracy in Iraq.

Well, Jerry Bremer's Qiswini and mine were quite different, because when I went to the democracy training school in Baghdad and attended one of his classes actually given by an American academic on separation of powers or the independence of the judiciary in front of a lot of somnambulant, if not actually fast-asleep, gentlemen like Qiswini himself, most with long beards, mostly clerics, who sat in rows paying not the least attention to all this, I went outside the building and was chatting to Qiswini. I said to him: "You seem very familiar. I think I've seen you before." He said: "Yes, yes. Don't you remember? We met here under Saddam." I said: "Oh, that's right. I did come here when this was the Saddam mosque." I said, "And you were here?" "Yes," he said. "I was running the place under Saddam."

And I said: "Goodness me, yes. Not only did I meet you, I think I quoted you at the time, speaking the praises of Saddam," who was then involved in a one-candidate re-election campaign to be re-elected as president of Iraq in the fall of 2002. "Yes, I'm the very man," said Qiswini. I said, "Well, excuse me, but why should I believe anything you have to say about the wonders of American-style democracy now when the last time we met, you were propagating the virtues of Saddam?" And he said, "But you shouldn't believe me." And I said, "Why?" He said, "Well, because they're paying me $100 a day to say this."

Now, all of his acolytes fell about laughing over this, and he thought it was pretty jolly, too, and marched off in his flowing black robes, feeling so confident that he had bewitched and befuddled these innocent Americans who had walked into Ali Baba's cave. That came to me to seem to be a kind of identifying moment. At that point at least, I felt that this American project, constructed democracy in Iraq, had reached sort of ludicrous and totally unrealizable proportions.

Why it was that so many highly intelligent, educated and, by the way, experienced American officials, Jerry Bremer amongst them, did not see what we saw, I don't know. ...

One of the debates was Bremer's attitude toward [radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada] al-Sadr. The story is there were plans to depose him of power, but Washington pulled back. What is your point of view?

Let's remember that Moqtada al-Sadr, by the spring of 2004, April 2004 -- so almost a year after the invasion, and intermittently and insistently since -- has been as big a security problem in Iraq as almost anybody or anything else.

I think you can make the argument, and it's certainly an argument that you can find some support for amongst Shi'ites, who are only rarely able now to speak -- I'm talking about the people of Sadr City -- with any candor about this. ... They know Moqtada al-Sadr for what he is: He's a murdering thug. He gave evidence of it within, I don't recall exactly, but certainly within 24 or 48 hours of the capture of Baghdad. The United States flew a very senior ayatollah who had been in exile here in London, [Abdul Majid] al-Khoei, back to Iraq to play a role within the marjas, the ruling body of Shi'ite religious authority in Iraq.

And what happened to him? He was murdered, and murdered most brutally, almost at the doors of Moqtada al-Sadr's home residence in Najaf. And there was every sign that the orders to murder him had been given by Moqtada al-Sadr. There was a long-running, dynastic split within the hierarchy of Iraqi Shi'ism which had made the fathers of Khoei and Sadr, and grandfathers, enemies of each other.

An indictment was issued for the arrest of Moqtada al-Sadr in that killing, and there was plenty of evidence, from what I've seen. It was never exercised. It was the first occasion that the United States, the Bush administration, stepped back from dealing with it.

And each time that they did later on -- it was when they had ineffectively defeated Sadr in battle at considerable cost in lives lost to American troops in Sadr City and then in Najaf in the spring of 2004 -- again the same options presented themselves, and again they backed away. And what did he do? He signed any numbers of pieces of paper and made any number of promises, stayed quiet for a while, re-armed himself with support from his Iranian friends, only to once again get back into the business of destabilizing and murdering very substantial numbers of American troops.

Each time more powerful.

Each time more powerful. So I think that was an arguable mistake. Even as we discuss this now, nearly five years later, what do we see? We see Sadr in a quiescent mode. Why? Because in the period, the early period of David Petraeus' authority as commanding general in Iraq, very severe damage was being done to Sadr's network. There was a convenient conceit made, which was -- this was all done with the authority of the collaboration of the Shi'ite-led Iraq government -- that it was all against renegade elements of Sadr's network, that Sadr himself was happy to see these people removed.

I think all parties to that conceit knew otherwise; that Sadr, of course, didn't want to admit that his machinery, his political-military murdering machinery, was being dismantled. The government of Iraq didn't want to admit that they were authorizing American troops to do this. American troops didn't want the political burden of going at the core of Sadr's power. But what they did was they so thoroughly undermined Sadr's power -- his murdering authority, the power of his guns -- that all of a sudden he did what he did before: He became quiescent. He declared a six-month cease-fire, in effect, which has played its role in strengthening the effects of the surge and the Sunni-tribal outreach and so forth.

But if I were a betting man, I would not bet that Sadr will remain quiescent for very long. He is playing a hard game, and the game is power for Sadr.

It sounds like we had a deal where the United States, [Prime Minister Nuri al-]Maliki's government, Shi'a groups were involved, where a decision was made to deal with Sadr. Do we know much else about that?

I think this is all extremely murky. The truth is, no, we don't know a great deal about it. But some things I think we can safely assume. And one of them is that Sadr, the murdering thug, is not going to suddenly metamorphose into a born-again democrat.

If he is presently, in the spring of 2008, in a quiescent mode and playing, if you will, the democrat, it's for expedient reasons, and that he has a tremendous power which he will no doubt at some point exercise to once again disrupt and cause turmoil in Iraq. We have not heard the last of him, and he remains really [a] big question mark over what happens as American troops begin to draw down.

Do we have a house of cards if all the major elements of what's making this surge work at this point are dependent on the likes of, for instance, al-Sadr?

Well, yes, I agree with you. I think that Gen. Petraeus, Col. [H.R.] McMaster and other architects of the present military strategy, American military strategy in Iraq, that has been so successful for the past nine months or so have been wise in being so quiet in claiming victory or claiming even substantial amounts of progress, ... because almost all the advances they've made are reversible. They know that.

But there is a wild card in all of this. People who have covered other protracted wars often say Lebanon is usually the case in point: a 50-year civil war, elements, in some degree, similar to what happened in Iraq; you know, it was a deep religious schism, a society in utter ruins. What brought that war to an end? Yes, there were some politics, but mostly it was exhaustion. ... Nobody had been able to strike a decisive, conclusive blow of victory.

I suppose the hope would be that whilst some of these new elements -- the tribal awakening on the Sunni side, the quiescence of Sadr, the additional American boots on the ground and American strategy of getting back into the neighborhoods and giving Iraqi civilians some sort of sense of security that had been so long absent -- these things will begin to come increasingly in question.

But if, at the same time, the people of Baghdad, to cite only the most important example, had begun to understand the possibilities of peace or at least of the lowered level of violence -- 80 percent decrease in violence by some estimates in Baghdad over the past six months or so -- ... I think it's still possible that, incredibly, ... if not victory, something that is satisfactory to the people of Iraq and to the people of the United States could still emerge from this. "Satisfactory" is a difficult word to use when we're talking about all the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have died, not to mention the 3,000 American troops and all those tens of thousands of American soldiers who have gone home so grievously wounded.

But I think we're talking about a situation now which is very much more hopeful than it was only a year ago, when it certainly looked by the end of 2006 as though this war was going to be lost in a most painful way.

That success is based upon a long-term strategy. The president knew that; Petraeus and his advisers understood that. The public is ready for a short-term answer. Can you speak about that dichotomy?

I live a long way away from Washington, D.C., but when I've talked to people, quite senior levels of the Bush administration seem plain that their strategy was to reduce the pain in this war to a level that was politically tolerable, and that that had to be done before the nominating conventions of 2008. ...

My sense is that the remarkable thing that's happened in American politics, just as remarkable things have happened on the ground in Iraq, [is that] because the violence is down -- still at pretty distressing levels, as some of the suicide bombings in Baghdad and Mosul have demonstrated -- the nature of the debate about this in the American presidential election is less shrill, less desperate than it was. ...

Is it too much to hope that there could be a convergence of opinion about this? That, fortunately, is not our business. I'm reporting on this -- not my business, anyway, to prescribe. But the unimaginable now seems imaginable, that after this terrible experience in Iraq, there may yet be, not a soft landing, but ... a landing which preserves something for the United States and something for Iraq out of all of this. ...

In the first weeks of 2008, the number of American troops dying in Iraq was down to in the region of 30 or 40 a month. That's still a lot of families destroyed. And of course you have to magnify that, multiply that by several multiples for the number of wounded who are going home. The price is still extremely high.

But if that trend could be maintained, then it seems to me that a medium- to long-term strategy might be something that could be agreed [to] by a new president, by a new Congress, and that the results of this might turn out to be, over the longer term, not as disastrous as seemed absolutely inevitable only a year or 18 months ago.

2006 was a horrible year in Iraq. Secretary Rumsfeld is out. Then you have the surge, something which will likely be handed off to the next administration, possibly a Democratic administration. What is your point of view on this roll of the dice by President Bush?

By the latter part of 2006, it seemed clear ... [that] the price of staying was very high, the price of going was also extremely high, and that any policy that made sense was going to have to factor in those two things. …

It seemed to me and to many of my colleagues, at least, that a rapid drawdown of American troops would in fact lead on to still greater disasters and a carnage which is hard to imagine, considering how bad it had got, that might exceed by several multiples what we had already seen. ...

When these issues were being intensively debated in Washington during the spring and summer of 2007, [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq] Ryan Crocker said to me in an interview, "We're in the," as I recall he said, "the second or third reel of a multireel movie here. And the nightmare that we have already seen, the horror we've already seen, is nothing against what we may see down the road."

Ryan Crocker is as experienced a diplomat in the Middle East as the United States has. It happened to be an argument that suited the Bush administration strategy, but I'm convinced it was also something that was a conviction on Ryan Crocker's part. And it was something that those of us who had lived through the really desperate years of the war, culminating in the carnage of 2006, pretty well shared. ...

[Then] came the surge -- a highly controversial thing to do, very risky, plenty of people saying at the time, "It won't work," that there will be much higher American casualties and we'll end up back where we were. Well, we don't know yet whether those arguments will ultimately prove to be true. All we do know is that roughly a year now into the surge, it has in fact achieved much of what its proponents said it would achieve, and the question is whether it can be sustained. ...

We know now that the United States gave it its best shot: It sent additional troops; it took additional risks; it committed tens of billions of additional dollars to the war; and it appointed a new commanding general and adopted a new strategy. It did something which, if I can say so as a Brit, I've seen in my own lifetime, and which I believe is one of the most identifying characteristics of American history: that the United States, more than any other country, is a country that can reinvent itself. It's a country that has been, of course, capable in history of making big mistakes, but it's also got this tremendous corrective mechanism. Why? Because it has the most fully formed, functioning democracy on earth. ... I think it's the American instinct. ...

They reinvented the war. A year on, they've had very considerable success. You have a commanding general who has been insistently modest, sensibly so, about what it's achieved. If it fails, if all of the advances that have been made in the past year are reversed, at least the proponents of further entrenchment of American military power in Iraq will not be able to say in years to come, "We could have won that war; we just didn't have the stomach for it." ...

There's a debate whether or not Americans have brought Sunni sheiks "into the fold," perhaps arming them for civil war. How do you view this debate?

That's entirely possible. Of course, the solution to that dilemma lies not in the hands of the United States, but in the hands of the Shi'ite-led government of Iraq, and of, above all, of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki; that's to say, by political reconciliation.

You could argue that the new Sunni leadership in Iraq remains fundamentally unreconciled to the loss of power, that the strategy is to regain what was lost, which is to say Sunni political dominance. … If that proves to be, in fact, true, then no, if you will, mitigation is likely to come from any awakening council or Sunni sheiks. We will, in fact, have been arming them, financing them, giving them, in effect, training in place for a future civil war.

On the other hand, there was a time before Saddam Hussein where Shi'a and Sunni lived together without violent repression, under the king in the time of the Ottoman Empire, in relative peace. And it's possible that if the Shi'ite-led government of Iraq, along with the Kurds, can be persuaded to open enough political space for the Sunnis, that some new kind of settlement could be reached. ... It may be improbable, but it's not impossible.

The change in the Sunni situation was taking place before the surge began. From what you saw, how did the Sunni jump on this opportunity when they saw the potential for this?

I would turn that question around and say the mystery to me was that this reconciliation between the Americans and the certain elements of the Sunni community in Iraq could have happened much sooner, should have happened much sooner. It seemed to me evident within a matter of months of the invasion that as Sunni political power disintegrated … and as their traditional enemies, the Shi'ite religious parties, in effect inherited power in Iraq, that it presupposed a natural alliance between the now-dispossessed Sunni minority and the United States. That Al Qaeda -- Sunni Al Qaeda -- was completely unreconcilable and was bent on killing every American, that's one thing, but if we talk in terms of numbers … the largest part of the insurgency was, in fact, if you will, an unreconciled, largely secular Sunni group, many of them with ties to the old regime. ...

It seemed natural to me that at some point, ... important parts of the Sunni insurgency would sit down and say, "Why are we killing these people? If we drive them out" -- and goodness knows, by the fall and winter of 2006, they were a long way down the road toward accomplishing that -- "If we drive them out and it comes simply to a show of force between a new Shi'ite-led government with 300,000, 350,000 trained military police, paramilitary units with tens of billions of dollars' worth of American-supplied arms, with the backing of Iran, what are our prospects then? Not good." It just took an awful long time for that recognition to take hold.

Why?

I think the answer to that lies deep in the traumatized psychology of Iraq. When we think about that, we think mostly about the victim psychology of the Shi'ites and the Kurds who had been murdered in the tens and hundreds of thousands by Saddam. But that brutal dictatorship also, in a sense, traumatized the ruling majority of Sunnis, who emerged from the invasion of 2003, the American-led invasion, with a raging feeling of having been usurped; of resentment, of hatred for the people who had done this to them; filled with fears, which had been bred in the bone of the Sunni minority in Iraq over 1,400 years, of what Shi'ite rule might mean.

I mean, this is a really deep, deep schism. So I think that they, too, were traumatized. And it took an awful long time for some of the fog of anger, resentment, confusion to clear, and for people to begin to calculate their interest more precisely. ...

How did things change when Al Qaeda blew up the Samarra mosque? …

... You'd have to say that the attack on the Samarra mosque, the first attack in 2006, was an act of evil genius, and very nearly brought, I would say, the whole American enterprise in Iraq to the point of complete catastrophe. ...

They struck at the very core of Shi'ite pride and religious fervor. It was, of course, in a way ... a disaster waiting to happen, because that Shi'ite mosque, one of the holiest places in Shi'ite Islam, is right in the middle not only of a Sunni town, Samarra, but a Sunni town which, ... for a very long time, for centuries, has been a home to some of the more, if you will, virulent forms of Sunni exclusivism, [and] thus a base for the insurgency. So this was something that was waiting to happen.

And of course the effects were absolutely catastrophic and were understood to be within a matter of hours by the American military command; that virtually nothing that could have happened could have been quite so catastrophic as that in terms of blowing apart the prospects of reconciliation, of unleashing on the Shi'ite side the death squads, who had not been held in check, but who became absolutely rampant after that.

It was after the attack on the Samarra mosque that we began to see a kind of deadly correlation between the Al Qaeda attacks, especially in Baghdad, and the counterattacks by Shi'ite militias. It became a correlation which you could actually track, and the American military command did, on graphs.

And it was virtually a death for a death. Suicide bombing ... in a Shi'ite area that kills 60 or 70 Shi'ites within 48 hours, as a Shi'ite death squad comes into an area where there are predominantly Sunnis, very often another market area, it rounds up 200 people. It winnows out the Sunnis, and you get 60 or 70 Sunnis, hands behind their heads, who have been brutally tortured, eviscerated very often and ultimately been put out of their infernal misery with a bullet to the head. ...

June of 2007, the surge begins, followed by another attack on the same location. ... Why doesn't this event ignite sectarian violence?

I suppose you'd have to say that, to some extent, it was an act discounted in advance. They had already substantially destroyed the mosque, bringing down the minarets. Certainly was a very provocative thing to do, but I think the reserves of Shi'ite anger and bitterness were somewhat exhausted by what had happened February 2006.

But the whole political geometry, the matrix had changed on all sides. You had Moqtada al-Sadr's power substantially undermined by relentless, very often Special Forces-led attacks on his points of strength, particularly in Sadr City. So he was in trouble. He was less able than he was before to respond to this with new death-squad attacks. …

Up until about that time, there had been this remorseless, undeclared alliance between, if you will, Al Qaeda and the other parts of the Sunni insurgency, all of whom were working toward at least one common goal, which was to get the Americans out. … But by the time of the second attack in June 2007, the potential for division, which the U.S. military had been working on so strongly for so long, had begun to be realized. You had begun to get a breaking apart of the insurgency.

So a lot of the geometry had changed. And the fact that there wasn't an immediate reaction of the same proportions that there had been in 2006 was in that sense, I suppose, not so surprising. In fact, looking back, you'd have to say that that was probably the moment at which we should have begun to realize that something really quite fundamental might be changing in Iraq.

Symbolically it's interesting. It was at this moment that maybe, if the U.S. didn't, it should have understood that maybe we're better off here; maybe things are working.

It will be probably a long time yet before we begin to understand how all of these things relate. One thing we have to, I think, understand is that we talk about these things as if the United States' commanders in Iraq know exactly what all the displacements are: who is who, what their intent is, how many weapons they have, how many weapons caches they have.

American military intelligence in Iraq has been -- and I think the American commanders would be willing, happy to admit this -- has been, for much of the war, extraordinarily deficient. They're fighting against a very, very opaque enemy. So making calculations in the American way about cause and effect is exactly difficult to make. You may get it right, and it may yet still be some time before you realize you've got it right, just as you may get it disastrously wrong, and it may be some time before you realize that. ...

How well suited was David Petraeus to make those decisions?

... His best friends would not say that self-effacement was David Petraeus' natural default position. He's not been the most popular of American generals with other American generals. Some people call him a spotlight general. He was too popular with the press. Some of these other generals questioned just how effective he had been in Mosul as 101st Airborne Division commander, the job [of] rebuilding the Iraqi army. There were plenty of people who were ready to, if you will, to question just how good his credentials were.

But the David Petraeus who came back to Baghdad in the early weeks of 2007 was a sobered, matured general who understood fully just how serious the situation was for the United States, and certainly understood that having accepted this job, he could go down. It was less likely that he would emerge with a kind of Gen. MacArthur-like reputation for having returned and brought victory than it was that he would be identified as the general who lost the war, ultimately. ...

He's put in the position to sell the war as one of the only untarnished individuals involved. What kind of position does that put this general into?

First of all, you have to say that it's a position that he is keenly aware of. And the way that he's expressed it to me is that whilst his loyalty runs at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to the commander in chief, the president who appointed him to this job, President Bush, that he feels he has an equal responsibility and loyalty to the folks at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Congress of the United States.

He says repeatedly that "I will give them the unvarnished truth. It may not be a truth that they want, but it's one that I'm going to give them." ...

How historically important will the April [2008] testimony in front of Congress be?

My guess is it will be slightly less taxing than what happened in September. I actually saw him here in London in the immediate days following his testimony in September 2007 to the Congress, and it was plain that he'd found that extremely tough, extremely tough. He was on his way back to Baghdad, and he said with a slight flicker of mirth in his eyes, he said, "Can't wait to get back to Baghdad." In other words, however tough things were in Baghdad, they were not as tough, personally, as facing up to the Congress. ...

Now he has to do that all over again. But he's in a better position now than he was in September. The intervening seven or eight months have seen a radical improvement in the position of the American military in Iraq. He's got his strategy. The evolution of events in Iraq [has] brought the levels of violence down ... very substantially. American casualties are down very substantially. There is a phrase they will never use because of its Iraq connotations: at least some glimmer of light at the tunnel. ...

In August 2003, several embassies are bombed. How fundamentally did the war change at this time?

I had been away for some time in the high summer of 2003 and then returned in the fall in the aftermath of the bombing of the United Nations and the bombing of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and went to both buildings because I had friends who died there, including the chief United Nations delegate, Sergio Vieira de Mello. ...

I went to the [U.N.] building as I went to the Red Cross building really just, as you might say, to bear witness, and came back ... [with] a realization that things had changed fundamentally. It was like a message written 20 feet high in the rubble of those buildings, that the United States was in for a long and bitter war, and The New York Times was in for its own long and bitter war. ...

This is a moment where Rumsfeld is angry. A call goes out from Washington for intelligence. This ... fills Abu Ghraib, fills the other prisons, which leads to all that happens. Explain.

The clearest indication, understanding of that, I think I got from Gen. Ricardo Sanchez. ... In the immediate post-invasion phase, Gen. Sanchez was the three-star commander of American forces in Iraq for the first year. He was the commander who was faced with this realization that the war wasn't over; the mission was not accomplished. He was the commander on whose watch the disaster at Abu Ghraib prison unfolded. ...

When he handed over to Gen. [George] Casey, as I recall in June 2004, there was a ceremony at Camp Victory, which I attended. ... After a very moving ceremony, [in] which everybody understood that Gen. Sanchez, who had had such high hopes, both personally and professionally, of his time in Iraq, was leaving with this burden of Abu Ghraib on his shoulders, ... Gen. Sanchez came to me and said he didn't feel like going to the lunch, the formal lunch. Would I like to have a sandwich with him in his office? ...

And speaking about Abu Ghraib, two things I remember. One was that he absolutely refused to shuck off the responsibility for what had happened. Gen. Sanchez was not holding the leash on attack dogs snarling at Iraqi prisoners; he was not the one who had them line up naked and take those dreadful photographs. But he said to me, "You know, John," he said, "we're only about three miles here" -- at Camp Victory, at his seat of command -- "from Abu Ghraib prison." He said, "It happened on my watch, and I cannot absolve myself from command responsibility for what happened there."

He was not seeking to excuse what happened, but he did say that by the late summer 2003, after those bombings, the United Nations and Red Cross bombings, there was a realization that an army that had come prepared and configured to keep the peace was actually heading into a long and bitter war and that they had absolutely no intelligence. He said, "No intelligence." He said: "That's not a term of art. We had no intelligence on the enemy. We didn't know who we were fighting. We didn't know what resources they had. We had no strategy for fighting this enemy." And demand from Washington was for intelligence. "We've got to have intelligence." Where is the intelligence going to come from? It was going to come from the prisoners of Abu Ghraib.

He described being handed by the JAG, as they call it -- the Judge Advocate General that every commanding general has almost at his shoulder, a senior Army lawyer ... who will examine orders given by the commander for their legality -- he was given documents, so he told me, that followed, if you will, what became known as the GTMO, the Guantanamo rules for interrogation under duress, and asked his JAG colonel: "Are these legitimate? Are they lawful?" Was assured that they were, that they were the same rules that had been followed at Guantanamo, and he signed them.

Later on, he countermanded at least one of those documents. But he identified that moment as the moment where he had made a critical mistake, in effect, in accepting that this was what the Pentagon had approved, what had been tried at Guantanamo, what conformed with American military law instead of applying his own, if you will, insistent personal review. And why? Because they were already beginning to think that this was a war that could be lost and that they needed intelligence. This is not to excuse what happened, but I think it's a picture of the confusion and the uncertainty then prevailing in the American military command.

Here was a guy who had been only two or three years before a one-star general. Now he's a three-star general, rapidly promoted, and finds himself commanding American forces in the most important military challenge that they've had in 40 years, utterly unequipped for it.

What is the relevance of Gen. Miller's visit to Iraq to consult on interrogation techniques and such?

... Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller arrived ... with a kind of glow on him that whatever he had done at Guantanamo had yielded significant results in intelligence terms. That's why he was sent to Iraq. He'd done it at Guantanamo; do it at Abu Ghraib.

Of course, what exactly that involved only became clear much, much later. But I think for Gen. Sanchez and his senior commanders, it was a difficult situation. This is not to excuse what they did in complying with this. In fact, Gen. Sanchez said to me that in self-reproach on that last afternoon and evening before he left command, he said that as a young first lieutenant in his first unit he commanded, a superior officer had said to him, "Sanchez, never forget that in any military unit, you will find there's a significant element" -- he said that this officer had said it's 10 percent; Sanchez said, "I personally would put it higher than that" -- "of your soldiers who will have criminal instincts. And your job is to contain those instincts, because if you don't, they will overwhelm you."

This is Sanchez speaking to me hours before he took the night plane out of Iraq, realizing I think at that moment that his career had plateaued and that he was not going to go on to get a fourth star. And he said, "John," he said, "I forgot that advice. This happened on my watch. I failed to contain those criminal instincts." ...

Around this time, there's a debate between Rumsfeld and Bremer. Rumsfeld is advocating for an early sovereignty strategy; Bremer slowly pulls away from Rumsfeld. What were the dynamics you observed from talking to these individuals?

... There are those who say that the United States should have followed what was originally the Pentagon/Rumsfeld's instincts: Put the Iraqis in charge; get out of there. Well, if you met these Iraqis, the people, the former exiles who came back, I think you'd understand that that could never have worked for any number of reasons.

Firstly, they were people who, by definition, had spent 20 or more years outside of Iraq. Some of them had real constituencies; ... others really didn't have a constituency in Iraq. Some of them were deeply venal. Some of them were just deeply unimpressive. They were not the men or women ... on whom the United States could credibly have deposed power. ... These were not going to be a credible government of Iraq.

As a matter of fact, we knew at the time just how unreliable these people were. They wouldn't show up on time for meetings. When they were asked for their advice or to make decisions on things, they endlessly squabbled amongst themselves and ran away from responsibility. This was not an option, attractive as it might have seemed to be at the time and since, to give this problem to the Iraqis. ...

Looking back on it, I think you could even make the argument that when power was transferred, it was a very much mitigated power. But still, when power was transferred in the two elections, first of all to an interim transitional government and Ayad Allawi and then subsequently to [a] permanent five-year government under the present Shi'ite leadership, it was too soon. ...

All three of the prime ministers of Iraq who have served since the transfer of power began are former exiles, and they have done a pretty woeful job. President Bush said when he arrived in Baghdad after the third of those three prime ministers, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, took power in, as I recall, April-May 2006 -- President Bush made an unannounced trip to Baghdad, and he said, ... "I went there to look in this guy's eyes, see if I had a partner, do we have a partner."

The sorry thing is that the United States did not then and still does not really have a reliable governing partner in Iraq. What it had is a group of political leaders, all of them deeply committed to their competing sectarian interests, none of them with any experience at all of running any enterprise of any size beyond a political party, almost all of them deeply conspiratorial, many of them deeply venal. These were a pretty sorry bunch of characters on which to build a new state in Iraq. And that's been a problem right from the beginning. ...

Maybe there's a strongman waiting to emerge without the murdering, tyrannicidal instincts of Saddam Hussein. I never met him. I suspect he's there somewhere. He may be a major or a half colonel somewhere in the Republican Palace or at Camp Victory. He will emerge sooner or later. But I think we can be sure of one thing, and that is, there ain't going to be no Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq.

What was going on in Washington just before the president came over to see Maliki?

We know now that there was a real battle going on in Washington over the war strategy, a battle that eventually produced the commitment to the surge. But what I saw was, standing with Gen. Casey, this unannounced visitor walking into the domed Republican Palace in Baghdad. He'd flown overnight. He'd left Washington in clandestine fashion. They had parked Air Force One in a hangar. The journalists had been told to report to some suburban restaurant before they were told that they were going to Baghdad.

The president arrived. ... A Secret Service man tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Come with me." Didn't tell me why. I was irritated, actually, because I was trying to listen to what the president was saying to the troops. And I followed him and was sequestered in a room off the domed part of the palace. In walks the president, and referring to the fact that he and I had known each other long ago and far away in China when we were both young men, he said, "I really want to have a chat with you before I [leave]." He was in a euphoric mood: "I'd come to see, look Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in the eye and see if we had a partner. And we do." ... He had satisfied himself after talking to Maliki and Gen. Casey that he had a military strategy, and he had an Iraqi political partner who could make that military strategy work. ...

He was very charming to me. We talked about our old times in China. And he was aglow. Whether it was because of something that the Nuri Kamal al-Maliki assurances had given him in those meetings that afternoon, or whether it was simply the fact that he came from the United States, where his own standing had fallen by that time rather precipitously in public opinion and public favor, and he came to Iraq and found himself surrounded by hundreds of cheering troops -- I mean, they cheered and cheered and cheered for minutes on end. And I doubt whether he'd ever had a public reaction like that except probably from Republican audiences on the nights when he won his two presidential victories. So he was aglow. But it turned out to be obviously, for him and for America, a false dawn. ...

And within six months, there was a radical change after the Republicans lost the midterm elections in November 2006. There was immediately talk of a radical change in policy, which, of course, produced by January-February 2007 a new military commander, a new strategy, which we now know is the surge. ...

What was the United States' role in the choice of Maliki as prime minister?

I think that by the time that Nuri Kamal al-Maliki became the prime minister, this central dilemma had become very apparent, which was that these Iraqi politicians depended for their very survival, certainly for the position in office, on American troops, even down to the fact that they had American troops protecting them as their personal guard. ...

The choices of political leaders were pretty dismal. Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was a kind of default choice. … Maliki is a man who -- not to be unkind -- I think if you were sitting on a local school board, you'd worry about appointing him to be principal of your local high school, and here's a guy who's been put in charge of a nation of 30 million people.

Did we choose Maliki?

I think the mechanics of that were very complicated. I don't think it was as simple as choosing him. I think that it was plain the United States was not going to accept [Ibrahim al-]Jaafari after the miserable year they'd had with him. It was also plain that they couldn't select somebody who would not have the endorsement of the Shi'ite religious parties and of Ayatollah Sistani. So the choices were not very wide.

And Maliki, like Jaafari before him, has driven American military commanders and American ambassadors to distraction. There were stories about raging arguments within the last six months between Gen. Petraeus and Prime Minister Maliki. When I asked Gen. Petraeus if it was true, that he'd had shouting matches with Maliki, he kind of smiled, and he said, "Well, no," he said, "that wasn't quite true." He said he had clear recollection of one occasion, he said, when the temperatures rose a little bit. But, he said, "As I recall, we both managed to remain seated," which to me was not a denial of the fact that they'd had a rocky relationship but rather a confirmation that they had.

And it's an unresolved dilemma. You have, again, an American military force and billions of dollars of American money being poured into this situation in which decisive measure of authority, absolutely crucial measure of authority, now rests with an elected Iraqi government which has proven again and again incapable of taking the steps that need to be taken if there is going to be political stability, political reconciliation, without which no number of American troops and no number of cruise missiles are going to make any difference. ...

Talk about Gen. Casey's time in Iraq.

I was impressed with George Casey when he first arrived in Iraq, and I was later on. I mean, George Casey did not become a four-star general of the United States Army for nothing. George Casey arrived [as] American commander in Iraq with one very identifiable characteristic, which was that his father, as a two-star general in Vietnam, was the most senior American officer to be killed in Vietnam. George Casey did not arrive with delusions about war.

On his first weekend in Baghdad, he invited me and my colleague Dexter Filkins from The New York Times for dinner at Camp Victory, an absolutely broiling-hot midsummer day, temperature of 125, 130 degrees. And we arrived in this sort of mini-palace that became his residence, if you will, for the two and a half years that he was commander in Iraq. ...

He's sipping on a can of Diet Pepsi as I recall, and he says, "Well, gentlemen, do we have any hope here?" It's a remarkable opening for an American general at war to address himself to correspondents of The New York Times. And I said to him, "I hope this doesn't sound glib" -- just was a spontaneous reaction, I said, "The fact that you can ask us that question suggests that there's hope in itself," because it conveyed the impression that George Casey had come without illusions, ... that he understood just how much trouble the United States was in.

He constituted what he called a red team, where he answered some fundamental questions: "Who's our enemy here, and what are we going to have to do to defeat him?" He went back to the drawing board. ...

My own sense of it is that it would be unfair to cast, at least at this point, it so simply as to say that George Casey presided over two and a half years in which the American military position in Iraq got progressively worse, and David Petraeus came in with a new strategy, in which now, for a year and more, the situation has got progressively better. It's much more complicated than that. There was a long learning curve involved in this. Some of the things that were uppermost in George Casey's mind remain as valid now as they were then. It was almost the first principle with which he approached the war, was that this war was not going to be won by American troops. It was going to be won, if it ever was going to be won, by Iraqi troops. ... "So," he said, "when you see the enemy on the horizon," he said, "you get the Iraqis to go out there. We'll support them; we'll help them. But we stand down, then they stand up."

And it was as an extension of this that George Casey ... was planning to draw U.S. troops in Iraq down to 100,000 by the end of 2006. ... He was very much not an enthusiast for the surge. He thought that was going in exactly the wrong direction. He was persuaded, reluctantly, toward the end of his tenure in Iraq, to agree to a much more modest increase in American military power in Iraq, because he believed that all you would be doing is putting off, if you will, the fateful day; that the day would come when you were going to have to go home. You couldn't stay there forever. The American public wouldn't support it, and, crucially, the United States Army couldn't handle it. There just weren't enough troops. ...

The president, with Gen. Petraeus, went in another direction. And we don't know at this point, in the spring of 2008, where this will all go. But almost inevitably beyond the surge, when the surge is drawn down, the same questions that Gen. Casey addressed as commanding general in Iraq will have to be readdressed: Can the United States Army sustain over the long term that kind of military presence in Iraq and remain the healthy, vibrant military force the United States needs? ...

Gen. Casey knew his strategy wasn't working, having to re-evaluate his policy.

He did. … [Casey] inherited a war that was in grave danger of being lost even as early as the summer of 2004. He understood that. He was adaptable. They did change their strategy; they did change their tactics.

I think he had some pretty rude shocks along the way, and I think one of them, by the way, was Fallujah. He concluded very early on in his time that they were going to have to clear Fallujah. I think just about everybody understood that you couldn't continue to have a major city, some 200,000 to 300,000 people only 25 miles west of Baghdad in effect under the control of the insurgents. ... So they went for an all-out assault on Fallujah. ...

Gen. Casey is not a man who very often uses the vernacular, certainly not in public or even very much in private. He's a quiet, thoughtful, amiable fellow. But he tells the story of going into Fallujah after the combat was over -- very heavy losses taken by the Marines and very heavy losses taken by the people who'd chosen to stay in Fallujah, the Iraqis, against American advice. And a very large part of the city was destroyed. The city was, in large measure, rubble. Gen. Casey tells the story of talking to the Marine commander who was accompanying him on this tour of the city and turning to him, saying, "What the hell are the people of this city going to say when they see this?"

Now, my sense of Gen. Casey's intent in telling that story was not that he felt that retaking the city had been a mistake, nor even that you could have retaken a city that was just absolutely infested with diehard insurgents without doing some pretty rough things, but that he -- it had been a rite of passage for him, that he, as the commander who had authorized this, was still pretty shocked by what he actually saw when he saw it firsthand, of the effects of what American firepower can do when it's unleashed in a situation like that. ...

Operation Together Forward II takes place in the fall of 2006. The command admits failure. What lesson can be learned from that endeavor?

The lesson, it was plain to see there, was they didn't have enough troops. The rubric was clear, hold, build. ... The problem was that they had to move the U.S. troops on, bring in Iraqi troops behind them. The Iraqi troops didn't turn up in the numbers promised; in fact, woefully so. And when they did turn up, they didn't do anything very much. They tended to stay in their bases. ...

As a result, the gains in the first phase of that clear, hold and build were rolled back. There weren't enough American troops. The ambitious project that Gen. Casey had, not just in Together Forward II but as a larger strategic concept of handing over to the Iraqis, just wasn't working. They weren't ready for it. Even now, a year and a half later, we still don't know if they're ready for it. ...

You said it took Rumsfeld being fired before commanders on the ground in Iraq could admit that they had been playing a shell game with forces.

… We'll only know, I think, when the archives are opened and we can see how frank the advice that was given by ... senior serving officers in Baghdad, to the president, to Rumsfeld and to Bush was. Did they give their own unvarnished opinion about this, or did they hold back? Is there, in fact, a case for dereliction of duty in our age? ...

The account that has been given by officers like Gen. Casey was that they always gave the president their frank advice. ... I'm inclined to think that what George Casey said publicly was also what he said privately: that he was very reluctant to see more American troops committed into a situation in which, first of all, you had an Iraqi political leadership that was not prepared to do the things that needed to be done to make this war winnable in terms of political reconciliation, the Shi'ites and the Sunnis; and you had an Iraqi army that was failing to stand up and to fight, that was corrupt. …

So I think we're going to find that there were officers who felt strongly there should be more troops. There were others who felt that pouring more troops in would simply mean more American casualties, more billions of American dollars spent [on] an endless war without a road home. ...

When you look at the war on terror and the areas in which it's being fought, what are the lessons that you learn?

I remember standing with astonishment in the garden of the United States Embassy in Kabul, ... within a year of the capture of Kabul, of [the] defeat of the Taliban. ... Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense, I'd never seen him before, but he stood in the garden of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. I don't remember the precise figures he gave, but he stated with utter conviction that there was absolutely no need for a larger American military presence than there then was. My recollection is, we were talking then, a year after the fall of Kabul, of 5,000, 6,000, 7,000 American troops.

Well, it's many more than that now. And I had traveled over hill and dale in Afghanistan watching the combat there and thought that Douglas Feith must be smoking some exotic pipe to have concluded that that was possible.

So I think there was illusionism there that was masked for some time, because the Taliban had taken a terrific hit in the period after 9/11. They were bound to re-form themselves. They will; they are. And we are into a long war there. Whatever you might make of Iraq, although I think the same is true, I don't think that we can contemplate losing it, because if we lose it and we [have] a resurgent Taliban, who's going to say that we won't face yet another disaster of the kind that hit us on 9/11? …

Are you packing your bags for Pakistan or Afghanistan?

I have a new job here in London. But I can say that my colleagues who did long service in Iraq, many of them are now looking back toward Afghanistan as the place where the big stories are likely to come from in the next three to five years. That tells its own story. ...

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posted march 24, 2008

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