Col. William Hix

photo of hix

Col. Hix was the chief strategist of the Multi-National Task Force Iraq for 13 months under Gen. George Casey. He led the group of Ph.D.s and academics from the military academies who called themselves "Doctors Without Orders" and were tasked with thinking creatively and advising Gen. Casey on military strategy in Iraq. In this interview, Hix explains Casey's campaign plan and how his group developed a counterinsurgency strategy. He also talks about the debate over invading Fallujah and why political progess will be the leading indicator of whether the surge is working. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 7, 2007.

When Gen. [George] Casey, [commander, Multi-National Task Force-Iraq (MNF-I), 2004-2007], comes to Iraq, where are you? What are you doing, and how do you get connected up to the job you have there?

When Gen. Casey came to Iraq in July of '04, I actually was in the pipeline to deploy there myself. I actually arrived, I think, on the 3rd or 4th of August, so about a month behind him. In that period he had formed what was called a red team of representatives from various agencies and some senior military officers to do a quick, about two-week assessment of the situation in Iraq to confirm some of the impressions that he had coming into the country, and also to serve as a second set of eyes and another source of information that he could use to compare against the feedback he was getting from his senior commanders and staff when he arrived. ...

He worked very closely with some of the senior staff and a British colonel by the name of Andrew Sharpe and his deputy commander, Lt. Gen. [John] McCall, who was also British, in modifying a draft campaign plan that Gen. McCall had put in motion, I think, in May as I recall, of that year.

Over the next few weeks he took what was somebody else's document and made it his own. He devoted quite a bit of time to that in speaking to Col., now Brig. Gen. Sharpe. Gen. Casey's pen was probably on every word in the document. So in early August, on the 5th, when he signed that document, that was his vision for the war. At that point that was the first comprehensive and coherent plan that we had in place. And I think that's one of the first things that's important about Gen. Casey's tenure, [is] he established an intellectual framework for the conduct of the war focused on getting us through the election in December of '05.

It had several important parts. As I say, it provided a framework within which his subordinate commanders could operate. It established benchmarks for the creation of security conditions that would facilitate the political process. It also recognized quite clearly that we faced an insurgent enemy. The plan was, at a very high level, an inherently counterinsurgency campaign plan aimed at using multiple capabilities at his disposal and at the disposal of the ambassador and the nascent, at that time, Interim Iraqi Government under Ayad Allawi, to work security, governance, economics and communications; in other words, public relations, if you will, with the population of Iraq in particular, and also with the public at home in the various countries of the coalition.

What's Casey like?

He's a very energetic, positive, curious and intellectually challenging man. He is constantly thinking and probing people around him for new ideas and essentially challenging his own conclusions and preconceived notions, as well as those of everybody else around him. ... One of the functions we provided was [to be] a foil that allowed him to think through problems and probe the issues in addition to discussing the same sorts of things with his senior commander, senior staff officers, and obviously with Gen. [John] Abizaid, [CENTCOM commander, 2003-2007], and others with whom he seemed to be in constant contact. ...

What was he up against? When Gen. Casey arrived, what's the state of play in Iraq at that moment?

Well, you had a fledgling senior staff. The Multi-National Force staff was officially created in mid-May of 2004. It was, in effect, a hodgepodge of officers from various nations, some of them drawn from the previous Combined Joint Task Force Seven [CJTF-7] headquarters, a number of what they call individual augmentees that were drawn from various staffs around the world. They were still coming together, and they weren't necessarily organized for the mission as Gen. Casey saw it. So in terms of supporting him, he had a staff that still had a lot of forming to do.

My own personal concerns were that we were not doing enough to build the economic and governance capacity of Iraq. Counterinsurgency is essentially a fight for the population...

He was working with a new embassy that stood up when the Coalitional Provisional Authority was stood down in June, with a new ambassador who he had had contact with in the United States before coming over, Ambassador [John] Negroponte. And he had a very nascent Iraqi government under Ayad Allawi that had tenuous legitimacy. They were an appointed government. They really had no experience in governing. They had a very weak bureaucracy that was still being formed out of the ruins of Saddam's regime and the work that the CPA had done. ... So it was quite a challenge.

Then you had at that time rising violence, really since the spring of 2004 when Fallujah and [radical Shi'ite cleric] Moqtada al-Sadr's uprising in Najaf and in parts of southern Iraq had kicked off. The violence had escalated back up to a fairly high level, certainly as high or higher than it had been prior to April of '04.

So facing a formidable task?

Right. And he had, in effect, really two insurgencies he had to deal with. He had a Sunni insurgency, which at that time our assessment was the insurgency was predominantly driven by former regime elements; we kind of coined that the FRE. And then you had this militia-based Shi'a insurgency under Moqtada al-Sadr and Jaish al-Mahdi, [also known as the Mahdi Army], which, again, had uprisings in the fall of 2003, spring of 2004, had stood down. And then shortly after Gen. Casey's taking command in early August, we had another uprising in Najaf, which was really the first test of all of these newly formed organizations in a very inexperienced and small Iraqi security force at that time. ... The national training of the military, of course, had really only started in earnest in May when Gen. [David] Petraeus came in and formed what was eventually called the Multinational Security Transition Command for Iraq.

[What was the reaction to] the Najaf August '04 uprising? ...

A number of people saw that uprising as something that we ought to try not to get involved in too much and try to ease off and hopefully find other ways for it to be resolved. I'm not sure anyone is completely sure of what sparked that uprising, because the cease-fire, I think, with Jaish al-Mahdi and Moqtada al-Sadr had been imposed in mid-June. So this is two months later.

But the challenge to the sovereignty of this new government in particular, and the challenge to the new coalition authority was such that it really couldn't be ignored. ...

So at the end of the day you had an opportunity for Ayad Allawi to make some tough decisions with his new government. You had a fledgling Iraqi army, national army, that was employed in Najaf, and they performed reasonably well, given the fact that most of them had only been trained a couple of months before. There were certainly problems -- AWOL, things like that -- which had been covered in the press.

And then the other piece is up until that point, the definition of the insurgency had always been focused on the Sunni. This gave the coalition another opportunity to show that we were evenhanded in our reaction to violence in Iraq. ... The Multi-National Force had responsibility for security in Iraq, and we were able to deal with it against a Shi'a force as well.

And that battle at the end of the day -- certainly through the first election -- was decisive in that it ended overt Shi'a violence and resistance to both the government and the Iraqi military and coalition. Moqtada al-Sadr, there was some continued resistance in Sadr City, in Baghdad, but eventually that petered out as well, and he moved more toward the political side of opposing the coalition and the interim government and less to violent action. ...

From what you could tell, was Casey reluctant to go into battle against Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf in August?

Not from my observation, no. There was no reluctance.

Some observers have said a kind of political deal was also cut with Sadr, a weapons buyback and other things. Did that happen as a result of Najaf in August? Is that where that all began?

No. Well, certainly there was a political deal of sorts cut, but that was between the Iraqi government and Sadr and really was precipitated by Ayatollah [Ali al-]Sistani's return to Iraq from London, where I think he was in for heart surgery or a stent or something. His arrival on the scene in late August and essentially ordering an end to conflict is what precipitated the political settlement between the government and Moqtada al-Sadr.

As I mentioned previously, there was ongoing and continuing fighting in Sadr City, the slum in Baghdad, between elements of the Mahdi militia and U.S. forces there. So there was a political settlement in the aftermath of that. …

Gen. [Peter] Chiarelli … put a lot of effort into bringing in, posturing reconstruction assets, you know, public works projects -- not just dollar-a-day appointment sorts of things, but actually sewers, water, things like that -- so that once the fighting stopped, the stick was over, and now the carrots came in after the fact, and that stabilized the area for a reasonable period of time, certainly through the election. ...

People tell the story of Gen. Casey coming into maybe his first staff meeting, whatever it is, and saying, "Who's my insurgency expert?," and looking around the room full of people, and nobody raises their hand. Is that apocryphal or a true story from what you know?

Well, it's partially true; I'll say that. He did ask the question, and the fact is we had a number of counterinsurgency experts, if you will. My boss, Maj. Gen. Steve Sargeant, who's an Air Force officer, essentially raised his hand and said, "I have expertise on my staff, and that's my job." That's where I sat, as chief of strategy. Clearly Lt. Gen. McCall, who was a deputy commander at that time, had extensive experience, both with British forces in Afghanistan and obviously with Northern Ireland over the breadth of his career. Andrew Sharpe and then his successor, ... both of them British officers who held a position innocuously named campaign plan manager, both had an extensive experience in counterinsurgency. And then myself, former special forces officer. We certainly had, at least going in, some expertise. ... Did he have a counterinsurgency adviser so named? No, but did he have the right military experience on his staff? Yes. Did the right people take that mission on? Yes.

And then did we expand our knowledge base to others? Yes, we did. We initiated contact with the Rand Corporation, Dr. Bruce Hoffman, I guess who now is over at Georgetown, very experienced in the study of counterinsurgency and advised a lot of people on that. And then another Rand luminary, Mr. Steve Hosmer, who's been looking at this issue since, I'd say, probably the late 1950s. They became kind of distance-learning resources for us, and we would engage them over a video teleconference probably every other week as we looked at the plan. ...

Was there something you were worried about, as you looked out on the horizon, if the horizon is the election in January '05?

My own personal concerns were that we were not doing enough to build the economic and governance capacity of Iraq. Counterinsurgency is essentially a fight for the population, and protecting the population and getting after the enemy militarily are obviously important parts of that. At that time we thought that we probably had enough resources, and we were working diligently to build more and more Iraqi forces.

We went from, I think Gen. Casey would say that we had one battalion in July '04, and we had nearly 100 battalions as we approached the election in January 2005. So there was an aggressive program working to build Iraqi security forces, and there was a reasonably well-resourced effort to build the capacity of the security ministries, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense.

So I was less concerned about that than I was about trying to pull more and more of the population on [our] side, if you will, because you basically wind up in three pools. You've got a group of people who are going to resist you no matter what. Elements of the population are susceptible to jihadist propaganda or Baathist propaganda and those sorts of things. This is a fairly hard-core pool. You'll have people who will lean that way because they don't think things today are better than they used to be, so they'd rather have the old regime in power because it was better for them.

You have a group that sits on the fence who really just wants to get on with their lives. They're not sure who's going to win, so they're just kind of keeping their heads down, waiting to see how it all turns out. Then you've got a group on the other side who supports the new regime, the new way forward, if you will.

If the group in the middle is ambivalent to the activities of the enemy, be it Sunni or Shi'a, ... it doesn't work in our favor. So you've got to show them that the way forward, where the new Iraqi government's going, where the election's going to take them, those sorts of things, it's going to be better for them in the future. ... I was concerned that we just didn't have enough capacity to deal with those issues.

The other concern was clearly the reliability of the security forces. Over time, as we watched how Gen. Petraeus' units performed, and particularly as we went into Fallujah how other units performed that had American advisers embedded in them, it became clear that if we wanted to have reasonably reliable Iraqi army units in particular -- and then we had a host of special police units, paramilitary units that acted like army units almost -- that we needed to put advisers in those. That was one of the conclusions we reached as we went through the study. What's now called transition teams, that program is from that study.

And really, the foundation of much of that work was derived from this engagement with the guys from Rand and then during the period that Kalev Sepp, Professor Sepp from the Naval Postgraduate School, was over in the fall of '04. One of the things that I asked him to do was to look at our campaign plan, look at the situation in Iraq, and then as a historian, look at other successful and unsuccessful campaigns and identify best practices from successful campaigns of the past, as well as unsuccessful or poor practices and how they would apply to Iraq. We used that kind of as a filter for looking at what we were doing. ...

... Was there a larger kind of overarching strategy articulated from Washington that either awaited you when you got there or was carried with the general? ...

My understanding is that Gen. Casey had a number of meetings in the month of June with senior members of the administration to include the president, and that he received guidance and then offered his conclusions to them, and that set the basis for how he saw his mission as he arrived in Iraq. ...

Do you know what it was? What was the big idea, if there was a big idea?

Well, it really comes down to establishing the end state for what you're looking for. And that end state, which I believe is still classified and really is embodied in some of the things that you hear the president and others say: a country that is able to secure itself, sustain itself, govern itself and is not a threat to its neighbor and can be seen as, I suppose, a partner in the war on terror, or at least not a harbinger of terrorism and those kinds of things.

And then it was against those larger goals that the campaign plan would have been written, benchmarks like the election of '05?

Yes. Gen. Casey provided an end state, ... and then he spent a lot of time going out and coaching his subordinate commanders on what he expected of them, not in a micromanagement way, but to understand what the benchmarks had to be. As an example, [the Iraqi forces] had to be at a level of capability prior to the election where they could secure that election, because what we didn't want to do is put the January election at risk, because it was secured by, conducted by the American military or coalition in the other parts of Iraq. That would have been untenable.

So he didn't tell them how to do it; he just said: "You've got to get on with this and make sure that the troops, police and military in your area are capable of these things before this election. They've got to be able to secure their own election." And each commander kind of took that a different way, had a variety of different approaches to it, from what I could see. And by and large, I think they were successful in terms of what happened in January.

What was the genesis of the "Doctors Without Orders" group?

That actually was a happy coincidence. My boss, Maj. [Gen.] Steve Sargeant from the Air Force, ... saw that he needed some expertise that was not just inherently available on his staff. Through his connections in the Air Force he was able to break out a number of instructors from the Air Force Academy and some others who were Ph.D.s in economics and political science. ...

Then we also had a deal with the Army staff where they would provide an operations research expert on a recurring basis who also happened to be a Ph.D. and a professor at West Point. This is Darrall Henderson. And then, of course, I knew Dr. Sepp from the Army and asked him to come over because I knew of his expertise. So you had this convergence of Ph.D.s in this small shop. ...

How important was the election?

Again, in terms of Gen. Casey's campaign plan, the first decisive point, this is where you know if you're winning or losing. ... And how it turned out obviously would affect how we conducted ourselves after the fact when you had a new government and you move forward. ...

An insurgency and counterinsurgency are fighting for the population. It's inherently political. So if you're able to advance a political process that pulls along the majority of the population in Iraq, you've got a better chance of succeeding than if you have a failed political process that doesn't bring the population along. ...

... What was the debate [about going into Fallujah in the fall of 2004]? How was it decided?

The issue of Fallujah was really a continual discussion, and it was a great debate about whether or not to do it. Could we conduct the election without clearing out what was almost, if you will, terrorist central? It was a sanctuary, for all intents and purposes, and there was debate about, contain it or clean it out? That went on certainly for the first few months of Gen. Casey's command.

But the fact is, the great deal of violence emanated out of Fallujah. ... Most of the really spectacular violence in Baghdad over the fall -- the car bombings, the suicide bombings, those kinds of things -- you could trace them back to Fallujah. ... And it became clear that if we didn't deal with Fallujah, we would not be in a position to have a reasonably safe election.

Consequently that decision was made that we would clear it out. There was a great deal of work done to build the case with the Iraqis, particularly beyond the prime minister. My observation of Prime Minister Allawi is he understood it had to happen. ... He knew the government had to assert its authority and begin to move in a direction where the Iraqi government became the monopolizer of violence. ... For those reasons the decision was made that we would do it, and that we would build the Iraqi forces up and make sure they were part of that operation.

So there were a host of other, smaller operations over the fall that were important, but Fallujah was really the key. If there were two key events in the first six or seven months of Gen. Casey's tenure, I would say that Najaf and Fallujah were really the two that were most important, because at the conclusion of Fallujah, we had scattered the command-and-control mechanism and much of the leadership of various Sunni insurgencies -- they're not a homogeneous group by any stretch of the imagination -- and kind of unhinged them in a way where they couldn't be effective in mounting their attacks against the elections. We kept them on the run, really, from Fallujah all the way through the election.

There was a temporary increase in U.S. forces in between the use of those forces and Iraqi security forces, the Iraqi intervention force and some of the special police units. There were just a host of small to midsize operations that continued all through that period. …

And if you look at what happened during the election, there were certainly a large number of attacks. It was a big spike in violence. But when you look at the effect, the number of people killed and injured, number of polling places affected, it was almost negligible. And that's important. I think the reason for that is because they were not postured to plan and prepare for the election in the way that they could have if they'd had a sanctuary in Fallujah. ...

Was it only an accident that it happened a week after the American presidential election?

Yes, actually it was.

Nothing to do with American domestic politics?

No. In fact, there were discussions of going before because nobody would expect it. But getting all of the pieces in place, and particularly the Iraqi forces, getting them in place and getting advisers embedded with them and getting them trained up so they could actually function as more active partners in this operation, is such that we couldn't go forth and get all the pieces in place. It was a deliberate decision, a deliberate operation. ...

Did you agree with the decision? ...

I thought it was essential. I did my best to provide the alternative view, and I had actually another Ph.D., a British officer who also had a Ph.D., who made some very passionate, coherent and well-thought-out arguments for why not to go to Fallujah and offered other alternatives and kind of strategic designs for operations that would have isolated Fallujah and created opportunity elsewhere.

But at the end of the day, when you looked at things like 22 car bombs in Baghdad on one day, and most of those happened to come from Fallujah, the intelligence led us in that direction, became clear that we couldn't leave that den of vipers untouched until the election.

There is, of course, the unease that some have expressed to us about the idea that everybody kind of knows, especially the insurgents, that Fallujah's got a bull's-eye painted on it, maybe as early as September. It was being written in the American press all through October. And the real bad guys, the leaders of the bad guys, are sneaking out the back door and getting away from Fallujah all through the fall. ... Was that a tactical problem from your point of view? ...

Would we like to have gotten [head of Al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al-]Zarqawi and some of these guys? Certainly. But putting them on the run, as I said before, was a positive effect -- not necessarily as good as bagging him or capturing him, but it was a positive effect, and it impacted the enemy's ability to plan and conduct operations that would affect the election or undermine the security situation rolling into the election and its aftermath, quite frankly. ...

Some of the guys in your shop and others have talked to us and said, yeah, but you know what? What it did was it pissed off the insurgents and that middle group of Iraqis that you talked about as being with the struggle for hearts and minds. ... We're sending a message to the Sunni that they aren't part of this. Surely you heard the arguments. What's your response to it?

Well, I guess I'd offer a couple of things. I believe that the casualty tolls were very similar between Najaf and Fallujah for the opponents; that Jaish al-Mahdi lost probably as many killed and wounded in Najaf as the Sunni lost in Fallujah. I'd have to check on that, but I think that's true. So in terms of just pure application of violence, it's pretty evenhanded, and it was a response to the challenge to the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and the authority of the coalition. So that's number one.

Number two [is] Samarra, which is where the Golden Mosque bombing book place last February [2006], a year ago. The 1st [Infantry] Division, under Gen. [John] Batiste, worked very hard to set up political conditions that would allow coalition and Iraqi forces to enter the city and to re-establish stability there in the fall; I think it was September-October period. That effort was successful enough that there were leaders within the community of Fallujah, Sunnis, who approached both the Allawi government and elements of the coalition asking for the same deal because they weren't happy with what was going on in their city, and life wasn't particularly good for the average Iraqi in that city at that time. ...

So I would say that's an indicator that there were Sunnis who didn't recoil in a way that you describe and that were looking for a return to something normal. It's emblematic in other operations. I mean, there was a lot of fighting in Mosul in the late fall and winter of 2004, and eventually they burned in that city, and people had to stand in long lines to get in and out of the city through these checkpoints.

But when you talked to the commanders there, both Iraqi and Americans, they'd tell you that the population tolerated it because they knew it was for their own safety, because it cut down on the level of violence and infiltration of the insurgents and car bombings and suicide bombings and intimidation and shootings, and all of those things were minimized significantly by those actions. And again, today you have the mayor of Fallujah offering the city up as a safe haven for Sunnis who are being exposed to violence in the city of Baghdad. So I'd say at the end of the day it was less so.

Really I think what you're talking about is a boycotting of the election by the Sunni. I think that was driven more by the various political and religious leaders and the propaganda that was pushed on their people. Going into that election, I think they had a malformed opinion that they could somehow end, force the election to become illegitimate and therefore be in a stronger position. But they misread their political opportunity, I think, in this regard. ... And almost immediately after the election was over, they realized they had screwed up. ... This is why you saw them participate in representative numbers in both the constitutional referendum in August of '05 and in the constitutional election of December of '05. ...

The only other thing I will say on this particular issue is I don't think that we devoted enough effort to engaging that political leadership before the fact, nor did we create conditions that would cause elements of the Sunni community to hear what their leaders were saying, but then look at the facts on the ground in deeds, not words, and say, "Yeah, I hear what you're saying, but the economic situation is better; I have a job, or I have the chance for a job or electricity" -- those kinds of things -- "so maybe I will vote, because this apparently is a path to a better future."

There's some who said the Sunni boycott was inevitable, and I think to an extent that was true. But I don't think it would have necessarily been at the same level. I mean, we had Sunni-majority provinces who have Shi'a leadership because the province didn't vote on the Sunni side. And they're unhappy about that. ...

What was the meaning of the election to you guys throughout the spring of '05?

Regarding the outcome of the election, obviously everybody felt pretty good about how it had come off. In the immediate aftermath violence dropped precipitously. There was kind of this pregnant pause; everybody was looking for something good's going to happen.

I think the ambassador [Negroponte] shared a newspaper clipping from 1968 where an election of similar importance was undertaken in Vietnam and a large turnout for the election, 60, 70 percent, something like that. There were great, positive things said by the U.S. government and by the Vietnamese government about it. Of course the aftermath, the end of the day, Vietnam fell. So it was a sobering thought. You had to take a look at it and maintain a realistic outlook.

We were hopeful that the Iraqis would be able to come to political agreement within the construct that they had designed for appointing the various officials and getting a prime minister and Cabinet and all the rest of that in place. As we know, that did not happen. It took them a number of months to sort things out, and in that period the Allawi government initially was fairly active and involved, but as it went on, they kind of became a caretaker government and kind of became almost not doing a lot at all.

And so in that vacuum, the insurgency began to step back up its violence and its activities in an effort to undermine a political process and undermine the legitimacy of the new government that was eventually formed a couple of months after the election. So that was a missed opportunity. ...

[When did you begin to sense the insurgency was heating back up?]

Probably the end of February or early March. ... In early 2005 the mission evolved into transitioning the lead to the Iraqi security forces and government while conducting counterinsurgency operations with the Iraqi security forces. Our first responsibility was no longer to lead the counterinsurgency effort, but to enable the Iraqis to take the lead as a fundamental shift in your effort and your mission. So we spent a lot of time working on this whole concept of the transition team, the advisers embedded with the Iraqis, military and police, although only the special police, the paramilitary units.

The Allawi government had declined to allow us to put advisers back into the, if you will, local police force because they saw that as a challenge to their sovereignty. We had had military forces in all the police stations in 2003 in particular. We'd just kind of gotten out of that business, and they didn't want to see us come back because they thought it would undermine the legitimacy of the Iraqi government. In retrospect it's probably an unfortunate decision, and it's one we are in the process, as I understand it, of reversing right now and putting advisers back in the local police as well.

So we worked on getting a transition team set up, designing a partnership program where we teamed U.S., British, Italian, etc., units with Iraqi units so you'd have a brigade commander working with the division and a battalion commander working with an Iraqi brigade and try to maintain a one-up role so that you didn't become the de facto commander. You were junior to the guy you were working with. ...

This was a lesson that we drew out of looking at the units that Gen. Petraeus' command trained. They had what were called ASTs, advisory support teams, embedded in them. Those units tended to perform better than other Iraqi units that had kind of ad hoc advisers and people who worked with them on a temporary basis, or on a less-than-daily basis. ...

Is this the primary reason that in the spring and summer of '05 there's a kind of optimism coming out of what Gen. Casey is saying? There's talk of potentially cutting the American forces down to half their size. Is that where all that's coming from, this sense that you've just talked about?

Yes. At the time we felt that if we could get the Iraqi security forces in a position where they could conduct operations independent of particularly our combat forces, that they could take the lead and they could work with the Iraqi officials, police and elected officials at the provincial and local levels, to begin to assume responsibility for parts of Iraq. ...

We've seen some areas that's been successful; Karbala, Najaf as an example, have been reasonably successful, particularly in managing day-to-day security. Other places it's been less so. But even in Tal Afar, in September, I think it was September of '05, you had almost as many, maybe more -- I'm not sure now -- Iraqi forces as you did Americans in that fight, in that city. And most of the casualties were Iraqi, not American. In fact, I think almost all of the casualties were Iraqi.

Tell me about [Col. H.R.] McMaster and ... the Tal Afar campaign. What meaning were you [in] Baghdad taking out of that, and was there an effort to kind of spread it theaterwide?

I think the first thing you have to remember about Iraq is it's a mosaic. ... Conditions are different everywhere, even in the same province. ...

Having said that, many of the things that H.R. did were very positive. He built local consensus on the need to do the operations. He engaged the social leaders, the tribal leaders. He held large conferences with them, and small. His units were embedded within the population. He worked very deliberately over time to set conditions to draw the right kinds of forces in to train with his partner units. His counterpart was an Iraqi division commander. He also burned the town in so that it cut the movement of the insurgents in and out. And then he initiated operations and had a fairly aggressive political and economic or reconstruction plan to follow behind.

Now, that is not to say that that's the only place we've ever done it, because that's not the case. Fallujah, to a great extent, had many of those elements in it. In fact, there were leaders in the Fallujah community that were making entrees, trying to get the Samarra deal set up for themselves. ...

In many areas of Al Anbar, you have Marine and Army units that are embedded with the population, and they have Iraqi units now working with them, which in the past they did not. So in that area of Iraq, you saw, and still see, many of the kinds of things H.R. was able to successfully do in Tal Afar.

One of the things that was important about Tal Afar was that it was kind of a weigh station for insurgent movement into Mosul, second largest city in Iraq, large economic center. And also in Al Anbar, and even into Baghdad because of the road networks, they kind of pass through there in proximity to the Syrian border. So his operation was very important to helping secure Mosul and to cut down on the flow of particularly foreign fighters and Al Qaeda-associated resources and personnel.

In other areas of Iraq, where the Iraqi units are more capable and the situation is different, we take a different posture, if you will. We are less embedded in the population because we're trying to get the Iraqi security forces, the police and the army and your elected officials to be seen as those who are in charge. ...

My impression from reading the press is that once we left Tal Afar or changed leadership, it kind of fell apart. ... True?

I think that's true, certainly to an extent. We obviously have seen backsliding in a number of places that we've gone to. Samarra is a great example. We've gone into Samarra, stabilized the situation, put Iraqi forces, tried to put them in the lead in some cases, or relied on them more heavily than our own efforts. And the city has fallen, gone backward. Certainly parts of Al Anbar we've seen that.

It's a challenge in terms of number of forces available, U.S. and Iraqi. It's a challenge in terms of the balance of forces for the Iraqis in particular, police and army. You know, about two-thirds of the security forces in Iraq are police, and about a third are army, roughly, and the army units have proven to be more reliable over time, particularly those that were nationally recruited and nationally trained, because they are less susceptible to local influence. They have a tradition of national service. They are an institution that even in Saddam's time, the Iraqi army -- not some of the different variations of the Republican Guard, but the Iraqi army itself was an institution that was generally respected across Iraq.

The police, on the other hand, and the Ministry of the Interior, had less of that kind of tradition. They were not seen and held in the same regard. And we have, I think, put more faith in the police than we should have over time. ...

The deterioration of the situation is often due to lack of effective government and lack of economic progress. You have high levels of unemployment, and insurgents still pay money for people to dig holes on the side of the road for IEDs [improvised explosive devices] or to take shots at American or Iraqi -- now Iraqi -- security forces. And when you don't have a job and you have to feed your family -- that's a sign of manhood, is being able to provide for your people, and that's an important part of their culture -- people are going to do that. I think that we have not been able to break the code yet on providing adequate political and economic capacity in the country.

When Ambassador [to Iraq, 2005-2007, Zalmay] Khalilzad comes in, ... he comes with advice from Andrew Krepinevich, [director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.], and others about inkblot theories. Here's an ambassador coming to the country with military ideas. He's been preceded by [State Department Counselor] Philip Zelikow, who has his own ideas and is feeding the secretary of state ideas. How are you guys reacting to that? ...

... I think Ambassador Khalilzad was well served by his time in Afghanistan, and he understood the need to integrate military with civilian capabilities. It's a civil-military problem; it has to be solved with civil-military tools. ...

I think there was an openness to looking at a review, and that was not inconsistent with Gen. Casey's style. We did our own assessments every six months. They were done by this British officer who was a campaign plan manager, and he didn't owe any allegiance to Gen. Casey, so he took a pretty open view of things and laid it out fairly starkly each time. ...

On the specific issue of the inkblot theory, which has been employed variously in different counterinsurgencies, successfully and unsuccessfully, the theory is you go into an area, you clean it out, you create the conditions for political and economic activity, and it eventually becomes secure enough to function on its own, and you spread out from there. It has mostly been employed in more rural insurgencies and less developed regions of the world. The French used it in parts of North Africa with some effect in parts of Algeria, but not all, in particular.

But in Iraq, you have an urban-based insurgency because the population centers follow water, as you would expect. So the majority of the people live in reasonably urban areas, and the transportation network in Iraq -- one thing Saddam Hussein did do was build a lot of good roads -- is such that you can't try to secure one area without dealing with other areas. Fallujah is a perfect example. If we left Fallujah alone, we could have had all the security in the world in Baghdad, and they still would have been able to infiltrate the city of 5, 6 million people and conduct bombings, etc. ...

So that goes to the question of did we have enough boots on the ground? Do we have enough troops?

The issue of troops in Iraq was one that was constantly debated. In 2004 we did increase our force presence. We were building Iraqi forces like crazy, but we increased our own force presence over December and January for the election and the immediate aftermath, several brigades' worth.

One of the issues that kind of influenced that debate, particularly in the fall of 2004, was again this issue of a legitimacy of an appointed, nascent Iraqi government. ... If we brought a large number of Americans in particular in early in Allawi's term, it would have made him look like a puppet and would have undermined his authority and the authority of his government, and that was not where we wanted to go. We were trying even then to get the Iraqis to be seen as running their own country and to become increasingly sovereign over time. You're running on a razor's edge there, trying to balance the political dimension with the security dimension. ...

Is this the kind of thing the Army should be responsible for, the military should be responsible for? This sounds to me like State Department stuff. ...

... Historically the Army has always been responsible for these things. If you look at our history, much of the infrastructure in the United States was built by the Army. It's why there is a Corps of Engineers today. The West was pacified, if you will, by the Army, and the infrastructure was built by the Army to a great extent. You look at the Philippines: We didn't just fight the Philippine insurrection at the turn of the century, at the turn of the last century -- we built schools; we developed government; we worked on political and economic efforts, etc., to eventually create an independent state in the Philippines. ...

So this becomes kind of Gen. Casey's. He's carrying the history of all that with him as he comes into the country in July of '04?

Yes. But I think one of the key things is he wasn't given the responsibility or the authority to deal with those issues. His principal focus and responsibility was the security situation in Iraq: building security forces, fulfilling the authorities and responsibilities inherent in the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546.

Are you saying this goes to unity-of-command problems?

Yes, to a great extent that's absolutely the case. The mission in Iraq is not embodied solely in Gen. Casey, nor will it be solely embodied in Gen. Petraeus. Gen. Casey's responsibility was to the security effort; the military strategy was his principal responsibility. Obviously you can't execute that at his level without being involved in other things. But the development of government in economic activity in Iraq, when he assumed command, was the responsibility of the ambassador, not Gen. Casey. The Iraqi Reconstruction Management Office answered to the ambassador. The $18 billion that was appropriated by Congress in the fall of 2003 was administered through IRMO, the Iraqi Reconstruction Management Office, not through Gen. Casey.

So when somebody like Zelikow shows up in the country, drives around, looks around, talks to everybody, sees generals he likes, generals he doesn't like, and then reports that to Condoleezza Rice, who reports it to the White House and other places and does it unfavorably and says, "There's no strategy here," [what's your reaction]?

The responsibility and the authority for political and economic action in Iraq did not reside in Gen. Casey. I don't know what Dr. Zelikow said or didn't say other than what I've read in the paper, so I won't comment on that.

But there was a strategy laid out in writing in 2004. It recognized an insurgency; it articulated security, governance and economic action to deal with the insurgency, to move Iraq forward to this election, as I discussed previously. It was endorsed by the ambassador. There's a cover letter with Ambassador Negroponte's endorsement. ...

The problem was, it was only partially resourced at the end of the day, and there were two people in charge of running it. In most businesses you don't usually have a committee that runs the business and makes the decision; there's one guy. When you looked at how we conducted operations in the Philippines, a successful counterinsurgency, and when you look at generally how some, not all, of the activities were conducted even in Vietnam, most of them were organized under the military. ... Certainly the occupation of Germany and Japan were fundamentally under the military's purview for almost a decade in some cases. That's not to say there weren't other things undertaken, like the Marshall Plan, but all of that was funneled through a military framework and government. So there's one guy in charge, which is not the case in Iraq.

So how would it have been different if Casey had been the top dog?

That's a speculative question. I guess what I would say is having one guy in charge forces a coherence to your action across all of these different activities that you don't necessarily get. From my observations, Gen. Casey and Ambassador Negroponte get along fine. They had coordinated before they went over; they worked together while they were there. But neither one of them was fully in charge of what was going on in Iraq.

Now, Gen. Casey -- again, from my observation -- worked to position himself so he was in support of political objectives, in particular, policy. But each had their own set of responsibilities and their own objectives that they had to achieve, and they didn't necessarily always mesh. So one would get out in front of the other or vice versa, and the same thing, I think, is true today, because they didn't have to answer to each other, and the people they answered to were 8,000 miles away in Washington. That normally is not a recipe for success. ...

Zelikow said that he thought the whole problem was ... the strategy was coming out of Baghdad; everything was Baghdad-oriented and not Washington-oriented. That was the advice he was giving the secretary of state and the president. What do you think about that?

I'm not quite sure what you mean by Baghdad versus Washington-oriented. I don't know what Gen. Casey said or didn't say in his routine engagements with Washington, but I do know what the six-month assessment said. And that information was clear, candid and didn't mince any words about where we were at and where we were going and what our challenges were.

What did it say?

Well, of course I can't tell you that. But I can tell you ... it was an open-eyed, honest and candid assessment of the situation.

Consistent with the difficulties enunciated by, let's say, Baker-Hamilton [commission, also known as the Iraq Study Group (ISG)]?

Let's just say I don't think you would be surprised if you read it. It didn't mince any words. It didn't put a happy face on the situation, nor did it counsel that we were on the verge of disaster. It just provided an open and candid assessment and offered a way ahead on how to work things.

... It seems to me that if that six-month assessment was as you articulated, it strains credulity to believe that the president or others didn't know how bad things were in Iraq a long time ago.

I can't say what the president did or didn't know. Again, I think the six-month reporting is useful in this sort of campaign because it's a long-term effort. You can't manage things by the minute. Progress and failure aren't measured that quickly in a counterinsurgency. I mean, this is really combat nation-building. As I mentioned, we're trying to build institutions, trying to deal with violence; we've got competing interests. You've got power struggles going on in the country. They haven't achieved a political stasis yet where they're comfortable with how they're going to move forward, they [being] the Iraqis.

But I would say that ... I think that we were fairly clear about the difficulties that we faced and the opportunities that could be achieved over time. ...

When was this?

Well, there was one delivered in December of '04, and the second one was delivered in June of '05. And I believe that he continues to do that, but I don't know, because I left in the summer of '05.

When Condoleezza Rice is before Congress and says we need a strategy, "clear, hold and build" is the phrase she used. Did that feel like she was in your business?

No, I think that's reflective of counterinsurgency. ... Again, as I said, you cannot separate the security element from the political and economic elements in this fight. They have to operate as one; you have to consider them as one. ...

Why is the secretary of state talking about it?

Well, she's got a piece of that, doesn't she? Under the current construct, the build piece is principally a State Department lead.

And how were they doing while you were there?

... I can't speak for the State Department, but by and large, the [U.S.] Embassy was focused on operating more as an embassy than as an arm of the counterinsurgency strategy. There was a sense, at least at my level with my counterparts and foreign service officers at my level, that if it was done by CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority], it was not something that they were going to do.

Now, that evolved over time. Clearly we now have provincial reconstruction teams and that sort of thing. I won't say they've come full circle, but they've evolved back toward some of the things that CPA was doing that were good, even though at the end of the day CPA had some challenges, in part because a lot of things they were trying to do didn't get resourced until late in their tenure.

But as I say, there was a resistance there. There was a lack of capacity, and I don't say that to indict them, but I mean, it's the largest embassy in the world, but there's not enough there to get the job done. And this goes back to the question about should the Army be leading this? ...

The president always says, "If they ever asked me I would give them whatever they wanted, and they never asked me for troops." ... Is it true that Casey never asked for more boots on the ground?

No, it's not true. As I mentioned previously, we increased the U.S. presence, and I believe the British actually extended a unit as well for about three months -- December of '04, January and February of '05 -- to augment the security capabilities in Iraq for the election and its aftermath. We then sent those units home. The ones that were extended got their leave later than they had planned, and I think we brought over almost a brigade to augment the force there. Then they left in February as well.

Gen. Casey has done that a couple of other times since then. They brought a unit over to augment the U.S. presence rolling into the constitutional referendum and the election in fall of 2005 as well.

So it goes back to this balancing act that I think he had to do to help move the Iraqis into the lead and to build their capacity to function on their own over time. Bringing in more U.S. forces would potentially undermine that objective. In the period that I was there we were continuing to build more and more Iraqi units, and there was generally a sense of progress being made by the Iraqi military in particular, that they were going to be able to assume more responsibility. ...

[What was] the effect of [the bombing of the Golden Mosque in] Samarra on our efforts over there?

It was an inflection point that created the excuse, the reason, the catalyst for the escalation of sectarian violence, which is now a very prominent component of the conflict in Iraq. It always existed. Al Qaeda in particular made no bones about the fact that they were trying to foster this sort of interfaction warfare in the country because they saw it to their advantage, and Zarqawi wrote about it. ...

It's not to say there wasn't sectarian violence in 2005; there certainly was. But that bombing in Samarra -- again, looking at it from the outside now -- [was] certainly a catalyst that kind of broke the floodgates, if you will, and undermined the moderating authority of leaders like Ayatollah Sistani, who up until that point, it appears -- I certainly have no contact with him, but it appeared that he was able to kind of keep a lid on the Shi'a response to bombings that were directed against them. ...

[What do you think about the surge?]

There's still opportunity in Iraq, and the consequences of withdrawal or failure are such that it warrants continued effort. And as Gen. Petraeus testified, the components of what the president has outlined are a significant and important step forward.

So you agree with it?

Yes. Given the situation right now, I believe that we have to break the cycle of violence in order for political comity to ever be achieved in Iraq. We won't do it alone, clearly. But I think at this point, it's a necessary step.

But as you watch what happens over the spring and next summer, what are you watching for as a signal of whether it's going to work or not for Gen. Petraeus and us?

To go back to something I'm on record on is the Hoover Digest article I said that political progress is a leading indicator, and violence will be a lagging indicator. So if the government of Iraq is able to make political progress on many of the things that people have mentioned, like how they're going to divide oil revenue, some of the changes in the constitution that the Sunni are trying to negotiate, those sorts of things, if they make those kinds of political steps, take those and they stick, then I think that Iraq is moving in the right direction. And the violence may continue to stay where it's at or even escalate, because the opponents of that progress are going to try to make it look as bad as possible and undermine the credibility of the government and the security forces.

So I believe still that political progress is a leading indicator of what's going on in Iraq, and violence is a lagging indicator. Conversely, if there's political paralysis or regression, then we'll clearly be headed in the wrong direction. ...

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posted june 19, 2007

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