Krepinevich is the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a consultant to the Department of Defense; he served in the U.S. Army for 21 years. Krepinevich collaborated with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad to develop a type of clear, hold, build strategy, which he called the "oil spot" in an influential 2005 essay in Foreign Affairs. Here, he explains the lack of leadership and strategy throughout the Iraq war, how the "oil spot" led to the surge, and why a sustained U.S. presence is crucial to the future of Iraq. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Jan. 10, 2007.
… [How did we get to the point where there was an absence of strategy in Iraq?]
If you look at the way the structure is arranged, there is no what I would call the day-to-day war Cabinet. The principals meet every week or so, but in terms of the day-to-day management of the war here in Washington, there really is nothing like that.
If you go back, for example, to when we began to get engaged in Vietnam, President Kennedy formed something call the Special Group (Counterinsurgency), and this had the senior members of each of the relevant departments -- CIA, State, Defense, USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] and so on -- would meet. The meetings would be chaired by Maxwell Taylor, who Kennedy had recalled from retirement to be his military adviser and would name him chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and his brother [Attorney General] Bobby Kennedy. ... So here was a president who was very much hands-on, had two people he trusted intimately, and trying to bring the government together in the realization that in this kind of war you can't "stovepipe" it. It's not the military doing this thing over here and reconstruction over there. You have to integrate the military, the diplomatic, the intelligence, the reconstruction effort all into one if you're going to succeed.
Of course when the war really heated up, then President Johnson was again very tightly engaged. They would have these Tuesday luncheons. President Johnson at one point said, "They can't bomb an outhouse unless I say so." So here's a president that was very much involved in the war, for better or for worse. ... When Maxwell Taylor was sent to Vietnam by President Johnson to be the ambassador, he was told: "You're the person in charge. You are the person that has centralized authority. You can direct [Gen. William] Westmoreland and others."
That was a bit of a bumpy ride, but right now in Baghdad, there is no what the military calls "unity of command." Who does the integration of the military, the political, the economic, the security, the reconstruction, the intelligence? Ambassador [to Iraq, 2005-2007, Zalmay] Khalilzad has to negotiate with Gen. [George] Casey, [commander, Multi-National Task Force-Iraq (MNF-I), 2004-2007]. The Americans have to negotiate with each other before they can negotiate with the Iraqis. And that violates what the military calls the "unity of command," which is one of the principles of war.
So again, just in terms of the organization of things, it's hard to have a coherent strategy that is executed in a coherent way if you lack this unity of command.
... Think about the NSC [National Security Council] principals as they sit around a table in almost the very beginning. Here's Condoleezza Rice, ... [Vice President Dick] Cheney, [Secretary of Defense, 2001-2006, Donald] Rumsfeld at the table -- longstanding political partners, longstanding understanding of each other; the ability to finish each other's sentences, personal antipathy with [Secretary of State, 2001-2005, Colin] Powell, right? … [CIA Director, 1997-2004, George] Tenet ... [This] is hardly Jack Kennedy with Max Taylor and Bobby.
Well, that's true. But I think one of the mysteries to a lot of people is in a sense there's a perception that you have this all-star team. ... I think that is the issue that historians will be poring over and young people will be writing their doctoral dissertations on for sometime to come. How could such a talented team, an experienced team, one of the most experienced that we've had in terms of war experience and so on, how could they have gotten it so wrong in terms of anticipating what would happen?
And what do you believe?
From everything I know -- and I'm not on the inside -- but certainly from what you see, there was a fundamental flaw in the planning. The planning assumed that things would go a lot better than we had perhaps a right to expect.
But certainly in any kind of plan you have to plan for things going wrong. There's Murphy's law: If something can go wrong, it will go wrong. There's SNAFU -- situation [normal], all fouled up -- which is a military term. So you may plan for the best, but you have to expect the worst, or at least have to expect to be able to operate in a tough environment. Evidently that planning just simply did not exist in any detailed level. ...
... How much of where we find ourselves in, let's say, July of 2004 can be laid at the civilian authorities at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld and others, in terms of this kind of willful optimism that they seem to bring to the enterprise? ...
I think the way I would answer that would be to say that we as humans have a tendency to think that all things considered, that tomorrow is kind of going to look like today. And there's a charge that's often leveled at the military that they prepare for the last war.
If you look at the second Gulf War, the military prepares, in a sense, the way it prepared for the first Gulf War: "We'll go in; we'll defeat the main enemy forces. That achieved victory back in 1991. We'll do that again." And they do, and they do it spectacularly well.
There's also a sense that yes, there's going to be some messiness afterward, but there was messiness in Bosnia back in the late 1990s; there was messiness in Afghanistan after 9/11. But that pretty quickly calmed down. We did not have to deploy large numbers of troops, and really, things worked out. We were able to put into place a new government in Afghanistan, a very ethnically diverse country. ... So why not have this happen again?
And of course by the fall of 2003, even though some of his commanders are starting to use the word "insurgency" and Secretary Rumsfeld calls them "dead-enders" and "Saddamists" and so on, he writes this memo that's leaked to the press, and it's a bit of an eye-opener. ... In the memo there's a phrase: This war is going to be "a long, hard slog." So Rumsfeld, even back in the fall of '03, I think, has a very good sense that this isn't something that's going to be wrapped up quickly now. ...
So fairly quickly, to give him his credit, he begins to see that there are going to be problems here. Now, the question is, what's the strategy to deal with it? How are you going to approach the situation now that the rosy scenario hasn't played out and you're confronted with this very messy situation? ...
[What was the military thinking, among Gen. (Ricardo) Sanchez (commander, MNF-I, 2003-2004) and the other commanders during the fall of 2003? By that point] we know it's a kind of insurgency with more than just sporadic intentions when the Jordanian Embassy and the U.N. mission are bombed in August, and the police stations in Najaf. ...
Again, given that there's no detailed plan for Phase IV, what you get is sort of the default American approach, which is muddling through. You sort of muddle through the situation. You try and adapt and react to circumstances rather than really shape them. …
Once it starts to become clear that these just aren't criminals and dead-enders and sort of renegade Saddamists that are left over after the invasion, the fact that we really have no plan to deal with a budding insurgency in Iraq -- we've disbanded their armed forces; we've disbanded their police; we've taken a lot of the people who managed the government and said, "You can't be in the government." And of course we've also drawn down our troop strength and stopped the flow of troops into Iraq. So there's this power vacuum that exists. ...
Of course one of the problems we have at that time is our two most senior people in Iraq, Gen. Sanchez and Ambassador [L. Paul] Bremer, [Coalition Provisional Authority head, 2003-2004], their personal relationship is poor; the coordination is poor. Of course Bremer is responsible for trying to set up a new government in Iraq while Sanchez is responsible for, hopefully, at least to some extent, providing security, and there really isn't that close coordination that you need. ... So there's kind of a muddling through, a grasping for strategy that just, quite frankly, isn't there, isn't there to execute.
Of course this all really hits home around April of 2004 when you have this large-scale insurrection, not only in the Sunni areas, but also in the Shi'a areas in the south. And of course that really forces the administration and the Pentagon to take a good, hard look at just what is going on in Iraq, and how far are we along to achieving the mission?
So [in March 2004, when the four contractors] from Blackwater get strung up and dismembered and burned, when you've got [radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada] al-Sadr -- really for the first time his force is opening up on American troops -- you've got a kind of two-front conflagration in that time period.
Right. And again, this highlights the lack of a coherent strategy. You have a situation where the Marines initially were trying to take sort of a soft approach to Fallujah, trying to work with the local population. They're then instructed that: "No, you need to retake the city. The situation is intolerable." They begin to attempt to retake the city. Halfway through they're told, "No, stop."
In the south you have American forces redeployed from the north because the coalition partners have so many restrictions on what they can do and can't do in terms of military operations that really it's the Americans that have to take the lead, not the Multi-National division in the south. And you get to the point where they're saying: "We've got to get this guy; we've got to get this Moqtada al-Sadr. He is the one who's causing the problem." And yet they're told, "Well, suppress it, but don't go after him."
Of course there are no end of senior American Army officers who will tell you today: "That's when we should have got him. If we would have got him then, we wouldn't have a lot of the problems that we're having today."
So there is this sense of, "We don't really quite know what we're doing." ... And there is this sense of drift. Certainly the Iraqi security forces that were being trained fail abysmally.
So you have this year from the end of the invasion in the spring of '03 to the spring of '04. We've spent at least a good part of that year training up Iraqi security forces that really are nowhere to be found, or when they show up, they're unwilling to fight against fellow Iraqis. And it's really the Americans that have to carry the load. It's also a wake-up call: Well, wait a minute. If these Iraqi security forces are not capable, if they're not standing up so we can stand down, how long are we going to be here? This has a very sobering effect on how we view the war and how we view the time we may have to be there and the cost we may have to pay to achieve our objectives.
Dealing with an insurgency is very different than dealing with an enemy that has tanks, that operates in the open against you. Most people understand this intuitively. The Army as an institution, however, had, in a sense, gotten out of the counterinsurgency business after the Vietnam War. ... Even in the 1990s, when we deployed forces to places like Haiti or Bosnia under the Clinton administration, it was: "Well, what's your exit strategy? We're not going to be here very long. Get in and get out."
So the Army, in a sense, institutionally had prepared itself to be a world-class sprinter, [to] fight very short, very decisive wars. Now it finds itself showing up for the track meet, and its enemy wants to run a marathon, and this requires an incredible amount of gear shifting for the Army as an institution. It also requires a very different mind-set. It requires you to adapt yourself mentally very quickly.
There are a very small number of commanders that understand this intuitively. They tend to be commanders that have had a different kind of education; the Army's sent them off to get social science or political science degrees. They're widely read; they're amateur military historians.
Two of those guys -- one is Gen. Dave Petraeus, who has the 101st Air Assault Division in northern Iraq, and another is Jim Mattis, a Marine general who heads the Marine effort in the country -- they give guidance to their commanders that this is a very different kind of war. ... We use money here instead of bullets. We help with reconstruction. We help people deal with their problems. We help people understand that there can be a better life. …
This war at its fundamental level, people like Mattis and Petraeus realized, is an intelligence war. ... Here, if we know who the enemy is and where the enemy is, we win this war. The people who have that information, the people who have that intelligence are the Iraqi people. The question is, how do you get them to give you that information? You get them to give you that information by making them feel secure, so they won't be victims of retribution, by giving them a stake in the future, by making them feel like they're part of something.
That's what people like Petraeus and Mattis intuitively know. And later on, generals like Pete Chiarelli, [commanding general, 1st Cavalry Division], who will operate in and around Baghdad, that's what they know. That is something, though, that a lot of their colleagues don't know. And since there is no central direction from Baghdad, there is no integrated overall approach. ...
[When Americans pulled out of Fallujah in the spring of '04, did that send a signal to the insurgents that they had won?]
Well, yes. Fallujah then becomes a kind of Iraqi Alamo, only in this case, the defenders survive. The world's greatest military power certainly would appear to be capable of taking Fallujah. For some reason they don't. The news agencies that get access to Fallujah are agencies like Al Arabiya or Al Jazeera. They show photographs of wounded children and women in the city's hospital, and the impression is portrayed that the Americans are going in and wantonly killing civilians along with the insurgents.
So in just about every respect, this is a black eye for the United States, and what you have is a situation where this is a critical victory for the insurgents or for those who want the United States out. There's a letter that's written later by one of bin Laden's deputies, [Ayman al-]Zawahiri, to Zarqawi, who was the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq at the time, that says, "This war is being waged at least half in the media."
So in terms of perceptions of the Americans, not only in terms of their military capability, but in terms of their humanity, this is a double loss. The Americans look indecisive; they look incompetent; and they also look inhumane in the eyes of a wide number of people in the Middle East.
So we know at some level that we're going to have to go back and finish that up if we're going to stay in Iraq. …
In a sense Fallujah becomes a kind of sanctuary for insurgents, for radicals, for Al Qaeda elements in Iraq. And of course if you've broken the government -- the Pottery Barn rule -- you have an obligation to provide some security, some law and order. But certainly you can't allow this festering sore to exist, something that allows the opposition to form and organize and control, quite frankly, one of the larger cities in Iraq.
Forty miles away from Baghdad.
Forty miles away from Baghdad. ...
At the same time when the president is talking about standing up the Iraqis so we can stand down, appealing to the international community, is the message being sent to the insurgents that America's not sticking around? …
There's a perception among America's enemies in Iraq, and particularly among the radical Islamists, that when the going gets tough, the Americans get going home. They see it in Somalia in Mogadishu. They see it in Beirut, [Lebanon], after the Marine barracks bombing in 1982. They see it, from their perspective, in Vietnam.
So this is a case of where they don't believe the Americans have the stomach to fight a long, tough war. They certainly are willing to use technology; they're not willing to risk their soldiers. And they also believe that the American people have sort of a national attention deficit disorder, that we can only really focus on things for a short period of time before we want to get onto the next thing.
So a protracted war as opposed to a short war, a manpower-intensive war as opposed to a war where technology really dominates: That is their formula for success, and they've seen it work in the past. And of course what happens in the summer of 2006 is for the first time, that approach bamboozles the Israelis, who have consistently defeated them in very lopsided engagements.
So to use kind of an American sports analogy, these guys have learned how to throw a curveball, and we haven't shown we can hit the curveball. And like any good pitcher, until that batter shows them he can hit the curveball, that's all he's going to see. He'll never see the fastball. And right now they are sticking it to us. … Of course the media publicizes it widely, and so you see Hezbollah; you see Hamas; you see the Taliban. "This is the way you fight these guys. This is working. Keep doing it."
Into that arrives Gen. George Casey. What do we know about Casey when he gets the job?
I'd have to say not a lot. And I would also say we still don't know a lot about Gen. Casey. He is one of the most anonymous senior generals in American military history. You can name any major war that the United States has been in, and the principal generals will pop out to everyone with even a casual interest in military history -- you know, Gen. [Ulysses] Grant, Gen. [George S.] Patton, Gen. [Douglas] MacArthur, Eisenhower, Westmoreland, [Creighton] Abrams.
Casey, he is very low-key, very low-profile. Comes into the position from the Pentagon, where he is serving as the Army's vice chief of staff. Again, not a particularly well-noted figure in Washington. So George Casey comes into this assignment, and the good news is that his predecessors are widely viewed as having messed things up by Gen. Sanchez. There's all sorts of problems to deal with. ... You're coming in after a particularly bad performance, so you're going to look good by comparison.
The bad news is this is a very difficult situation. It's not at all clear that there's a well-defined path to victory. So George Casey really has a challenge on his hands.
... What sort of predispositions does he bring? …Who is George Casey likely to be as he arrives in Iraq?
I can give you an indirect answer to that, and it involves me connecting two personal data points. ... In September of 2004 I get a call from the Army's Training and Doctrine Command [TRADOC]. Its commander, Gen. [Julian H.] Burns, is having a general officers commanders' conference. Would I come down and give them my views on how the war is going in Iraq? And with a bit of trepidation, since I haven't been to Iraq -- a number of those generals had spent a year or so there. However, I did my best effort, went down. ...
I said: "I don't see any strategy at work here, nor do I see the search-and-destroy approach, try and identify where the enemy's main concentrations of guerrillas are and going out and getting them. I don't see any coherency here. I see this being a brigade commander's war. ... [A]nd it seemed as though each brigade commander was deciding, 'This is the approach I'll take,' which is why you get these widely divergent approaches." ...
[A]s I gave the presentation to the generals, there were no objections. No one rose up to say: "Sorry, Krepinevich, you just don't understand. Here's what the strategy is." ...
[What did that meeting tell you about Casey?]
It's not clear to me that Casey has arrived on the scene with a well-thought-through strategy. There certainly doesn't seem to have been one. When I meet with Khalilzad four or five months later, and he's saying, "Help me work up a strategy," he doesn't say, "And this is the one we have in Iraq."
When I go and talk with officers in the Pentagon, I say: "Well, what's the campaign plan? What is the series of steps that will lead us to achieving our objectives?" And typically they'll say: "Well, here are all the metrics. Here are all the things we're trying to achieve. We're trying to generate electricity. We're trying to have people call hot lines and give us information about the bad guys," and so on.
And I said: "Well, that's all well and good, but what is the plan? How do we progressively go about securing the country and defeating the insurgency?" I would cite to them; I said, "You can agree or disagree with how Gen. Westmoreland did it in Vietnam, but here's the way he did it. He said: 'I'm going to go out and find the enemy's main forces. I'm going to destroy them. I'm going to rely on the South Vietnamese to protect their own population, and I am going to kill them. I'm going to kill the enemy faster than they can recruit new members, and eventually they'll see that their cause is hopeless.'"
I said: "Can you give me the version of what we're trying to do here in Iraq? What's your version of what Westmoreland was trying to do?" And it was, "Well, here's our metrics." And that measures output. It doesn't measure what you're doing; it measures the result of what you're doing.
And what does that tell you?
It tells me that again you see the consequences of a lack of unity of command in the field in Baghdad, a lack of unity of command back here in Washington, integrating the intelligence, the reconstruction, the security, the diplomatic effort, so that instead of this very integrated approach, to use sort of a musical analogy, what you need is a symphony where everyone is taking direction from one conductor, where everyone knows his role. Even though you have different elements of an orchestra, they're all harmonizing together.
What you have in Iraq is a group of jazz bands that are all riffing and doing their own thing as best they see fit, because there really isn't that kind of clarity and guidance from the top. ...
How does the battle of Fallujah II fit into the grand scheme that we're talking about? ...
You recall that after the spring insurrection in Fallujah, there's this period where we're going to turn Fallujah over to the control of the Iraqis. The Iraqis are going to provide security in Fallujah; we're going to back off. And of course that proves to be an illusion. There is no security in Fallujah. It is, in a sense, poking the Americans in the eye every day. This is an area that's a sanctuary, effectively, for insurgents, for radical Islamists.
This is obviously something that's being trumpeted by the enemy as: "We stood up to the Americans. Come join us. We need more of this." And by the fall of 2004, it becomes clear that something has to be done.
In November there is this attack on Fallujah, principally by the Marines. There are some ancillary Iraqi units, but really it's an American operation. Obviously there was never any doubt that the Americans could clear the city. There is some difficult fighting, but the city is cleared. The enemy forces either flee or are destroyed. Many do flee. And so it's kind of like going after cockroaches. You turn on the light; they're flitting around. You get as many as you can, and the rest of them are scattering elsewhere. And that's what happens in Fallujah.
The Marine commander, Gen. [John F.] Sattler, states after the battle, "We've broken the back of the insurgency." And of course this is one [in a] string of unfortunate, overly optimistic comments and observations that's made about the insurgent movement in Iraq. …
And of course you have a number of political steps that are occurring where people are encouraged to believe that the tide has finally turned. ... And of course we see it's during the transition to sovereignty after Fallujah you have the elections and so on. And every time there's a sense that "Well, maybe now we've turned the corner. Maybe now we really have broken the back of the insurgency."
Of course, not terribly long after that, the vice president says that the insurgency is in its last throes. And of course that also proves to be overly optimistic. So there is this sense that -- again, I think on the part of the administration -- we're about to turn the corner. Unfortunately, when we turn the corner, we find that there's another corner that has to be turned, and the fighting goes on, and things begin to slide.
This is at the point when we get a new ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, a Muslim born in Afghanistan. He's just been in Afghanistan as ambassador. We've had remarkable success there in really reducing and almost eliminating the Taliban, the radical Islamist group that controlled the country prior to 9/11. So there's a lot of hope that this ambassador who performed so well in Afghanistan can do the same for us in Iraq.
But at the same time, there is this almost inexplicable gap between the departure of Ambassador [John] Negroponte from Baghdad and the arrival of Khalilzad. ... [A]nd inexplicably, for a period of months, we have no ambassador in Iraq at all. So here is the person who is supposed to be working with the Iraqis to get commitments on what kind of security forces they'll provide, what part of the country needs to be secured first, trying to get them to bring the Sunnis in to craft a political solution, because that's the key to getting the Sunni insurgents to lay down their arms. None of this is happening. So in a sense, Casey is left on his own for a critical period that could have been used to fashion a more integrated, coherent strategy. ...
[During that time,] Casey is announcing a goal that says by the spring of '06 we're going to be able to withdraw maybe half the troops. It really seems like a time of some kind of optimism, or at least the way it's being publicly portrayed.
Well, there is a hope. Remember, after the invasion we begin to train the Iraqis to assume responsibility for their own security, and that effort is viewed to be an illusion with the insurrection in '04. So you bring in Gen. Petraeus. Here's a guy who seems to have a good feeling for this kind of war, for what is needed, and he's put in charge of an effort that begins in 2004. … The anticipation is, goodness, we're starting this in 2004. By 2006, two years later, these guys ought to be ready to relieve us. They ought to be ready to take on more and more responsibility. And in 2005 that's the mantra. "As they stand up, we'll stand down." ...
Of course what happens is that in 2006 you have this offensive in Baghdad, Together Forward, and what you find is that Iraqi brigades are not being committed. The government withholds them; that it's not quite clear where their loyalty lies, whether they're sectarian in orientation or whether they're really devoted to Iraq.
We have insufficient advisers in these units. We probably need 30 or 40 in these battalions of about 500 soldiers. We have 10 or 12. ...
How does Negroponte get pulled for four or five months before a new ambassador gets in? How is it left to Casey, an inexperienced, in some ways, battle commander, anyway? How does that happen?
One phrase that recurs in my mind over and over again about this war is, "While the situation may be critical, it's not serious." We Americans, certainly the administration, believe that Iraq represents a critical security problem for the United States, but we've taken to a great extent very much a business-as-usual approach. There's an enormous gap between what we feel and what we say about this war and what we're actually doing about this war, how much we're willing to disrupt our lives, how much we're willing to divert resources, how much we're willing to upset traditional patterns in the way our bureaucracy operates to actually win this war.
You see it in terms of the unwillingness to put a single person in charge in Baghdad or back here in Washington, because that would affect the proprieties between the various departments and agencies of the U.S. government.
You see it in terms of personnel policies. We find an exceptional general like Petraeus or Mattis, and then after a year we say, "Well, your command is going home, so you're going home." Can you imagine us pulling Gen. Patton out of France in the middle out of World War II, or Gen. MacArthur out of the Pacific, or President Lincoln telling Gen. Grant, "Well, I finally found the general who knows how to win this war, but gee, Ulysses, you've been in the field now for a year; I guess you should come back to Washington and sit around and twiddle your thumbs"?
So people like Dave Petraeus [end] up in Kansas. Jim Mattis ends up in Virginia at a Marine post.
Are you saying our hearts are not really in it?
I'm saying that we're not serious. We're not as serious as you need to be when you undertake this kind of enterprise. War is a very serious business. A great commander is worth his weight in gold. We know that from history. People study Alexander the Great or Napoleon or Robert E. Lee or Gen. Patton or MacArthur because with the forces they had, they achieved spectacular results. Those people are very rare. When you find one, you use that person.
When Dave Petraeus came back to the United States, he and I met together, and I said, "Dave, what are you doing here?" And he said, "Come on, Andy, I've been over there for a while now." And I said: "Well, yes, but you've been training the Iraqi security forces. That's the key to our strategy of 'as they stand up, we'll stand down.'" I said: "If you weren't the right guy for the job, if you weren't the best guy for the job, you shouldn't have been over there in the first place doing that. And if you were the best guy, you shouldn't be back here."
Of course that's easy for me to say sitting here in Washington, but the fact of the matter is these generals who get it, generals like Mattis and Chiarelli and Petraeus, generals like Dave Barno and Rick Olson who are now retired, colonels like H.R. McMaster who should have been promoted and given greater responsibility, because he understood up in Tal Afar how to conduct that kind of warfare and succeed. McMaster is now over in England in the Fellowship [at the International Institute of Strategic Studies]. And again, people say: "Well, these generals get tired. They get worn out." Well, if they get burned out, bring them back.
But again, you had a fellow named MacArthur who in 1941 was in the Philippines and in 1951, 10 years later, was fighting in Korea -- 10 years straight between the war in the Pacific, the occupation of Japan, and then the war in Korea. And he was in his 70s then. These guys are a lot younger than that. ...
[Did the Sunni boycott of the election help to create the first elements of civil war by reinforcing the sectarian divide?]
I think that may be overstating it a bit. Power in Iraq has always come out of the barrel of the gun, not through the ballot box. An election doesn't make a democracy. The Soviet Union had elections all throughout its history.
What makes a democracy are institutions where people come to see their security and their institutions and the rule of law. There are no troops on street corners in America when we go to the polls. It's because people have faith in their institutions. There's a common understanding. And another characteristic of a democracy is a peaceful transfer of power from one ruling element to another ruling faction.
Iraq had neither of those things, so elections were an important part of creating that environment that would allow for democracy. But quite frankly, that's a process that will take decades. ... [H]ow many years is it going to take before a Kurd sees himself as an Iraqi first and a Kurd second; [before] a Shi'a sees himself as an Iraqi first and a Shi'a second? And the same with the Sunni, an Iraqi first, a Sunni second. It's going to take decades.
In the interim you are going to need a moderating influence, something to tamp down those animosities, and the only alternative right now is the American military. So even if we're to achieve our minimum goals in Iraq, it seems to me that we're going to be in Iraq for a very long time. That's something that the administration has never really, I think, come to grips with, and certainly never really tried to present to the American people. ...
[By the spring of 2005, is Rumsfeld still directly engaged?] …
I honestly don't know the answer to that question. I would ask people when I would be over in the Pentagon, "Who's in charge of the war?," because obviously Rumsfeld can't do it on the day-to-day basis. He's got many other responsibilities, of which this is probably his principal responsibility. But yes, who's running the war on a day-to-day basis? And it's just not quite clear, at least from people I've talked to. It's not, "Well, it's obviously Gen. So-and-So, or it's this undersecretary." You don't get that sense. ...
From everything I've read -- you know, I've talked to [Washington Post Pentagon correspondent] Tom Ricks as well. It seems as though everyone is trying to do as best as he or she can in their own area, but there's not this tightly integrated effort. …
[Did your Foreign Affairs essay develop out of your meetings with Khalilzad?]
... Yes. In the early spring of 2005 I'm invited to dinner with Ambassador Khalilzad. ...
Do you think highly of him?
I think very highly of him. I think he's one of the most dedicated, capable public servants we have in this country. And the country really owes him a debt of gratitude. He's had enormous personal sacrifice in terms of what he has been asked to do and what he has done, and what he has done very well for this country. ...
Well, that you're dealing with, at this point, an insurgency; that defeating an insurgency is very much dependent upon intelligence. The way you're going to get intelligence is the Iraqi people are going to give it to you. The way you can motivate them to give it to you is by providing them with security so they can do that.
And during reconstruction, so that they see their lives getting better, provide them with employment. So you've got to put your reconstruction money in a way that is going to enable employment to occur. Do reconstruction projects that have quick results. The massive dam or power plant that will give you some electricity two years from now, that's going to be too late. …
The way you secure the country when you don't have enough forces, traditionally has been called the oil spot or the ink spot. What it means is, if I don't have enough force to secure the whole country, I've got to start in one area and gradually expand outwards. So if you drop a drop of oil, say, on a cloth, that dot gradually expands outward, and that's how you begin gradually to increase security, to amass support, to gain resources for the government, because in secure areas, they can tax and so on. You can have local elections occur and not have your candidates assassinated, these sorts of things. So you build local legitimacy with the population. It's a fairly traditional approach to counterinsurgency. …
So I think I had the answers that he was looking for on the military security intelligence end, and he was providing some input to me as to how that would link up with the political solution.
Around the same time the editors of Foreign Affairs, I think they got wind of these discussions. Anyway, they said, "Are you interested in writing a piece?" And one thing led to another, and you had the piece in Foreign Affairs.
And the title was?
"How to Win in Iraq."
And it becomes the thing to read in Washington for a period of time.
Well, I think the reason it gains notoriety is that it makes the argument that there is no clear, coherent, understandable strategy in Iraq at this point in time. But here is a strategy that I think will give you the best chance for success. And it also points out, here are some of the real barriers to achieving success. Here are some of the things, the difficulties that we're going to have to overcome.
Of course one of them is because of the enduring sense of mistrust between the various factions in Iraq; that over time, even though American forces may be at lower levels, if we're successful, it's going to be quite the case that we'll have to have a sizable number of American troops in Iraq for a very long period of time. ...
In Iraq I think it's the case where you'll need an enduring American presence to keep the predators out -- the Iranians, the Turks and so on; to have the Americans in, but also to keep the factions down. That's something that I think was news at least to some people who thought that our big objective was to get everyone out as quickly as possible.
When you first presented to the ambassador, was it your sense that he was surprised by what you were telling him?
No. He's pretty good at playing poker, so he was taking it in, asking questions, and it was a good discussion. ... I think it's a case of where he found the early presentation interesting enough and I guess novel enough that he wanted it developed more fully.
What happened was he basically took that along with a mutual friend of ours who did go with him to Baghdad. And over the summer of 2005, Zal and Gen. Casey conducted what was called a red team exercise, and this was a combination of people who were going to be working for Khalilzad, and also some of the military officers on Gen. Casey's staff, working together, using, in a sense, this approach as a point of departure in refining a strategy, and I was told by Ambassador Khalilzad's adviser that, in fact, this was the approach they were going to take.
[How did the plan progress from there?]
... [T]he idea was what Khalilzad needed to make the political aspect of this work was the constitution and the elections. The Sunnis had really boycotted the earlier elections, and so they were underrepresented.
What he wanted was that October constitution that would at least lay the groundwork for a government that would involve sharing power, which was important because the Sunnis that did control the country were only 20 percent of the population. So they had to have some confidence that they had some share of power sufficient to provide for their own security within Iraq, and also shared wealth, because the Sunni population is generally in the area of the country that has no oil.
So get a constitution that would at least in theory enable that to happen. Get an election in December where the Sunnis turned out and voted so that you could form this counter-Shi'a coalition, especially against the radical Shi'a, so that they would not be dominant. And then begin this oil-spot or this counterinsurgency campaign to really begin to allow this new coalition government to take back control of the country.
That works up to a point. You get the constitution, but there are these outstanding issues -- just how much of the country's wealth is going to be shared, for example. But there's a fast-track amendment process, and again, the hope is that once you get this Sunni representation, once Zal builds this national compact, what I had called the "grand bargain," that this might be possible. …
The approach that Khalilzad and Casey agree upon is that, again, after the constitution and after the elections, this is at the point where Khalilzad really tries to begin fashioning the national compact. He convinces the Kurds that their future doesn't lie with the radical Shi'a; it lies in a countercoalition where they really can share power, as opposed to being a very junior partner to the Shi'a, and encourages them to link up with the Sunni block.
The Sunnis now have come out to vote in this election in a way that they hadn't when they boycotted the previous election. At this point he begins to work on bringing in the secular Shi'a groups into this countercoalition, this grand bargain or national compact.
That's the point where the Mosque of the Golden Dome was attacked. That's the point where the radical groups on both ends -- the Al Qaeda in Iraq on a radical Sunni end, and groups like Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade realize that they're at risk of being marginalized. They don't have any interest at all in this kind of power-sharing arrangement, so their goal is to foment sectarian violence and to undermine this effort. You begin to see that happening to a greater and greater extent in the early part of 2006.
There is a long lull between the election and the formation of what becomes the [Nouri al-]Maliki government, which turns out to be quite a weak government. The first counterinsurgency oil-spot offensive, which is centered on Baghdad -- in the article, Baghdad and Mosul are cited as the two places really to begin the effort -- is almost stillborn.
The philosophy is right. You have the right general in place. Gen. Chiarelli is now the operational field commander. Pete Chiarelli in an earlier tour commanded the 1st Armored Division in and around Baghdad, was cited unanimously by everyone as doing remarkable work under the most difficult of circumstances, dealing with Sadr City and his people, but also despite all that having a substantial amount of success under very difficult circumstances.
Unfortunately this operation kicks off, and what we find out again is we were disappointed. The Iraqi government doesn't provide the number of brigades and the Iraqi security forces that are supposed to be provided. American forces [move] into an area and secure it, but eventually leave to move on to secure the next area. But when they do, the Iraqi police -- 2006 was supposed to be the year of the police in Iraq. They proved to be woefully inadequate. They are not loyal to the government. They are prone to sectarian violence. They are corrupt. Iraqi units suffer from a shortfall in terms of the number of American advisers. So you have a government that is generally not enthusiastic that when Americans, for example, capture in some cases Iranians, quickly release them. So you have what the American officers begin to call a catch-and-release program. We catch them; the government releases them.
The government says, "Don't go after Sadr; don't go after the Mahdi Army; don't try to secure Sadr City." Sadr controls 30 seats in the Iraqi Assembly. It's a large, significant group. To many people, Maliki and his government are viewed as nothing more than a front for Sadr, so Maliki is not going to do anything to upset his power base.
So you have this, in a sense, a brokeback kind of approach. The plan looks good on paper. When it comes to getting the support of the Iraqi government, when it comes to their standing up so we can stand down, the Iraqis are not ready for primetime. So after a few months it's become relatively clear that this operation is not progressing as it needs to.
This is when you get to the question that is before us in early 2007: Do we try this again? Do we get a firm commitment from the Iraqi government about what we can do, what we can go after? Do you get a firm commitment in the number of troops in these Iraqi brigades that we will get if we expand the number of American advisers so we know who are the competent commanders, who are the incompetents, who are loyal, who is disloyal, who's sectarian, and then so on? And also, of course, a greater number of American troops, will that allow us to secure Baghdad? ...
The bet for those who say it is [is] kind of the New York bet. The saying about New York is, "If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere." The bet in Baghdad is, "Look, if we can secure by far the largest, the most ethnically diverse city in Iraq, why can't we go on to secure the other cities?" Most of the population of Iraq does live in cities. The overall strategy right now is a city strategy. Can you progressively secure one city after another, and in so doing, essentially starve the insurgents of their access to the population, starve them of their ability to recruit?
Groups like Sadr's organization that provide a lot of the social welfare services that the government is unable or unwilling to provide at this time -- displace them and begin to substitute for them, so that the population sees its security coming not from militias, but from the government. It sees social services coming not from organizations like Sadr's, but from the government. So its loyalty begins to flow toward the government, a government that hopefully someone like Ambassador Khalilzad has been able to stitch together [in] his version of the national compact, an agreement on shared power and shared wealth. That's a bit of a long shot, but that seems to be the last, best hope for the mission in Iraq. …
What is surprising is that at this critical point where the president is about to announce a new plan, and what we're looking at perhaps is the last, best chance to achieve some level of success in Iraq, that the administration essentially is wiping the slate clean in terms of our senior leadership in the field. The commander of Central Command [CENTCOM] who is responsible for this part of the world is being replaced. Our ambassador in Iraq is being replaced. Our senior commander, Gen. Casey, in Iraq is being replaced, and the senior operational commander, who was Gen. Chiarelli, is being replaced.
So in a sense, you have four new, critical senior members of the team just showing up on the scene. They have not developed a working relationship with one another, let alone a working relationship with the Iraqis. So I think you have to ask yourself the question, are we again making things more difficult on ourselves than we need to? Are we beginning, in a sense, to compromise the effectiveness of the operation before it even begins? ...
[Were you surprised that Bush chose the surge option?]
Again, I'm speculating. ... I think if you're President Bush at this point in time, clearly the president believes that even if this began as a war of choice … that war has become a war of necessity; that the costs of withdrawing, the potential cost there, far exceed the risk of staying.
The president has talked about this recently. If we withdraw, it's not only a civil war within Iraq; it's a regional war. The Iranians are already involved. The Saudis have said they will support the Sunnis. The Egyptians and the Jordanians will provide manpower. The Turks have said they will not stand for independent Kurdistan. So you're looking at the makings of a regional conflict. The Israelis will watch this going on in their front yard, essentially. They have to be concerned. ...
You're creating, in a sense, the one true sanctuary that Al Qaeda may have in the world in Iraq if the Americans leave and say, "We're not coming back." True, they operate in many countries around the world, but there are places that we will go, places like Somalia [in] Africa, Yemen and so on, to attack them. It's not clear that we would have the political will to come back into Iraq if that becomes a sanctuary.
You have the issue of the stability of governments in the region, the Saudis in particular. You have the issue of how will the market view the stability of the oil supply. The Persian Gulf is the energy core for the world right now. So these are the things I think that the president sees.
I think the burden of proof on those who would call for a precipitous withdrawal is to pose to them the same question that they now essentially pose to the administration, which is, when you went into Iraq, why didn't you think about the consequences of what would happen the day after you deposed Saddam Hussein?
The question for those who advocate withdrawal is, have you really thought about the consequences of what happens the day after the American troops leave? ...
[Can Petraeus] implement what he knows based on Mosul and based on what he knows about the Iraqi army in a place like Baghdad, where you're going to do a kind of demonstration project, maybe surging with an extra 20,000 or 40,000 guys? Or is this some other kind of thing?
Gen. Petraeus is about the best we have if you're looking for someone who can lead the effort to secure Baghdad and improve our position in Iraq.
On the other hand, there are formidable barriers. First of all, there is this surge in American troops. American military leaders have said the Army is stretched thin. ... Can you really count on the Iraqi government to provide you with the kind of support that you're going to need to secure Baghdad? Can you really count on the Iraqi police forces to be effective? Can you count on the implicit cooperation of Sadr, or will the Iraqi government allow you to go after him and the Mahdi militia and secure Sadr City, which is a population of 2 million within the city of Iraq?
All these deals that Ambassador Khalilzad has been trying to cut with the various factions in Iraq to allow this to occur. The president has just told you that this man is leaving, and in that culture, that means the bazaar is open. We can all try and cut a new deal with Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker, who is reportedly the successor to Ambassador Khalilzad. [Editor's Note: Ryan Crocker was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Iraq in March 2007.] So what does that do for Gen. Petraeus, who is trying to get the cooperation of the Iraq government?
Again, in principle, the idea of securing Baghdad as the first critical step in a city strategy that allows you to progressively secure one area after another in the country is attractive. But you also have to look at the risks. And the risks, I think, are formidable. I think some of the things that the administration has done, for example, changing over the entire senior team that we have in Iraq, make the problem more difficult still.
And finally, unless the American people are unwilling to accept the fact that beyond this surge, if we're successful, American forces are going to have to stay in Iraq for decades -- much as we have in Korea, for example, to ensure the security of that part of the world, we will have to have 30,000, 40,000 soldiers in Iraq, I think indefinitely, because if the Iraqis don't believe that we will stay as long as it takes, then all they're doing is preparing for the civil war that they know will happen the day the Americans leave.
... We've also been told that as of late December 2004, there were discussions where [Gen. John] Abizaid, [CENTCOM commander, 2003-2007], and Casey had agreed that they needed at least two more divisions. But surprisingly, for whatever reason, two months later, a month and a half later, Abizaid turns around saying, "No, we don't need troops." ...
Right. Well, throughout the conflict, the president has said that "If my commanders in the field need more troops, we'll provide them." At the same time, his senior commanders in the field have said, "No, we don't want more troops now."
The dirty little secret, if you will, behind that is that American commanders are reluctant to ask for additional troops because they realize how stretched the force is already. The Army, for example, believes that if you're going to maintain one brigade forward, you have to have two brigades back, back here in the United States. The thinking is that in order to keep soldiers from wearing out, in order to keep them in the military, quite frankly, one year out of every three is about as much as you can ask of a soldier. So there's this ratio: three brigades, one of them forward.
Right now the Army is closer to two brigades for one forward, so instead of a soldier being overseas in a combat zone one year out of every three, it's closer to one out of every two. And that worries the Army. The Army is violating its own metrics, its own statement of, "This is what we need to do to attract new quality soldiers and to keep the soldiers we have from leaving the Army."
So when the president says to you, "Well, if you need more troops, ask for them," you realize that in asking for those additional troops, you are driving that ratio down even lower. You are asking these young men and women to deploy to combat zones even more frequently. And you know that if you ask the president and he says, "Well, I'll increase the size of the Army," you know that that can't be done overnight, that maybe you can increase the size of the Army by 7,000 soldiers a year, maybe 10,000, unless you go to mass mobilization, which the country is certainly not going to sanction at this point in time. ...
It's this worry of the broken Army on top of everything.
Yes, it is the broken Army, but it's also the sense that just to recruit the size of the military we have today, the Army has had to reduce the standards in terms of the quality of soldiers it is accepting into the force. It's had to dramatically increase bonuses to try and attract soldiers and retain them.
At what point, quite frankly, are you looking at a force that's more of a mercenary force than a national service force, if you will? And at what point are you looking at expanding it so much that the quality begins to decline dramatically as opposed to marginally? Those are the things they have to worry about. Iraq is not the only war. They have to worry about what the Army is going to look like five years from now, 10 years from now. Will we lose our best people? So those commanders who would be our best commanders 10 years from now are leaving the Army.
They also have to concern themselves with the fact that there could be wars in other parts of the globe. Korea's a hotspot; Pakistan we worry about; and so on. If that's the case, what is left back in the United States in terms of worn-out troops, worn-out equipment to deploy to other areas? ...