Col. Kalev Sepp (Ret.)

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A retired special forces officer, Sepp is an assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School Center on Terrorism and Irregular Warfare. He is an expert on counterinsurgency operations, an expertise he put to use as a member of Gen. George Casey's unofficial brain trust, known as "Doctors without Orders." He also served as a military expert for the Iraq Study Group. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 17, 2007.

There's a great story that you told us, ... and that is the first meeting where [Gen. George] Casey looks around and says, "Who's my counterinsurgency guy?" ...

… Gen. Casey, in one of his first meetings as the commander of the Multi-National [Task] Force-Iraq [MNF-I], called in his senior staff officers around him, representing as they do all the different functions of a field army. And after going through each of these staff sections he asked, "Where's my counterinsurgency expert?," and no one replied.

Eventually, Gen. Steve Sargeant, who was in charge of strategy plans and assessments, said that he would take on the task of building a counterinsurgency section inside the headquarters. But that's what led to the creation eventually of the "Doctors Without Orders": bringing in the Ph.D.s onto the staff to address all the problems as related to fighting an insurgency.

What does it say to you that such a person didn't exist on the staff at that moment? ...

That there would not have been a sense of having a counterinsurgency expert reflects probably two things. One is that the previous command -- Combined Joint Task Force Seven [CJTF-7] under Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez -- did not think of the problems that they were facing and the violence that they were trying to fight as being related to an insurgency. They didn't have the correct paradigm for understanding the kind of war that they were engaged in.

The other is that, in fact, there was a Special Operations commander in Iraq at the time, but he didn't think of himself as fighting an insurgency; instead, that he was a manhunter going after very specific troublemakers. So the larger issue of the insurgency was simply ignored.

How much of that do you lay at the feet of Secretary [of Defense, 2001-2006, Donald] Rumsfeld? ... What was the effect of him [refusing to use the word "insurgency"] on the Pentagon and on military people over there?

I don't know that directly in terms of from Mr. Rumsfeld to his immediate, subordinate commanders. … But there is always the effect that a chief has on his subordinates when he prescribes or proscribes language and vocabulary in this particular way.

These doctrinal terms are very, very useful in getting to the solution to the problem. And to arbitrarily say, "Well, you can't use those terms. You can't call them insurgents; you can't call them guerrillas," takes away from the tools that commanders have to be able to engage these problems.

... What was the state of play that Gen. Casey and his team faced in July of 2004 when they arrived in Iraq? …

There was an insurgency, but it was very diffuse and disparate and very hard to define. The kind of insurgency that senior military commanders would have been somewhat familiar with would have been the Vietnam model, where the insurgency was very tightly unified under a strict hierarchical structure that led from the Vietnamese Communist Party, the Vietcong, down through all of its political and military components.

But the insurgency in Iraq in 2003 was, at any given point -- and we are still not sure -- 60 to 100 different resistance groups that were not connected to each other; that only had broadly the same objective, which was to not accept the new government that was established. ...

Insurgency is all about decentralization, and fighting it is about decentralization. But the reflex of the American military ... is centralization of resources and direction of its resources against a fixed and pointed enemy. It's a paradox, and it's almost impossible to resolve.

So it was really about disrupting governance, not taking territory, holding land and grabbing cities, things like that that an army might do.

Exactly. ... They could do none of these things; the coalition military was far too powerful. But they could make regions of the country ungovernable, and that is success for an insurgent organization.

Did Sanchez get that?

He may have understood it at the very end of his tenure. But ... the measure of that, if he understood it or not, would be if he had a plan to deal with it, and he did not.

... When you met Casey, ... what's your impression? ...

You're taken immediately by his physical presence. He is not a towering person -- a medium build, but a compact, powerful man; gray-haired, bespectacled, but not professorial at all. There is very much an executive feel. He is a man who is used to managing tens and hundreds of thousands of people through all of the agencies that are required to direct them.

A feeling of confidence?

Very. Oh, yeah. That's one of the things that he brought to MNF-I. ... In his executive capacity he brought a personal confidence that he knew exactly how to run this kind of very large organization, and that he was good at it. He was competent.

... Do you think he understood that there was an insurgency and he knew what to do about it, or was he going to get on the ground and then deal with it?

The questions that he asked as soon as he arrived indicated that he was just beginning to learn about the situation that he was facing; the kind of organization that he was trying to establish, which was very flexible and grew and changed as he was in charge of it; and the kind of information that he kept trying to draw to himself so he could come to an understanding of what he was facing.

What was the political/military posture about Iraq in the summer of 2004? ...

Inside the MNF-I headquarters there was very clear understanding that the key component that needed to be established was an Iraqi government. There was an Interim Iraqi Government [IIG], but it was appointed by the occupation authorities. So everything came to be focused on the conduct of elections, and the campaign plans were established with the primary objective of the successful conduct of public elections.

So from the get-go the military is trying to find a way to support and prepare for those elections coming in January?

Absolutely. And it didn't neglect any of the other components of what it takes to conduct a counterinsurgency, but it was just that the centerpiece was the elections, which of course is tied to governance. And once you have a government in the host nation, in Iraq in this case, then you have the mechanism by which you can conduct a counterinsurgency. It is particularly helpful if it is a popular government. So that's why the elections were so important.

Give me a description of Hix. ... Who is Hix?

Col. Bill Hix was probably the most important colonel in Iraq for over a year. He was essentially Gen. Casey's consigliere, which I understood was part of the way Gen. Casey had operated as an executive, is that he had his staffs, which were manned by generals and admirals, but he always had some trusted agents that he referred to personally. And Bill Hix filled this role.

One of the most remarkable officers I've ever met -- broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, extremely powerful man; played football when he was at West Point. If you would look at his rsum, you don't think he has the credentials to serve as a strategist in a major war. He's gone to the military schools, but the sort of academic credentials that have [been] accrued [by] other officers, like master's degrees in international studies or Ph.D.s in political science, he has none of these.

He is simply brilliant and had, in his career, mastered all of those different elements of managing strategic formulation, and he had done it mostly through experience and self-study. In his character was the balance between both this intellectual ability to grasp strategic problems with an understanding of what it was like to lead soldiers in combat. He was an infantry company commander during the first [Iraq] War and had been a special forces officer leading Special Operations teams all through Southeast Asia for years in counterterrorist missions. ... He had the best kind of grounding in counterinsurgency training. ...

So when he gets the job, and he is there with Casey, ... what does he do next, and how do you get involved?

Oh, Bill and I had been pulled together for the first time several years before, when I was still serving in the Army -- and not by him. We were just part of a team that had been built by then-Maj. Gen. Bob Scales, who ... later became commandant [of the Army], ... [who] had developed a project to look into the Army in the 20 to 25 years in the future. He had pulled together a number of officers who had had reputations for being able to think in the way he thought people needed to consider this future problem. Many of them were master's degrees- or Ph.D.-holding officers. Bill was not, but Bill has the reputation for being able to think at that level, and he fit in as if he had. …

Bill and I worked together then and got along very, very well. And so, coming out of that meeting [with Gen. Casey], when Gen. Sargeant said, "OK, we're going to build this team which is going to answer Gen. Casey's question about who is providing him with counterinsurgency advice," Bill said, "I know one of the guys that we have to get here right away." And that's how I got involved in the operation. ...

What was happening ... between July, August, September, October [2004], up to the point when you get there? ...

The intellectual organization is just beginning exactly as you're describing. The most heartening thing, after having been there during the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority], is that just the physical arrangement of the Republican Palace -- which has now become the U.S. Embassy and the MNF-I headquarters -- is wholly different. It looks like an embassy now, and it looks like a military headquarters instead of a college dorm, which is the way it was managed before.

What do you mean by that?

When the CPA was stationed in the Republican Palace, when you walked in, there were some very large marble walls, and these were covered the way that you would see in a college dorm: with layers and layers of different-color paper notices, directions, arrows -- just cluttered, unprofessional. There was no meeting area. The place was dirty.

If you walked around upstairs in the evenings, in office areas, some of the staff would be sitting in chairs in the hallway in their underwear playing guitars. I walked into an office with a Marine colonel who was a liaison officer about 1:00 in the afternoon one day; I needed to use his telephone set. As I was dialing he opened a cabinet by his desk, pulled out a bottle of scotch and offered me a drink. I deferred, but he went ahead and poured himself several fingers of scotch, then turned on his tape player, which played Marine Corps marching music. This was the CPA back in January and February of 2004. …

When I was working for Gen. [John] Abizaid, [CENTCOM commander, 2003-2007], I was looking into the intelligence architecture issue. ... And literally, within about 20 steps of each other, I interviewed people in three different offices, all supporting the adviser of the Ministry of the Interior, [who] were working on the same problem without realizing that the other two were working on the same issue. It was not organized. ...

How do you get the name "Doctors Without Orders"?

... What Gen. Sargeant understood is that you get a particular kind of intellect when you pull together Ph.D.s. Almost all of them were in uniform; I was the only exception, but I had recently served, and I had a long background as an Army officer and had served in combat before in El Salvador and Panama.

But when the team was formed, it was Tom Mowle, [associate professor of political science, U.S. Air Force Academy], one of the members, who had one day just sketched out the appellation, "We're the doctors without orders." And the play on words went both ways: Nobody knew how long they were going to be serving in Iraq -- they literally didn't have their follow-on orders -- but the other was that there was a sense of no constraint in thinking. We weren't bound by a very narrow set of orders. It was, "We are going to solve this problem in any way it took." And the man that was pulling all of that together, that team together, was Bill Hix.

When you say, "We were going to solve this problem," what problem?

The main problem was coming up with a plan, and the central part of the plan was going to be the management of the conduct of the elections. But it had to consider all of the elements of counterinsurgency -- economic development, political development and then also the provision of security for all of this -- and to manage it simultaneously.

There were difficulties with this, because some people, senior officers and officials, saw it as a sequential problem: that first you get security, and then, once you have security, then you can begin economic development; or build governance, and then, once governance is in place and contracts will be honored and such, then you can begin economic development.

That won't work, because in an insurgency, it's all about the people, and the people have to support what you are trying to achieve, which is the establishment of a particular government and the provision of the services to them. They will support whoever is going to provide those services and will keep them safe. ... All of these things have to be provided together, and getting to that and how that was going to be managed had to be dealt with at the strategic level for the Iraq campaign.

So when you guys get together and you are going hammer and tong at this thing, are there disagreements among you guys about what to do?

There are discussions like this. They are very intense. ... But these were either all Ph.D.s or people with that level of intellect -- because we also had British officers and Dutch officers in the group -- and they understood exactly how to debate at that level and how to get to an answer in a useful way. And this was not about ego; this was not about one person being right or pushing a point of view. We were unconstrained in that way. We were driven to get to an answer.

There was a constant reminder of what this was about. Even though we were in a way isolated -- as a matter of fact, we were restricted from travel outside the Green Zone, initially for security reasons but also part of this disciplining of the system -- but we were reminded of it constantly, because as the battle for Fallujah was ongoing, the Republican Palace [was on] the approach path to the combat surgical hospital, and every few minutes medevac helicopters flew directly over our building. It was just one after another, day after day, and it gave a tremendous impetus to what we were doing. ...

Was there anxiety before the Fallujah battle started? ... What are you worried about?

There was an understanding at the very beginning that the Army and the Marines would defeat anybody that stood in their way in Fallujah or any other city in the country if they stood up the way the insurgents did in Fallujah. But the question is, what is the outcome of that?

The American attack into Fallujah followed, in large measure, the classic American solution to this kind of combat, which is the maximization of firepower, which was possible because so much of the population had fled the city, and there was much less concern about casualties. But much of the city was simply flattened by the attack, both from American firepower, from aerial bombs and artillery, and also from massive mines that the insurgents themselves had planted to booby-trap buildings. Sometimes entire blocks collapsed when these mines went off.

The point was, what was going to be done in this major city as soon as the fighting was over and the insurgents were cleared out? That was the concern. And as it turned out, we should have worried about it more than we did, because the city remained in rubble for over a year afterward, in its own way a monument to the insurgents' success again in having proved that the coalition was very limited in what it could do for Iraq and Iraqis.

So you could clear, but building and holding were a different problem altogether.

Absolutely. We had not progressed to the point where that was reflexive in what was done. Plans were put in place to do it, but all the other mechanisms behind it that were required to do that, particularly construction, had not been organized properly. So rebuilding the city could have been done very, very quickly, but it was constrained. ...

One of the Marine regimental commanders in Fallujah described in a very edgy tone how he had watched this process of construction contractor selection be done, and invariably the lowest bidders were these larger Iraqi construction companies, usually from Baghdad. They would come into Fallujah, and in very short order their trucks would be destroyed, tires slashed, set on fire; several of the workers would be killed and be driven out, because the local construction companies, in a very Mafia-like way, were trying to muscle them out so they could get the contract. The solution was just pay the extra 10 to 15 percent, hire the local contractors, get the job done, instead of trying to comply in this insipid way with peacetime government contracting regulations. …

I know that everybody used the phrase "whack-a-mole," but [is fighting an insurgency] like cockroaches in a way, too? ... You suddenly turn the lights on, and they all run?

They run for cover, yes. This is facilitated among the insurgents because they are not operating as a unified whole. They, in fact, work in very, very small groups, sometimes even individually, and do what they think is best for them at that time. Sometimes they stand and fight. Others run for cover. It is classic guerrilla kind of warfare. ...

So you guys meanwhile are sitting inside, trying to come up with a strategy. ... Is the strategy being impacted by what is happening in Fallujah, Najaf, on the ground militarily?

We are following ground combat operations, and that drove the strategy team in the sense that we had to get this done as well as we could, as quickly as we could, because men were fighting and dying. So there could be no delay of any sort, and it led to 18-to-20-hour days every single day. Hix in particular was remarkable in his level of energy and drive. He defined indefatigable.

But the ground combat operations were seen as current and ongoing issues. The whole point of strategy was to not get drawn into that, not get distracted by it; look beyond it; look a year, three years, five years into the future.

What is the study that you do, and what does it say?

While we were building the campaign plan in the headquarters, ... Bill said ... part of that would need to be a way to carry out the campaign plan. He was snapping his fingers, going, "Something like in business, like best practices, but for counterinsurgency." And I said, "OK, great, when do you need this?" And he said, "Tomorrow."

So in the next 36 hours I drew on work that I had done over the years when I taught insurgency and civil war at West Point, taught history of American small wars at the Naval Postgraduate School, and drew all of this information in, took one break because after a while my vision started to go in front of the computer screen. So I got a two-hour [nap] and then finished the report.

And the compendium was a list of best practices and worst practices that emerge from 53 different insurgencies over the last century. And Lt. Col. Neal Rappaport, Ph.D. from MIT in economics, went through it once to focus it, took out some of my professorial, academic language, and then it went to Bill. And then it went into the campaign plan as the only unclassified portion of the plan.

And ... how did America do?

That was the adjunct from it. ... In July 2005 Gen. Casey took Col. Hix in, took the list of best and worst practices and said, "Take this, and I want you to visit as many tactical combat units in Iraq under my command as possible and assess them based on how they are conducting these practices." ... And Bill Hix and I spent the next month visiting 31 different sites in Iraq. ...

It was, at the time, actually a mixed assessment and reflected the different way that commanders at the lower levels understood the war. The most successful of them were the lieutenants and captains. They came in with the fewest prejudices and the most creativity in how they were going to deal with the war. ...

Casey, a couple of months in, looks around at everybody and goes, "The number of insurgent deaths I'm receiving here is equal to or greater than the number two months ago you told me is the number of insurgents." Have you heard the story?

I've heard the story, but second- and thirdhand. It goes back to the point that Gen. Casey started to get it right away: that this war was not going to be about victory through killing insurgents; that the Vietnam-style body count was not going to be the metric by which he could measure success in the country.

The problem was that even though he was the four-star in command, he had to work against an institution that produced officers that, in fact, measured success in war by the number of enemy killed. One of the ways that he tried to change that understanding was the establishment of his own counterinsurgency academy [COIN Academy], because he wasn't satisfied with what the Army was doing in the United States. ... He met with every arriving groups of officers and talked to them personally, which is, when you consider a four-star general trying to direct a war with over 150,000 coalition forces under his command, ... indicating he understood how important it was.

The officers always were very favorably impressed by this, and also many times were surprised at what they discovered. Early when he started this campaign, Gen. Casey ... told them their mission. He said: "There is a counterinsurgency effort, but your primary effort must be directed at making the Iraqis fight this war for themselves, so you will concentrate on training Iraqi security forces while conducting your other operations. But this is your top priority."

And the colonel commanding the brigade that had just arrived turned around to me and said, "This is the first time I've heard this is my mission." This was the gap that existed between the war in Iraq and what was going on back inside the United States.

Weren't you the one actually who recommended the COIN Academy?

Bill Hix did. ... He proposed this to Gen. Casey, and Gen. Casey, constantly after that, referred to it as the Hix Academy, and then finally gave the order, after our report ... included that specific recommendation that Bill had generated, to establish a counterinsurgency, or COIN, academy.

Gen. Casey received the report at the end of August; he gave the order to establish the academy in September; in October it was set up with the cadre formed, and the first units began to attend.

... Was there pushback [from the Pentagon]? ...

On several occasions I got to see what the military officers on the staff referred to as the "7,000-mile screwdriver," which is directives, essentially, that would arrive, usually from the Joint staff or the Army staff in the Pentagon, prescribing very specific actions that should be taken inside Iraq to solve the problem, ... very divorced from the reality of the war. Well-meaning, not without some validity in a broader sense, and there is something to be said for distance and perspective, but there is also something to be said for being where the action is and living these events every day.

The same thing had occurred when I was investigating the intelligence architecture issue for Gen. Abizaid, is that Central Command had received directly from an office in the Department of Defense a very precise set of plans on how the Iraq security intelligence services should be organized. Again, on the face of it, fine document -- just detached from the reality of things that were going on inside Baghdad and the rest of Iraq, but presented from very high-ranking defense officials in such a way that it was expected it would be complied with. So the subordinate commanders were often left with trying to find ways to explain why these directives could not be followed. ...

So facing the January election, ... what are the obstacles, first, to that successfully going off in the period that you are there?

The greatest concern was security at the polling sites; that the insurgents ... could terrorize people into not voting. So establishing a system to ensure maximum security at the polling sites, although you wouldn't think of it necessarily as strategic, it was so linked to the idea of successful conduct of the operations [that] we paid very close attention to it. ...

And it doesn't hurt that lots of insurgents presumably are being killed in Fallujah, Najaf and other places, because, if nothing else, they've got to go lick their wounds or something.

The outcome of Fallujah was very positive in the short term. The insurgents had thought that they could stand -- deceived as they were by the events from the previous April -- that they could stand and defeat American infantry. And they were completely and utterly destroyed. This was widely seen and understood among the broader Iraqi population.

But what to do to take advantage of that was where we fell short. By not speeding the reconstruction of Fallujah immediately -- the re-establishment of government there, basic services, and to bring the population back in and then get the economies functioning. It took well over a year before that actually did happen, and in the meantime you lose the psychological effect of a decisive victory over a group of insurgents.

I've read so many statements of people: "We broke their backs." …

Yes. There was a Marine general that said, "We've broken the back of the insurgency." Not a well-considered comment.

Because?

First of all, these kind of insurgencies are almost never decided by a decisive battle. ... George Washington is an example. Look at the American Revolution as an example. Yorktown is the concluding battle of the war. Washington doesn't think at the time it is decisive. ... He has no military sense that this is going to conclude the war. So these insurgencies are won by gradual efforts and a wearing down of one side's will to fight and bringing the population over to one side or the other to support them.

A single battle like this, a single battle like Fallujah, had the potential to be very helpful in advancing the coalition and the new Iraqi government's goals in the country, but it wasn't properly exploited. But it would have taken then other battles, other fights, other actions. Reasonably, the opening of a new factory that would generate 200 jobs in a suburb of Baghdad would be, in some ways, more decisive than a major combat in a town.

So we are right at the edge of the election. Let's do a sort of six-month assessment of Casey there: Did the guys around him, by the end of that period, get it? ... Was this a theaterwide kind of understanding that this is a new time and a new place and we are approaching this in a new way, or was it still too new by January of '05?

It was still too new; that's exactly right. It was still too new in two major senses. One was that even senior personnel that were present, some of them did not yet come to an understanding of the nature of the war that they were fighting, and that they had in mind different kinds of objectives that needed to be achieved. The other was that there were actually continuously new people arriving, so that even as some officers began to grasp -- some quickly, some a little bit more slowly -- the nature of what was occurring, they eventually left. And new officers came in with the same unfortunate, conventional-warfare prejudices that had been ingrained in them through decades of preparing to fight the Soviets in Central Europe. …

At the end of the Vietnam War, when the American Army was wholly debilitated by the war -- wracked with problems of discipline, drug use, a lack of sense of purpose, an overshadowing feeling of having been defeated in Vietnam -- that this new corps of officers, these iron majors, had decided that to resurrect the Army, they would need to give it a sense of purpose again.

They chose to focus it on what they thought was -- and correctly so -- the most important strategic issue for the United States, which was the defense of Western Europe. And that kind of war was going to be fought in a particular way: large conventional forces facing other large conventional forces, attempting to keep the war at a non-nuclear level. So the idea of preparing the Army to be able to defeat the Soviets without the use of nuclear weapons became their whole reason for the existence of the American Army, and anything else they saw as detracting from that. ...

... Was it an education process for you guys with most of these officers? They came with a kind of heavy Army orientation, right?

Everything depended on individuals. Gen. David Petraeus, ... up in northern Iraq, when he commanded the 101st [Airborne Division] there during the initial occupation, took what could be seen as a model counterinsurgency approach: that before the insurgency could even develop, he was addressing the reconstruction of the government, of the economy, providing for security, and in particular driving the host nation, the indigenous peoples, to do all of these things for themselves, with the idea that the American military occupation would be scaled back very quickly. But everything that they needed to run their own lives and rebuild their societies needed to be addressed and put in place right away.

Other general officers approached this more in the way they had been trained to deal with enemies, which is to think of them in a unitary way as combatants that you sought out, confronted and fought. Gen. Odierno, Ray Odierno, commanding the 4th Infantry Division in Baghdad, took this kind of approach.

There has been an argument that that was the only thing that he could have done at that time, but it stands in very stark contrast to the way that Gen. Petraeus was conducting operations, and then later the way Gen. [Peter] Chiarelli, commanding the 1st Cavalry Division, conducted his operations when he came into Baghdad. Most of his time, as he said, wasn't directed to military operations, [but] to re-establishing electricity, water, sewage and trash pickup. Essentially he was like a mayor in a city at war, but he was thinking first of the kind of services that a government is supposed to provide to the people that they are responsible for. ...

So the election is coming up. It's January of '05. What are your expectations? What are your fears as the election comes? And what is it like to realize: "Oh, my God. This is working out a whole lot better than we thought"?

This is what we got wrong: There was a tremendous pendulum effect; that while people didn't talk about it openly and directly and certainly not in disrespectful ways, there was an understanding that the approach to the invasion had been exceedingly hopeful; that as staffs, collectively, corporately, they failed to do what military staffs are supposed to do, which is plan for the worst case. Instead, all the planning was for the best case.

So as we approached the elections in the fall of 2004, the planning now seemed exceedingly cognizant of the worst case outcomes: that there would be mass suicide bombings at polling stations, insurgent attacks, terrorist pressures put on the population not to vote. And there was a great deal of concern that the elections would not turn out well.

But ... there was not an anticipation of, what if it did turn out well? Part of your planning does have to include best case outcomes, even if you don't concentrate on them. And the success of the elections, while tremendously gratifying, caught the MNF-I staff unprepared with how to exploit this. … There wasn't anything in place to take advantage of this tremendous blow to the insurgency. ...

... The Sunni, after Fallujah, ... they opt out, right? They kind of boycott the election almost, right?

The problem with the Sunnis is, yes, they call for a boycott of the initial elections. This is poorly considered by the Sunnis. It's driven in part by some very racist attitudes that they have. There is an expression among Iraqi Sunnis that "Sunnis rule and Shi'as serve," that it is simply improper to call on the Shi'as to choose a government; the Sunnis are naturally born to lead Iraq.

The other part of it is that they had bought into, in large measure, Saddam's own propaganda over the decades, and a number of them literally believed that the Sunnis were the majority population in the country and that elections were irrelevant because they wouldn't mean anything because the Sunnis were the majority population. Very careful polling indicated that about half the Sunni population absolutely believed this.

So this was the problem involved. After the first election the smart Sunni leaders understood that they could not stand in the way of the direction that the new government was going to take and that it was better for them to get involved in the process than stand away. So in subsequent elections, more Sunnis came to the polls and engaged in the electoral process. ...

What happened on election day? ...

I was gone by then. I followed that from the States, and I was tied by e-mail. I got very much a sense of how exceedingly happy everybody was. I had telephone communications, and I was still doing work for them from the rear.

How happy were they?

I've rarely in my personal experience sensed any group of people so pleased and amazed with the result of an endeavor that they participated in. But because of the tremendous energy they had also put into it, there was this great sense of relief. For almost a week I got a sense that there was very little going on as they just sort of took it all in and realized what they had accomplished, because they didn't realize they would.

But we go back to the point of, it was then that all these other plans that should have been in place -- you should have been seeing the initiation of the follow-up programs and the next steps. And instead there was, after this period of essentially celebration, that they said, "OK, well, now what's next?" They set their sights on the next election at that point, which was going to be the October elections, I think, if I remember right.

Well, and they decided to get to work on a constitution, too.

Right. All of these other things that could have been put in place in a different way. ... All the charts we had -- all the timelines of when the elections were planned, when the constitution was supposed to be ready, how all of that was going to be put in place -- by itself, those were very well-thought-out, well-calculated plans. But the issue was, there's a war going on at the same time, and so certain emergency measures should have been put in place to accelerate this process somehow.

For example?

... The government that came together to build this constitution, it really wasn't so much a consensus government or a consensus document as it was a compromise. And the difference is that the means of compromise was to begin to divide up power between existing political parties and representative groups.

For example, everybody knows that [radical Shi'ite cleric] Moqtada al-Sadr is in charge of three of the government ministries right now; his party is in control of those ministries. It takes away from the real power of any central government, but it's a way of dispersing largess in very much the way Saddam Hussein had done to different constituents. It makes for a very dysfunctional government, but satisfies people.

But we're trying to build a new, central, democratic government that was going to be strong at the center. And instead, at the very inception it was divided.

Why?

… I would say because it was expedient. ...

... Did Casey, did the general staff sense a kind of bog fire burning under their feet during this time?

It is interesting you mentioned this. … [Carl von Clausewitz] addresses the idea of insurgent warfare, and he describes it in exactly that way, "a fire in the heather," and that the fire can be in one place, but the smoke will come up someplace else. And so, exactly as you say, this fire can be somewhere under your feet.

I think that was the sense I had of things during the Coalition Provisional Authority year. ... Gen. Casey certainly had a comprehension of this, and so it was still seen as very, very serious. I'm not aware of any period when I was serving on the MNF-I staff that anybody thought that this was about to end at some point.

... There are a lot of people now ... who look at the Casey time, especially that year, and they say ... he never had the backing from civilian authority, Rumsfeld, to do anything but be a kind of a [light footprint]. But they were only going really to get ready to withdraw. ...

This is an interesting way to think about it. I don't have an insight into the communications that would have been involved with that. I don't know if Gen. Casey was getting phone calls saying, "You'd better get out of there." ... Casey had his hands on two sets of taps, you know: taps that controlled the flow of troops into the country and taps that controlled the flow out. So that's how he regulated the number of forces in the country. And while he could surge troops, he was inclined to begin to draw troops off at the earliest opportunity.

But there's a number of good reasons for this. I'm not making excuses for anybody, but the United States' strategic reserve was right down to the bone at this point; it became very, very limited. That means it limits the way the United States could respond in other crises around the world. So trying to reduce the number of troops in Iraq would have, just from a global-strategic perspective, been a good idea.

The other is that I think that Gen. Casey did understand the way that the counterinsurgency had to be approached: that this was an Iraqi problem, ultimately, and the Iraqis would have to solve it. ... So holding back the engagement of American military forces actually made sense.

The issue would have been, then, how do you build the Iraqi forces quickly? That would have meant a very serious advisory effort that never quite got going, because Gen. Casey was dependent on the human resources that he received from the United States, from the Department of Defense. And he was shorted in the quality and the numbers that he needed to run a wholehearted advisory program.

Who shorted him?

I don't know. I can tell, bureaucratically, the Army would have done that. But once again, there is a competition inside the Army. Why would that have occurred? If you maintain a high level of number of combat troops, the American military -- the Army and the Marines in particular, the ground forces -- have as part of their internal ethic a devotion to the young soldier and the young Marine. If they are sent into combat, they will have the best leaders possible.

But those sergeants and those captains that are so essential to that are exactly the same people that need to be advising and training new Iraqi units. To attempt to do that with reservists and National Guardsmen who have little or no combat experience, have no training in how to raise up foreign military forces -- you can put the numbers in there, but you are not going to get that essential quality that you need to create those new Iraqi forces. That was the contest that was going on inside the personnel assignment system, particularly in the Army.

In May '05 a man you know, Col. H.R. McMaster, goes to Tal Afar.

Yes. Bill and I went and saw him there just before the jump-off for the attack into Tal Afar. ...

What did he do in Tal Afar?

What he did is what was not done in Fallujah. He knew that there would be a tough fight in sections of the town, but his intelligence systems, which were tied very closely to the Iraqi intelligence assets that he was able to develop, told him exactly where those pockets of resistance were most likely to be.

But he also understood that as soon as that fighting was over, and even while it was going on, he would have to rebuild everything that was destroyed and begin to reinstall the political government there, the Iraqi government, and rebuild the society and bring the refugees that had left Tal Afar back into the city as quickly as possible; present them with a viable, functional city. So he had organized himself and everything that he did; he lined up all the resources that he needed to be able to do that after he finished the combat thing.

Now, you had worked for him before. Did you know that was in him and that was something he was going to do when he got a command over there?

H.R. McMaster has tremendous intellectual capacity; he's the young Eisenhower in so many ways. His studies that he did as a Ph.D. candidate at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, all dealt with the kind of decisions that had gone wrong in Vietnam. Then he had served for an extended period of time as chief of Gen. Abizaid's think tank and had traveled with him extensively through the region, and in particular in Iraq.

He had personally met and discussed all of these issues with the American field commanders while he was still a staff officer, before he took command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and brought it to Iraq. So he ... was supremely well prepared as a commander of American forces in Iraq and for the Tal Afar operation.

I've heard that this whole '03-04-05 was very much what a lot of people call a commander's war. ... Was there an effort by Casey and others to say: "Let's get this thing going theaterwide. This is a great idea. McMaster is a great guy, and this is a great idea"?

Once again, you've hit on something that is absolutely central to fighting an insurgency: that an insurgency, that the Iraq insurgency in particular, is what Dr. Conrad Crane, [director of the U. S. Army Military History Institute at the U.S. Army War College], has so aptly called a "mosaic war." It's a different war in every province, in every town, in every neighborhood, sometimes down a street. It has its own dynamics, its own politics, its own give-and-take. So if the insurgency is local, that means the counterinsurgency has to be local, and that puts the burden of dealing with the insurgency on the shoulders of sergeants and lieutenants and police chiefs at that level, and that means their competence is supreme.

So you can have a dynamic division commander, corps commander or theater commander, but ultimately it comes down to how they handle the battle at their level. There are the brigade commanders that we have [who] are very, very capable, but how many among them had the kind of background and experience that H.R. McMaster was able to accrue to himself through his assignments and through his education that he did?

Plainly speaking, in May of 2005, a mosaic war was not the American way of war by any stretch of the imagination.

Exactly. There was a constant tension in this when we bring American forces into this kind of fight, because an insurgency is all about decentralization, and fighting it is about decentralization. But the reflex of the American military ... is centralization of resources and direction of its resources against a fixed and pointed enemy. It's a paradox, and it's almost impossible to resolve. ...

When [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, 2005-2007, Zalmay] Khalilzad comes to town [in the summer of 2005] he has a red team that re-evaluates strategy. How did you guys view that? Was that in competition to what you and Casey were doing, or was that in addition? ...

Ambassador Khalilzad had used a red team before, when he took over in Afghanistan. I was working primarily with Col. Hix at this time in preparing presentations to the red team that had come in, but it was just meant to do a thorough review of all of the operations inside the U.S. Embassy and as they related also to Multi-National Force-Iraq operations. ... And what better way to do that? He's a new ambassador going into the most critical ambassadorial assignment on the planet, and the first thing he would need to do is make an assessment of what's happening. …

But the way you conduct counterinsurgency like this is that you have to have unity of effort, decentralized execution, but you have to have centralized planning and vision, and that means one person is in charge and responsible for everything that is going on.

But throughout the campaign in Iraq, we've always had two. Initially it was Gen. Jay Garner, head of ORHA [Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance], and then the American military commanders. Then it was Ambassador Jerry Bremer, [head of the CPA, 2003-2004], and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez; again, separate. Then it was Gen. Casey, Ambassador Khalilzad -- and I understand Khalilzad followed [John] Negroponte. Particularly in the last case Gen. Casey and Ambassador Khalilzad got along extremely well, very cooperative. They drove their staffs to a combined effort. But it was still a co-directorship of the war in Iraq, no matter how you look at it, and that by itself debilitates the overall effort. ...

So why do you think Rumsfeld would do that?

Because if you are going to establish a U.S. ambassador in the country, he should be the director of the American effort and all the Americans, and then, hence, [all] the coalition would do in the country. The question would be, would Mr. Rumsfeld be willing to have one of his generals and a major portion of his military power subordinated to a State Department official? ...

What was the impact of the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in February 2006?

In a way that typifies insurgencies, because they are so much about politics and how societies see themselves, one of the icons of the Shi'a religion, the Samarra [Golden] Mosque, was attacked and destroyed in a bombing. This was taken by the larger Shi'a community as an attack on all of them -- not just a building, but a symbolic attack against their whole society.

The question that arose at this point was, who actually did the operation? It wouldn't make sense that Sunnis would do it if it were an organized insurgency, because the response that would be invoked, understanding that they are actually a minority in the country, that you are enraging the larger Shi'a population against them, it would set them back politically, militarily, put them at a great disadvantage.

But you can't account for fanatics and radicals, even if they would be Sunni, that would carry out an attack like that for their own satisfaction or for their somehow convoluted and distorted strategic thinking about what they imagined the results of this attack might be. It would make very good sense that the attack was, as seems to be validated now, that it was actually done by a third party like Al Qaeda or another group of foreign fighters that wanted to further incense the major populations inside Iraq against each other.

What it meant for Multi-National Force-Iraq was an extraordinary increase in domestic violence and beyond what they had thought that they would have to deal with in the coming year. And that began to set the war in a new direction.

Civil war.

Insurgencies are civil wars. But where the violence had been previously perpetrated primarily by Sunni resistance organizations, ... now Shi'a military units, the militias, were going to be involved as well in a way they had not before. So this internecine violence that had before fallen primarily on the shoulders of the coalition regular military forces and Iraqi security forces to fight now involved the mass of the population as well. …

... Did we make our bed to some extent when it came to the sectarian violence?

As with so many other things that had gone wrong in a way we did not anticipate, if there had been some regard for history, ... we would have been able to anticipate so much more of what would have occurred and, ultimately, of course, what did occur. ...

That's the tremendously distressing thing to think about, that a nation of 300 million people -- the universities that we have, with the agencies that we [have], the experience that our highest intellects have -- that we weren't able to focus that in a useful way on Iraq, and whether there should have been an invasion or not set aside, if it was going to occur, how would we have dealt with it? ...

Let's go to the Iraq Study Group [ISG; also called the Baker-Hamilton commission]. You were one of the people who --

Right. "Expert member," as they called them. There were 44; not all participated, and some people fell off, dropped out. But generally there were always at least 30, 36 people who were very active.

... How do you think it went?

I was extraordinarily impressed by the principals, the commissioners themselves: their attitude, their demeanor, the things that they said. They said very little at the meetings with the expert working groups, because they were drawing in information, which was part of what made them impressive. They weren't speechifying to us about ideas or what they thought. They had questions, and very searching, very insightful, to the point, very realistic. ...

... At the same time Gen. Casey has initiated the Baghdad effort, the White House has in September begun to kind of grab the process. ... Is the Iraq Study Group aware of these things and how they are going?

Very much so, very aware of it. … We got some reflections of the discussions that the commissioners had had in that regard, that there were in fact competing groups, the two chief among them being one that was established inside the White House, and then another one that was a military group that was established by [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Gen. Peter Pace. ...

Were you disappointed by the way the White House reacted to the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group recommendations?

I hadn't anticipated a particular reaction to be pleased or disappointed with. ... There was a sense of satisfaction that we had worked hard and done something good for the republic, and if our work was going to be considered in any way, then we had made a contribution. …

I still don't know exactly how the president took it. It seems the very next day a number of his comments seemed to indicate that he would only consider it as one of several sources of information that he was going to make his final decision with. But then over the next several days, language from the report began to appear in more of his speeches and in his informal discussions.

I think the central point of the Iraq Study Group held true, which was that this had to be a very comprehensive effort, that the political and the economic and the security issues had to be considered together and acted on together. The president has essentially in his plan done much of that. But it's the particular directions that he's taken in some of those fields that are not in alignment with what the Iraq Study Group recommended. He feels that there are other ways to do these things. I'm not so sure necessarily, but then the Iraq Study Group Report had its own critics as well.

What do you say about the people who laughingly said that it basically was Casey's approach on steroids? ...

The ISG commissioners had consulted directly with Gen. Casey for an extended period of time on two occasions, and much of his plan that I saw when I visited in November of 2006 was reflected in the Iraq Study Group Report. It would speak to the way Gen. Casey had come to understand what was possible in Iraq, and I think that much of what he had planned appealed very directly to the Iraq Study Group members who were very pragmatic about the approach of what could be achieved.

It's interesting that when the surge proposal became more and more discussed and was being reported as something that the president was strongly considering, that even then the strong[est] endorsement for more troops in Iraq from Gen. Casey was that he would be willing to accept [them]. But I think that, after his two and a half years of command of all coalition forces in Iraq, [he] had come to an understanding that what needed to be done was focus on development of the Iraq security forces rather than bringing in more American combat troops. I'm surmising; I talked with Gen. Casey two times in November is all.

And did he think, or do you think, he was fired?

What a good question. I don't know. I've never thought about it in such a direct way. He is being relieved of command of Multi-National Force-Iraq and being made the chief of staff of the U.S. Army. In some ways that's a superb position for him to be in, because more than even Gen. Peter Schoomaker -- the outgoing chief of staff of the Army, who's a combat veteran, special forces officer, very much a soldier's soldier -- Casey understands exactly what the requirements of the war in Iraq are. ...

On the other hand, if you are going to change commanders just to change the dynamic of the war, then Gen. Petraeus -- no one is better prepared, better educated, better experienced to take that particular job, which may be ultimately thankless, because a straightforward military victory in the country of Iraq is probably not achievable. So he is going to try and come out with the least bad outcome that can be managed in Iraq. And that may not be very optimistic, but there's not that much going on in Iraq that indicates that we should hope for anything better than that right now. ...

And if the president wants to change things, this is a way to move people around in a way that utilizes all of their talents and skills without dismissing anybody, certainly without any sense of failure. ... And so no, in that regard I wouldn't think of Gen. Casey's transfer from Iraq to the Pentagon as being a firing.

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posted june 19, 2007

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