Philip Zelikow

photo of Zelikow

Currently a history professor at the University of Virginia, Zelikow served as counselor to the State Department and senior policy adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from 2005 to 2007. During that time he visited Iraq roughly a dozen times to look at conditions and advise on strategy. In this interview, he discusses the recommendations he made to the administration, how Secretary Rice took a lead in late 2005 in shifting direction on Iraq policy, and why the U.S. has been unable to find a strategy for success. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 6, 2007.

When you first begin to ask questions and get a feel for the area, what do you understand? What do they tell you the military's strategy was in Iraq in the summer of 2004 until the election in January 2005?

… In early '05 I didn't understand fully the military strategy. I understood what our new approach was on the advisory effort and training of the Iraqis. I understood a few other individual components of it. I understood some of what we had accomplished in the big-unit fighting, and I was very impressed on meeting with Gen. [Peter] Chiarelli, then commanding 1st Cavalry Division that had responsibility for Baghdad and for Sadr City, about Chiarelli's vision for what could be accomplished in Sadr City and beyond, which is very much a classic counterinsurgency vision that I thought he articulated better than anyone I met in the command.

What was he saying that was so impressive?

I had spent a lot of time working on counterinsurgency strategy and doctrine over generations. [But] I always taught my students as a historian, don't look to the past to find instructions for how to solve present problems. You can look to the past to suggest questions, but not to find the answers to the questions. You really have to be attentive to the current conditions.

I was learning a lot about the current conditions there, and we developed a series of recommendations for Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice on the civilian side. The impressive piece for Chiarelli was his fusion of the civil and military components. He understood that at the point that the government became the key provider of services and security, the government and its officials would be able to develop the kind of relationship with the people that could build stability. A vivid way to describe Chiarelli's message is, it's not just shooting the enemy; it's picking up the garbage; it's connecting the sewage lines. …

The [Feb. 10, 2005] memo you write for Secretary Rice uses the phrase "tipping point," as in "Iraq was at a tipping point." What did you mean?

I thought that the Americans and the Iraqis had fought their way out of the abyss of 2004 to the point that they had regained a very fragile equilibrium in which they had a chance to get this on a different path. The equilibrium was so fragile that during 2005 it would slide one way or the other; that either the government would get off to a good start and begin really moving things forward and kind of build on the hopes and reinforce them, or else the government would falter and the insurgents would gain the upper hand, and things would start sliding backward.

No one thought we had a comfortably sufficient amount of troops. I don't think I ever encountered anyone who [could] even make that argument with a straight face.

I must say that I was wrong. Almost unbelievably, the fragile equilibrium held all through 2005. It didn't really begin to tip until 2006. And then it began to slide backward.

What was happening in 2005 that kept it balanced in that precarious way?

… The reason equilibrium stayed constant is the insurgents couldn't become more popular. They couldn't gain the upper hand, and our military could contain them [but] not defeat them. But at the same time, the central government didn't really take off the way we had hoped it would. It couldn't get the kind of traction. It began giving way to a lot of sectarian impulses and other problems. So the central government was faltering, yet the insurgents weren't gaining. And so the equilibrium held in a very unsteady way, all the way into 2006.

Tell me about Tal Afar. When you looked at Tal Afar and Col. H.R. McMaster's work there, what did you see?

It was suggestive of what was possible with a lot of investment of effort and manpower in a relatively small area. The conditions in Tal Afar are distinctive. And here it's worth noting that it's very common for people who looked at Iraq to overgeneralize about the war. I would often tell people that the Iraq war is actually about six different wars, and each one of the wars has its own dynamic, with its own set of combatants, so that, for instance, people talk about sectarian violence in Baghdad. But the sectarian problem in the north isn't Shi'a and Sunni; it's mainly Sunni versus the Kurds. And the problems in the south around Basra are mostly intra-Shi'a fighting. They are different wars, different kinds of conflict with different sets of people.

So you have a success in Tal Afar in the north, but under the conditions prevailing in Tal Afar, which then you'd have to adapt if you wanted to apply that concept in other places.

With regard to Tal Afar, I gather this is a colonel's war, not a general's war. Did you observe such a thing?

Yes and no. It is a colonel's war or major's war; it's battalion-level, and maybe even below. It's a highly local form of conflict in which everything needs to be adapted to local circumstances and informed by local information.

That said -- this point's critical -- you have to have a strategy countrywide that tells your battalion and company commanders what their jobs are. They then have to have a lot of autonomy for the execution of those jobs and the execution of that strategy adapted to local circumstances. But they have to be trained in an approach to the problem.

What's remarkable about Tal Afar is, why isn't that being done in different forms all over the country? Well, because it wasn't a countrywide strategy, because actually people are just improvising and inventing almost ad hoc from unit to unit, from brigade to brigade or division to division. There isn't really a strong countrywide template.

Tell me why such a strategy didn't exist.

No, actually there's a campaign plan. And then if you look in the campaign plan for the strategy, there are annexes to the campaign plan. And then if you read the annex in the campaign plan, there are other things that they'll refer you to. You can chase this pretty far down the paper trail.

But fundamentally what a strategy needs to do is to prioritize your operational objectives. It needs to say: "Here's concretely how you will achieve your operational objectives. … Here are the force requirements that are needed in order to achieve your objectives in this prescribed way."

If you look to find that kind of laid out, and then saying, "Therefore, here are our force requirements, and if we don't have the force requirements to do this countrywide, here's how we're prioritizing locally given what's available," ... that's what is missing. [It's] what we would classically recognize as a strategy document.

Why? Where was it? Why don't we have it?

Because the commanding generals did not prepare one.

Why?

I don't know. I can speculate, but this is something that I believe that the Army needs to examine as it reviews this experience. It's really quite striking. I don't think many policymakers in Washington really appreciated the degree to which this was missing, or perhaps in many respects didn't fully grasp the scale of this void until late in 2006. There were a few of us who began to become more aware of it as time had gone on, but the full scale of the problem dawned on me only slowly.

And what about [Donald] Rumsfeld [secretary of defense, 2001-2006]?

Secretary Rumsfeld may have been part of the problem, but I think not in the way it's commonly perceived. The caricature is Rumsfeld riding roughshod over his generals, which may or may not be the case for various decisions in the Pentagon and certainly some things that happened before the invasion in 2003.

After the invasion, the pattern that seems more apparent to me, at least from what I could see, is not that Rumsfeld is running roughshod over his generals; it's that the secretary is actually relatively passive, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense is relatively passive. The dominating role is held by the generals; indeed the Multi-National Force command in CENTCOM, even the Joint staff back in Washington, is playing only a very modest role in developing overall strategy for Iraq. So the job has been delegated almost completely to the field, and they're looking to Baghdad to not just execute the strategy, but to write the strategy and to form the policy and then to tell Washington what the strategy is and what its requirements are.

And so the basic dynamic between Baghdad and Washington, in scores and scores of meetings, is Baghdad briefs; Washington listens.

Astonishing, yes?

This was the pattern. This pattern was already set by the time I came into the government. It took me a while to fully realize the significance of this pattern, but it was remarkable. And I didn't really see that basic pattern reversed until late in 2006.

That's [Gen. George] Casey, [commander, Multi-National Task Force-Iraq (MNF-I), 2004-2007], and [Gen. John] Abizaid, [commander, CENTCOM, 2003-2007]?

And there are tensions. To outsiders, the military world looks very homogeneous. Within the military world, it's not homogeneous at all. So there's all kinds of tensions going on between Abizaid and Casey, and also even within Baghdad between the Multi-National Force command headed by Gen. Casey and the Corps command headed by Gen. [John] Vines, then Gen. Chiarelli and now headed by Gen. [Raymond] Odierno.

And actually the Multi-National Force headquarters and the Corps headquarters are in different locations. And a lot of what the Multi-National Force headquarters does is generate PowerPoint slides to use in briefing Washington, but the Corps is actually the people who have their fingers on what's going on in the field every day. …

[But] the real responsibility for developing the strategy was primarily with Gen. Casey's headquarters and [MNF-I Commander, 2003-2004] Gen. [Ricardo] Sanchez's headquarters before then. And that's where the void is found. Now, they might say: "Well, it wasn't our job. It should have been done in CENTCOM or the Joint staff or someplace in Washington." But you can look around; the net is that it's missing.

So you came back from the first trip humbled, eyes open. What was the result of your first trip?

We made a series of recommendations for the civilian side of our strategy in Iraq. One of the recommendations was to significantly enhance and move toward the development of what are now called PRTs [provisional reconstruction teams]. The whole point was to get out of the Green Zone and project our civilian effort much more out there in line with the way the military strategy would work. That was something that we really stressed in the report.

By the way, Odierno was part of my team in February of '05, along with Ambassador Dick Jones, [then the secretary of state's senior adviser and coordinator for Iraq policy], and others. So we made a number of recommendations for how to improve our efforts on the civilian side. We pressed very hard, for instance, on the issue of electricity. We thought that the policing effort needed much more work, too. In fact, I spent a lot of time on policing issues and intelligence issues in Iraq during the spring of 2005, which was a source of really great concern.

Why?

The most fundamental ingredient in any counterinsurgency effort is intelligence. [Gen.] Creighton Abrams used to say in Vietnam that intelligence is 90 percent of the effort. And the intelligence has to be local intelligence. It amounts to basically networks of informants that you get because you're involved in the local community.

It turns out, the key to getting a lot of this intelligence actually is your policing effort, because the police are usually the people who run the streets in local communities. So the policing effort and the intelligence efforts are very closely related.

There were some really serious problems in the way we had defined the intelligence mission and the way we were then trying to resource it in the field at the local level. We were short of the kind of expertise and teams at the local level that we needed. We were relying a lot on technical intelligence collection to offset some of these weaknesses. And we hadn't really adopted the intelligence approach to counterinsurgency. We didn't have the kind of policing effort under way or police advisory effort that looked like it was likely to work. … You had a State Department effort that was quite problematical combined with military efforts to work on the policing problems that were sometimes effective, sometimes not. This all hadn't been put together into a comprehensive approach as [to] how to do the policing problem and in turn link that to a comprehensive approach on your intelligence issues. …

There were other people in the military who saw some of this, especially in military intelligence, and began to realize some of these weaknesses. At that time it was very difficult to solve these problems because a lot of the military intelligence expertise in the military is in the Reserves. And the relevant reservists -- they'd already burned through most of the relevant Reserve units with the military intelligence expertise.

What happens with the information you passed on in your report?

In general, I'd get about as good attention to them as one could hope for. Certainly Secretary Rice is very attentive to anything I had to say about this subject, but sometimes she would suggest or others would suggest I go over to the White House and talk to people there about what I'd seen or go to the Pentagon, go to the intelligence community. I would do that and offer my impressions in conversations around town. And people listened.

Would you say they understood? Did they know? Did they want to know?

I think a lot of folks in Washington are very well informed about what's going on in Iraq and about the problems. The top leadership in Washington is always up-to-date on the conventional wisdom as known in Baghdad, so the conventional wisdom of the Green Zone is very rapidly communicated to principals in Washington and is internalized by them. The president follows Iraq very carefully.

But what then happens is the dynamic where Baghdad briefs and Washington listens attentively, often asking good questions or pointed questions. But, you know, the dog barks, and the caravan moves on. And people kept doing things more or less the way they were doing them, because the heart of the decisions on how to do those things was to some extent in the embassy, but even more so in the military command in the field.

Tell me why the Sept. 26, 2005, memo to Rice is important.

It was the most comprehensive of the various trips I made, covering the most ground around Iraq, talking to the most soldiers and civilians. By that time it became clear that we weren't getting positive headway going. Therefore, it's already time now to look ahead and get ready for when we get the permanent government in 2006. But the time to start getting ready for the permanent government in 2006 was in the fall of 2005. If you're going to make major changes, you need to start making those major changes in fall '05. …

[So] in September of '05, my argument was that we needed to make another major push in Iraq; that without trying to second-guess what everybody was saying, that we seemed to be doing just enough to get by, and that no one was confident we were doing enough. Some people thought it might be enough to get by; some people thought it wouldn't be enough to get by. But the whole way of framing the issue in those terms told you right away that we don't have enough. We shouldn't be trying to win this by a field goal; we should be trying to win this by two touchdowns. …

And that's the origin of "clear, hold and build" -- developing that as a catchphrase would just help people internalize that there's a strategy, and here's what it means.

Tell me the genesis of Secretary Rice going before the Congress with the idea of clear, hold, build.

… Her testimony to the Congress in October '05 is very consciously written as an effort to articulate a strategy for success in Iraq, because we had felt for sometime that we weren't doing that effectively for the American people. In some ways we were beginning to be more and more worried that we weren't doing it enough internally.

Ideally the White House would articulate this. And the president had been making a series of speeches, but for various reasons that they can best explain, the speeches just tended to be making the same kind of points the president had made before. I think even the president was restless with this.

We looked around and said, "We need to do this then, and the secretary will do it in her testimony." That actually then spurred the White House to articulate the strategy and the Pentagon to do more as well, though I must say that a part of our problem as '05 turned to '06 is we still were not building the underlying operational strategy that would give full body to the rhetoric.

When Rice introduces clear, hold, build, Rumsfeld opposes. Is that the way you read it?

I learned from [Bob] Woodward's book [State of Denial] about Rumsfeld's reaction, too, because they didn't confide it to me. We did things to clear her testimony with the Department of Defense, of course, but I heard later that the secretary of defense got upset. And we saw various signs that he was upset. I heard that Gen. Casey was upset that here we were trying to articulate strategy; that was their job.

Why would you think Casey would not agree with it?

He told me that he did agree with the concepts. He told me that he was concerned that the process hadn't included him the way he thought it should.

Do you think Casey was being hamstrung, or was he doing what he wanted to do?

I don't think he was being hamstrung in any strong, overt way. Therefore, if you fault his strategy proposals, I don't think it's fair to lay that off on the secretary of defense. I think the commanding general had certain obligations, and he was obliged to present his best proposals, regardless of body language or tone. I was not privy to many, many discussions between the secretary of defense and Gen. Casey, but I just could not see any obvious evidence that the general was hamstrung. …

And by the way, I don't think any such constraints were coming from the president. By 2006 the president's going out of his way to make it clear he's not putting on such constraints; that he wants an honest strategy.

Even so, you would still then need to write a strategy document that had some of the requisites of spelling out operational objectives, ways of achieving them and the force requirements that went with those objectives and those strategies, that spelled that out in a way that we didn't see. And then at least that would force up the trade-offs, so if even the military commanders felt hamstrung, I think it was their obligation to develop a strategy that exposed the trade-offs and the strategic choices, that they were being made, because then that would expose those choices for policy decision.

And the fact that they did not tells you what?

It speaks to some omission or avoidance of the strategic thinking that I thought was necessary. …

When Casey started talking about reducing the numbers of troops, what did you think?

I and others were increasingly restless and concerned about those statements, because they seemed mechanical, and we couldn't figure out for what strategy is this the answer. … How have the tasks changed, or what is the achievement of the tasks? And then the answer would come back, "Well, it's conditions-based." But this tended to be a kind of an amorphous process. So you had the sense that you couldn't make out the strategy that was behind the numbers. … To just kind of say, "Our goal is to cut the troop number," almost dodges a discussion of what's your strategy for succeeding in Iraq.

This became increasingly unreal as you're going through 2005. I don't know whether we needed a dramatic increase in troops, but we were clearly either at the edge of sufficiency or below sufficiency. And I think lots of people in the field would tell you that. …

And then as you get into 2006, some of this just became increasingly unreal. Then finally, the White House and the president intervene to kind of reset the assumptions.

When the Askariya mosque [Golden Mosque] in Samarra is bombed [February 2006], what happens with your analysis?

I was on the road with Secretary Rice in the Middle East when it happened. Our initial reaction was that it was very serious and that there needed to be the right kind of response from the Arab world, as well as from the United States and the Iraqi government. It was not a dramatic surprise that something like this had happened.

We knew for sometime that [Abu Musab al-]Zarqawi and Al Qaeda were deliberately trying to foment sectarian violence and that there was a controversy inside Al Qaeda about whether killing other Arabs in order to foment sectarian violence was a very popular strategy for Al Qaeda to adopt. We worked hard to try to contain the reactions and contain the escalation, but it underscored and redoubled our growing security problem.

[Did Casey or the military understand the significance of the Samarra bombing?]

A lot of the people who are working Iraq issues at the working level are very savvy and smart about them. There was a very widespread understanding in the military and civilian side, people watching Iraq, of what was going on and how potentially bad this was. And that was true in the Green Zone. Certainly Ambassador [to Iraq, 2005-2007, Zalmay] Khalilzad understood the dangers of this quite well.

Just to situate you in the context, at the time this is happening, we're in the midst of trying to get the new permanent Iraqi government stood up. We are fighting to be sure that that government does not perpetuate the same sectarian-minded incompetence that the [Ibrahim al-]Jaafari government seemed to personify.

You said something changes vis-à-vis the president where he gets more engaged. Describe the June '06 meeting at Camp David. Does the White House shift in its intensity/interest?

Some. I was involved a lot in the run-up to it, but I wasn't there. I heard a little bit about it. The major goal for the whole Camp David sessions … was that the president needs to get involved in a real war council to take a hard, roots-up look at what we're doing in Iraq. It's consistent with this increasing unease that we're not manning an effort with the kind of vigor that the circumstances require to pair up with this new government and get this off to the right kind of start; an increasing unease with the way this is going in Baghdad.

The Camp David meetings did not end up realizing the hopes of some of those at the deputies level and below who'd been involved in the planning of the meetings. That kind of thoroughgoing review didn't really materialize. Maybe our hopes had been unreasonable.

On the other hand, this was the period in which I think the president crystallized his views that we really needed to open up the parameters of the discussion more and make it clear that we're not simply on autopilot on troop reductions. And the secretary of defense, after Camp David, began making it clear that troop levels may go up or they may go down, though our ultimate goal was to draw them down. He'd sort of changed his tone, and MNF began changing their tone and their plans as well. And that really does come from this period around the Camp David meetings.

Rumsfeld's tone and their tone was, "We're leaving Iraq."

It sounded too much like an exit strategy. And the danger of an exit strategy is the goal of an exit strategy is exit. … You need to define a strategy for success, whatever it is. It doesn't have to be exalted claims of victory, but you have to have a strategy for success, define what you think success means, and then allocate the resources that you think are needed to attain those objects. If you say, "Success is simply we leave, they stay, we train them, and then we leave," that very narrow definition can have kind of a nice circular quality, but it kind of avoids a lot of central questions. That was a source of a lot of concern in the summer of '06. That concern deepened as the year went on.

My sense was that the president gets to Baghdad and gets captured by the vibe. He flies from Camp David to Baghdad to meet with [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-]Maliki. Maybe even Casey captures some of him. Your sense of that?

I wasn't on that trip, so I can't really comment whether the president's captured or not. What I can speak to with firsthand knowledge is our own views of Maliki. I've spent time with him on my own and with the secretary, and we all thought Maliki was a much more impressive figure than his predecessor. I think that is still a valid judgment. If you spend a lot of time with Maliki and spend a lot of time with Jaafari, I think practically all Americans who did thought that Maliki had potential to be a much more effective prime minister and a much stronger and more vigorous leader than Jaafari had been.

Maliki would tend to talk directly. He'd get to the point. He was businesslike. He was often stubborn and opinionated. Fine, he has a right to be. He may not always agree with us. Fine, that's understandable. What you needed was someone who was businesslike, could work practical issues and would get to the point and would address problems head on. And Maliki had many of those traits to an unusual degree. There are problems and concerns, but I think we felt better. I think the president probably shared some of this, though I can't speak for his feelings.

What did you think of the Baker-Hamilton report?

We at the State Department were big supporters of creating the Iraq Study Group [also called the Baker-Hamilton commission]. We supported that strongly, especially during the formative period in late 2005 and into early 2006. We thought it would be helpful to get a second look from people who were willing to see the problems straight and that it was hard for us to simply turn our back and walk away from this problem. And we thought that could bring some other political forces into play that might help Congress and the American people understand the kind of commitment we might need to make to see this through.

How did it work out?

On Baker-Hamilton, I have pretty mixed feelings about it. I'd make three points. First, they did a real service in underscoring that we couldn't just turn our backs and walk away. Second, their description of how bad the situation was, was trenchant and helpful in kind of galvanizing the need for action, although by the time they made that report, the administration had already come to these same conclusions privately and was already beginning to act on them.

Third, their policy prescriptions are often are not well enough informed about the details of what people were doing and what was feasible. That's partly their fault. Partly they had problems for secrecy's sake in getting connected to a strong enough staff support structure. … It's partly problems in the administration. The administration had problems sharing its emergent ideas and information with them, perhaps in the ways that might have been most helpful to the group. And also they internalized the then-prevailing military thinking from Gen. Casey, not realizing that the administration had already developed a very strong critique of that thinking, and the administration did not share that critique with the Baker-Hamilton group.

So Casey was done for by the time the Iraq Study Group is talking to him, and they're believing what he's saying?

I can't answer when he was done for, but I can just say there was a lot of concern already by that time in Washington with the leadership in Baghdad and the sense that it was time to replace the leadership team. I think some people felt it was past time.

In May 2005 Vice President [Dick] Cheney is saying on Larry King Live, "I think we're in the last throes of the insurgency." There was a lot of that after Fallujah as well. Were they?

That was not my impression. In May of '05 I was actually visiting Iraq again, trying to do a fundamental workup understanding of how we're doing the intelligence issues and how does that relate to the way we're doing our policing support. And the results of that work were not reassuring. The insurgency was obviously a very serious problem which we didn't understand very well. We were beginning to get a handle on it and contain it effectively in some places and not others. And in May of '05 we still had a long way to go. We'd averted defeat, but victory was not in sight.

In June 2005 Ambassador Khalilzad comes to the country. Before that he's speaking with Andrew Krepinevich, [director, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.], about the inkblot theory. What's up with those conversations? Why would the ambassador be interested and be talking about those things with Andrew?

Editor's Note: The inkblot strategy is similar to clear, hold, build: Forces focus on securing the population in a particular area and follow up by building security forces and encouraging economic development.

Well, you should ask "Zal" [Zalmay Khalilzad]. To his credit, he was very involved as he came on as ambassador in trying to work through what was the strategy, and in trying to help develop a more coherent counterinsurgency approach. He talked to several people and helped get going a kind of red-team effort that did a lot of work in the summer of '05. I was able to get access to their work and included some comments on it in the report that I developed in September of '05. I thought their diagnosis of the problems [was] in general very good. Their identification of the need for a comprehensive strategy was strong.

The reigning metaphor the people have used about an ink-spot I thought was actually not as strong, because it was very linear and implied, "Well, we're going to have this one ink-spot, and then we're going to grow out from that ink-spot, and it will get bigger and bigger."

The problem with this metaphor as a guide to the strategy is there are a number of different wars going on, in effect, in Iraq, and you needed to be engaged simultaneously in all of them. You couldn't just say, "Well, we're going to put this business going on in Mosul on ice for a year while we sort out what's happening." You had to be engaged simultaneously in several parts of Iraq.

Should we read it as a kind of new assertiveness by the State Department in Iraq that the ambassador is interested in military strategy?

Well, Zal had been involved in defense strategy issues off and on in much of his career, and so took a good, healthy interest in that. But again, I want to emphasize the point that strategy in Iraq cannot just be a military strategy. Everyone understands this who understands counterinsurgency. The counterinsurgency manual that [Gen. David] Petraeus, [commander, MNF-I, as of 2007] helped develop understands this very well. Counterinsurgency strategy is quintessentially a civil-military strategy, and you can't develop the civil divorced from the military, and you can't have a, quote, "military strategy" that isn't fully integrated into the civil approach.

So not only is it appropriate that the ambassador should take an interest; to do this right, he has to take an intense interest and help shape the strategy. And it's to Zal's credit that he was really engaged in trying to do that during those first months in 2005. I think the challenge he encountered is [that] after that initial push to really get his arms around that and get involved in it, he found it difficult to sustain that level of strategic effort at overall policy development as he became more bogged down with the daily tactical execution of his task as ambassador.

My impression is that there was more than a little bit of pushback from Casey and Casey's staff about the idea of the ambassador getting involved.

That I don't know about. But in any case, in my own work and the work that I was helping shepherd at the State Department, we picked up on what Zal had started and carried the ball downfield. And then that ends up culminating in Secretary Rice testifying in October of '05, laying out the comprehensive civil-military approach on Iraq captured in the phrase "clear, hold and build."

You spoke of the idea that Rumsfeld and others -- Washington, Pentagon people -- were not engaged. Into that breach the State Department appears to step in, taking a larger role --

The secretary of defense hadn't stepped back from Iraq strategy, but we couldn't really see any push to innovate the strategy in significant ways. It still seemed to be … an exit strategy. And then you don't really develop any strategy for success independent of exit, which creates problems from our point of view. You can have an argument over what the alternative strategies should be, but we didn't think exit was the right metric of success. That's really more about Americans than it is about Iraq.

So now, as you get into the summer of '05, there is a rising chorus in America of, what's the plan for success? People were prepared to support the president. They were encouraged by the outcome of the [Iraqi] election, … but they're increasingly worried that … "we don't see how you're going to win."

At the State Department we felt increasingly restless that the strategy wasn't being articulated at home or in the field as effectively as we thought it should be, with the kind of coherent counterinsurgency approach that we thought was needed and we thought a lot of the military accepted. The White House wasn't doing it. They preferred to write different kinds of speeches for the president. And the secretary of defense wasn't doing it.

So the secretary of state really had to make the decision to step up and accept responsibility for helping to articulate a strategy for Iraq. And Secretary Rice did that in October of '05, which then helped spur the rest of the administration, including the White House, to unveil a much more elaborate version of the national strategy for victory in Iraq, which they did later in '05. … But then really, the challenge was to develop the plans and strategy in the field and the forces and resources that would execute that strategy confidently and prepare us to step out vigorously with the new Iraqi government that would come into place in '06.

Was it reinvigorated? Did things get moving in a way that you could recognize as positive?

There was some positive movement, but not enough. What ended up happening was that the basic center for policy development on Iraq remained in Baghdad. And Baghdad was not fundamentally innovating the policy. So therefore Washington, in early '06, ends up getting preoccupied with things like getting better infrastructure security and making better efforts to work the electricity and fuel problems, for example, and on which a lot of time was spent by people like Secretary Rice and [National Security Adviser] Steve Hadley, and then a lot of time spent in early '06 on trying to be sure that the next Iraqi government would be better than its predecessor. Secretary Rice had to spend a lot of time working that issue as well.

But then you're getting into the spring of '06 and even after Samarra, a fundamentally new approach to Iraq isn't really acquiring a real shape and substance. Yes, there is a new joint campaign plan that's developed by MNF-I. But underneath that we just didn't find the kind of strategy that we thought was needed.

People can disagree with that, and they can point to documents saying, "There it is; it's there." I just can say that from my point of view, it wasn't there. A strategy that stated what the priorities were going to be, stating those priorities in concrete operational terms, explaining what strategies we were going to adopt in different areas to attain those operational objectives, and then stating the force requirements and resource requirements needed to execute that strategy, and then to get that organized and go forward on a civil-military basis, we didn't see it.

So there was a lot of pressure by the early summer of 2006 to try to get a fundamental war council in which the president would pull this up by its roots and look at it and do a thoroughgoing review of the strategy for the conduct of the war.

That's what the June '06 Camp David meeting was?

That's what Camp David was meant to be. I think it became an occasion in which the parameters were reset, and the president made it clear that he really is determined to succeed and that this isn't just about an exit strategy; it really is a success strategy, and that we may even need to increase troops if that's what's going to be needed to execute a better strategy.

But the substantive review of the strategy that some of us who had been supporting the Camp David sessions had hoped for, that didn't really unfold. We got some basic elements going for the framework for a new strategy. That is, we and the Maliki government agreed, now, OK, we need to have a political element, a national reconciliation, a national compact. We need to have economic renewal. We need to have a whole new security approach founded on a greatly redoubled effort at Baghdad security. We need to underpin it with an international framework; the United States will help organize a framework led by the United Nations and the Iraqis.

All of that framework was put in place, and we started marching forward on that. The first Baghdad security plan was developed in Baghdad. It was obvious to us it was going to fail. It did fail, and it was then promptly replaced by the next Baghdad security plan, which took shape toward the end of the summer of 2006.

So that plan -- Operation Together Forward II -- why didn't it work?

It didn't succeed because the Iraqi government didn't resource it and prosecute it in a strong, impartial way. … And the American side didn't develop a strong and robust enough civil-military plan on the American end. [So] it made some headway, but only temporary headway. The problem that there weren't Iraqi forces to come in behind and hold shouldn't have surprised anyone. These were all foreseeable problems.

Did you think we had enough troops over there?

No. No one thought we had a comfortably sufficient amount of troops. I don't think I ever encountered anyone who [could] even make that argument with a straight face.

What I thought by, say, summer/fall of 2005 was that, even to perform the strategy we were trying to execute, our troops were clearly stretched to the absolute limit. For instance, we no longer were able to maintain an adequate Corps Reserve or Reserve to deal with new threats because everything we had was deployed. And you sensed that there wasn't really any margin of safety. This is in the best case. Then there were some specific gaps or some specific area[s] of military needs where we were short for some particular things, like, for instance, sufficient intelligence assets to really redouble the intelligence efforts that would be part of the counterinsurgency campaign.

That's the best case. And then, depending on how you reworked the strategy, which would probably give you more ambitious requirements for forces, you might find that you're palpably short of what you need.

I think actually the window in which to push for a redoubled military commitment was much better to do that in late '05 preparing for '06 than it is now in 2007.

Because?

In '05/'06 there is a much stronger base in America for support, the sense of, "This might be working; we had a good election; it's worth a major commitment to try to make it work." Also I think [there was] a stronger base of support for the president. In Iraq the sectarian violence hadn't marked the country as deeply. The American occupation hadn't yet worn out its welcome quite as much as it had worn it out a year later. A year is a long time for a people to feel like they are being occupied.

In fall 2006, Gen. [Jack] Keane and [Frederick] Kagan, [military historian and American Enterprise Institute (AEI) resident scholar] ... start to have some influence. Who are Keane and Kagan? What was the substance of what they were proposing? Is it consistent with what you thought?

No, not quite. I didn't talk to them directly. I began reading their op-ed pieces and so on. What I liked about their approach is that they sensed that there wasn't really a strategy for success. They saw the strategic void -- big insight, very important.

They also saw that OK, then you really need to do the analysis of force requirements, and when you do the analysis of force requirements, you may come up with a lot bigger needs than we now have, right? They also sensed that the security issues were central and you had to step up to them, drawing from this knowledge we have about how to try to get a grip on insurgencies and civil conflict.

One of the concerns I had about their approach is that it didn't really factor the Iraqis into it. It was still very much written as if this was our chessboard and then we could just move the pieces around [in a] way that suited us. And by the fall of '06 a central part of the problem was precisely the Iraqi variable. You couldn't wish that variable away or finesse it away. You had to take that on, because we would not be able to execute our desired strategy if the Iraqis weren't onboard with that strategy and taking a very strong role in it. There may have been a time when their approach would have been more effective. But in the fall of 2006, you had to really come to grips with the Iraqi part of the variable.

Also, there are just some practical problems in the implementation of their approach, and the American forces available for use in '06 and '07, and also the effects of their approach on our broader global force posture and our freedom of strategic maneuver to deal with a lot of problems that America might encounter in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world.

This same time Stephen Hadley goes over to Iraq, writes a memo. What was he trying to do? What was the effect of that visit, that memo, around that time?

By the time he writes that, which I think is October '06, essentially the strategy review is already under way internally inside different agencies. Right after the election, the different reviews … will be brought together, and then an interagency strategy review commences.

So the NSC [National Security Council] staff is already internally working on these issues too. … So Steve writes up his report to the president. The report, as it's been published, actually is a very good reflection of general views that were common among the people who were looking at Iraq at that point. Those are not extreme, outlier views in any way. If anything, his memo is expressed to them in a more careful and mild way than they were being expressed in other parts of the government.

Characterize the sense of the U.S. government in October of 2006 about the health of Iraq.

The momentum toward sectarian division is not slowing. Maliki's government's will to deal with the security issues impartially is uncertain. And the current political-economic-military strategy isn't really succeeding. We focused a lot on the military side of this. But on the political side, national reconciliation wasn't advancing as quickly as we would like. And a fundamental problem there was [that] lack of motivation on the Maliki government side, and the lack of sufficient influence or leverage on our side, either on the side of rewards or on the side of withholds.

To really do this right, you had to be willing to play both ways. That would then require some really tough choices. In general, we needed to think hard about, "What are the American interests here? And how do we need to relate to the Iraqi government?," because too often it seemed that actually we wanted good government more than they did. Well, that was not a sustainable position.

Did you know Rumsfeld had to go a long time before?

Rumsfeld's demise was rumored about. That obituary was drafted many times before it was published. And many people remarked that we're not going to be able to change strategy in Iraq unless we change the team, including Secretary Rumsfeld. But that wasn't the president's view. And by then I had become philosophical on these matters. I had heard people gossip about how he's got to leave so much that I just didn't know whether to attach any seriousness to any rumor.

It matters that he left?

It mattered enormously that he left. It mattered enormously that they made a change in the leadership of the civilian and military team in Baghdad. And I think from the point of view of posterity, a lot of the questions are going to be, would it have made a bigger difference if those changes had occurred sooner? Maybe even much sooner.

Why does it matter?

If the critique of the strategy is as fundamental as the critique that I and others were laying out, then obviously the people who were responsible for this aren't the people who are going to devise the new plan. And in a way, to make it safe for people to question the old way things were being done, you needed to change the command so that it was safe for people to openly question things and safe for them to openly propose new things.

Secretary Rumsfeld was fiercely protective of his prerogatives and of his turf. But at the same time, he was not going to be a source of critical innovation in developing a different kind of strategy. And that point had seemed pretty clear for years, because he was in turn delegating a lot of that responsibility to his military commanders, Gen. Casey above all. And it wasn't really happening there either.

So the Americans, or at least those voting Democrat, believe their November 2006 vote signals a withdrawal?

I think you can fairly say that what they signal is unhappiness with the status quo. That message was received, and it's a perfectly fair message. And it was received loud and clear. The status quo had been unsatisfactory for sometime before the election.

What did you hear in the president's speech [announcing the surge]? Did you hear things that gave you hope?

I was pleased that the president recognized the need for a new strategy. I was glad that the president wanted to break a negative cycle in which the Iraqis and the Americans expected the worst of each other, acted accordingly and often got their predictions to come true, and wanted to change that to a positive cycle where we expect the best of you, and if you'll step up, we'll step up with you. That could be a virtuous cycle.

I thought that the particular way the president framed the strategy, though, came across very much as a high-stakes bet. … What the president chose to do is stress the upside potential: if the Iraqis will do the right thing, and how we could join them to do that, and the way that could break the cycle of sectarian violence in Baghdad. I understand the value of stressing that upside possibility, but there's a little bit of a danger that it sounds too much like a high-stakes gamble instead of like a long-term investment for results that may not materialize right away.

When Petraeus and the president use the word "surge," talking about dividing Baghdad, clearing, holding and building, how do you feel about that?

I'm a tremendous supporter of what they're trying to do. As a historian sometimes and someone who participated in this process, I do worry if it's too late. I advocated doing a lot of the things that they wanted to do more than a year ago. …

But circumstances change. The uncertainties about that are very great now, so what you need then is a strategy that's resilient. You need a strategy that will work even if things don't go the way you want them to. Too often people thought that the administration was planning for the best and not preparing for the worst, and instead you needed to convince them that you're planning for the worst but preparing for the best.

I think that would be a more credible stance. With that kind of approach and American interests key to it, then you can keep the American people behind the kind of commitment over the longer haul in Iraq that's going to be needed to really see the sort of positive changes in a country at the heart of the Middle East that's going through a revolution.

Why not withdraw?

Part of the problem with the idea, withdrawal right away, is actually the same problem with escalation right away. It's take the Iraqis out of the equation. So you say: "You Iraqis are doing so badly. We're just going to withdraw, because you're a mess." Then the Iraqis say: "We're actually going to change our policies. We're going to do the right thing." You say: "Well, OK. We're going to withdraw anyway. We'll withdraw, because you're doing the bad thing. And we'll withdraw even if you do the good thing, because basically we just want to get out."

This is not a very good way to advance our interests if we think this country in this part of the world is really important to our safety. I think it is. We don't want to see Iraq become a base for global terror. We don't want to see Iraq lose its independence and just become a proxy battlefield for regional rivalries that are bound to involve us eventually. If we can, we'd like to prevent the return of tyranny of the kind that plunged that region into a generation of warfare, including two wars that involved us.

I think those are core American interests that we need to be able to advance, so we need to be able to be engaged. In other words, you put in more if you think the circumstances are so promising that your efforts will be effective. You put in less if they won't. But if you say, "I'm going to escalate regardless," or, "I'm going to withdraw regardless," that's not a strategy that's about Iraq or Iraqis. That's a strategy that's about us, and we shouldn't be the principal subject of this. We owe Iraqis more than that, and we have a stake in the stability of this region.

Casey is having a target painted on his back. What do you think of that? Is it deserved? Is the strategy now declared as failed? Or is that fair?

I've been critical of Gen. Casey on some points, but he had an enormously difficult, tough job. If people weren't satisfied with the job he was doing, it was their job to remove him and put him in another job, all right? So they left him in place to do the job that he was doing. Having performed that service honorably, he should be treated honorably when he leaves it.

I'm not sure that chief of staff of the Army was the right choice. But my own qualm about that decision was that the Army needs to be able to have an open, unhindered, free examination of its own performance in Iraq, and it will be harder for the Army to examine its own performance in Iraq if the person who led that performance is the chief of staff of the Army controlling the promotions of all of its senior officers.

What does David Petraeus face in the next few months?

The biggest obstacle Petraeus faces is that I think he's going to have to come in and write a strategy that hasn't been written yet. Washington couldn't do that work that hadn't been done in Baghdad, and hasn't really been done yet, in my judgment. I think [Petraeus] and the people with him may actually do it the right way and come up with honest conclusions about it. If they do, I think we're going to be reinventing the strategy on the fly. Speaking now in February of '07 -- I don't think he knows yet really what he's going to need.

Then he has a situation in which the political scope to get what he needs done is now so much narrower than it was earlier, because the occupation is now entering its fifth year, and we've substantially worn out our welcome there. The scope for action is more limited. The scope of resources that the American military can make available to him is more limited, and the political will inside the United States is narrowed. So really, at the point where he may decide he needs to make ambitious demands upon the Iraqi body politic and the American body politic and on the American military and the civilian establishment, the reservoir of willpower and material available to him may not be what he wants to draw from.

We're nowhere near endgame.

If we intend to stay with Iraq and try to really help improve it over time, we're nowhere near the endgame. The only way we're near the endgame is if we decide that Iraq's no longer going to be our problem and we're just going to get out. That's not the position I support. But I think that's the only way in which he can turn this into an endgame, because then it's just saying: "Well, it's not the endgame for Iraq. It's just going to be the endgame for America's involvement in Iraq."

home . introduction . watch online . interviews . timeline . themes . join the discussion
producer's chat . readings & links . site map . dvd & transcript . press reaction
credits . privacy policy . journalistic guidelines . FRONTLINE series home . wgbh . pbs

posted june 19, 2007

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
main photograph © corbis, all rights reserved
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation