From the Brian Lehrer show this morning, a discussion with Thomas Ricks, author of "Fiasco" and Washington Post military correspondent:
Brian Lehrer: I think it's the Washington Post... that's saying the troop surge is not what Prime Minister Maliki asked for? Just the opposite? He asked for US withdrawal from Baghdad? Are you familiar with that?
Maliki, real politik and America's "surge"
Thomas Ricks: I am. Very much. When I was with Defense Secretary Gates in Baghdad last month the Iraqi officials hanging around the meetings would tell you that what they had asked for was that US forces move to the periphery of Baghdad and basically beat up the Sunnis for them while they more or less finished the ethnic cleansing of central Baghdad with the Shiite army.
BL: That's an interesting way to put it!
TR: Well, it's my characterization. It's not quite how they put it! But -- reading between the lines -- that's where they were going. It's a kind of "donut strategy": you guys get out of here and be useful chumps while we sort out our internal differences, finish the ethnic cleansing, and consolidate our hold on power. I don't think that's where the Americans wanted to go so, while they called this "Maliki's plan," it's almost the opposite. It's "we're going to send troops into the middle of the city, double the American presence on the streets of Baghdad because we don't trust your army.
BL: Why? I mean seriously. From a strictly cold, calculating US national interest perspective, why would the US care if the Shiites finished the ethnic cleansing job in Baghdad if it gives the US a structure for some kind of internal solution, even if it's a "use your guns"-power-oriented military solution in Baghdad, while the US saves its fire power to go after Al Qaeda?
TR: Well, there's a good reason why the US has to worry about that. The US government still hopes for a reconciliation, that some sort of political solution can be worked out between the Shia and the Sunnis that includes the Kurds as well and averts a full-blown civil war. They're in a chronic, low-level civil war. Today was a particularly nasty day in Baghdad already.
BL: More than 70 people killed and two bomb blasts in the city...
TR: Yes. And actually in the last few minutes there's been another one in a police station -- another 14 people. You've got 27 US troops dead over the weekend. So it's been a rough few days there. My worry about the US insisting on reconciliation is that politically the Bush administration consistently has been about 6 to 12 months behind the curve in Iraq from the very get-go. In military terms, it's called "losing the initiative." We've been operating off balance -- basically fighting from our heels rather than our toes since about 2003. The reality of Iraq that they haven't caught up with, I fear, is that the Shiites have concluded that they've won. And that's why we're proposing this "donut" strategy. And as you say, if the Shiites have won, then it has won the civil war, won control of Iraq. All we're doing is being a useful tool to help them out and keep the Sunnis off their back while they consolidate their hold. I think the US is going to try over the next 6 months to operate more independently and say, "No, we're not just going to be a tool for the Shiites." Whether they can pull that off is a wholly different question.
BL: You must be doing this interview with your AP wire or something in front of you because I see now that it moved across the wire just 3 minutes ago that a bomb and mortar attack has hit a market in a volatile area north of Baghdad killing 12 people and wounding nearly 30. So that's in addition to the 70+ reported in the earlier attacks and that's the one you were referring to.
TR: Yes. I never do interviews without the wire in front of me!
Muqtada al Sadr and Maliki -- who's in charge?
BL: But despite what we were saying about this Maliki plan and the US going against the Maliki plan, there's something else from the AP today. It says, "Iraq's prime minister has dropped his protection of an anti-American cleric's Shiite militia after US intelligence convinced him the group was infiltrated by death squads, according to two officials speaking yesterday..."...
TR: ...Are you a basefall fan?
BL: Am I a baseball fan? Well, yeah.
TR: The Iraqi prime minister saying he's dropping his protection of Muqtada al Sadr is like the third-base coach of the Yankees' single A farm team saying he's going to straighten out George Steinbrenner! That's the power relationship between Maliki and Sadr. Sadr commands a more powerful force than Maliki does. By US military calculations, Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, has more effective fighters than the Iraqi army does.
BL: But... if you're right then the Bush administration strategy right now -- this "troop surge" as they call it -- hinges to some degree on an impossibility. Because yes, the US is going to go after Sadr's militia itself, I guess, with this troop surge in Baghdad, but they're looking for cooperation and they say it's vital to get the cooperation of Maliki. And it seems to me what they mean by cooperation is his willingness to crack down and continue cracking down. Am I wrong about that?
How Bush lost Iraq
TR: Not at all. The problem here, as you may suspect, is that two aspects have characterized the American approach in Iraq over the past three years. One has been official over-optimism in which institutions fail to recognize the basic reality on the ground. The second is a rush to failure with Iraqi forces. I think the concern of a lot of people in the military right now -- especially officers who have a tour or two in Iraq -- is that the new plan combines both those flaws: official optimism about what Iraqis are willing to do, and a rush to failure in pushing Iraqis too soon to do too much.
BL: I want to play a clip of Senator McCain followed by Senator Kennedy who were both on "Meet the Press" in the debate over what to do next.
Senator McCain: There's a McCain principle and that is that when you raise your hand and vote to send young Americans into harm's way that you will commit yourself and your efforts to completing that mission successfully.
Senator Kennedy: If we have a president who's going to effectively defy the American people, going to defy the generals, defy the majority of the Congress of the US -- Republicans and Democrats -- then we, I think, have a responsibility to end the funding for the war.
BL: So... McCain and Kennedy about as polarized as they can be on this. McCain saying "We have an obligation to the troops to go in and try to do it right this time" and Kennedy saying "We have an obligation to cut off the funding because they've messed it up so badly in the past." Know what I want to ask you -- because I think most people and certainly McCain acknowledge how the war went bad, as you chronicle in your book. But this week the American people might get their first look at the new US commander in Iraq -- David Petraeus -- as he's due to testify on Capitol Hill. Petraeus tends to get much more praise than other military leaders in Iraq. Who is David Petraeus and why does he support this strategy?
What David Petraeus did right
TR: Petraeus is a fascinating character. Just about the best general in the Army in a lot of people's view. Quite ambitious. Quite smart. Extraordinarily competitive. Both a combat leader and the holder of a PhD from Princeton in which he studied the Vietnam war and its effects on the US military. Stands out -- particularly in recent history -- because he had a very successful first tour in Iraq in 2003-2004. Really an exception to the rule. The other division commanders were digging themselves a pretty deep hole. Petraeus realized very quickly that US military training doctrine didn't really do the job. So he kind of improvised, reached back to his knowledge of Vietnam and counter-insurgency theory and operated very differently. He had the 101st Airborne Division up in Mosul and was quite successful. Mosul was seen by US intelligence going in as a very tough problem, a place where they really expected fighting to begin because you had a large chunk of retired Baathist officers but also thousands of armed Kurdish fighters, both in the city. So a real tinderbox. And Petraeus kept the place quiet. He kind of had his own foreign policy even -- he had relations with the government of Syria because he wanted to get energy flowing into Mosul, wanted to get fiber optics up to get communications going. Did a very good job. What really struck me when I was writing my book, "Fiasco," was how few instances of abuse he had of Iraqi detainees in his division. A real contrast to several other divisions. They really had problems with American soldiers abusing Iraqis. This wasn't just Abu Ghraib. This was in many places during 2003-2004. I interviewed him once and I asked him about that. He said, "You know, people say this is a squad leader's war, a platoon leader's war." He said, "I'll tell you what a division commander can do. The division commander can set the tone." And he really did. The first time his division had an instance of abuse -- a detainee being beaten while in detention -- he basically shut down the division. He not only said "what are you guys doing wrong?" but he looked in the mirror and said "what am I doing wrong?" And... he changed the unit holding the prisoners -- they'd had a military intelligence unit -- they said "that's wrong, we shouldn't have done it." They got MP's who were used to handling prisoners. The other thing he did that really struck me: he invited Iraqi officials -- clerics, professors -- to come into his detention facility once a week and meet with the prisoners, speak to them in Arabic which the guards couldn't understand, ask how they were treated and also to put down rumors in the general population about what was happening to the detainees. A really smart bunch of moves. So the bottom line on Petraeus with a lot of officers now is "look -- this situation is pretty bad, it's pretty bleak out there -- if anyone can do it Petraeus is probably the guy who can try best." But even then, what I'm hearing, is they don't expect it to succeed.
BL: But he seems to believe in this troop surge.
TR: I think he does because you can't go into the situation not believing in it. Petraeus will emphasize, I think, in his confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, that it's not just more troops, it's using troops differently. That's the key. One of the things I suspect he'll do is put his battalion commanders out across the city. Rather than having them operating on big bases and just doing do patrols out of the bases, he wants them out living among the population. And rather than pursuing insurgents, he understands classic counterinsurgency theory that your job is to make the insurgent irrelevant. How do you do that? By protecting the people. Even at the expense of protecting your own troops.
American troops working with Iraqis
BL: I think we saw some of the risks that Americans will be taking with this new strategy already this weekend, because some of those 27 troops who were killed over the weekend-- maybe most of them, you can tell me -- a high number for any two-day period in the war -- were embedded. They were American embeds with Iraqi-led groups, if I understood the news reports that I saw. Are we going to see more of that?
TR: I don't think they were embeds. I understand there was a civil affairs team sent to discuss with officials down south about how to handle some upcoming religious holidays. What happened is that, while they were in those discussions, some fighters came in dressed in Iraqi military and police uniforms, driving an official-looking vehicle. They came through checkpoints and they came to shoot the Americans who were visiting to have these discussions. So not quite embeds, but there's always been a worry that when you put US troops out there embedded -- say 12 guys embedded with a battalion of 500 Iraqi troops...
BL: ...Under the direct command of Iraqis?
TR: ... not under their command because the US, as a matter of policy, doesn't put US troops under the command of foreign commanders. But basically in isolated circumstances among Iraqis. The real worry is that Iraqi forces might turn on Americans at some point. Actually -- the more they confront Muqtada al Sadr, the more the rank and file of the Iraqi army which is largely Shiite might feel alienated from Americans.
Iraq and Washington politics
BL: Are you also following the politics of the troop surge or escalation in Congress right now?
TR: Very much! And I'll tell you what fascinates me most about watching Congress over the last six months is it's not what's happened with the Democrats. The Democrats really haven't changed their positions much on Iraq. They've just become more vocal about it and are getting more media attention. The really interesting thing that's going on in the politics of the Iraq war is what's happening with Republicans. And the essentially the story of the past six months is the collapse of Republican support for this war. Beginning, really, with the return of John Warner from Iraq in October. He was, at that point, Chair of the Armed Services committee and in that role kind of the bellwether for his party on national security issues. He came back and said, "This war is not working." And you saw Republicans start to head for the exits -- from the Bush administration policy.
BL: Sam Brownback yesterday, as he announced his presidential campaign on "ABC This Week" said the same thing. Here's a very conservative Republican who has now broken ranks on the war and when George Stephanopolous asked him, "What changed?", he said "I went to Iraq recently and saw..."
TR: Yeah. I mean the most interesting group are the 21 Republican senators who come up for reelection in November 2008 -- just two years from now. When you ask them, "What's it going to be like when you have to campaign with Iraq hanging around your neck like it did for people in '06?" -- their faces turn white! I was talking last week with Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, a conservative, and he comes up in '08. I was talking with him about that and he said "Look, it can't be the same. It's going to be different. Either it's going to be much better or it's going to be much worse. But Iraq is going to be different." And he said, "If it's much better, fin If it's much worse..." and he just kind of shook his head.
BL: One thing about the Democrats, though -- and I want to replay one of Hillary Clinton's clips that we heard earlier in the hour. This is from her presidential announcement over the weekend. And whether she or any other Democrats have an Iraq policy or whether they just have criticism:
Senator Clinton: ...Let's talk about how to bring the right end to the war in Iraq and to restore respect for America around the world. How to make us energy independent and free of foreign oil. How to end the deficits that threaten Social Security and Medicare. And lets definitely talk about how every American can have quality, affordable health care...
BL: So all she said about the war was "Let's start a conversation." She did introduce a bill last week to cap the number of troops. But that doesn't really take a direction. How do you see the Democrats as providing a real alternative to the president's plan. Or not. And Senator Clinton in particular.
TR: I think the problem for the Democrats is not that they don't have an alternative but probably that they have so many! Each presidential candidate seems to have been developing his or her own approach.
BL: Such as we heard Senator Kennedy actually calling for a cut off of funding whereas Senator Levin, Chair of the Armed Services committee, says "No, don't do that."
TR: The overarching goal for the Democratic party -- this is going to sound cynical, but I don't think it is -- is they just don't want to get tagged with Iraq like they got tagged with Vietnam. And so they're in a difficult position here. How do they appear to be answering the call of their base about Iraq without doing something that gets them all the blame? And so the prevailing Democratic attitude is, Why take this mess off of George Bush's hands? He created it. He's the one who should deal with it over the next two years.
BL: And Clinton is in the mainstream of that?
TR: Yeah, I think so. They want to appear to be doing something without doing too much that winds up getting them blamed.