AEI and surge co-author Fred Kagan on progress in Iraq, and blasts Mike Huckabee’s ideas for Iranian foreign policy.
HH: There’s still a war going on. We always want to pay attention to that. Joined now by Fred Kagan, one of the authors of the surge from the American Enterprise Institute. Fred, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show. Can you give us a summary of what you understand conditions to be in Iraq today, as of middle December, 2007?
FK: Well, the security situation in Iraq has improved amazingly, and on a very broad basis. Frankly, much more dramatically and broadly than I ever anticipated when we initially proposed the surge at the end of last year. And it appears that life is actually returning to something like normal in Baghdad, people going to parks, and letting their children out on the street, and sending their kids to school, and people actually starting to move back who had fled the violence. So it’s really been quite a dramatic reversal.
HH: Now Fred Kagan, the next comment that normally comes in a discussion of conditions in Baghdad is that of course, political paralysis continues, and there’s no guarantee this will go forward. What’s your response to that?
FK: Well, the first thing is that of course, all of this progress has been made in the absence of political progress, which was not supposed to happen, either, according to the doomsayers, you know, who said all along that there was only a political solution to this. Well, as it turns out, we’ve been able to work with the Iraqis, both political leaders and military officials, to defeat the enemies, or at least hurt them very badly. And I think the enemies are going to take some time to regroup, even if there’s no political capitol. There’s this sort of a notion that as soon as the surge, we pull all the troops back, the situation automatically snaps back to what it was in January, ’07. And that’s not, we’ve changed the situation on the ground very profoundly. But I would also say that there actually has been some political progress. They have passed a pensions law, which is very important from the standpoint of dealing with the deBaathification issue. And there’s a deBaathification law that’s in front of the Council of Representatives as well, and I think there’s some prospect that that will be passed next year as well.
HH: How goes the dispute over oil revenues, Fred Kagan?
FK: Well, the oil revenues question is not primarily a major engine for the Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq, and I don’t think, frankly, it ever really has been. This wasn’t about oil. The people who are a problem from that perspective are actually the Kurds. And they continue to be a problem, but I have a feeling that they will start to soften their approach. In the meantime, what matters is that oil revenues are being distributed evenly throughout the country, and are going to Sunni areas for reconstruction, as well as Shia areas.
HH: Now in the South, there had been many reports of a deteriorating situation and tribal warfare, et cetera. What is your understanding of what’s going on in the Basra region?
FK: Well, what’s going on in the South generally is that where you had had significant power, especially grass roots support and militia support for Muqtada al Sadr and his extremist militias, a lot of which are really Iranian backed, or fronts for Iranian groups, what we’ve seen is that Iraqi Security Forces have been attacking those groups and the militias that are lined up with the Iraqi Security Forces, the Badr corps, have been joining in those attacks. And so what you’ve mostly seen going on in the South is that the most extremist, most pro-Iranian, most dangerous elements are being defeated by Shia forces that have sided with us. So yeah, there’s been some increase in violence overall, but part of that is because we’ve had our friends working to defeat our enemies.
HH: Now about Iran’s role in Iraq, have you been able to pick up a decision on their part to de-escalate their confrontation with the West there?
FK: No, I don’t think they have. I think what has happened is that we have been much more effective at interdicting their networks, picking up the people that they’ve been infiltrating, cutting off the lines of supply for their weapons, and some of the training stuff that they’ve been doing. And all of that, and of course, we’ve disrupted the Shia militias that they’d been supporting with direct action. So I think all of that is enough to explain the drop in violence from that side, and I haven’t picked up any evidence that the Iranians have stopped. In fact, we continue to pick up, until very recently, we’ve been continuing to pick up Iranians and Iranian agents one way, and another running around Iraq doing bad things. So I don’t see that they’ve turned that off.
HH: In a speech that’s getting a lot of attention in a Foreign Affairs article that’s getting a lot of attention, presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has been talking about Iran and the failure to establish diplomatic relations with them, as though this is a failing on the part of the Bush administration. Is he right? Is Iran’s behavior in response to our inability to sit down with them, or our unwillingness to sit down with them?
FK: Well, absolutely not. The Iranians are doing what they’re doing for a variety of reasons, having to do with their own interests. We can have a conversation about whether we should talk to them or not, and at what level, but the notion that if we would just sort of sit down with them, we could clear this whole thing up, is absurd. The Iranians know perfectly well what our positions are. We know what they are, and we are talking to them. The American ambassador in Iraq has been meeting with his Iranian counterpart and other Iranian officials. We were about to have a fourth meeting, and the Iranians cancelled it. So you know, the question is, would it make a difference if it was ambassador to ambassador, would it make a difference with president to president? Diplomatic negotiations like that can help when you have misunderstandings. But when you actually have interests in conflict, then that’s not going to be the solution.
HH: Let’s turn back to the Iraqi Security Forces. How is the progress, Fred Kagan, that they are experiencing in the course of the security brought about by the surge?
FK: Well, the Iraqi Security Forces have been doing very well, actually, in a lot of areas. And they’ve been conducting operations almost independently in the North, where we have very few forces in Nineveh Province, and the Iraqi Security Forces have been keeping control of that difficult situation almost on their own. And of course, in the South, we have basically no forces at all. And we’ve now turned responsibility for Basra over to the 10th Iraqi army division, and they’ve been working on it, and fighting militias. So pretty much across the board, I think, you know, some units better than others. The Iraqi army has been fighting hard, it’s been fighting well. They take casualties, but people keep signing up, and they never have a lack of recruits for that force.
HH: And the police forces, which were so deeply compromised a year, year and a half ago, have they begun to rebuild?
FK: Well, we always have to be careful here, because the regular sort of local Iraqi police have always been a mixed bag, and there’ve been some units that were okay, and some units that were not. That situation is improving very slowly. The national police, which is the smallest element of this, it’s about 25,000 of them out of a total of 3-400,000 Iraqi Security Forces total, those guys are thoroughly infiltrated by Shia sectarian militias. We finally got the commander of one of the most notorious of those units fired in October, something we’d been trying to do for a while. And so that’s a positive step. But that force, we’re still going to have to work on. But keep in mind that that force is a small proportion of the ISF overall.
HH: And Fred Kagan, looking ahead to the American troop levels in ’08, what do you expect to happen, and I saw a story that they were talking about a possible redeployment or concentration of American troops in Baghdad. What are you picking up on this?
FK: Well, the command’s going to continue to shift forces around in Iraq in response to the changing security situation, and what they need to do. And I, you know, they’ve been amazingly talented so far at knocking the enemy off balance, keeping the enemy off balance, and then holding onto the gains. So I think you’re going to continue to see U.S. forces shifting around in Iraq, which is all to the good. It means what we’ve been doing is preventing the enemy from ever reconstituting, and ever regaining a foothold from which to launch significant attacks.
HH: And so do you expect significant draw downs in ’08?
FK: I think if we have any sense, we will draw back to the pre-surge level of 15 brigades, as is planned, and then we will stay there through the end of Bush’s term. I think the notion that we can make any decision about what the force level should be until we see what the situation looks like when we’re back at that level, is militarily nonsensical.
HH: Fred Kagan, always a pleasure from AEI. I appreciate you’re taking the time to spend some time with us.
End of interview.