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AEI scholar and surge co-author Fred Kagan on Iraq’s progress

Monday, April 14, 2008

HH: Joined now from Berlin by Fred Kagan, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, one of the architects of the surge policy which has succeeded so well in Iraq. Fred Kagan, welcome back, what did you make of General Petraeus’ and Ambassador Crocker’s testimony last week?

FK: Well, I thought that they both gave very detailed and considered and sober evaluations of the situation, that tracked with everything that I’ve seen. I think if anything, they were understated. I think the progress has actually been even more dramatic in some respects than they’ve made out. And I think that the prospects are very positive, and that’s something that they’re both understandably reluctant to talk about, particularly in an atmosphere where at least half of their questioners weren’t even prepared to accept their report of reality on the ground.

HH: Senator Lieberman made that point on this show, and during the hearings, that all he wants is for people to agree on the facts. So let’s kind of focus on that, Fred Kagan. In terms of the level of violence and the prospects for stability, what are the facts on the ground?

FK: Well, the facts about the level of violence are clear, and most people recognize that, even though the people who said that the violence would never fall as a result of the surge are now discounting this fall of violence, for some reason. But I think the facts that we need to agree on are that there actually has been very significant political progress. It is easily demonstrable. And it’s a little bit hard to understand how someone like Senator Clinton can just walk out of the hearings and say well, the surge has been a failure, there hasn’t been political progress. If you like benchmarks, the Iraqis have met about twelve out of the eighteen benchmarks Congress set for them. They made a lot of progress on five more. If you like laws, they Iraqis have passed about four of five out of the six most important laws that we’ve identified. If you want to talk about the situation on the ground, and I think this is even more important, all of the observers in Iraq, all of the people who have been working very hard on this, have reported a dramatic increase in the fluidity of the Iraqi political situation over the past few months. And the story about how Maliki decided to go after the Sadr militia, and how that has been playing in Iraq, has just been totally missed by most of the people who have been reporting on it, who’ve been trying to spin it as a bad news story, when in fact, an incredibly important good news story.

HH: Expand on that, Fred Kagan. Why is that a good news story?

FK: We’ve been trying to get Maliki to go after Sadr and the Iranian-backed elements of his militia since Maliki took office in May of 2006. And Maliki has been consistently unwilling to do that. The Sadrist bloc was thought to be too powerful, Maliki was too dependent on it, everyone was afraid of what would happen. And now, for a wide variety of reasons, Maliki decided that he really needed to do this, and that it was important, and that he could do it. And the entire Iraqi political community, outside of the Sadrists, signed up with him. As one of my friends in Baghdad put it, Maliki forced everyone to choose between him and Sadr. And every political party, except for the Sadrists, chose him. That’s an incredibly important development, and it coincides with a general rise in Iraq of Iraqi-Arab nationalism, and anti-Persianism. And the Sadrist movement is increasingly associated with the Iranians, and the Iranians are increasingly seen as playing a very negative role. And Maliki is now positioning himself as the nationalist leader who’s resisting Iranian efforts to undermine his country. What better could we ask for?

HH: Fred Kagan, about a year ago, one of the signs that the surge would succeed was the increase of intelligence being offered by Sunni Arabs to get al Qaeda. Have we seen a similar increase in intelligence about the Iranians coming in from Shia Arabs who are assisting the Iraqi Security Forces and the Coalition forces to find the Iranians, to find the Quds forces that are there? Do you have word of that?

FK: Absolutely. And even more than that, there’s been a significant increase in the amount of intelligence coming in from Iraqis about Iraqi members of the extremist militias of the special groups, of elements of JAM. And they have been reporting to Iraqi Security Forces, they’ve been reporting to us. We’ve been acting on it, we’ve seen the birth of some of the tribal movements in the Shia south, both Basra and in Nasriyah, two of the most important cities in southernmost Iraq. We’ve seen the burgeoning of some tribal movements that are similar, in some respects, to what we had seen early on in Anbar. So yeah, all of the signs are there, that the Shia Arabs are starting to have the same sort of conversion that the Sunni Arabs did, recognizing who’s going to win, what side they want to be on, and casting their lot with that side.

HH: What about the money problem and the oil issues, Fred Kagan? Obviously, a lot of Americans are now hearing from Democrats that we’re spending too much money, and they’re sitting on those oil reserves, and they’re not paying their own way. What’s your assessment of that critique, and the state of the Iraqi oil industry?

FK: Well, golly gee, I mean, you know, I thought it was no blood for oil, right? I mean, do we actually have an imperialistic party in this country? And is it actually the Democratic Party? I didn’t think that we’d gone into Iraq to make a profit on this war. And I’m really distressed by these comments that people are making about how we should sort of find some way to take this out of the Iraqi oil money. That’s not how we do business. The Iraqi oil industry is booming with oil at $110 dollars a barrel, or whatever it is today. Obviously, it can hardly not be booming. The Iraqi government has a lot harder time spending money than the American Congress does. That has a lot to do with the capacity of the Iraqi bureaucracy. It’s a young state, it’s been born in violence and civil war. For all that we want to talk about how impatient we are, and we want this all to happen yesterday, the Maliki government was seated coming up on two years ago. That’s not a lot of time to build the bureaucracy that can function efficiently, and spend lots of money. They’re working on it, it’s imperfect, but at the end of the day, American has been willing to pay the costs of wars that it thought were important, and would advance its interests. If we don’t think this war is important, and we don’t think it’s advancing our interests, we shouldn’t be fighting it. If we support it, we should pay for it.

HH: 45 seconds, Fred Kagan, well, actually, maybe I can keep you over, because I want to follow up on this a little bit. The issue of quality of life in Baghdad, we’ll go to break in 30 seconds and come back, what is the quality of life in Baghdad?

FK: Well, it’s complicated. I mean, in general terms, the quality of life in Baghdad has enormously improved over what it was 15 months ago when people were actually worrying all the time about whether they were going to be killed. Now, increasingly, you hear Iraqis talking about quality of life, and how aggravated they are that things aren’t getting better faster, which is very, you know, it’s good news of its own, in a certain way.

HH: That’s a good sign.

– – – –

HH: Fred Kagan, talking about the Iraqi political situation, obviously for there to be a stable party, there have to be figures in parliament who command loyalty, but who are also willing to work incrementally across party lines. Is that starting to develop, where you can see sort of healthy, political parties developing that aren’t going to resort to the violent legacy of Iraq when they don’t get their way?

FK: Yes, that is taking place. And I think to see this, you have to stand back for a minute and recognize what the Sunni awakening actually meant in this regard. And what it meant was that the Sunni Arab community decided that it did not think that it was going to be able to advance its interests by force anymore, and that it needed to commit to the political system, with whatever reservations it might have about that. And that’s what the Sunni awakening was all about. Now, what we’re seeing is that the Sadrists and the violent Sadrist militia, which had been posing as the defender of the Shia community, is also being rejected by the Shia community. And one way to look at this is to recognize that the Sunni awakening reflected the alliance between the majority of Sunni Arabs, and Shia Arabs and Kurds against al Qaeda. And now what we’ve just seen is an alliance between the Sunni Arabs, the Kurds, and now a majority of Shia Arabs against the Shia extremists. And this is an incredibly positive series of events. On a more micro level, the people who work with these guys every day in Baghdad report that people who had previously not been able to spend five minutes in a room without screaming at each other now can work together a little bit, can get things passed. The best evidence of this was the passage of the three major benchmark laws in February, which was a piece of logrolling that Congress would have been very proud of.

HH: Yup.

FK: Basically, each law paid off a different constituency, and they were passed in an omnibus package. And when one of the deputy, I’m sorry, one of the vice presidents tried to veto one of the laws, it was, he was talked out of it very quickly, because that wasn’t the deal. So you’re starting to see something that looks like politics. This process is not going to be complete until we’ve gone through the next couple of election cycles, because we’re still going to have to flush out, or rather the Iraqis are going to have to flush out some bad actors at the provincial level, some bad actors in the government. And you know, it’s something to keep in mind, that when you talk about democratic development, the most important election is the second one. It’s not the first one, because that’s the transition from one democratically-elected government to another, with transition of power. That will be coming up next year. And that, we’ve got to see it through to that point, and then I think we really do have a chance to see a fundamental transformation in Iraqi politics.

HH: Fred Kagan, thank you for the update from the American Enterprise Institute, very, very good news.

End of interview.

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