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AEI scholar and surge co-author Fred Kagan on progress there, and Hillary Clinton assertions she helped surge here.

Monday, January 14, 2008
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HH: If you weren’t watching, if you did not notice, you missed a huge story out of Baghdad this weekend. The long-awaited de-Baathification law passed the Iraqi Parliament. Joining me now to talk about the significance of that, AEI resident scholar, Fred Kagan, one of the co-authors of the surge. Fred, welcome back to the program. How important is this law, and what does it do?

FK: Well, it’s important, and it really is quite an accomplishment, because you want to keep in mind that the full surge forces have only been in place for about six months. It’s really only been a few months that violence has dropped down to the level where normal political process of any variety could take place. And they’ve already gotten through this, which you know, is one of the hardest things for them to do, because it requires the Shia to accept having former Baathists in the government. It requires the Sunni to accept that some Sunni Baathists are not going to be in the government. This was a really, this was sort of their, the beginning of their civil rights legislation. And there’s a long way to go, and the implication of this is going to be very important, but it’s really quite significant.

HH: I’m curious, because no one in America saw it coming. I mean, there’s always been this steady drumbeat that sure, you’re winning militarily, but your political benchmarks aren’t happening. Are there other benchmarks of progress lined up in a landing pattern behind the de-Baathification law that we could hope to see in the next few weeks or months?

FK: Well, it’s hard to tell. This has been the trouble all along, that you know, successful negotiations in Iraq look like a train wreck right up until the moment when they actually happen. And the problem, of course, is that unsuccessful negotiations also look like a train wreck. So it’s very hard to tell. Now that’s, by the way, also true of Congress. I mean, it’s true of almost any political negotiation. And when you have people dug in hard on either side, it’s hard to tell when the breakthrough’s going to come. I’m reluctant to make guesstimates about this, but I think the key facts are the violence is way down, the Iraqis are starting to address their problems in a political forum, they’re starting to pass laws through a legislature that people had said was just sort of hopeless, and we weren’t going to get anything out of them at all. And we’ll see.

HH: Fred Kagan, let’s talk about the turnover to the Iraqi Defense Forces of Anbar Province, which is scheduled to happen, or may have already happened. How significant is that move?

FK: Well, we’ve been transferring provinces to what’s called provincial Iraqi control for a long time. And it’s not necessarily significant in and of itself. What it really means is that we…I mean, on the other hand, if you had said at the end of 2006 that in January, 2008, we’d be turning Anbar over to provincial Iraqi control, everyone would have said you’re out of your mind. And so what it really reflects is just the unbelievably complete revolution in the situation there, that frankly, even I didn’t think would happen this quickly back when we proposed the surge initially.

HH: Now Fred Kagan, the Air Force and the Army launched a joint strike on some areas south of Baghdad, a massive aerial bombardment over the weekend. Are you surprised that such tactics are still necessary, even a year into the surge?

FK: No, I’m not. And we want to keep in mind that the surge forces were never calibrated to clear all of central Iraq. They were really calibrated to stabilize Baghdad. And we don’t have enough forces to do everything we need to do all at the same time, which is why we’ve had to do this in phases. And so we have significant coalition, kinetic operations now going on up in the north, and there is a belt between where we’ve been able to clear south of Baghdad, and where it really becomes no-go terrain for al Qaeda terrorists that we haven’t been able to clear yet. And we’re going to, you’re going to see some hard fighting in the months ahead. It’s good, because what it means is that we’re going to be clearing out the last areas where the enemy’s trying to regroup, and we’re going to prevent them from doing that.

HH: Now there is some speculation as well that the Shia militias are biding their time. What’s your assessment of that one?

FK: Well, we’ve been hearing this line for a year now, and what I can tell you is that we have been rolling up Iranian-backed special groups networks consistently. We’ve been rolling up what’s called rogue Jaish al-Mahdi, which are the guys who keep shooting at us, even thought Sadr told them to stop. We’ve been hearing reports for a long time that Sadr’s rebuilding the Mahdi army. Good luck to him. We’ve been hitting that organization pretty hard. They may have taken a knee. We haven’t. And so whatever’s going on, they’re not just going to pop up as they had been.

HH: What are the indications of returning to normal life in Baghdad, in terms of economic activity and power, and those sorts of rather banal but nevertheless crucial indicators, Fred Kagan?

FK: Well, you know, I think…I haven’t been there recently, although I’m looking forward to going back again at the end of this month, but you know, you see the pictures of Iraqis out celebrating in parks. The New Years celebrations in particular were remarkable. And that’s just not the kind of thing that we saw last New Year, for one thing. And it’s interesting, also, that there has been a spate of al Qaeda bombings. They’ve been trying to reestablish themselves, trying to terrorize people. And that hasn’t disrupted normal life that much. People have not gone back to a bunker mentality, because they obviously feel that there’s some real stability behind this progress that they see. And in many respects, that’s the most telling fact, is that even this little mini-campaign that al Qaeda’s been engaged in hasn’t been able to derail that sense of a returning to normalcy among Iraqis.

HH: Over the weekend, C-Span broadcast a forum in which Col. Meese, and a number of other Iraqi experts, participated on what’s ahead. And more than a few of them compared the situation in Iraq right now to Korea in 1948. Not 1952, but 1948, where a precipitous drawdown triggered the North Korean invasion. Do you agree with that assessment, Fred Kagan, that we have to be very careful about pulling out too soon, now that stability is at hand?

FK: I absolutely do. We’ve turned the situation around. At the end of ’06, we were unequivocally losing. Now I think we’re pretty unequivocally moving in the right direction. But if we mess this up again, and draw down prematurely, and give the enemy the opportunity to reestablish sanctuary and safe havens, as they’re trying to do, this will all go south, and it can go south very quickly. I think that you can expect over the coming months to see continued sort of up and down on American casualties, but generally lower than it was in 2007, and generally the same with the overall level of violence. But if we bail, if we pull out, if we try to go below pre-surge levels in 2008, I’m very worried about this unraveling on us. I think it really could.

HH: Now Mrs. Clinton made an argument that stunned a lot of people this weekend, that in fact the Democrats attempt to defund the war had helped bring about the peace by virtue of scaring Iraqis, that they watched her every comment, et cetera. Did you hear that? And what do you make of that argument?

FK: You know, my experience, traveling to Iraq, talking with the people who work with Iraqis on a daily basis, everyone is very clear about one thing. The more that you confront Iraqis with the possibility that we’re going to bail on them, and they’re going to have a real civil war, the more they don’t want to do deals, don’t want to make compromises, and don’t want to pass laws. And that’s exactly what these threats to defund have done. It’s fine for us to press them, tell them that it matters to us, tell them that we’re determined to make this happen, tell them that they’ve really got to get moving. But when you’re threatening people with an apocalypse, and then telling them to compromise with the people they would be killing, and who would be killing them, you know, they’re not going to do that. And so I totally don’t agree with that argument, and I find it, frankly, a little disturbing that you’ve got people who’ve been working hard, telling us that the war’s lost, telling us that we can’t succeed, telling us that the strategy was failed, and talking about willful suspension of disbelief, now trying to take credit for something that they won’t even admit has happened.

HH: Fred, last question, Iran, have they apparently been deterred, or do you see the same level of interference in Iraq as we saw last year, in 2006 and 2007?

FK: I don’t think the Iranians have been deterred. I think that we’ve been successful in rolling up their networks. I think they’ve been trying, I think they’re probably changing their strategy a little bit, but I don’t think that they have in any way given up. And I think it’s going to be a long, hard fight with them, and we’re going to have to be very determined, very careful, but very determined to prevent them from overturning the progress in Iraq, and also prevent them from doing other things in the region that they’re doing against our interests.

HH: Fred Kagan, I look forward to talking with you when you come back from Iraq yet again. Thank you, from the AEI.

End of interview.

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