AEI senior fellow and Iraq surge co-author Fred Kagan on how Iraq is progressing.
HH: Joined now by AEI’s Fred Kagan, one of the architects of the surge. Mr. Kagan, welcome back to the program, great to have you here.
FK: It’s good to be with you.
HH: Let’s go over, you’re just back from Iraq, I know you were there with General Keane, who we’ll talk with soon as well. What did you see there, and how long were you in country for?
FK: Actually, I was there for eight days before Jack got over there, so we didn’t overlap. But what I saw was a tremendous improvement on the ground, tremendous improvement in terms of security. We’ve done tremendous damage to al Qaeda in Iraq. I think we really have them on the run. And the tribal movement that is going on, not just in Anbar, but actually all around the country, is really, it’s breathtaking, frankly. It’s an amazing development. It’s probably one of the most positive things that we’ve seen since 2003.
HH: Can you expand on what the tribal movment means?
FK: Yes, we’ve seen, beginning in Anbar, and then spreading to other provinces, we’ve seen the local population, particularly local Sunni populations, turn against al Qaeda in Iraq, and come in and start to work with our soldiers. Some of these guys, a lot of these guys are former insurgents who had been fighting against us, but now they’ve turned against the terrorists, and they’re coming in and they’re volunteering information, and they’re volunteering to join the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army so that they can fight these guys. And it’s been incredibly powerful. That’s one of the reasons why Anbar has gone from being one of the most dangerous provinces to one of the safest. And it’s spreading into the belt areas around Baghdad, and even into Baghdad itself.
HH: Is it also, does it have a counterpart among the Shiia sheiks?
FK: There have started to be some movements in that direction. Of course, the question that you have to ask Shiia sheiks is whom are you going to ally with us against? And the answer seems to be the Jaish al-Mahdi Shiia militia, which is very positive, and starting to see indications that there may be Shiia sheiks who are willing to do that could also be, in some respect, an even more fundamentally positive development, because what it shows is that Iraqis in general have become tired of the violence, and tired of the fighting, and want to see peace, and don’t want to support militias and terrorists who bring violence into their neighborhoods.
HH: Now Fred Kagan, I’ve talked with Mike O’Hanlon and John Burns about al Qaeda, and I’ll talk with General Keane about that. Let’s focus on the Shiia with you for a moment. Will they ever be willing to reconcile with these Sunni sheiks and share power with them? Or are we simply postponing the showdown that’s going to come in such a deeply divided country?
FK: Look, there is no such thing as the Shiia. There are a lot of individuals who are the leadership, there are different groups among the Shiia, and we’ve had Shiia militias fighting against Shiia army units for some time, and the army fighting back, which is a good news story. There are certainly going to continue to be individuals within this government and outside who don’t want to reconcile with the Sunni. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever studies these kinds of conflicts. But what you see at the grass roots level, and what you see on the street, is that fundamentally, Iraqis who are used to living in mixed areas, mixed neighborhoods, this kind of communal violence is actually very recent and very unusual for them, don’t want to have this kind of communal violence going on. There’s really no support for this among most Iraqi people, including most of the Shiia. And so I think the question is how can we find ways to harness reconciliation that’s going on at the grass roots, and turn that into something at the higher political level that would be more sustainable and more stable. But I frankly think we have some time to play with there. I don’t think that’s something that has to happen overnight, because the movement on the ground is accelerating, it’s snowballing, it’s growing. It’s not in any danger of collapsing rapidly, in my view. And so I think it’s really something we can work with.
HH: Even as good news on the surge came in from a number of sources, including some that were unexpected, we find the Washington Post writing up a front page story that Basra’s going to hell in a hand basket. A) is it, in your view? And B) that strategic significance of such a development?
FK: You know, one of the things about the debate in the United States is that it tends to lag anywhere from two to four months behind reality on the ground in Iraq. Basra has been to hell in a hand basket for a long time in the sense that the British have not been in control of the city, we don’t have forces down there, there have been rival Shiia militias fighting in a sort of an unstable equilibrium. The situation for the British is deteriorating somewhat because they’ve pulled in even more, and they are simply a target, and they’re really not patrolling aggressively. And so they are under more fire. The situation in the city doesn’t seem to me to be particularly less stable than it has been for a while. It’s not good. It’s certainly something that’s going to have to be dealt with, but if…it’s nothing like as urgent a development as you might take away if you just looked at the Washington Post headline. Mostly, people haven’t been covering it that much over here.
– – – –
HH: Fred Kagan, when you were over there, one of the things I’ve noticed is that we haven’t seen much mentioned about the Ayatollah Sistani in the last, well, six months. What’s going on with the Ayatollah?
FK: Well, I’m not sure, specifically, what’s going on with Sistani. There’s a lot of ferment within the Shiia community in Iraq, both religious and political, and it’s driven a lot by power plays within the Shiia political factions, which are mostly moving in the right direction, in my view. We’ve seen that the Sadrist movement, the movement that is loyal to Muqtada al Sadr, seems to me to be losing some steam, and losing some ground politically. It’s being a little bit more fragmented. Militarily, it’s been very much weakened. And we’ve seen competition rising again from the…what used to be the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution In Iraq, SCIRI, headed by the Hakeens. And they seem to be gaining strength. And I think in general terms, that’s a good thing, because the Sadrist movement defines itself as anti-American, and is not extraordinarily heavily infiltrated by Iranian agents and Iranian support. The SCIRI was always suspected of being close to Iran, and certainly is, but the Hakeems are much more statesmanlike. So that’s…the dynamic within the Shiia community is still volatile, it’s not clear to me 100% what role Sistani is playing, but I think I would be, I’m cautiously optimistic about the direction that things are moving in there.
HH: Are the Shiia radical militias taking the same sort of losses that al Qaeda in Iraq are taking, Fred Kagan?
FK: I don’t know that they’re taking the same losses, but they’re taking a lot of losses. We’ve been operating very aggressively against Shiia militias in Iraq since the surge began, and we have been very effective at taking out a lot of their senior leaders and facilitators. We’ve been particularly targeting these so-called secret cells, which are actually elements of the Shiia militia that are run, more or less directly, by Iran through Iraqi agents, although sometimes directly through Iranian agents. And we’ve been targeting those guys pretty heavily, and we’ve hurt them pretty badly. And I think it was in large part as a result of that, that we’ve seen the JAM, the Jaish al Mahdi militia start to fragment, and even start to fight within itself, which is a very positive development.
HH: Now on the political situation, obviously a whole bunch of cabinet offices are not being attended to because the Sunnis are boycotting. Alawi’s attempting to pull down Maliki. What did you make of all this during your eight days? Is Iraq developing a taste for politics? Or is this gridlock?
FK: Well, this Iraqi government has a lot of problems, as people have pointed to all along. It was elected on the wrong basis, these people are, most of the people in the government are not really representative of mainstream developments in Iraq anyway, particularly the Sunni, because remember, the Sunni basically boycotted the election, selected these people. So there are all kinds of problems with the Iraqi government. The question in my mind really is how much of a problem is it that the Iraqi government is not moving in the direction that we want it to in terms of passing particular legislation? And my view, what I took away from this last trip is I think it’s much less of a problem than we imagined, because the real question is we had tried to define with these benchmarks an American way to solve the Iraqi problem and get to reconciliation. What you’re seeing on the ground is that the Iraqis are finding an Iraqi way, and it’s a way that focuses on things that can be done without passing this specific legislation which is very hard to pass. And the question is, are the problems in the central government going to prevent that from working? And my read is that in the short to mid-term, the answer is no. So I think we’ve got some time to play with here to see how the Iraqi central government is going to have to react to the changing situation on the ground in its own country, the situation which is changing very much in a positive direction right now.
HH: I’m taking with Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, just back from an eight day trip to Iraq. Mr. Kagan, I’ve asked a number of experts, and they all share the concern that as we get close to September 15th, al Qaeda in Iraq and their counterparts within the Shiia radicals will want to stage their mini-Tet in an attempt to undermine whatever progress General Petraeus would otherwise be reporting. Is that concern abroad within American military circles in Iraq?
FK: Well, I think everyone expects them to do that. It’s a historical pattern. Unfortunately, one of the effects of the way that we’ve conducted this debate in the States has been that al Qaeda has picked up on all of our timelines from what critical benchmarks are here, and they tend to kill people as a way of affecting that. They certainly will try. I’m sure that they will try. They will probably succeed in getting some through. It’s very hard to stop suicide bombers. But I think for all of the tragedy that’s entailed in that, we have to recognize that this is the way this enemy fights this war. They don’t fight with divisions maneuvering on the battlefield. They fight by killing innocent civilians, so the question is are we going to allow ourselves to focus on the fact that the enemy fights in this incredibly brutal manner that it’s very hard to stop 100% of the time, or are we going to look and see what effect is it actually having on progress in Iraq. And so far, what we’ve seen is that even though they’ve been continuing to try and mount a suicide campaign, the progress on the ground is toward reconciliation. It’s actually been accelerating.
HH: Well, one of the problems with seeing what is going on there is that the Pentagon won’t tell us how many of the bad guys are dead. Do you support that policy of non-disclosure of enemy casualties, Fred Kagan? Or should they change that?
FK: What would it tell you if they told you that, because the question of how many enemy is dead is only meaningful if you know how many enemy there were to start with.
HH: And how many are being re-supplied. Do we know those things?
FK: Well, we certainly…I mean, not in any precise way, because one of the characteristics of an insurgent is that he goes home at night, and he doesn’t look like an insurgent. And you’ve got a lot of part-time insurgents, and we could spend our whole lives arguing about how many people there actually are. But the big thing that the military wants to avoid, quite rightly, is if you start to make killing the enemy a metric of success, then you start to put pressure on military commanders, intentionally or unintentionally, to kill the enemy in order to demonstrate that they’re succeeding. And as General Petraeus and others have been clear all along, we’re not going to kill our way to victory in this war. And so you don’t want to create a very perverse incentive structure, because the military officers read the newspapers, too. They know if that’s what we’re focusing on. So I think the command is doing right here in focusing on what matters, which is securing the population.
HH: What about the metric on the number of foreign fighters dead or captured there, because I understand not wanting to line up and kill innocent Iraqis, or encourage or incentivize wild attacks, but foreign fighters are a metric that are very different from Iraqis.
FK: Well, and General Petraeus has been releasing his estimates of the number of foreign fighters that come in every month, and the command is actually pretty forthcoming about announcing when they kill or capture these guys. The news media is not always very aggressive about picking up stuff that’s on the MNFI website. But I think that they’re pretty good about announcing when they get these guys. But you’re only talking about, you know, somewhere between forty and eighty people a month who are coming in to do this.
HH: Wow, that’s very low.
– – – –
HH: Mr. Kagan, just three quick questions to end. The morality of the American troops, what level of candor do you expect from General Petraeus when he reports, and then finally, is Iran getting the message, or do we have to take stronger steps to deter their meddling here in Iraq?
FK: The morale, you have to understand, when I go to Iraq, I spend most of my time with officers rather than soldiers. The morale of the officer corps is higher than it has been since I’ve been there, and I started going in April. And it’s higher, and it’s getting higher, because they feel like they’re getting, making progress, and they’re able to take this fight to the enemy in a very good way. So I’ve been positively impressed by the change in attitudes over there among the officers that I meet with. I am sure that General Petraeus will be completely candid. He’s been completely candid all along. It’s one of the things that characterizes his conduct of this operation, and I think we can continue to see that, and I think he will give a completely candid assessment. And I’m sorry what was the third question? Iran.
FK: Are they getting the message? Well, yes, but that’s only sort of a good thing. They’re getting the message that we might win in Iraq. They’re responding, as you might expect them to, by trying harder to defeat us. We’re working now to defeat their efforts in Iraq, and I think that’s the right thing to do, and we’re doing things that we hadn’t done before within Iraq, and I think we should let that play out a little bit before we…
HH: What kind of things? What kind of things?
FK: Well, we’re actually attacking the lines of supply that they have been using to bring in trained Iraqi fighters and explosively formed projectiles and other weapons, we’re working harder to close the border points which we really haven’t done before, we’ve put whole units in areas where we haven’t been operating previously that the Iranians had had free run in, and we’re attacking their leadership cells in Iraq very aggressively. These are all pretty new initiative, and I would say we really should let these things work out before we try to see what else we might need to do.
HH: Max Boot says we’ve got to be prepared to be there well into 2009 with 140,000 troops. Do you agree with that, Fred Kagan?
FK: I can’t give you a troop number, but we need to be prepared to be there with a very substantial force, certainly through 2009, absolutely.
HH: Have you heard any of the opposition to the war on the Hill to begin to echo the reality that we’ve got to make a statement that we’re going to be staying?
FK: Well, I think you’ve had a lot of people come back, and some surprising people like Senator Durbin, and even, I understand, Congressman Murtha came back and have made comments that the surge is succeeding militarily. And then they focus on the political problems, and I think that’s going to be the nature of the debate in September, but I think it’s a false debate, because the truth of the matter is if you’re improving security, the logic of the surge all along was that political progress follows that. Well, if the surge is working, and the question is should we continue, it seems to me the answer is pretty clear, and I would hope that the Democratic leadership will come to that obvious conclusion as well.
HH: Fred Kagan from AEI, thanks for spending some time with us, sharing what you’ve seen most recently in Iraq.
End of interview.