CFR’s Max Boot on his recent 11 day trip to Iraq
HH: We begin this hour, and we’re always pleased to do so, with Max Boot. He’s a fellow, of course, of the Council On Foreign Relations, he’s the author of many important books, including War Made New: Technology and Warfare In the Course of History – 1500-Today, and the Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars And the Rise of American Power, other ones as well. Max Boot, welcome back to the program, great to have you.
MB: Thanks for having me back.
HH: I saw at the blog entry at Contentions yesterday you have just returned from Iraq. Can you tell us when you left, when you came back, and give us an idea of where you were in the country?
MB: Well, I came back on Sunday after 11 days of touring around the country, and it was a pretty extensive trip, because we went out to Baghdad, to Northern Iraq, to Anbar. So we got around. But we saw a majority of the American combat brigades, 11 out of the 19, visited with the Iraqis, visited with General Petraeus and Odierno. And when I say we, it was Bing West, who is another author and myself. We both visit Iraq fairly regularly to get a sense of how things are going.
HH: Max, let’s back up a little bit, and tell people how many times you’ve actually been there, because I think the fact that you do go back repeatedly gives you an advantage that people A) who stay in the country the whole time don’t have, and that people in the country who come in once or twice don’t get. How often have you been there?
MB: Well, I’ve only been there four times. Now Bing has been there like fourteen times, so I’m a positive newcomer by comparison, but I have been going regularly since 2003, and so I do think I have a sense of how the situation has evolved.
HH: Okay, you went and reported back last year that the surge was working, but it was tentative.
HH: Would you give us a summary of what you saw this time around?
MB: I think I saw even more evidence of how the surge has worked. I mean, there’s been a truly amazing turnaround. Last year in April, I saw the turnaround in Ramadi in Anbar Province. Now, I’ve seen the turnaround in Baghdad, where we were walking around in the Dora district of Baghdad, which was formerly a war zone, a place where people didn’t go. And now, it’s become remarkably peaceful, with schools open, shops open. Even those concrete walls, which have limited access in and out of these neighborhoods, have been spiffed up with nice murals that have been painted by the residents. So just the atmosphere and the vibe is just remarkably positive, and that’s really due to the surge. But at the same time, as the surge has brought, I think, a truly miraculous change in Baghdad, and its immediate belt region, we shouldn’t, you know, assume, come to the conclusion that victory is already here, because there is still a lot of tough fighting ahead, and he saw that for ourselves in Northern Iraq, where in the city of Mosul, which has now become the new al Qaeda stronghold, we were driving along in a convoy of four armored vehicles when we were hit by an IED. And thankfully, nobody was killed or hurt, aside from an Iraqi who was standing nearby. But that gives you a sense of how dangerous parts of Mosul still are. And that’s also the case in other towns like Bayji in Northern Iraq, where we were shot at while we were in the marketplace. So there is still a hard fight ahead, and we shouldn’t assume that the war is over. But nevertheless, what I saw was that the war is going in our favor right now, and victory is a real possibility now, which it really wasn’t a couple of years ago.
HH: Max Boot, you mentioned an IED attack, and I had not seen that you had been in a convoy that was so attacked. Last night, I watched a replay of a Pentagon news conference on the MRAP vehicles, and their…the tragic news that we lost the first American soldier from a MRAP redesigned vehicle. What happened with the IED that went off on your convoy? Did it injure anyone? Did it overturn any vehicles?
MB: Well, what happened was we were driving through this puddle in Mosul, where there was a booby trap, and it hit the lead vehicle in our Humvee, and it blew the front end off. The engine block really came apart, and flying shrapnel sliced off the arm of an Iraqi who was standing nearby. But the armor worked, and the soldiers inside the compartment, they were shaken up, but they weren’t seriously injured. And in fact, that was the case with the MRAP as well, which that incident occurred in an area that I visited a few days ago, and what happened there was that apparently, the soldiers inside the vehicle were safe. What happened was unfortunately, the gunner, who had his head outside the turret, was killed, probably when it rolled over. And you know, that’s unavoidable. But by and large, the armor has done a pretty good job.
HH: That’s what the bottom line is, and that’s a remarkable adaptation of the American military, and hats off to those folks. Talk to me a little bit, Max Boot, and to the audience, about Baghdad. When Iraqis see an obviously American civilian walking down the street in Dora or other neighborhoods, are they happy to see you? Do they avert their eyes? Are they sullen? Or what are they?
MB: Well, they’re generally pretty friendly. I mean, Iraqis are very hospitable people, as most Arabs are. I mean, there are certainly places where you detect some hostility, and we certainly saw some of that in Mosul, where we were being blown up, or in Bayji, where we were being shot at. But by and large, in places like Baghdad, which have been liberated from this tyranny of sectarian war and terrorism, which gripped the city in the last few years, they’re very happy for the Americans that have come and liberated them, and that what we’ve seen is that the Sunnis, who were our main adversaries in the first tiers of the war, have now become our closest friends. And in fact, we went and had this giant meal at the home of this Sunni physician in Dora, who had turned against the insurgency and helped the Americans organize his neighborhood. It was just this monumental feast of these huge platters of lamb and goat, what the troops call goat grab, because you’re literally supposed to grab the goat with your fingers. But that’s really a reflection of the feelings that we encountered, very, very positive. I mean, there’s a lot of negativity towards their own government, towards the Maliki government, which gets very low marks, but I think people are remarkably happy to see the Americans, because they realize that the Americans are fighting to bring peace. And they are the alternative to al Qaeda and the Jaish al-Mahdi, both of which are growing increasingly unpopular with the ordinary people of Iraq, who have had enough of violence and sectarianism and hatred.
HH: What about quality of life issues, Max Boot? Obviously today, three attacks, and one of them was in Mosul, 17 Iraqis are dead, and that’s a horrific thing. But in terms of the average Iraqi in Baghdad, power, water, jobs, how’s it look?
MB: It’s not looking as good as it should be, and that’s really the battle that we now face, because in a lot of ways, we’re winning the war militarily, where in the case of Baghdad, we’ve really driven the terrorists out of the capitol, at least the al Qaeda terrorists. The question now is can we kind of build on that military victory with civic action? And in a lot of the country, what we saw is that the extent that basic services like water, job creation, schooling and so forth are being offered to the populace. It’s really being done because of the efforts of American, and to some extent, Iraqi troops who are working with the government of Iraq to bring these basic services to the people, whereas the government itself remains, I would say, fairly dysfunctional. It’s not doing a very good job of bringing those basic services to the people, and that’s in fact the main complaint against the government of Iraq, that it’s not getting things done. And I think there is growing impatience with Maliki and the ruling faction, that they are not doing a very good job of addressing the needs of the people.
HH: How go the Iraqi Defense Forces’ development?
MB: That’s one of the big success stories. I mean, in fact, if you look at the government of Iraq, the only part that really seems to work pretty well right now is the Iraqi Army. They are really increasing in efficiency and effectiveness, and we saw that just a few days ago, when down south, you had this attack by this lunatic millenarian Shiite sect, hundreds of heavily armed men. And the Iraqi Security Forces dealt with it by themselves. They didn’t really need American help. They were able to defeat that threat. And throughout the country, we’re seeing greater effectiveness on the part of the Iraqi forces. But it’s not just the Iraq Security Forces. What I found is that one of the keys to the success we’ve been having the last year is really the CLC’s as the military calls them, the concerned local citizens, where these militia groups or these neighborhood watch groups who have taken arms against al Qaeda and other militants, and have been defending their own neighborhoods. And many of those are working very closely with American forces and Iraqi forces. It’s a joint defense effort. So it’s not just the formal Iraqi Security Forces, but it’s a lot of ordinary Iraqis, too, who are taking up arms, and really belying this myth that Iraqis don’t care about what happens to their country, or they’re willing to fight to the last American, or something like that. In fact, Iraqis are fighting very hard, and are having tremendous success in driving terrorists out of their neighborhoods.
HH: We’ve got about two minutes, Max, and I want to ask you two things. Your conversations with General Petraeus, what’s his level of optimism, and the moral of the American troops generally, and then also about the reemergence of the Shia militia, especially Sadr. It’s rumored in the newspapers. How about Petraeus and the troops first?
MB: I think General Petraeus is cautiously optimistic, and anybody who knows him knows that he’s always going to be a little bit cautious and not ecstatic. And I think you’ll hear that in March or April when he comes back to report to Congress. I think his basic view is that we’ve had tremendous success in the last year, but things could still go wrong. And if we pull out too many troops too quickly, or divert our attention, things could go back to the way they were in 2006. We need to make a sustained effort to build on the success that we’ve had. In terms of the troops, I think moral is generally pretty high. Now obviously, some units we talked to, at the end of a fifteen month deployment, which is their second or third deployment in Iraq, they get pretty tired and they want to go home.
HH: Sure, sure.
MB: But by and large, I think the moral is very, very good.
HH: And the Sadr Army, because we’ve got about thirty seconds.
MB: Well, Sadr is fractured. There is not a clear Sadr faction anymore. It’s really splintered, and it’s not clear who Muqtada al-Sadr commands. There’s still these Iranian-backed special groups which are committing terrorism, but Sadr himself has called for a ceasefire. And that seems to be generally respected. And so it’s not clear what the direction of that movement is going to be.
HH: Max Boot, I appreciate you’re giving us the quick debrief on your recent 11 day visit to Iraq. I always appreciate the first hand accounts. Max Boot from the Council On Foreign Relations. You can read his blog at Commentarymagazine.com, hit Contentions.
End of interview.