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Iraq surge co-architect Fred Kagan on the status of forces agreement with Iraq

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HH: I begin this hour with the news out of Iraq that a status of forces agreement has been passed by the Iraqi cabinet. This is big news, and to discuss it with us, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and one of the architects of the surge strategy that has been so successful, Fred Kagan. Mr. Kagan, welcome back to the program, great to have you.

FK: It’s good to be back with you.

HH: Give us your assessment of the significance of the status of forces agreement approved by the Iraqi cabinet yesterday.

FK: Well, this is a very significant thing, and we need to start by putting this into context in two ways. First of all, understanding that this is more, this agreement is about more than the timetable for American withdrawal. What that timetable is embedded in, is an agreement that is about a strategic partnership between the United States of America and Iraq that is intended to develop over the long term to help us deal with common enemies that we face. And the number one common enemy that we both identify, both Americans and Iraqis, is al Qaeda. And Iraq has been committed to the fight against al Qaeda, remains committed to the fight against al Qaeda. And this agreement captures the intent of the Iraqi government to develop a partnership with us, and that’s an incredibly positive thing.

HH: Now in light of the details, and obviously, I haven’t read this thing, only the news accounts of it, do you expect it will in fact pass the entire Iraqi parliament?

FK: Well, you know, it’s Iraq, and you never know exactly what’s going to happen in Iraq. But I think because the cabinet passed it unanimously, there clearly is an intent, the Iraqi government does not want to bring this thing to the parliament and have it fail. So I think it’s very unlikely that they would have announced that they’re going to move forward with this if they weren’t sure that they had the votes for it.

HH: Now it is opposed by Muqtada al-Sadr and other Iranian-affiliated groups. What does that tell you, Fred Kagan?

FK: Well, actually, it’s opposed by Iran, not just Iranian-affiliated groups. The Iranian leadership has been pulling out all the stops to get the Iraqis not to do this. The Iranians are desperate for Iraq not to align itself strategically with the United States, and they have been literally trying to bribe everybody they can bribe in Iraq, and running a fantastic information operations campaign in Iraq to make this an unpopular and hard thing to do. And the Iraqi government has done it anyway. And that is actually a great accomplishment for us, and it tells us a lot about where this Shia Iraqi government actually stands on whether it wants to be aligned with the United States, or whether it wants to be aligned with Iran.

HH: Now Fred Kagan, I’m obviously reminded of another agreement that we did many, many decades ago with the Republic of South Vietnam, and how a change in administration, at that time a resignation and a Democratic Congress, made that agreement fail. What do you think is the prospect of a new American government approaching sixty days from now in power, maintaining and using to the maximum extent possible this opening for building a relationship?

FK: Well, you know, I sound like a broken record here, but I’ve been trying all along to tell everybody that this isn’t Vietnam, and it never was Vietnam, and it still isn’t Vietnam. The war in Iraq, per se, at the moment, is largely over, which was not at all the case in 1972. And the violence is way down. Now it can come back, the situation is fragile and on like that, but what we’re fundamentally talking about is building on peacekeeping operations, some peace enforcement, counterterrorism, and a little bit of counterinsurgency, but at a very low level in terms of violence on the whole, if current trends continue. Now in that context, and given that we’ve made this agreement, and give that it’s not in any way in President Obama’s interest for Iraq to come off the back page of the newspaper and onto the front pages with all kinds of violence under his watch when it had been peaceful when he inherited it. I think it’s unlikely that we’re going to see a repetition of the Vietnam scenario here. And also, we have to keep reminding ourselves, Iraq is a heck of a lot more important to the United States than Vietnam ever was, because Vietnam, Southeast Asia, very little trade, very little of interest. At the end of the day, we didn’t really care about that region. We were fighting there because they were communists. Iraq is a critical Arab state in the heart of the Muslim world, oil rich. You can’t have a stable Middle East without a peaceful Iraq. And so we have much more on the line here, even leaving aside the question of al Qaeda, which I don’t think we can. So for all of those reasons, I think it’s unlikely that an Obama administration is going to behave very irresponsibly in this regard.

HH: Now he has made a commitment of sixteen months, and of course this agreement extends thirty-six months. Is there necessarily a contradiction between those two sets of timelines?

FK: Well, there has always been a contradiction…yes, there is. I mean, there has always been a contradiction between the sixteen month timeline and what reality will support in Iraq. And it’s not feasible, I think, to commit to a sixteen month timeline at this point with any confidence that the situation will remain stable. What President Obama is going to have to ask himself is now that we have contracted an agreement with the sovereign government of Iraq that sets a hard, and you know, from his perspective this is good, non-negotiable timeline for when we’re all going to be out of there, is he really going to renege on that? Is he really going to insist on renegotiating an agreement with the Iraqis first thing? Or is he going to unilaterally abrogate this first agreement that we’ve made with the sovereign state of Iraq? It just seems, it would be quite a dramatic step, and it would be quite an irresponsible step, and I don’t think that he will do that.

HH: Is there some way, though, what I’m driving at, Fred Kagan, is there some way that he can have his cake and eat it, too? In other words, say you know, I said combat brigades, and then by artful use of language and designations, somehow keep us in compliance with the 36 month timetable while at least giving himself some rhetorical out for his previous pledge to his anti-war wing?

FK: Look, I think yes, he could play that kind of game, but I think he can be even more straightforward than that. All he needs to do is to say to the American people, and his wing, this isn’t necessarily the agreement that I would have negotiated if I were negotiating, but this is the agreement that we have, and I will, there’s no point now in going back and revisiting this since there is a firm commitment to get all American forces out of Iraq by 2011. I think that’s all that he needs to say, frankly.

HH: All right, now in terms of getting all American forces out of Iraq by 2011, does that mean, by the way, that all American forces will be gone? Or does it provide for the opportunity for the sort of residual assistance that we have in so many places like Djibouti and Yemen and other places like that?

FK: Well, I don’t think, no one has seen the final text of the agreement, at least I haven’t, and we’ll have to see what the specific language is. But frankly, it’s a lifetime between now and 2011. You’re going to have Iraqi parliamentary elections at the end of 2009, and that could bring to power a new Iraqi government. And the Iraqis have, there’s something interesting going on here, which is that the Iraqis have been determined to buy American military equipment, which I think is a very positive thing. But it has a corollary, because if you’re going to have American military equipment, then you’re going to have a desire to have certain number of American trainers and advisors to help you use the stuff. And so that indicates to me that it’s unlikely that you’re going to have an Iraqi government in 2011 say okay, you know, slap our hands together, every single American out of the country.

HH: Yeah, yeah.

FK: What I think we need to be clear about, and what I think the American people need to understand, is that unless the situation goes south completely, under no circumstances are we talking about American troops in 2011 in Iraqi streets patrolling, getting shot at, fighting a war. That’s not what we’re talking about. What we will be talking about is right, I think we’ll probably have some kind of advisory presence. I think even Obama left the door open for that in all of his pledges, and we’ll have probably some kind of counterterrorism presence. And we’ll see.

HH: Now Fred Kagan, stepping back, two years ago, when you and General Keane and others helped design the surge strategy, if someone had said to you in two years, Fred, we’re going to have a status of forces agreement and this level of violence and this pathway out, what would you have said to them in response?

FK: I would have said I don’t believe you. I never in my wildest dreams imagined, and I’m sure that Jack didn’t, either, imagine that the situation would move as rapidly in the positive direction as it has. And it’s absolutely been astonishing, and it’s really breathtaking. And it really presents us with a unique opportunity, because here you have a democratic state, Arab state that we’ve help bring into existence that has now negotiated hard with us on the basis of equality, so that this didn’t look at all like some neocolonialist, neoimperialist, Americans dictating to the Iraqis. They got all kinds of things out of this deal that I’m, you know, I’m not happy that we had to give them, frankly. But on the other hand, it’s tremendously positive that this sovereign state of Iraq negotiated hard with us, we accepted that, we agreed to mutual terms, and all of this against a background of peace, or a relative peace developing, especially in Baghdad and in lots of the rest of the country. Absolutely amazing, phenomenal development, and a real opportunity to transform our relationship with this region.

HH: Let me be among the first to say, and I hope they say it a lot, along with Kimberley Kagan and Jack Keane, thanks, Fred Kagan. I think the world and the country owe you and those surge architects a big debt of thanks, because this is an extraordinary moment in the campaign for freedom in the Middle East and security for the United States. Thank you, Fred Kagan.

End of interview.


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