Max Boot’s analysis of the surge in Iraq, after just returning from his trip there.
HH: We’re going to conclude this half hour of broadcasting by talking with Max Boot, and you don’t want to miss this. Max Boot, of course, senior fellow at the Council On Foreign Relations, contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, author of some amazingly important books, War Made New: Technology Warfare In the Course of History, as well as Savage Wars of Peace, prolific writer, and just returned from Iraq. Max Boot, welcome to the program. It’s good to have you on.
MB: Thanks for having me on.
HH: You’ve been doing a lot of radio, and I appreciate that you’re willing to do that. I heard you with Dennis, and you’ve been with Laura, and it’s so important for the public to hear about this. First of all, would you give us a general sense of how you spent your time in Iraq, and what you saw there?
MB: I spent most of my time in Baghdad, but I also went outside of Baghdad into some hotspots like Baquba and Diyala Province, and Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar Province. And while I spent a fair amount of time with General Petraeus and some other senior policy makers there, I also spent a fair amount of time with the troops in the field, getting a sense of on the ground reality, to figure out how things are actually going there.
HH: When I read your piece in the Weekly Standard, and it begins with a summary of the most recent battle for Ramadi. I was reminded of the account of the 2004 battle for Ramadi in Bing West’s No True Glory, which I’ve been reading over the last couple of weeks, and it turns out Ramadi’s not bad right now, Max Boot, and that Col. Charlton and his troops made it so.
MB: It’s amazing, because up until very recently, just a few months ago, Ramadi was the worst town in Iraq, if not the world. It was an insurgent stronghold. It was controlled by al Qaeda, and for years, Marines and soldiers had been battling simply to keep control of the government center, and to allow convoys to go through the main route through town. And all that began to change a few months ago when U.S. troops started moving into town, trying to take it back from the al Qaeda terrorists who had grabbed control of it, and they’ve managed to do that very successfully, in a series of battles fighting alongside the Iraqi army. And now, they have managed to recruit enough police officers, 4,000 and counting, from the local people with the support of the tribal leaders in Anbar Province, that they are managing to, so far at least, keep al Qaeda from infiltrating back into town, and they are starting rebuilding operations. And so, it’s really an amazing story, and I mean, sometimes, you start to think, my goodness, the situation there is hopeless, there’s just no way we can prevail, I mean, it’s so tough. And then you look at Ramadi, and if it can go from being so terrible to being so, relatively speaking, decent right now, that suggests that nothing is impossible.
HH: I want to come back to tactics in a moment, but of course, in Diayala Province this week, nine members of the 82nd Airborne were killed in an al Qaeda obvious attack, or at least one they claim responsibility for. And people, critics of the war, say you pushed them out of Ramadi, you pushed them out of Baghdad, they’ve just gone somewhere else. There’s truth in that, but is that the whole story, Max Boot?
MB: Well, there’s truth in that, and the reality is, we don’t have enough troops to pacify the entire country at once. But I think we have to do what we can. If we are to achieve some degree of security in places like Anbar and Baghdad, that’s a good thing, even if it temporarily increases the level of insecurity in a place like Diyala Province. But we’re trying to address that now by moving more troops up there. But you have to, I mean, there are going to be some short term tradeoffs, and I think we have to be able to take them. And if we are able to achieve success in Baghdad and Anbar, we can then think about expanding our zone of control further out into some of the remaining places where terrorists are still going strong. You have to do what you can. I mean, it’s like in World War II, where you couldn’t liberate Europe overnight. First, you had to invade North Africa, then you had to invade France and fight your way across France. It takes some time. And the enemy is still going to have some strongholds while you’re doing that.
HH: Yesterday, I had a caller, Max Boot, who was bemoaning, as we all do, but as a political point, the number of Iraqis who were killed in the last two years in Baghdad and around. And I pointed out in the Battle with Britain, 23,000 civilians were killed, and the Britons never wanted to surrender. Do the Iraqi people want to surrender to al Qaeda?
MB: Not to al Qaeda. I mean, when you look at what’s going on in Anbar Province, in fact, there’s an uprising of the people of Anbar against al Qaeda, that the tribal leaders and the people of Anbar are fed up with al Qaeda, because the al Qaeda terrorists have been so ruthless, so savage, so indiscriminate in their violence, and you know, aside from killing a lot of people, they’ve been bad for business. They’ve shut down what little remains of the economy in Anbar Province, and people there are just sick of it, and they’re starting to fight back. I mean, you’re actually seeing some of the so-called more mainstream resistance groups battling al Qaeda in parts of Anbar. You’re seeing a lot more local people signing up for the police forces and the army to fight al Qaeda, and that’s among the Sunnis. That’s among the Sunnis, who are theoretically al Qaeda’s constituency. They’re revolting against al Qaeda.
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HH: One of the books he’s written, the War Made New: Technology Warfare In the Course of History – 1500 To Today, figures in my next question, Max. We always talk about how the enemy has learned, and that they’ve developed different tactics, and the projectiles used, and the i.e.d’s have changed. But given your focus in your most recent book, how is the American and broader coalition forces adapting to this warfare? Have you seen that change in how we have been fighting this?
MB: Absolutely. I mean, you see a huge change, just in the last few months, where there’s been a major change in strategy since the time that General Petraeus took over from General Casey as the supreme coalition commander in Iraq, whereas under General Casey, the strategy was basically transition first. Our top priority was simply handing over battle space to the Iraqis, and hoping that they could carry on the fight themselves. And unfortunately, that strategy didn’t work very well last year. It allowed civil war to break out in Baghdad, and start to spread elsewhere. The strategy we’re adopting now is very different, which is A) to put more troops into Baghdad and some other parts of Iraq, but also to deploy them differently, to get them off of their giant forward operating bases, where they’re miles removed from the fight, and get them living in smaller outposts in joint security stations, where they can get to know the populace, and practice population security, this essential tenet of counterinsurgency warfare that we have not been practicing before. So this is a huge, huge change from what we were doing before, and it’s going to take a little while for it to bear fruit, and we have to be patient. But you know, I can’t believe all these news accounts, and all these politicians who are saying that the surge has failed, when the surge hasn’t even been implemented yet. Only three out of the five extra brigades that are supposed to be in Iraq are there yet. The other two won’t arrive until June, and it’s going to take months after that for them to get on the streets, and to practice their tactics. And I think that as they do that, they will be successful, but we have to give them the time and the patience to execute this new strategy.
HH: Now my next question is really a political question, but it goes to the comprehensive section of your article in the Weekly Standard about the turn from the Abizaid/Casey strategy to the Petraeus strategy, or Petraeus/Mattis strategy if you want to call it that, and that is did Bush impose the strategy on Abizaid and Casey? Or did he and Rumsfeld ask them, and accept their idea of the best approach. Both great men, great warriors, great American servants, but where did that strategy come from, Max Boot?
MB: I think the strategy sincerely came from General Abizaid and General Casey. I think President Bush was clear all along that he would take the best military advice that he could get, and that was the advice that he was taking, and it was a well intentioned strategy, it was the light footprint approach that Rumsfeld was in favor of, that Abizaid and Casey were in favor of, which basically thought that the less we did, the better, and the more the Iraqis would step forward to take control of their own affairs. That was a perfectly reasonable strategy, but it simply failed, and we know it failed, and so it was time to try something different. And you know, frankly, I wish President Bush had tried a different approach earlier, because I think it had been apparent earlier that that strategy wasn’t working, but better late than never, and finally, he decided to change his defense secretary, to change his commanders on the ground, to try something different, and that’s what we’re doing now, and I think it’s incredibly important that we give General Petraeus and his team a chance to at least try to be successful, and to show what they can do over the course of at least a year or more without reaching to any premature conclusions about how the new strategy will work out.
HH: Well, far be it for me to play Max Perkins to Max Boot, but I would love sometime to read your assessment of how a president in this age, and in this war, what degree of intrusion has to occur between the political leadership and the military leadership, because of course, Johnson was too much, Lincoln was too little, you know, it’s hard to do the Goldilocks thing here, Max Boot. As you look back at Bush, has he been too passive in this?
MB: I think he has been too passive, and this struck me in an Oval Office meeting that I and a few other writers had with him back in last fall, where he kept talking about all the mistakes that Lyndon Johnson made, and what he basically took away from the Vietnam War was that presidents should not micromanage the fight. And okay, there’s some truth to that, but that, you know, presidents also have to make sure that they’re getting the best strategy and the best generals. And if their generals are not implementing a successful strategy, they have to be willing to change. And I think President Bush finally woke up to the need to do that sometime around last fall, but I wish he’d done it a little bit earlier, because if we’d change courses earlier, I think it would have been easier to make greater progress. But even now, I don’t think that the war is lost by any stretch of the imagination. I think there is still a decent chance that we can salvage a good outcome in Iraq, if we just stick with the strategy that we’re implementing now.
HH: Now Max Boot, this week, I’ve talked to Lawrence Wright, Fred Kagan, to Melanie Phillips, author of Londonistan, and a lot of people who understand the war, both in Iraq and globally. And what they say, and what you say and what you write just doesn’t add up with what Harry Reid has said. And in fact, yesterday, a former Republican Congressman, Bob Schaffer, brought me back the paper from this week in Afghanistan, the Daily Outlook, it’s the only English speaking paper in Afghanistan. The headline above the fold was Iraq War Lost in quotes, says Democrat leader. Do the Democrats not understand this war? Or are they putting politics simply ahead of it?
MB: You know, that’s a very good question, and it’s just so incredibly irresponsible for the majority leader of the United States Senate to make a proclamation like that, and it makes you think, you know, if we’ve lost the war, who’s won it?
MB: You have to think about that, and is he saying that al Qaeda has won this war? Is that something that we can be happy about if that is in fact…I don’t think that’s the case, but if he thinks that we’ve lost it, does that mean that we’re going to cede ground to people like Muqtada al Sadr and the leaders of al Qaeda? You know, I just don’t think it’s true from the perspective of what’s going on, on the ground. We haven’t lost. I mean, things are grim in many parts of Iraq, but there are also signs of progress. But unfortunately, when the majority leader of the United States Senate says the war is lost, that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because if our political leadership has lost faith in the fight, it’s going to be very hard to continue.
HH: Well, I called it a telegram to the Taliban. Does the enemy read this and follow this, in your opinion, Max Boot?
MB: Oh, absolutely, and I think there’s this very naïve attitude that oh, well, we can pull out of Iraq, it won’t be a big deal, and then we can concentrate our resources on the real fight. In Afghanistan, ignoring the fact that Iraq right now is the front line of the struggle against al Qaeda, and if we give up there, it will be a tremendous boost to al Qaeda, similar to defeating the Red Army in Afghanistan. And they’re not going to be content with fighting us in Iraq. They’re going to go fight us in Afghanistan, and the situation there will deteriorate, and they’ll fight us elsewhere around the world, and we would have to grapple with that. So there’s not an easy exit strategy by simply saying oh, this is no big deal, we don’t have to worry about it. We do have to worry about it. The cost of defeat will be very heavy.
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HH: Very fascinating aspect of your article I want to close on is Maliki’s search for competence now, and the idea that the government in Iraq is growing into its role, even as the Iraqi army grows into its role. But I want to ask you, it’s only three years until they have more elections and another government. Do you see this as a sustainable exercise in democracy, assuming that their army, with our assistance, can suppress the insurgency? Or do you see it a radicalization in Iraq’s future?
MB: It’s very hard to say. I think it really depends on what the security situation is on the ground. I mean, if we’re able to make some progress, and get the security situation under control, and basically blunt the impact of the extremist militants on both sides, both Sunni and Shia, I think that there are more responsible leaders in Iraq who want a reasonable democratic future, and are willing to work together to achieve that. But if you’re seeing hundreds or even thousands of people dying everyday, if there’s open warfare in the streets, the political process becomes irrelevant, and the militants, the hotheads, the people, groups like the Jaish al-Mahdi, or the al Qaeda, those are the people who get into control, and that’s what will happen, I think, in the next few years if we simply step back and allow the violence to take its course. And that’s why I don’t think we can afford to do that. I think we have to try to salvage a decent outcome here, and if we do that, I think people like Malaki and others have shown a willingness to compromise a willingness to work with former enemies to try to forge a more peaceful future for Iraq.
HH: Last question for you. You mentioned the Iraqi special forces, and the amazing progress they’ve made. As you look at the Iraqi officer corps, in particular, its senior corps, and you met with a number of them, do you see the level of competence there that can build and sustain a military capable of sustaining a civilian government against its outward and internal enemies?
MB: I do. I mean, I think that there are a lot of competent and very brave soldiers and officers in the Iraqi army who are fighting very hard right now, and taking tremendous risks in order to defend their country. Now they suffer a lot of problems, including the fact that the army is far too small, it’s only about 135,000 soldiers. It probably needs to be two to three times that high, given the problems they face. They also need much more political support, much more backing from the government and from the ministry of defense to provide a lot of the logistics, and a lot of the combat enablers that allow them to be effective. But I think the kernel of an effective army is there, and with American assistance, they can continue to improve, and to get bigger and better. But that’s really dependent upon us keeping our commitment to the Iraqis, because if we pull out now, there’s a good chance it’ll be every man for himself, and you’ll see a splintering of the existing Iraqi security forces into essentially militias of one kind or another, and that’s a very dangerous outcome.
HH: Max Boot, I appreciate the time, I appreciate the article in the Weekly Standard, and we’ll link it at Hughhewitt.com. I look forward to talking to you again soon.
End of interview.