New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner John Burns on Iraq, Iran and how the surge is working.
HH: Pleased to welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show John Burns of the New York Times. Mr. Burns, welcome, it’s been about six months since we spoke, and I gather you’re in Baghdad today?
JB: I am indeed.
HH: How long have you been back in Baghdad?
JB: About three months. We take long rotations here, and then we reward ourselves with nice long breaks back home in the United States, or in my case, in the United Kingdom.
HH: Well, there are three things I want to cover with you today, Mr. Burns. Where are we now in Iraq, in your view? Secondly, where Iraq might be in a couple of years, depending on a couple of developments that the United States might enact? And then finally, in hindsight, what we did right and what we did wrong over the last four years. But let’s start with what you see in Baghdad today. Is the surge working?
JB: I think there’s no doubt that those extra 30,000 American troops are making a difference. They’re definitely making a difference in Baghdad. Some of the crucial indicators of the war, metrics as the American command calls them, have moved in a positive direction from the American, and dare I say the Iraqi point of view, fewer car bombs, fewer bombs in general, lower levels of civilian casualties, quite remarkably lower levels of civilian casualties. And add in what they call the Baghdad belts, that’s to say the approaches to Baghdad, particularly in Diyala Province to the northeast, to in the area south of Baghdad in Babil Province, and to the west of Baghdad in Anbar Province, there’s no doubt that al Qaeda has taken something of a beating.
HH: Now when General Petraeus returns in September to make his report, do you expect Petraeus to be completely candid with the American people about the good news and the bad news in Iraq?
JB: I think there’s no doubt that he’ll be candid. As a matter of fact, every time I’ve spoken to him about it, he talks about the need to be forthright, and as he puts it, he said we’re not going to be putting lipstick on a pig. I think that’s a fairly, that’s military jargon which most Americans will understand. David Petraeus is a man who’s had a remarkably distinguished military career, and he is very clear that he thinks his responsibilities lie not to the White House alone, but to the White House and the Congress conjointly, and through them to the American people. I don’t think that this is just a profession, a claim. I think he really intends that, and he’s been very careful not to make commitments at the moment as to what he’s going to say, though we may guess it. And I think he’s going to say that the surge is having its effects, it hasn’t turned the tide of the war, there’s been too little time for it, and I think he and Ambassador Crocker, who will be his partner in that September report, are going to say one thing very clearly, and that is a quick, early withdrawal of American troops of the kind that is being argued by Nancy Pelosi, for example, would very likely lead to catastrophic levels of violence here. And in that, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker will be saying something which is pretty broadly shared by people who live and work here, I have to say. The removal of American troops would very likely, we believe from all indications, lead to much higher, and indeed potentially cataclysmic levels of violence, beyond anything we’ve seen to date.
HH: Mr. Burns, some anti-war critics have begun to attack General Petraeus as being not credible and not trustworthy for a variety of reasons, one he gave me an interview, he’s given other people interviews that they consider to be partisan, whatever. Do you believe he’ll be as trustworthy as anyone else speaking on the war?
JB: I do. I can only speak for my own personal experience, and there definitely was in the, in the Vietnam war, there was a failure of senior generals and the joint chiefs of staff to speak frankly about the Vietnam war early enough. There has definitely been some Pollyannaish character to the reporting of some of the generals here over the past three or four years, although in my own view, knowing virtually all of those generals, I don’t think that that was out of fealty to the White House or Mr. Rumsfeld. It’s a difficult and complex question which we really don’t have time to discuss here. But to speak of General Petraeus in particular, General Petraeus is 54 years old. Let’s look at this just simply as a matter of career, beyond the matter of principle on which I think we could also say we could expect him to make a forthright report. At 54, General Petraeus is a young four star general, who could expect to have as much as ten more years in the military. And he has every reason to give a forthright and frank report on this. And he says, and he says this insistently, that he will give a forthright, straightforward report, and if the people in Washington don’t like it, then they can find somebody else who will give his forthright, straightforward report. He is not without options on a personal basis, General Petraeus, and I think he, from everything I’ve learned from him, sees both a professional, in the first place, and personal imperative to state the truth as he sees it about this war.
HH: Speaking more broadly now, in the American higher command, is there optimism that the surge, given enough time, will bring the kind of stability to Iraq that we all hope it achieves?
JB: You know, optimism is a word which is rarely used around here. The word they would use is realism. You have to look at what the plan is. The plan is that with the surge, aimed primarily at al Qaeda, who are responsible for most of the spectacular attacks, the major suicide bombings, for example, that have driven the sectarian warfare here, the belief is, or the hope is, that with the surge, they can knock al Qaeda back, they can clear areas which have been virtually sanctuaries for al Qaeda, northeast, south, west and northwest of Baghdad, and in Baghdad itself, and then have Iraqi troops move in behind them. The problem here is time. How much time does the U.S. military have now, according to the American political timetable, to accomplish this? I think most generals would say, indeed have said, most serving current generals here have said that a drawdown, which took American troops from the 160,00 level they’re at now quickly down to 100,000 or 80,000 over the next, shall we say, year to eighteen months, that’s too fast. If you do that, I think they would say, though they don’t put it quite this frankly, that this war will be lost for sure. Given a little bit more time, they think that it is realistic to think that the Iraqi forces can move in behind them, and can take over the principal responsibilities for the war. The problem is, of course, that American generals have been saying this now for four years, and as we know, the Congress is beginning to run out of patience with that. But I think that they have a good plan now, at least if there is any plan that could save the situation here, any plan that could bring a reasonably successful end to the American enterprise here, it’s probably the plan they have right now.
HH: Now John Burns, a military historian was writing this week that he fears a Tet-like offensive by al Qaeda’s fighters, as well as perhaps radical Shiia militias prior to the Petraeus report. Have you heard warnings or concerns about such a thing?
JB: (pause) Hello?
HH: Yes, Mr. Burns, maybe you didn’t hear that.
JB: Sorry, you were breaking up quite badly, as you have been at several points during our discussion.
HH: Okay, I’ll try it again. A military historian wrote this week that he fears a Tet-like offensive by al Qaeda and radical Shiia fighters in the next weeks running up to the September report. Have you heard warnings about that, concerns about that kind of…
JB: Yeah, it’s not an original thought. As a matter of fact, it’s a thought we’ve heard expressed by General Petraeus and other commanders here, and you don’t have to be a crystal ball gazer or a seer to understand the risks in that. Indeed, there have been one or two attempts to pull off exactly that. The fear has been among the generals here that a major, spectacular attack, aimed for example at the Green Zone, the government and military command complex in the center of Baghdad, of the kinds that was mounted during the Tet offensive when, as you’ll recall, Viet Cong or North Vietnamese troops got right inside the American embassy. That kind of attack would have an…whatever its consequences here, would have an enormous impact and possibly fatal impact from the American military point of view on the balance of opinion in the Congress. You’ll forgive me, I have American attack helicopters flying overhead right now over our compound here in Baghdad.
JB: There was one attempt already to pull off an attack of that kind. It was not on the Green Zone, but on an American military base southwest of Baghdad, when a truck loaded with 12,000 pounds of high explosives, that’s by quick calculation, we’re talking about more than five tons of high explosives, got very close to what they call the wire of an American base in which there were several hundred American troops. A wary gunner in a watchtower, an American gunner, spotted the truck, and killed or fired at the driver, who got out of the truck wearing a suicide vest, as it happens, and the truck did not explode. Had it exploded, there could have been a repeat of what happened in Lebanon in 1982, when as you will recall, a truck bombing of the Marine barracks residential complex near Beiruit airport killed, as I recall, 249 Marines, and speeded Ronald Reagan in his decision to pull American Marines out of Beirut. So yes, there is a definite concern about that, and there has been a tightening of what the American military calls force protection, that is to say I guess self-evidently, the efforts that the force spends to protect itself in respect of that threat.
HH: When we spoke in February, you told us about the killing that had been underway in Adamiya, one of the places where sectarian violence in Baghdad had really flared in October. What’s your assessment of the Shiia on Sunni violence level in Baghdad six months into the surge?
JB: It is reduced, and it’s reduced primarily, as far as we can see, because of the increment, and I’m talking here of a virtual doubling of American troop strength in Baghdad, to speak only the neighborhood in which the New York Times operates here, the Rusafa neighborhood on the east side of the Tigris River, we here now have American troops quartered about a half a mile away from us for the first time in three years. So when you put American boots on the ground, you definitely have an inhibiting effect on this, and we’ve seen that in falling levels of sectarian violence. Where you don’t have American boots on the ground inside Baghdad, you see higher levels of sectarian violence. So I would that on the whole, the situation is somewhat better than it was, which is exactly what you would have expected by introducing a significant increase of American combat troops.
HH: John Burns, that means it’s down, but is there any kind of movement that you can see that would suggest that when, that the Iraqis are coming to their own conclusion that they’ve go to work through other means than violence, is there a lowering of the hatred level there in Baghdad?
JB: Well, of course, that would be what the American military would call the most crucial metric of all. If we could see that, then we would begin to see the end of the war. Now the fact is that the Iraqi people are, of course, exhausted with the violence. The question is at what point does that begin to translate into the kind of stepping up that would make a change in the warfare, specifically the flow of intelligence to the Iraqi and American militaries here, which would enable them to go after the people who are primarily responsible, whether it’s Shiite death squads or its suicide bombers, mostly Sunni suicide bombers. The intelligence flow, we’re told, is a good deal better, very much better than it was. This is an intelligence driven war, but the American military will tell you that they still don’t have enough of it. They have quite a good flow of intelligence, which has allowed them to have some spectacular successes, including one just last night in Karbala, southwest of Baghdad, the holy city where they went after a Shiite militia death squad leader. And this happens virtually every night, usually special forces operations, American led. They’ve have some success with that. So that’s really the key metric. When the Iraqi people’s exhaustion with this war begins to express itself in a full flow of intelligence to the Iraqi and American military, then you will see real progress in the war. Up until now, it’s much better, but it’s still, according to the American military, still not nearly enough to make it a crucial difference.
HH: Now another metric is what the political elite of a country says off the record. And you have those conversations with the Maliki government, with the opposition, with the people in parliament, etc. What do you hear from those conversations, John Burns? Are they beginning to think that it is possible to see a functioning government and a multi-party system that relies on other than guns?
JB: No, I would say that’s probably the most depressing or discouraging aspect of the entire situation. I think it’s probably fair to say that the Iraqi political leaders, Sunni, Shiia, Kurd in the main, are somewhat further apart now than they were six months ago. In other words, the Bush administration’s hope that the military surge would be accompanied by what they called a political surge, a movement towards some sort of national reconciliation, uniting around a kind of national compact, that has simply not occurred. Indeed, the gulf between the Shiite and Sunni leaders in the government is probably wider than it has ever been. There’s a great deal of recrimination. There’s hardly a day when the Sunnis do not, as they did again today, threaten to withdraw from the government altogether. There’s virtually no progress on the key benchmarks, as the Bush administration calls them, matters like a comprehensive oil law that will settle the issue of how oil revenues, which account for 90% of government revenues here, will in future be divided and spent between the various communities, and many other issues, eighteen of them, benchmarks identified by the Congress, there’s very little progress on those benchmarks. Where there is some progress is at the grass roots level, some progress, though we’re beginning to see tribal leaders, in particular, in some of the most heavily congested war areas, beginning to stand up and say they’ve had enough of it, and to volunteer to put forth their young men, either to join the Iraqi police or army, or to join in tribal auxiliaries, or levees if you will. That’s probably the most encouraging political sign. But at the Baghdad level, unfortunately, the United States still does not have an effective political partner.
HH: One of the arguments for those favoring a timeline for withdrawal that’s written in stone is that it will oblige the Iraqi political class to get serious about such things as the oil revenue division. Do you believe that’s an accurate argument?
JB: Well, you would think it would be so, wouldn’t you, that the threat of withdrawal of American troops, and the risk of a slide into catastrophic levels of violence, much higher than we’ve already seen, would impel the Iraqi leadership to move forward. But there’s a conundrum here. There’s a paradox. That’s to say the more that the Democrats in the Congress lead the push for an early withdrawal, the more Iraqi political leaders, particularly the Shiite political leaders, but the Sunnis as well, and the Kurds, are inclined to think that this is going to be settled, eventually, in an outright civil war, in consequence of which they are very, very unlikely or reluctant, at present, to make major concessions. They’re much more inclined to kind of hunker down. So in effect, the threats from Washington about a withdrawal, which we might have hoped would have brought about greater political cooperation in face of the threat that would ensue from that to the entire political establishment here, has had, as best we can gauge it, much more the opposite effect, of an effect that persuading people well, if the Americans are going, there’s absolutely no…and we’re going to have to settle this by a civil war, why should we make concessions on that matter right now? For example, to give you only one isolated exception, why should the Shiite leadership, in their view, make major concessions about widening the entry point for former Baathists into the government, into the senior levels of the military leadership, that’s to say bringing in high ranking Sunnis into the government and the army and the police, who themselves, the Sunnis, are in the main former stalwarts of Saddam’s regime. Why would the Shiites do that if they believe that in the end, they’re going to have to fight a civil war? This is not to reprove people in the Congress who think that the United States has spent enough blood and treasure here. It’s just a reality that that’s the way this debate seems to be being read by many Iraqi politicians.
HH: Would a, John Burns, a contrary approach yield the also counterintuitive result that if Congress and the United States said we’re there for two or three more years at this level, would that assist the political settlement, in your view, coming about?
JB: Unfortunately, I think the answer to that is probably not, and that’s something that General Casey and General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker now, General Petraeus’ partner, if you will, are very wary of. They understand that there has to be something of a fire lit under the feet of the Iraqi leaders. It’s a paradox, it’s a conundrum, which is almost impossible to resolve. Now I think the last thing that you need is an Iraqi leadership which is already inclined to passivity on the matters, the questions that seem to matter most in terms of a national reconciliation here, the last thing they need is to be told, in effect, the deadline has been moved back three years. I would guess the way, if you will, to vector all of this would be to find some sort of solution, indeed it was the benchmark solution, which would say to them if you come together and you work on these benchmarks, then you will continue to have our support. But it seems to me that the mood in Congress has moved beyond that. The mood in Congress, as I read it from here, at least those who are leading the push for the withdrawal, are not much interested anymore in incremental progress by the Iraqi government. They’ve come to the conclusion that this war is lost, that no foreseeable movement by the Iraqi leaders will be enough to justify the continued investment of lives and dollars here by the United States, and that it’s time to pull out. And of course, you can make a strong argument to that effect.
HH: Do you believe that, John Burns, that the war is lost?
JB: No, I don’t, actually. I think the war is close to lost, but I don’t think that all hope is extinguished, and I do think, as do many of my colleagues in the media here, that an accelerated early withdrawal, something which reduced American troops, even if they were placed in large bases out in the desert to, say, something like 60-80,000 over a period of six to nine months, and in effect, leaving the fighting in the cities and the approaches to the cities to the Iraqis, I think the result of that would, in effect, be a rapid, a rapid progress towards an all-out civil war. And the people who are urging that kind of a drawdown, I think, have to take that into account. That’s not to say, I have to say, that that should be enough to inhibit those politicians who make that argument, because they could very well ask if that’s true, can those who argue for a continued high level of American military involvement here assure us that we wouldn’t come to the same point three or four years, and perhaps four or five thousand American soldiers killed later? In other words, we might only be putting off the evil day. It seems to me that’s where this discussion really has to focus. Can those who argue for staying here, can they offer any reasonable hope that three, two, three, four years out, the risk of a decline into cataclysmic civil war would be any less? If the answer is no they can’t, then it seems to me that strengthens the argument of those who say well, we might as well withdraw fairly quickly now.
HH: Now you’ve reported some very tough places, Sarajevo, Afghanistan under the Taliban, and after the liberation from the Taliban, and you’ve won Pulitzers for that. When you say cataclysmic civil war, what do you mean in terms of what you’ve seen before? What kind of violence do you imagine would break out after precipitous withdrawal?
JB: Well, let’s look at what’s happened already as a benchmark. Nobody really knows how many people have died here, but I would guess that in terms of the civilian population, it’s probably not less than 100-150,000, and it could be higher than that. I don’t think it’s as high as the 700,000 that some estimates have suggested, but I think it’s, and I know for a fact, that the sort of figures that were being discussed amongst senior American officials here, as a potential, should there be an early withdrawal and a progress to an all-out civil war, they’re talking about the possibility of as many as a million Iraqis dying. Now of course, that is suppositional. It’s entirely hypothetical. How could we possibly know? But I think you couldn’t rule out that possibility. And the question then arises, catastrophic as the effect on Iraq and the region would be, you know, what would be the effect on American credibility in the world, American power in the world, and America’s sense of itself? These are extremely difficult issues to resolve, and I can’t say, sitting here in Baghdad, that I have any particular wisdom about what the right course would be. And fortunately, as a reporter, I’m not paid money to offer that kind of wisdom, only to observe what I see. And there are days when I thank God that I’m not sitting in the United States Senate or the United States House of Representatives, with the responsibility of putting the ballot in the box on this.
HH: In his recent speech in Charleston, President Bush argued that to withdraw would be to empower al Qaeda in Anbar Province, and to allow them to set up a base there. What do you make of that projection, John Burns?
JB: Well, I think it’s self-evident. Whatever we may make of the original intent of coming here, if the United States did not have a problem with Islamic extremism in Iraq before 2003, it certainly does now. You only have to look at the pronouncements of Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahiri, his deputy, to see that they regard Iraq now as being, if you will, the front line of the Islamic militant battle against the West. And so if American troops were withdrawn, I think that there would be a very serious risk that large parts of this country will fall under the sway of al Qaeda linked groups. Now we could debate what that exactly means. Al Qaeda’s a holding company. Does that mean that Mr. bin Laden would be able to direct affairs in Afghanistan? No, I don’t think he would. I don’t think he does now. But it would mean that Islamic extremists who bear the worst intent towards the United States would have a base similar to the base they had in Afghanistan before 9/11 from which to operate, and I think it’s very likely that they would then begin to want to expatriate their hatred of the United States in some way or another. In fact, it’s already the case, that there are parts of Iraq which are under the sway of groups that swear allegiance to al Qaeda. And just to speak of one of them, the city of Sumarra, where I was yesterday, it’s about sixty miles north of Baghdad, is definitely under the sway of al Qaeda right now. And that would likely get very much worse in the event of an accelerated withdrawal. So I don’t think it’s purely propaganda, political propaganda on the part of the Bush administration to say that there would be a major al Qaeda problem here. It seems to me it’s absolutely self-evident that there would be.
HH: Now given that you covered Afghanistan from the Taliban era, would they have a greater lethality anchored in Iraq than they did when they were anchored in Afghanistan, John Burns, al Qaeda I mean?
JB: I’m sorry, I missed that. Do you want to repeat that?
JB: I understood you were asking me about the lethality of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
HH: No, I was asking when al Qaeda was in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, they obviously developed potential and capabilities and operational abilities that resulted in 9/11. If they anchored themselves in a lawless Iraq, would their lethality towards the United States be even greater or lesser than it was when they were in Taliban Afghanistan?
JB: I would say it would probably be greater, and for these reasons. Let’s remember that the Afghanistan, that was a sanctuary for al Qaeda and bin Laden, is a very, very underdeveloped, I dare say primitive country. Iraq is not. Iraq is a country that had and potentially still has a major industrial base, it has among Middle Eastern countries one of the most highly educated corps of scientists and engineers, people who were on their way, certainly in the early 1990’s, to developing nuclear weapons, even if that program, as we now know, fell by the wayside after the first Gulf War. Many of these people have left, but would some of them come back? You would then have to add to that the fact that this is an oil country, which even in the situation of a civil war, is exporting billions of dollars of oil to the world, and could potentially export much more. So I would say add to that the question of geography. We’re a thousand miles closer here in Baghdad to Western Europe and the United States than Mr. bin Laden and his followers were when they were in Afghanistan. So I think yes, it could be a serious problem. Whether that problem can be overcome in any foreseeable or acceptable period of time here, I don’t know. If we knew the answer to that, we’d be well on our way to deciding whether or not it’s worth staying here. But I think to deny that there is such a problem, or even simply to blame it on the Bush administration…
(Call dropped. End of Part 1)
HH: Mr. Burns, sorry, we dropped you there as you were…I just need about ten more minutes if I can hold you for that long.
JB: Yeah, sure.
HH: Great. You were talking about that al Qaeda is real in Anbar, and they would pose problems for us, and it’s not a Bush administration figment, I think you were saying.
JB: I’m not sure where we…you still had me on the line when I was talking about why Iraq is different to Afghanistan?
HH: Yeah, but…I got most of that…
HH: And you were, when you got cut off, you were saying that this is not made up by the Bush administration.
JB: So you know, we can all exhaust ourselves with questions of political accountability for this, and whether the Bush administration, post 9/11, made a huge mistake in moving on from an uncompleted war in Afghanistan to Iraq. But it seems to me that perhaps instead of exhausting our energies on that, it would be better to look at the situation as it actually is, set aside for time being, or for history, who is responsible for it, and come to some conclusions about what is best to do about it. And that would have to start from a recognition that it is a really serious problem. And then the question is what, if anything, can be done about it? Will leaving American troops here only exacerbate the problem, and exhaust the United States? Or would it hold out the prospect that the United States and its Iraqi partners could actually begin to knock al Qaeda back? That’s a very complex question, and as I said earlier, I consider it one of my great blessings that it’s my job to report on these things and not to decide on them.
HH: It’s extraordinarily well put. A couple of metrics, though. When I interviewed General Petraeus last week, he was reluctant to talk in terms of the number of al Qaeda or foreign terrorists killed in the last six months of the surge. What do you think that number is? How many al Qaeda are being killed by the surge?
JB: I would say the figure is in the hundreds.
HH: High hundreds or low hundreds?
JB: I would say it’s probably something in the nature of three to five hundred, cumulatively, since the surge began. Now I’ve not got that figure from the American military. I’m simply pulling together various estimates we’ve had from various parts of this offensive as to the people that they have killed. Now of course, that figure isn’t very helpful. You need to know are these people, you know, 17 and 18 year old recruits who have been paid $50 dollars to go and put a roadside bomb somewhere where it can blow up an American humvee? Or are they hard core? How many of the hard core have they got? I think they’ve had some success, and they’ve probably taken off the streets several dozen senior al Qaeda in Iraq linked terrorists. And that has to be significant. The problem is, as General Rick Lynch of the 3rd Infantry Division, who is presently in charge of the surge operations on the southern approaches to Baghdad has said, al Qaeda in Iraq is a hydra. It is a many headed monster which seems to be able to regenerate its heads when they’re cut off. And that’s been the case for a very long time, as General Lynch knows. He was the command spokesman in his previous assignment here. And many was the time wherein I attended briefings by General Lynch in that role, where he produced charts indicating how many first, second and third tier al Qaeda operatives had been killed or captured. And that was three years ago. So you know, it seems that no matter how many are killed or captured, this thing managed to regenerate.
HH: Now John Burns, some argue that withdrawal will stop the momentum for al Qaeda’s recruitment, that we are, our presence there is, in fact, breeding terrorists. Do you agree with that?
JB: Well, I think there’s no doubt that there’s some element of truth to that. But I don’t think that that alone is keeping or sustaining the al Qaeda presence here. As a matter of fact, if you talk, if you look at what’s happened in Anbar, for example, the tribal sheiks in Anbar who have shifted their position on this war, and in effect now put themselves in an alliance with the United States and Iraqi forces against al Qaeda, they’re doing that partly because of al Qaeda’s brutality, but also because of their fears for what this might portend beyond an American presence. In short, whilst they’ve got American troops here, they’re very happy to have them go after al Qaeda, because most Iraqis, and certainly most tribal sheiks, do not want to live in an Islamic caliphate of the kind that Mr. Zarqawi, who was killed a little over a year ago in an American bombing strike, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, declared his intentions. As a matter of fact, the principal al Qaeda front operation here now calls it the Islamic state of Iraq. It’s pretty clear what those people intend. This, for all the religiosity we have seen in the past three or four years, was under Saddam Hussein, and remains a strongly secular society. Most Iraqis, most Iraqis, crave in their lives much of the same things that Americans do. They want to see economic progress. They want to see a degree of liberty. Of course they want also to preserve and protect their religion. But they do not want to live in a Taliban state.
HH: Mr. Burns, what is Iran’s role right now? What is, as you understand it, the game that they’re playing? What did they want to happen there?
JB: Well, it’s very difficult to read it, and I know that American officials who are dealing with this are absolutely perplexed.