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Surge co-author Fred Kagan on his recent trip to Iraq

Thursday, July 17, 2008
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HH: Earlier in this program, I read for you the op-ed today in the Wall Street Journal that the Kagans and General Keane found in Iraq. I’m joined now by Fred Kagan, scholar in residence at the American Enterprise Institute. Welcome back, Fred, good to have you here. When did you get back from Iraq?

FK: I got back yesterday morning.

HH: And how long had you spent in the country this time?

FK: We were in country for about 11 days.

HH: Now can you give us a thumbnail of where you went and how many days you spent in each place?

FK: Yeah, we went, we obviously spent some time in Baghdad. We went around various places, including getting over to East Baghdad, which was new and very interesting, the Shia slum areas. We got up to Mosul, and we were able to walk around, drive around and walk around the city there. Most interesting, probably, was that we got down to Basra, and we rolled around with an Iraqi Army, it was a personal security detachment, actually, of the Iraqi Army division commander, so we weren’t even in American vehicles or British vehicles down there. And we were able to walk around down there without body armor, and talked with a lot of folks. We got up to the unit that is near Amara, and were able to talk to them. We got into Najaf, and talked with the governor and some folks there. So we kind of, you know, we kind of covered the ground pretty well.

HH: You certainly did. Now give us the summary, I read your piece over the air, some people may not have heard it. They can go to Wallstreetjournal.com, or to Hughhewitt.com and click on the link. Give our audience who didn’t hear it, or didn’t have a chance to hear it, an overall sense of Iraq and its stability right now.

FK: Look, you know, the situation there has really been completely transformed. And it was transformed first by the surge, and then it has been transformed by the operations that the Iraqi government conducted, starting in Basra, and then going into Sadr City, and then going into Maysan. Violence is really down at historic lows. There have been virtually no sectarian killings in Iraq for ten weeks, and in Baghdad for thirteen weeks, which is, you know, really tells you something about where the so-called civil war is at. But you know, the thing that really grips you when you talk to Iraqis now is that what they’re really excited about, and all their energy’s going into, is their elections. And they are really pumped about their provincial elections, and this is from top the bottom. The politicians are acting like politicians. They’re trying to figure out how to get votes. A lot of parties are organizing. Here’s a fact – more than 500 parties and individuals have registered and been approved to run as candidates, or to run candidates in these provincial elections, in Iraq.

HH: Fred Kagan, provincial elections doesn’t mean much to Americans. Is that like governor and state legislatures in America?

FK: Yeah, yeah. There are 18 provinces in Iraq, and so it’s like, it’s exactly like, I mean, the system’s different, but it’s like governor and state legislatures. But the reason why it’s really important is because when the current provincial governors and provincial councils in Iraq were elected in the election that the Sunni did not participate in. And so it’s very unrepresentative of the Iraqi population. That was the one, if you remember, that in 2005 that the Sunni boycotted. They’ve all recognized that that was a huge mistake. I think you’re going to see something like 90% turnout among the Sunni in these elections, which is going to redress a lot of the imbalances within those governments, which are generating a fair amount of grievance. But in general, there’s just this excitement about the political process for the first time in Iraq, really since the first election with all the ink-stained fingers. But this is now what they’re really focused on. And this is, believe me, this is not what they were focused on when I first started going over there in April, 2007.

HH: One election, one time is always what we’ve been worried about. It’s obvious that that’s not happening. But talk a little bit about the vibrancy of Shia politics. Are there new coalitions emerging there that are going to marginalize the Sadrites?

FK: Well, the Sadrists have really been shattered. That, you know, Sadr, interestingly, we didn’t see very many posters of Sadr on this trip. There are some, and there are neighborhoods you can go into probably where you can see a lot. But you know, he’s really lost his appeal. The political movement has been shattered. Sadrist candidates are going to be mostly running as independents now, so that the Shia kaleidoscope is very, very different. And even within the other Shia parties, the governing parties, Maliki’s party and the other party, there have been a lot of changes. There’s a lot of tensions. It’s very, very dynamic, and it’s really, really positive, because these sectarian blocs that had been created in the early elections, that were just creating this logjam, are breaking down. And so when we talk with Sunnis, the Sunni guys from the awakening movement are worried about defeating the other Sunni party in the election. The Shia are talking about how to steal votes from other Shia parties in the elections, you know. So if you’ve got something approaching a normal political discourse there, which is just, it’s astonishing to see.

HH: Now talk to us a little bit, we take so granted our free political press and the benefits it gives us, and the pleasure it gives us, and the outlet it provides us. What’s the media like in Iraq right now?

FK: Oh, the media is ferocious in Iraq. I mean, there are lots of media outlets, there’s free press. Most of the outlets, as in America, reflect one view or another, or one party or another. But there are enough of them that, and Iraqis can get them all, that they can get a pretty full picture. And there’s very vibrant political discourse, and there’s lots of arguments and name calling, and all the kind of stuff that we would be very familiar with. But the other thing about Iraq that’s found is when you fly over an Iraqi village, and it’s four mud huts on the ground, two of them will have satellite dishes.

HH: And Fred Kagan, what about the quality of life and the economic vitality? You’ve been going there a lot for the last five years. What do you see in terms of the improvement in the actual living standard of people?

FK: Well, that varies a lot, and you know, we tend to go to the areas where there’s just been fighting that have been cleared, that are just starting to come back. There’s a lot of expectation in places like Basra and Amara and Mosul, and the Iraqi government is working to fill that, but it’s going to be slow. And when you get into some of these areas in East Baghdad, this is real dirt poor Shia slums. It never had infrastructure. You know, you talk about fixing sewers, there never was a sewer there. So a lot of this stuff has to be built from the ground up. And they’re working on it, but I’ll be honest with you, it’s coming along slowly, and it’s going to come along slowly. And this is, you know, there is an expectation gap, and this is making Iraqis, especially leaders who have to worry about getting re-elected, tense.

HH: Now you mention in the op-ed, and I’m glad for the candor, by the way. It makes it just much easier to believe the good news. You mention in the op-ed that there is surging anti-Persian feeling in Iraq. Describe that for us, and the consequences of it.

FK: Well, the Iranians really overplayed their hand. You know, as the al Qaeda violence collapsed, and al Qaeda collapsed, and the violence kept going on, it became very obvious to the Iraqis that this was coming from Iran. We’ve always said Iraqis are Arabs, they identify as Arabs. They’re not traditionally beholden to Persians, they don’t like Persians. Now you see even the Shia parties that we know have a lot of Iranian influence in them, their candidates are shrilling Iraqi Arab nationalism, and darn those Persians. It’s the weirdest thing, because these are dudes that we know they’ve been taking Iranian money.

HH: Yup.

FK: But they know that in order to get elected, this is what their constituents want to hear. Will it affect their behavior down the road? Yeah, I think it kind of will. I mean, I think they have the problem that there really is, the Iranians really did hit a nerve, and the Iraqis are really strongly identifying themselves as Iraqis, as Arabs, and remembering everything that they don’t like about Persians. And so, you know, this is a very positive dynamic, I think.

HH: Now you also noted today that no Iraqi wants us gone on the Barack Obama timetable, that even the hardest line get-outs want us around for at least a year longer than he wants to be there. Generally speaking, what’s the level of anti-Americanism, or pro-Americanism? How would you describe it? What do they think of us?

FK: The political leadership that we talked to, Sunni, Shia, Kurd, is all very committed to the idea of a strategic partnership with the United States. And they’re very quick to emphasize that security is an important component, but there are other components. They want to have an economic partnership. They want to have a political partnership. They want to have a cultural partnership. And you really do get this from all sides. And the same…we had this experience. The same guys who will sort of natter at us about how we can take care of it and you guys need to pull back. They don’t say leave, because they don’t want us to leave, but they say you know, pull back out of combat and stuff, also say this strategic partnership is incredibly important to us, and we need your partnership in order to help us maintain our independence from the Persians. So there’s definitely a very strong commitment to that. We talked with one of the Sunni sheiks, a prominent Sunni leader, and we ran by him some people are saying that Iraqis want us to leave, and you know, we need to get out. And he said look, the only people who are saying that are people who belong to the enemy or who are idiots.

HH: Fred Kagan, we’ve got a minute left, and I want to make sure I say thank you for the service you’ve rendered this country and Iraq all these years on all these trips. Are the Iraqi people better off today, and I know the suffering, and I know the chaos and the death. Are they better off today than they were five years ago?

FK: I think they are. Most of all, they will be if we stand by them, and we help them make a success of this experiment. They will unquestionably be better than they were five years ago, and better, frankly, than most people in the Middle East actually are.

HH: Fred Kagan, on that note, thanks again for a magnificent report in the Wall Street Journal today. I hope you write up more and more. I wish we had more time, and when I get back from vacation, I want to talk to you at length, because the kind of stuff that you cannot get unless you’ve been there is in Fred Kagan’s head, and we need to hear it all.

End of interview.

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