Surge strategist Frederick Kagan on how events are unfolding in Iraq.
HH: Pleased to welcome for the first time to the program now Frederick Kagan. He’s a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, he’s also a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute. He’s the author most recently of Finding The Target: The Transformation of the American Military, and of a very important piece in the Weekly Standard, which just came out this week. I’ve linked it at Hughhewitt.com, entitled Friends, Enemies and Spoilers. Frederick Kagan, welcome to the program, great to have you on.
FK: Good to be with you.
HH: You have just returned from Iraq. You were there from April 3rd to, I think, April 8th. Is that correct?
FK: That’s correct.
HH: Can you give us a little circumstances on how you got there? Did you guys ask General Petraeus? Or did he invite a bunch of you to come as one of the architects of the surge? I was fascinated that you would go over.
FK: No, we…I asked to come visit and see what’s going on, try to get an understanding of the situation on the ground, and help me to form my evaluation of how things are going, and where we need to head.
HH: And where did it take you? What did you see?
FK: We went, I went into Baghdad, went into joint security, two joint security stations in the Hurriya area of the Khadimiya neighborhood, went up to Baqubah, to the FOB out there, and then rode in strikers to the joint commander center, listened to the Iraqi division commander out there brief, got up to see our bases at Taji and Balad, and had the opportunity to meet with some former cadets that I’d taught who were also over there, and get their impressions from the lower levels.
HH: Now if you can give us the summary before I get to the specifics, has there in the 100 days since President Bush announced the plan, which is not yet even fully staffed, or even half staffed with the five brigades, et cetera, is there a change in the wind?
FK: There sure is. There are a lot of changes underway. One of the most remarkable things is that sectarian violence in Baghdad dropped almost immediately after the President announced the surge, and has stayed down. And in fact, the command in Iraq has recently announced that the daily murder rate in Baghdad is the lowest it’s been in six months, and it’s down 65% since November. And that’s a really dramatic accomplishment this early into the surge. Probably even more important than that, and this is something that goes back even before the surge, is that the Sunni population in Iraq is really beginning to turn on al Qaeda, and Anbar, which had been their base and stronghold, it’s becoming inhospitable to them, and the Sunnis are joining the police forces and the army, and are starting to attack and kill the terrorists. And that’s an incredibly important development.
HH: Now you were in Iraq along with two other astute observers of the conflict, Reuel Marc Gerecht and Max Boot. Did you guys travel together?
FK: I don’t know that Reuel was there. I don’t know about his travel. Max and I were traveling around for the part that I was there.
HH: And so, when you were talking to each other, were the officers and the strategists that you were dealing with, representing coalition forces, optimistic about this mission?
FK: I think that most of the people that I spoke to were very much in a problem-solving mode. They…we all see the challenges, we all see the problems, but we’re working on finding solutions, and I think people over there are feeling like they are coming up with solutions to a lot of these problems. And that was…so there was a very determined sense that these were problems that we just needed to find solutions that we needed to keep working on.
HH: Now you mentioned in your piece that there is this dual command structure, and the Iraqi equivalent of General Odierno is a fellow by the name of Gambar, is that correct?
FK: Abboud Gambar, yeah.
HH: Tell us about him. It’s the first time I’ve seen his name, and I’ve been waiting to see names attached to senior Iraqi military leadership for a long time.
FK: Well, he’s the guy that Malaki picked, because Malaki trusted him to be the guy who coordinates all of the Iraqi security efforts in the Baghdad plan. He is, I believe, a Shia, he is someone in whom Malaki has a lot of confidence, and he has been very good. He’s been very tough, and he has been pressing both against Sunni terrorists and against Shia militias in Baghdad in a very positive way.
HH: And what has the impact been on the Sadr infrastructure, and on the mullah himself?
FK: We’ve made a lot of, we’ve made a lot of positive progress in dealing with Sadr. I mean, the first thing is that within weeks of the announcement of the plan, Sadr skipped town and went to Iran. And that hurt his standing in Iraq, because he had been, you know, a figure of the Iraqi nationalist resistance to American presence, and not an Iranian figure. And all of a sudden, he goes to hide in Iran. But we’ve also picked up more than 700 members of his force, the Mahdi army, including a lot of leaders and facilitators, and either captured or killed them. And that force is beginning to fragment and fall apart in a way that if we can capitalize on it well, will be very positive for us.
HH: I’m talking with Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the architects of the surge strategy, also author of a piece, Friends, Enemies and Spoilers in this week’s Weekly Standard, which you really ought to read. I’ll quote from it now, “Can America succeed in Iraq? Definitely. Will we? It’s too soon to say.” And then further down, “Today, victory is up for grabs, and the stakes for America are rising as the conflict between us and al Qaeda shifts to the fore. It is no hyperbole to recognize that a precipitous American withdrawal would undermine the current positive trends and increase the likelihood of mass killing and state collapse.” You come back from Iraq, you see these changes, you talk with it, and then you hear Harry Reid declare the war is lost. What was your reaction upon hearing that, Frederick Kagan?
FK: It’s very disappointing. I think a lot of people, there is a lot of hyperbole, there’s a lot of exaggeration, and we really need to look this squarely in the eye, and recognize that most wars, you don’t know who’s going to win until the end. And there’s been, there were rosy optimistic scenarios from the Bush administration early on, and declarations of victory that were mistaken, and now you’ve got Democratic opponents of the war rushing to say that the war’s lost, and that it’s hopeless. And the facts on the ground just don’t support that. The war isn’t lost. We certainly can still win, and it’s really very disappointing to hear the Senator majority leader just throw up his hands like that.
HH: One of the things I read in Max Boot’s piece, which I had not realized, is that the Iraqi special forces are operating along with our special forces at night in recon type situations, and are devastating the bad guys. That’s a change of significance.
FK: There have been a lot of changes along those lines. Iraqi forces at all levels are fighting in a very determined fashion. And even sometimes Iraqi local police, which no one has put any stock in, but a former cadet of mine who is now up in Salahaddin Province north of Baghdad, told me a story about the Iraqi local police who were engaged by a bunch of al Qaeda fighters who thought they would just drive through a checkpoint, and the local police shot them up, drove them off, and seized one of their cars. It was amazing. These Iraqi soldiers, both special forces even down to some of the local police guys, are fighting hard, putting their lives on the line, taking casualties and killing the enemy.
HH: Yesterday on this program, Lawrence Wright detailed the flow of jihadis to al Anbar, and now evidently Diyala Province with the hope of taking on the Americans. Has that halted, slowed, are do they continue pretty much at will to arrive in the country?
FK: Al Qaeda is surging against us, and I think that’s happening globally. I think that al Qaeda is funneling all of the resources it can into defeating us in Iraq, and it is funneling all of its resources in Iraq to creating spectacular attacks against us, and against innocent Iraqi civilians, both Sunni and Shia. And they’re indiscriminant in their killing. This isn’t really sectarian killing. This is just terrorism, plain and simple. And they are surging to try to break our will, and I hope to Heaven that we won’t let them.
HH: Frederick Kagan, do you believe that our presence in Iraq is manufacturing terrorists? Or is it simply attracting them to the most obvious battlefield?
FK: I know for sure that it’s attracting them to the most obvious battlefield. Is it making more of them? I’m not sure. But if you take a look at the example of Afghanistan in the 1980’s, there was a situation where the Soviet presence, that was definitely manufacturing terrorists. And as long as the Soviets were there, they were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. As soon as the Soviets left, the terrorists didn’t just go home and take up gardening. They left, they moved all around the world, and then they started attacking us. That’s how we got al Qaeda. So the question really is, if we were to leave Iraq tomorrow, what would happen with these guys? And the answer for sure is that they would find other ways to attack an kill us elsewhere.
HH: Now given a very short period of time for a tough question, how then do you prevail in the long war?
FK: Well, you start by getting Iraq under control, because if we don’t get Iraq under control, and if we allow ourselves to be driven out, we will be reinforcing the message that terrorism succeeds against the United States every time. And that’s a disaster. Over the long term, the tactics of these terrorists are going to alienate them increasingly within the Muslim population at large, as is already happening in Iraq. The truth of the matter is that most Muslims don’t want to live in accord with Sharia law the way these guys interpret it, and they don’t want to be terrorized and killed. And that’s something that we’re going to have to plan, but we’ve got to show that there’s an alternative, and we’ve got to show that we’re prepared to help democratic regimes fight off terrorism.
HH: Last question, Frederick Kagan, we’re almost out of time, thank you for being here. Does the Democratic leadership not know this? Or are they ignoring it for political gain in your estimate?
FK: I don’t know. I’ve been struck by the degree to which the debate in this town, in Washington, seems to be lagging behind reality in Iraq. And one would hope that with the briefings that the Congress is getting from General Petraeus and others, that we would start to catch up and realize that the world is different from the way it was in November, 2006. We’ll see.
HH: Is General Petraeus, one more, doing enough to communicate directly with the American people?
FK: You know, given that he’s got a war to run, which is a 24/7 job, and given that he’s got to stay out of the partisan politics of this because of his position, I think he’s doing what he can do. But I think other people, particularly other Congressional leaders and other opinion makers really need to step forward and help the American people understand this.
HH: Frederick Kagan, you did your part. I appreciate it very much. The piece is linked at Hughhewitt.com. I look forward to talking to you again soon.
End of interview.