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The Conversation with The New York Times’ John Burns

Wednesday, September 9, 2009  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt

I don’t often post the transcripts of interviews on this page, but yesterday’s conversation with the New York Times’ John Burns on the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan deserves as wide an audience as possible. The U.S. may be allowing a stable Iraq to slip away:

HH: As promised now, a conversation with John Burns, the London bureau chief of the New York Times, and whenever we are lucky, a couple of times a year, we talk with John Burns about many hot spots in the world. Mr. Burns, welcome back to the program, great to talk to you again.

JB: It’s good to be with you.

HH: I want to start, even though you’ve been reporting primarily on issues with relation to Great Britain, I want to tap into your deep experience in Iraq from your years there, and ask for your assessment of what is going on in Iraq today based on obviously, I don’t know if your wife is still there, but all your friends in the Times bureau, and all your friends in Iraq.

JB: Yeah, you give me an opportunity to flack for the new At War website, blog website we have on the Times where a number of us who have some experience in Iraq and Afghanistan are now writing regularly. And I think it’s pretty good. But any way, to answer your question, you’ll recall that General Petraeus, at the time of the surge, and right through the surge in Iraq, beginning in early 2007, warned at every step of the way as progress was made, considerable progress was made, that that progress was fragile and reversible. There are early signs, ominous early signs, that it’s beginning to reverse.

HH: What are those ominous early signs, John Burns?

JB: Well as you know, American forces withdrew from the cities on July 30. And that was quickly followed by, as readers of the Times will know, front page story we had on a memorandum written by a certain Colonel Reese of the United States Army who is a senior officer in the military transition operation, which to put it at its simplest, is the operation that has been handing over the responsibilities to the Iraqi Army. He said in that memorandum, and it was written very shortly after the handover, and I don’t want to barbarize it too much, but the net of it was that things were beginning to fall apart quickly, that the Iraqi Army was beginning to deviate from many of the principles that had been laid down in the training by the United States Army, that it was going its own way, and the net of it, if I can summarize it, was this is an army that is heading straight back to the kind of army that Saddam Hussein had. And on top of that, as your listeners will know, there has been a significant increase, return to suicide bombings in all of the major cities, but that in particularly, in Baghdad. And that’s a very bad sign indeed, because those suicide bombings tend to be Sunni-inspired suicide bombings. And the indications are that the awakening councils, that’s to say the Sunnis who at the time of the surge began to shift sides, that’s to say Sunnis who had been insurgents before and came over to the allied American-Iraqi side, and really changed the entire balance of that war, there are signs that because the Shiite-led government of Iraq has not fulfilled its pledges to the Americans, to husband those awakening councils, to take significant numbers of the 80,000 men involved and put them into the Iraqi Army and police, to pay them, to find ways of transitioning the ones that they didn’t put in the army and police into employment in the private sector, that has not happened. At least it has not happened on anything like the scale that the Iraqis promised. Guess what? Those folks are beginning to figure their…finger their triggers again and to go back to war.

HH: Now John Burns, is this a, in your opinion, a conscious policy of the Maliki government? Or is it simply lassitude on their part, and inability to control everything in the sprawling new government of Iraq?

JB: No, I think it’s fundamental to the situation in Iraq. It’s quite expectable. Why? Because underlying the success that the United States military and its allies had with the surge was the ominous reality that nothing, nothing fundamental had been resolved politically. The issue that has hung over Iraq ever since April 9th, 2003 when the United States Army took control of Baghdad has been the disposition of power. Who was going to rule in the future? Well, of course the short term answer to that was two American-supervised elections in 2005, which brought the Shiites, who represent about 60% of the population in Iraq, to power after centuries of domination by the Sunni minority, who constitute less than 20%. The undertaking that was made under considerable pressure from the United States by the Shiites when they took power was that they would take care to make sure that the Kurds and the Sunnis had their place in the sun, too. There had to be understandings over certain critical issues, issues that are at base, constitutional, about the future for those now-minority people. And in particular, the issue of oil-who was going to take, or to what degree are the oil revenues of Iraq, which are 90% of all the revenues of Iraq, going to be shared? Well, here we are now, six years after the American invasion, and sometime after the transition from American troops in the cities to American troops getting out of the cities, none of that has been resolved. The basic problem of the future disposition of power in Iraq has not been resolved. There has been no reconciliation, despite tireless work by American diplomats, by the United States military to try and push the various parties, but particularly the Shiites who now control the government in that direction. It simply hasn’t happened. And in that circumstance, it didn’t matter how much short term military progress was made. If you didn’t underpin it with real political reconciliation, there was always the risk of the situation beginning to spin out of control again as United States troops were withdrawn from the cities, and drawn down, and a progress back toward civil war. Now we’re not there, yet, but the trends do not look good.

HH: Now what I want to go back to again, John Burns, though, is, is Maliki pursuing this as a matter of policy or simply as a matter of the consequences of intractable, deeply-embedded problems? Or does he seek to dominate the Sunnis in the way the Sunnis once dominated the Shiites?

JB: You know, it’s a little bit of one, and it’s a little bit of the other. Some very interesting things have happened in Shiite politics. Maliki has separated himself from, or has been separated from, the Shiite alliance, which won the election that brought him to power in 2006, as I recall. He, and part of that separation has been that he has been, had phenomenal personal popularity in Iraq. And he has decided, in effect, to go it alone with his own new political alliance, which is reaching out to the Sunnis. So you cannot say that Nouri Kamil al-Maliki is, you know, a Shiite who is unprepared to reconcile with Sunnis. However, there are fairly early limits as to how far he’s prepared to go. What I’m saying is that some of the people that he was allied with are a lot less willing than he has been to move. And of course, on crucial issues, which have to do with constitutional issues, and in particular, oil, Maliki does actually answer to a parliament. And it’s a parliament that he really doesn’t control. He has a very small number of members in that parliament. So now we have an election coming up for, a national election coming up in January 30th of 2010, which will choose a new four year government in Iraq. And much depends on what happens then. But unless the people of Iraq vote for parties that are committed to reconciliation, and that those parties really get down to work fast to reconcile over the question of the future disposition of power, and the future division of oil revenues, then we may be back to the situation that we had in 2006 where Iraq as we know looking back was well advanced towards a full-scale civil war. [# More #]

HH: John Burns, this is fascinating. Will the voters on January 30th, 2010 in Iraq know exactly what they are voting for when they cast a lever? Will they know if they’re voting for unity and non-sectarian federalism? Or will they know if they’re voting for civil war when they pull levers for particular parties? Or is this all sort of hidden hand politics?

JB: They’ll know what they’re doing. They’re pretty smart. Those votes are much valued. But you have to remember that the Iraq of 2009-2010 is still an Iraq deeply traumatized by thirty years of Baathist rule, 24 years as I recall under Saddam Hussein. And one of the consequences of that trauma, of that political, social, cultural trauma is that people have retreated. And this of course has been accelerated by the events of the last few years into their ethnic and sectarian encampments. So I think the one thing that is very predictable is that the votes in January, 2010 will once again be a sectarian vote, and that the people who favor genuine reconciliation, the centrist vote, the vote that was in the last election associated with Allawi, the first prime minister of Iraq in 2004 after the American invasion, that they will still be a minority. So the political trends, overall political trends, are not, I would say, very encouraging.

– – – –

HH: John Burns, your colleague, Dexter Filkins, was here a few months ago about his wonderful book, and I wondered at that time, and he didn’t know the answer. Are you going to write a memoir of your years in Iraq?

JB: Well, there’s a publisher or two in New York who would like to know the answer to that.

HH: (laughing)

JB: You know, the answer is that like most people who divided their lives up into 1,500 word segments for 35 or 40 years, the prospect of sitting down and disciplining myself to write 200,000 words is inhibiting. It involves a good deal of solitude. The second thing is I have a very good job here in London. Thirdly, I have to do it. I have to do it because my retirement probably depends upon it. And I’m cautioned also, as I consider this, my general remark, which is for which there are many exceptions of course, and Dexter Filkins’ book is one of them, is that the journalist who sits down to write a memoir of some kind has got to be very careful not to commit the gross error that many journalists have, in my experience. We are people who are paid money, and handsomely rewarded, to go to interesting places and meet interesting people. And there’s a grave risk along the way that we, there’s a kind of transfer that takes place, where we come to conclude that we’re interesting people ourselves. In consequence of which, many journalistic memoirs, being more about the journalists than they are about the events and people they met, tend to be a bit tedious. And that stands as a caution. I have to say hurriedly that there are many examples of books which are quite the contrary of that, and Dexter’s book, The Forever War, is precisely one of those books that did not fall into that. That book is not about Dexter Filkins.

HH: No, it’s not.

JB: It’s about the wars he covered.

HH: It’s an amazing book, and I would encourage you, as I know my audience would, to do it, because there are very few people who have emerged from this with their credibility on both sides of the ideological divide in the United States intact, and I think you and Mr. Filkins are among them, and I just would be fascinated by an at-length treatment. Let me go back to Iraq before we move to Afghanistan, John Burns. What, if anything, can the United States do to arrest the slide back towards, and I’m not sure how quick that slide is, but you’re intimating that it’s pretty rapid, the slide back towards 2006-2005 conditions in Iraq?

JB: Well you know, one of the things I’ve learned about the United States as a Brit working for the New York Times the last 35 years is that there is a terrific capacity in the American DNA to reinvent, that is to say personally and collectively, since the time that the Puritans arrived at Plymouth Rock. There have been a tremendous willingness to address problems of enormous scale, if at first you fail, to try again, find other ways. The United States military, the United States diplomatic service in Iraq, as we know, got things pretty seriously wrong in the immediate aftermath of 2003, but they learned the lessons. They got smart. And they’re pretty smart now. So I think you can be sure that everything that can be done is being done. The problem is that American leverage, of course, is rapidly diminishing. Example, it’s a military example, but you can find similar examples on the civilian side. When the insurgents bombed the foreign ministry and the finance ministry in Iraq about three weeks ago, killing somewhere between 100 and 140 people, injuring about 600, it was the most serious bombing in Iraq, in Baghdad, in two or three years, when they happened, the New York Times reported that U.S. military units were only a few hundred yards away at the time, they had medics with them, and they were unable to intervene in any way, because the Iraqi government under the new so-called SOFA agreement, the status of forces agreement, has to issue an appeal to the Americans to do so. So it was a graphic illustration of how American influence has been reduced in Iraq. That’s the problem. At a critical moment in this story, American influence is reduced, even though American military presence, and the cost of that presence to the American taxpayer, has not yet been significantly reduced. It’s a very unfortunate situation.

HH: If the United States were to request an alteration in the Status Of Forces Agreement such that it would be allowed a greater role, do you think the Maliki government would grant it?

JB: You know, I think it’s going to work the other way around. I think that the American people have, broadly speaking, made up their mind about Iraq. They want those troops home. They feel that the United States has invested, what, a trillion dollars, getting close to that, and the lives of nearly 4,400 American soldiers, another 30,000 or more seriously injured, I think the general opinion in the United States is very heavily, as I read it, very heavily in favor of getting those folks home. I think the real risk here is that if Maliki, and even if it’s not Maliki, if one of the other Shiite factions emerge triumphant from the January 30th elections, as seem sure, and the military security situation is fast deteriorating because the Iraqi armed forces cannot control the situation, I think what you’ll find is there’ll be an 180 degree turn. The same people, Maliki and others who have been saying we want American troops drawn down, we want them out, we don’t want to be occupied anymore, will suddenly start saying hold on, hold on, not too fast. And that’ll present President Obama and the Congress of the United States with a really serious issue to address. This could come as soon as sometime next spring or summer.

HH: Now let me ask across the border in Iran, which has suffered its own upheavals, and ongoing upheavals through Ramadan right now. Are they playing a role in this deterioration, John Burns? Or are they fixated on their own internal unrest right now?

JB: Well, I doubt very much whether they made that kind of a choice. I think that they have played a thoroughly negative role in Iraq now for quite some time, that they’ve never been able to discern their own long term, medium to long term strategic interest, which would of course be a stable Iraq, from their near term interest, which is to frustrate as far as they can, the Great Satan, namely the United States. I don’t see much sign that President Ahmadinejad has learned the lesson in all of that, and that he is prepared to begin to use his influence in Iraq for positive ends. I think they will continue to use those ends, that influence, to negative ends, and there’s not much to be hoped for from that direction.

HH: I don’t know if you’re a betting man, John Burns, but if you were, would you bet on an Israeli strike on Iran within the next six months?

JB: Do you know, we’re faced in the United States, and the Western alliance, are faced with several apparently un-resolvable problems with these wars. And it seems to me that in that respect, there is at present an un-resolvable problem. You have an Iran which without doubt is hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons on the one hand. On the other hand, you have a Western alliance led by the United States, and of course including Israeli, who have determined some time ago that a nuclear-armed Iran is not tolerable. And then you have a third factor, which is that if you were, if there were to be a military strike by the Israelis, perhaps, which would inevitably involve, or be seen to involve, some degree of American compliance, all hell could break loose. The kind of intervention that we’ve seen the Iranians making in Iraq would be multiplied many, many times, just at the point when the United States is trying to get the last of its 130-140,000 troops out of Iraq.

– – – –

HH: John Burns, back to that question, aware that it will cause chaos, possibly, do you expect the Israelis to strike Iran?

JB: You’re not going to let me get away, are you, without answering that? My sense is that the trends in Israeli politics, which is not something I know a great deal about, but are toward the conservative and not toward the centrist or leftist side, and that there will certainly be a very great amount of pressure on the Israelis to do that internally, domestically. After all, Iran has said that they, Ahmadinejad himself has threatened to destroy, or expressed as an ambition the destruction of the state of Israel. On the other hand, I think you can be pretty sure that the Obama administration will be doing everything possible to deter Israel from doing it. How can this be resolved? Who knows? Maybe there are clandestine operations underway, things which we don’t know anything about. I’m sure there are, which will seek to achieve this end by other means. Maybe Iranian politics will yet take a dramatic turn away from Ahmadinejad, away from the Islamic extremists, and things will be resolve in that way. Otherwise, I would say if there isn’t a change in Iranian politics, if things continue to head in the direction they are, if you’re a betting man, you’d had to say that some kind of action to put Iran out of the nuclear business was more likely than not.

HH: Let’s turn, then, to Afghanistan in the rest of this segment and the next two, John Burns. The panel today, the U.N. panel has ordered a recount in the election that gave President Karzai 54% of the vote. That’s the headline at the today. Where you do, sitting back and looking at Afghanistan from long experience, and you were in Kabul for a number of years as well, where do you see this going?

JB: It’s a very unfortunate situation indeed. And you have to say, as I often do as a correspondent, thank God I’m in what Teddy Roosevelt called the bleachers and not down on the field having to make the decision on all of this. This was the very last thing, a stolen election, that President Obama needed at a time when he’s asking the American people to accept, in effect, an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, with 21, what is it, 21, 25, 30,000 additional troops already committed, and the prospect that within a matter of weeks, General McCrystal in Afghanistan will be asking for yet more troops. In other words, the United States may be building towards the kind of troop presence in Afghanistan that it has had in Iraq in the last few years. The last thing that anybody needed was an Afghan government that had cheated its own people. And how they’re going to resolve that, I don’t know. Call another election? Insist on a second round? How are you going to insure that the same thing doesn’t happen again? And if you don’t accept the result of the election, what then? That you’re going to have a government which is going to be described as a puppet government? Karzai and his people are going to go into active opposition. He’s threatened that already. It’s a terrible mess.

HH: In terms of the troops that you just referenced, General McCrystal and General Petraeus’ request for additional troops, which many anticipate, do you believe based upon having watched this surge succeed in bringing stability to Iraq, that a surge of troops in Afghanistan will yield pretty much the same result, perhaps not long term, but at least temporary stability, John Burns?

JB: Let me answer that in a slightly different way. When you attend the NATO briefing, the first initial NATO briefing after returning to Afghanistan after some absence, they put up a slide, a Power Point slide show, where they say in effect that if we had the same troop to terrain ratio in Afghanistan that we had in, for example, Kosovo ten years ago, we’d have 800,000 troops. Then, there’s a good deal of nervous laughter around the room. This is senior military officers doing the briefing. In other words, the first thing they wanted to impress on you is that they have nowhere near enough troops to begin to prevail in this war. We know now from the assessment made by General McCrystal, General Petraeus and others that the Afghan Army is at least, at best, three years away from being able to take the lead in this war. So what do you do in the intervening three years with a war that is getting rapidly worse, partly because you don’t have enough troops? You’ve got to get more boots on the ground. That seems to be the starting point. There are a lot of other things that need to be done, quite a few of which General McCrystal has done already, including attempting to control the ill-effects of air power and so forth. But that’s fundamental. They need more troops. If they don’t have more troops, they are not going to be able to prevail against the Taliban.

– – – –

HH: John Burns, my friend, Steven Pressfield, the novelist, has produced a series of videos, and of course, has written a number of books about Afghanistan, that lead one to conclude, Steven doesn’t say this, that perhaps it is futile, that the Pashtuns are always going to be at war with whomever is in the neighborhood, and that the West had just better get used to this, and deal with it. What is the best result the West can hope for in Afghanistan, in your opinion, given how many years you’ve spent there and how much time you spent covering it?

JB: The best result, well, the best result would be the result that we’ve been hoping for for the last thirty years, which is that Afghan opinion, which is, as I read it, Afghan popular opinion, absolutely in favor of peace and reconciliation between the various groups will find a way to express itself. But there’s no sign now, what is it, nearly eight years after the overthrow of the Taliban, that that is going to happen. And in the meantime, of course, the situation has been vastly complicated by events in Pakistan, which is where the real threat lies, because of the threat of Islamic extremists moving ever closer to the center of power in Pakistan, which has, as we all know, nuclear weapons.

HH: But do you see the Petraeus strategy, the COIN strategy, working there in such a way as you could actually get 75-80% of the country under a stable, central government, if only loosely so from Kabul? Or is it just going to be an endless series of tribal confrontations?

JB: Well, you know, curiously, there’s some encouragement to be taken in all of this from what happened during the aftermath of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, where as you know, they were driven back north over the Hindu Kush in humiliation in 1989 by the Mujahideen, backed by the United States. But the Mujahideen in the aftermath of that were not able to take control until the United States and the Soviet Union decided to no longer arm their, the sides that they were backing in Afghanistan. And the result was the rise of the Taliban. So what I’m trying to say is that the Taliban prevailing is not at all a foregone conclusion. We know that there is a center in Afghanistan, a center that wishes to resist this, many ordinary people who wish to resist this, and that with the right kind of military policy, the right numbers of troops, and a little bit of luck, which as Napoleon always said was what he wanted in his generals more than anything else, General Petraeus seems to be a general who has not only skill, but luck, that this could, the corner could be turned. The odds are against it, but it could happen.

HH: What do you say to correspondents like George Will, Thomas Friedman? These are not standard, isolationist leftists who are opposed to American force anywhere. They’re people who are, you know, disposed to believe in force. When they say it’s time to get out, what would your caution to them be, if any?

JB: Well, my first thought is that it’s politically unrealizable. The President of the United States, President Obama, who’s showing himself to be very deft and fast-footed in many respects, it seems to me has made a very clear commitment in Afghanistan, as has Prime Minister Brown in Britain very recently, recommitted himself to seeing this thing through. It’s almost impossible for me to believe that they would decide to quit and abandon, and it’s also, I think we have to think about what the consequences of that would be. I’ve just been watching, as I’m sure many of your listeners have, reruns of the events of 9/11, the documentary 102 Minutes was run here in Britain last night as the eight anniversary approaches. That, we know where that came from. We know what the incubator of 9/11 was. And it seems to me it’s going to be very hard on the one hand to say to the American public that we’ve got to stay the course in Afghanistan, but on the other hand, anybody who decides to pull out is going to have to answer for the dire possibilities that Afghanistan could once again become a safe haven, a sanctuary for the people who pulled off 9/11.

HH: Over the weekend, John Burns, Great Britain convicted the three individuals charged with the terrible plot in 2006 to blow up airliners. Given now that you’ve been back a couple of years, your sense of the Islamist extremism fringe in Great Britain and London specifically? Growing? Diminishing? Or just where it was when this plot was discovered in 2006?

JB: Well, we just have to listen to the security services in the United Kingdom, the home secretary who is our interior minister, endless warnings that the risks remain extremely high, that three-quarters of all terrorist plots in this country have their origins, and they’ll have serious links to Pakistan, people of Pakistani origin constitute by far the majority of the one and a half to two million Muslims living in Great Britain. American intelligence agencies have said quite insistently that they fear that if there is another 9/11, it’s just as likely, perhaps even more likely, to happen in the United Kingdom than it did in London, and this transatlantic bombing trial which came to an end yesterday with the conviction of three people who wanted to knock down at least seven airliners traveling simultaneously westbound across the Atlantic, American and Canadian, but mainly American airliners, they could have killed 1,500 people, they could have killed many more. You know, we have to take, I think we have to take this seriously. If we have the head of counterterrorism of Scotland Yard, the head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, the head of MI6, the external intelligence agency, all of them have been saying this threat has not diminished. It’s there, it’s growing. I think we ought to take that seriously.

HH: Am I wrong, though, in concluding it doesn’t really animate much of British politics right now, that this threat is sort of on the sidelines, it doesn’t really drive…

JB: Well, there are a lot of, there are a lot of other issues, and thank God, this one has not become a partisan political issue on this side of the Atlantic, and indeed I think it has never been really a partisan political issue on the West side of the Atlantic. I think everybody recognizes that this is far too serious a problem to make it an election issue. Britain has an election next spring, probably in May, a general election. We’ll likely get a new government. At the present, it looks like it’s likely to be a conservative government, not a Labour government, a change of government. But I think the policy will be the same.

– – – –

HH: John Burns, thank you for joining me from London today. I’d like to conclude by asking you about the future of the Brown government. A lot of people in the United States deeply unhappy over the Lockerbie release, and profoundly disillusioned by the Lockerbie release. What’s that playing like in Great Britain? And what do you expect is going to happen? You mentioned you expect a David Cameron government, but what sort of repudiation do you expect of Gordon?

JB: Well, I can reassure Americans who are distressed and outraged by that, that there has been a counterpart outrage on this side of the Atlantic, and sheer lack of comprehension as to how it could have happened. And we have day after day after day now for what, two or three weeks, new revelations about the machinations that went on behind the scenes. And I have to say without, I hope, being a partisan in this, that it’s a new arrow in the back of the present government. I think the general impression in Britain is that this was badly mishandled, that there was a gross underestimate of the likely reaction in the United States, that there were plenty of red lights along the way, which this steam train just drove straight through, and there’s a great deal of concern about the impact at least in the short to medium term on U.S.-U.K. relations.

HH: Do you expect this government to be able to stagger along until the spring?

JB: Well, there’s some talk of a new challenge to Gordon Brown as leader of the Labour Party, and thus as prime minister after the Labour Party’s annual conference which occurs in the next three or four weeks. I think it’s too late. I think that the Labour Party is going to dance with the girl that brung ‘ya, as you Americans say. They’ll go to the election with Gordon Brown. He’s going to hope desperately for an upturn in the economy. But all the polls here at the moment show the opposition conservatives have been out of power now since 1997, leading by 15 percentage points and more, which would translate into a landslide. If you were a betting person, that’s what you would have to expect.

HH: And would the foreign policy of Great Britain change appreciably, or their commitment to Afghanistan specifically in the event of a Cameron government of the Tories?

JB: No, I don’t think so. The Cameron, David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, and his defense spokesman, have concentrated not on whether or not this is a sustainable effort, but on the need to better equip and better finance the British troops, the 9,000 or so troops who are there at the moment. And they are under-resourced. There seems to be absolutely no doubt about that. They have to travel the terrain in poorly protected vehicles instead of in helicopters, because the British forces have only a fraction of the helicopters the American forces have. I think the pledge, as I understand of the Conservative Party, is to deal with that issue, but not to reverse the policy in itself.

HH: John Burns, thanks for your time tonight. I appreciate it so much. America, thank you.

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