Scoring the War in Iraq: Who's Winning?

More than two years into the war in Iraq, with no end in clear sight, progress is hard to assess. Robert Siegel asks a series of guests, "Who is winning the war in Iraq?" They include Eliot Cohen, professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies; Ayman Safadi, editor of the Jordanian newspaper Al Ghad; retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, co-author of The Iraq War; Kelly Dougherty, a former member of the Colorado Army National Guard who served a year in Iraq and is now associated with Iraq Veterans Against the War; and William Polk, historian and author of Understanding Iraq.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Is the US winning the war in Iraq? It's more than two years since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, just over one year since Washington formally ceded sovereignty to the Iraqis. Still, the question remains, and the answers you get conflict. When President Bush spoke at Ft. Bragg this week, his appraisal of how the US is doing was positive.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Our progress has been uneven, but progress is being made.

SIEGEL: When General John Abizaid testified before Congress last week, he described an enemy that is persistent.

Lieutenant General JOHN ABIZAID (Commander, US Central Command): In terms of foreign fighters, I believe there are more foreign fighters coming into Iraq than there were six months ago. In terms of the overall strength of the insurgency, I'd say it's about the same as it was.

SIEGEL: Are these the final throes of the conflict, as Vice President Cheney put it? General Abizaid declined to say as much. According to Senator Edward Kennedy, we are now in a seemingly intractable quagmire, a judgment that is rejected by General George Casey, the US military commander in Iraq.

General GEORGE CASEY (Commander of US Forces in Iraq): I don't agree with the statement that the United States is losing in Iraq, nor that we are getting into a quagmire.

SIEGEL: For South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, the decisive battlefield in the Iraq War is the home front.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): We will lose this war if we leave too soon, and what is likely to make us do that? The public going south, and that is happening.

SIEGEL: But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rejects all such pessimism as unwarranted.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): Timing in war is never predictable. There are no guarantees. And any who say that we've lost this war or that we're losing this war are wrong. We are not.

SIEGEL: In this segment of the program: Is the US winning the war in Iraq, or do the insurgents have the upper hand? We'll hear the views of four people who have followed Iraq and US policy in the region for years.

First, Eliot Cohen. He's a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies. He is often identified as a neoconservative defense policy intellectual. I put the question to him.

Is the US winning the war in Iraq?

Professor ELIOT COHEN (Strategic Studies, School for Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University): It's very hard to make a clear-cut judgment about winning and losing. I guess I would say that I'm tepidly optimistic about how this will turn out, but we're not going to know how it's going to turn out for quite some time, for years, five, 10 years.

SIEGEL: Does that mean five, 10 years of being on the ground with more than 100,000 troops in Iraq?

Prof. COHEN: Probably not with more than 100,000 troops, but I suspect that we're going to have a presence there for quite some time.

SIEGEL: One way of looking at this conflict is that the US wins if US public support continues for the US presence in Iraq; and if that support erodes, then the insurgents who have eroded that support win.

Prof. COHEN: I really--I wouldn't go down that path. I really think what counts is what's happening on the ground, and there are many different measures you can look at. I mean, obviously, there are things like electrical power, which is tremendously important, or exports and so on. But the fundamental measures of effectiveness are going to be what's happening in Iraqi society, what happens to the Iraqi polity. And that will in turn have an effect on violence.

For example, one thing I think that's become pretty clear recently is there are certain circumstances under which a lot of the Iraqis will turn on some of the foreign jihadis who have been blowing themselves up and causing horrific damage in Iraq. Well, if you see that really begin to happen, that will be a very important indicator of success. I would keep focused on Iraq more than here. It's the job of the government to explain what they're doing and to justify their actions, but the fundamental measures of effectiveness have to do with what's happening in Iraq.

SIEGEL: To sum up what I'm hearing you say: Success is possible, it's not immediate, and it's not guaranteed.

Prof. COHEN: I think that's absolutely right. A very good military scholar who also has some operational experience in Iraq, Colonel John Nagl, makes the point that the British counterinsurgency in Malaysia in the 1950s and early '60s is regarded as the gold standard in counterinsurgency. That took 12 years, so we've got to be patient.

SIEGEL: Eliot Cohen's tepid optimism is still a warmer appraisal of the US effort than Ayman Safadi's. He is editor of the Jordanian newspaper Al Ghad.

Who's winning the war in Iraq?

Mr. AYMAN SAFADI (Editor, Al Ghad): Nobody is winning the war in Iraq, but it's very clear to say that all of Iraq is losing the war, America is losing the war, the insurgents are losing the war simply because we're not seeing any progress, real genuine progress towards ending the state of anarchy that has befallen the country since the fall of the previous regime.

SIEGEL: When you say that ordinary Iraqis are losing the war, what's the measure of that? What is the measure of their experience that tells you that?

Mr. SAFADI: Their life, the number of Iraqis who are killed by the day, the absence of the most basic requirements of normal life--water, electricity, gas--and the absence of the feeling of security. A lot of them leave home not sure they're going to go back to it safe, because there's a car bomb at every corner. There's somebody waiting to shoot at every corner. Basically, the Iraqis before the war were promised freedom from the oppression of Saddam Hussein. The oppression of Saddam Hussein is gone now. That regime is gone forever. However, the reality is not much better in terms of everything that has to do with their livelihood: their schools, their education, their health and, most importantly, their safety.

SIEGEL: There was an election in January. People who were optimistic about the effort in Iraq, the US effort, point to that and say, `That's a sign of success and it's a sign of the future.'

Mr. SAFADI: Well, I mean, the elections did represent a very significant step. However, in order for this process to be successful, it has to take into consideration the actual realities on the ground, not the immediate balance of power in Iraq. So there's a need to develop a political plan. There's a need to look at the economic concerns of the people, to start investing in their lives and to send the message to all Iraqis that the political process is all-inclusive and would lead to fair representation of everybody and will ensure the rights of all Iraqis. And as I said, everybody was losing the war. Winning the war would require putting everybody's weight behind the political process.

SIEGEL: That's Jordanian journalist Ayman Safadi in Amman.

William Polk, historian and author of "Understanding Iraq," has been studying that country ever since he first went there more than 50 years ago.

Is the US winning the fight against the insurgents?

Mr. WILLIAM POLK (Historian; Author, "Understanding Iraq"): The short answer is no, and now let me flesh that out. Attacks are up from about 45 a day to the time that we announced the turnover of power to 70 a day now. Electricity is down about 5 percent. Oil production is down 90,000 barrels a day. Fifty-two senior Iraqi officials have been killed. US personnel killed per day or per month has doubled. Iraqi police casualties are up 30 percent. The number of insurgents are now estimated at about three times as many as we thought a year ago to 16,000 today. Of course, nobody knows whether that's really a reasonable figure. And from the statement that American troops would be greeted with flowers to the admission that the war may be either unwinnable entirely or, in the best case, may last for years.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, there's been an election in Iraq, and people have pointed to the millions who took part, and seem to be expressing some confidence in their future in this new regime.

Mr. POLK: Well, I've come to this, I'll have to tell you, with a somewhat jaundiced view. I was in the government during the time of the Vietnam War. And in 1967, 83 percent, which is almost exactly the same number as today, voted in the South Vietnamese election despite the Viet Cong terrorism in a very similar situation to Iraq today. We took pride in it, but does it really mean anything?

SIEGEL: Can you imagine a counterinsurgency effort that would, in fact, deliver a degree of security to the Iraqi people with US troops in some numbers still in Iraq that would constitute, if not victory, stability, something Iraqis could live with?

Mr. POLK: I think the history of all the insurgencies that we know anything about is that as long as you go after security, you won't get it, that the only way that you can get security is by allowing sovereignty. And that is to say, in my argument, that the best way toward getting some degree of stability is to get the foreign troops--in this case the American troops--out.

SIEGEL: That's historian William Polk.

Retired Army Major General Robert Scales disagrees. General Scales used to be commandant of the Army War College. In 2003, he wrote a history of the military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. That victory was decisive. Two years later, he says, there remains one key to success.

Major General ROBERT SCALES (US Army, Retired): This war is all about security. It's whoever can affect the Iraqi people to the point where the Iraqi people understand that they'll be most secure under the influence of the United States or under the influence of the insurgents. Right now, the United States has the upper hand in this game of security, although it may not seem like that by just looking at the number of casualties every day, simply because the enemy has been obligated to use the last single remaining effective tool in his military toolbox, and that's the suicide bomber.

SIEGEL: When Vice President Cheney said you're seeing the last throes of the insurgency, you see the suicide bomber as a sign of the terminal effort, not as a sign of its robustness?

Maj. Gen. SCALES: The suicide bomber is the last effective military tool he has left, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he's going to throw that tool away anytime soon. The suicide bomber is nothing more than a means to extend this campaign from his perspective, to make this insurgency last longer. Remember, ultimately, the United States fights short wars brilliantly and long wars poorly, and the enemy knows that, and therefore, his object here is to use the suicide bomber to protract the campaign, affect the will of the Iraqi people and preserve his force in being. And the only way he can win is by avoiding loss.

SIEGEL: What defines a long war here? We've had troops in Iraq for almost as long as we had troops in Europe up until the point of V-E Day. When does a war become a long war?

Maj. Gen. SCALES: That's a great question, and the only way I can answer it is to give you a brief 20-second War College tutorial. Wars are all about ends and means. The ends are what we want to achieve in this war and how threatened the American people are at the time. Means are how much are we willing to pay, both in terms of lives and treasure. And as long as the ends are seen as being viable and the threat is seen as being truly dangerous, then the American people are willing to spend more in the three commodities that they have, and that's resources: money, people and time. If you look at the three, the one that the enemy is best able to manipulate, frankly, is time. So really, the key factor in this war is time, who can manipulate time.

The other point is that all American wars are fought on the clock. By that, I mean Americans are impatient, and they're going to want to see American involvement in this conflict ended very soon.

SIEGEL: That's retired Major General Robert Scales. Neither he nor Ayman Safadi in Jordan, nor Professor Eliot Cohen or historian William Polk spoke of any imminent decisive victory over the Iraqi insurgents. The most optimistic appraisals we've heard assume that winning the war in Iraq will take time. And even the optimists agree US actions in 2003 and 2004 squandered a year after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

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