Iraq Roundtable: Thousands More Troops for Baghdad
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
With U.S. troop reductions now seeming farther off, NPR's Jackie Lyden spoke with two former Army officers and asked them what more U.S. troops in Baghdad could accomplish.
JACKIE LYDEN reporting:
I'm joined now by Andrew Krepinevich, former lieutenant colonel. He's now head of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and Douglas McGregor, a retired Army colonel and independent analyst.
Gentlemen, thanks very much for joining us.
Mr. ANDREW KREPINEVICH (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments): Glad to be here.
Mr. DOUGLAS MCGREGOR (Analyst): Happy to talk with you, Jackie.
LYDEN: Andrew Krepinevich, let's start with you. We now have a situation in Iraq that some would say is a perfect storm of violence, a sectarian conflict which appears to be overwhelming, a counter-insurgency campaign. Is there anything that 4,000 additional troops can do in Baghdad to stabilize the situation?
Mr. KREPINEVICH: Personally, I think at the end of the day it's going to have to be the Iraqi security forces that secure Baghdad. And here, I think, we can help more by expanding the number of advisors that we embed in those units to help them mature, to help them fight better, and to bring in American support when needed. I'm not sure that an American lead on this operation is what we need.
LYDEN: Douglas McGregor, this week General Peter Corelli, who is the commander of U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, told an American interview for the Los Angeles Times that in his 33 years he's never prepared to fight a sectarian war, a civil war. In your opinion, is the United States someplace it hasn't been before?
Mr. MCGREGOR: Well, I think the United States is someplace it has no business being. We're occupying a Muslim Arab country with hundreds of thousands of Christian Europeans in U.S. and British uniform, and that was always a prescription for catastrophe. And we've handled it badly. I think the addition of these troops is irrelevant. I think we lost the initiative probably by Christmas of 2003, certainly by April of 2004, and have never regained it.
When we talk about the so-called insurgency, which has always been largely an indigenous rebellion against an unwanted U.S. military occupation, I think we missed the point that what is really happening is that the soldiers have been withdrawn into these large fortresses that are, frankly speaking, islands of impotence in a sea of violence. If you don't come out of the fortress very much and you sit comfortably behind it, then the Sunni and Shiite establishments are free to tackle each other. And right now that's what they're doing.
And this so-called Iraqi army, which is largely a Shiite force, is incapable of coping with it. And frankly speaking, I think they are waiting until we're ultimately out of the way so that they can move from a limited civil war to an all out fight for dominance in Iraq.
LYDEN: Let's talk a little bit about the Iraqi army. I happened to be embedded with First Brigade 10th Mountain in March as they were training up the Iraqi army in Baghdad city and province. While I was with these troops, the head of all Iraqi forces, General Mugdar Delami(ph) was assassinated, obviously a setback to plans. What's your view of how well the Iraqi army is performing, Dr. Krepinevich?
Mr. KREPINEVICH: I think the jury is still out. What we haven't done a good job of is providing these units with a sufficient number of American advisors. We need advisors there not only to help them as combat units, but we need them there to identify who's against the government and who's with the government. And to date, we provide maybe 10 or so advisors for each battalion. A lot of Army officers that I've spoken to say 30 is more along the lines of what you need.
And we also don't send our best officers and sergeants to be advisors. They stay with the American units. And again, I agree with Doug, those units sitting in these big compounds aren't really giving you full value for the fact that they're over in Iraq right now.
Mr. MCGREGOR: Well, Jackie, you know, there's another aspect here that I don't think we should lose sight of. For instance, of the 1,000 Sunni Muslim Arabs who graduated as the first all Sunni army basic program - these are officers - only 300 are still on active duty today inside the so-called Iraqi army. The Sunnis see no effort whatsoever on the part of this Shiite dominated government to rein in the Shiite militias. They see no evidence at all for anyone interested in reorganizing the Interior Ministry, which is full of not simply Shiite Arabs, but it's full of people with direct ties to Iran.
And every time that the military or the police - Iraqi military or the police - rounds up militants in towns like Durra, Hashimi, Zubayr - these are Shiite areas - great pressure is brought to bear and all of these so-called Shiite militants are simply released.
LYDEN: Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was here this week. Let's just listen to him as he addresses Congress. He was asking for the U.S. to stay the course.
Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALIKI (Iraq): (Through Translator) It is your duty and our duty to defeat this terror. Iraq is the frontline in this struggle, and history will prove that the sacrifices of Iraqis for freedom will not be in vain.
LYDEN: Well, I don't think anyone can argue that Iraqis haven't made sacrifices, but of course they've also made war.
Let me ask you, Andrew Krepenevich, do we have a moral obligation at this point? Never mind how it's going. Haven't Sunnis asked, despite the rebellion against American forces in the past, American troops to stay because they're outnumbered by Shiite militias?
Mr. KREPENEVICH: I think the larger question here, which Doug and I are kind of moving towards, is you know, this war arguably began as a war of choice. We decided the time and the place to go into Iraq. I think at this point this war has become a war of necessity, partly because of what you said, on a moral basis. We've backed and supported the Kurds for a long time now, since the end of the first Gulf War. In a sense, we've left the Sunnis vulnerable, and now, quite frankly, they see us as their greatest protectors as opposed to their greatest enemies.
We've encouraged the secular Shia to come forth and join that government of national unity, so there's a certain moral aspect here. But there's also, I guess you could say, a larger, moral, or geopolitical aspect, which is if we withdraw from Iraq before the situation is stabilized, we're not just looking at an Iraqi civil war, we are looking at a regional war, because there is no way the Saudis will go easily in terms of permitting a Persian-backed, that is to say an Iranian-backed, Shia government.
They will put their money in. The Syrians, the Jordanians, the Egyptians will put people in. This is kind of a slow-motion 1914 where a small, localized conflict just grows over time.
LYDEN: Is it the summer of 1914, Colonel McGregor? I mean you've been hearing that...
Mr. MCGREGOR: Well, no. I mean, it - listen, that potential has always been there, and it will be there regardless of whether or not we stay or leave. I think the important point to keep in mind is that there is a justification for the maintenance of a small American force in Kurdistan to prevent the Turks from making a terrible mistake, which would be to intervene in that area, and they do have voices inside Turkey actively urging intervention. As for the rest of it, you know, if we were so concerned about moral obligations, we'd get out immediately.
LYDEN: Can this situation be salvaged now?
Mr. MCGREGOR: I think it's already been established, no. I think the answer is we can't do much. It's going to be sorted out by the people that live there.
Mr. KREPENEVICH: It is going to be difficult if we stay. It's going to be difficult if we leave, and I think it's about time that the political leadership of this country recognizes that and we begin to try and work together to come up with an approach that at least achieves some minimal objectives.
LYDEN: Well, thank you both, gentlemen, very much. Andrew Krepenevich is the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and Douglas McGregor is an independent analyst. They are both former U.S. Army officers. Thanks very much for joining us today.
Mr. KREPENEVICH: Thank you.
Mr. MCGREGOR: Thank you, Jackie.