Retired General on What Should Be Done in Iraq

In the second in a series on "Rethinking Iraq", Neal Conan talks with retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the first American administrator to oversee the reconstruction of Iraq.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Well, let's get back to Rethinking Iraq right now. The violence in that country continues to escalate. The death toll for American troops so far on this last day of October is 103, and a series of car bombs and attacks killed more Iraqis today, including 15 members of a wedding party in Baghdad.

Amid calls for a new approach in Iraq from key members of Congress, including senior members of his own party, President Bush announced last week he would be flexible in considering tactical adjustments, but said there would be no change in strategy. Recommendations from a bipartisan panel headed up by longtime Bush family confidante James Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton are due out sometime before the end of this year.

With one week to go before the crucial midterm elections, which could cost the president's party control of one or both Houses of Congress, Iraq is the major issue. Amid these events and reconsideration of the way forward in Iraq, we've invited current and former administration officials and military officers to discuss what they think should happen next, and to take your calls.

Our guest today is retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner. He was appointed by President Bush early in 2003 to oversee the interim administration and reconstruction of Iraq. Not long afterwards, he was replaced by Paul Bremmer. If you have questions for General Garner about the way ahead in Iraq, our number, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Or you can send us e-mail, talk@npr.org. General Garner is with us here in Studio 3A, and it's nice to have you on the program.

Lieutenant General JAY GARNER (U.S. Army, Retired; Former Head, Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance of Iraq): Thank you, Neal. It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And I also mentioned that you were involved in the establishment of the no-fly zone and the secure area in the north of Iraq after the war in 1991. And as we think about the future of Iraq, does the current - the present of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, does the point that way at all, do you think?

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Oh, absolutely. I think the plan - the talk now to partition the country - I don't like the word partition, but I think divide into federal districts or federal entities. You know, we're already partitioned. Anybody that don't think that partition exists is - either hasn't been there, or they had their eyes closed when they were there. But to have a Kurdish area, a Sunni area, and Shia area, with Baghdad separate with a decentralized government, federal government over it I think is the way to go.

CONAN: Yet this process of partitioning, it's not clearly demarcated in most areas of the country. Obviously, the Kurds still have a major problem…

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Oh, I think what you do, you have a referendum and you say - and in the referendum, you vote on what area want to be - to live in.

CONAN: Well, right now, people are being asked to - forced to move from the areas at gun point.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: And so - but if you allow them to vote what area - it means you would end up probably redrawing some provincial boundaries. But yeah, right no, you see a lot of shifting going on. You see some of Sadr's people moving up around Karkuk to try to influence like that.

CONAN: Moqtada al Sadr, the radical cleric, the Shiite cleric.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Right.

CONAN: And there are obviously differences of interests between the various factions. We think of just the big three: the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds, but there are many other groups in Iraq.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Sure there are. Sure there are. And inside each one of those federal districts, they would - well, like take the northern part. Take Kurdistan right now. Kurdistan is almost an - it is an autonomous area. They have their own constitution. Their constitution has minority rights in it. They have free elections. About a quarter of their leaders up there are women. They're making their schools coeducational. They're secular. The Turkomans live at the ease up there. Christians live at ease up there - Shia, Sunni. And I think that if we formalize that process in the rest of the nation - much like the Biden recommendation is, I think…

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Senator Joe Biden.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Yeah, I think over time, you'd see a settling there of that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. There is also a separate Kurdish militia - in fact, two of them…

Lt. Gen. GARNER: The peshmerga.

CONAN: Peshmerga. And we hear talk of the difficulties with the Badr Brigade and Mehdi Army and the various Shia militias.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Right.

CONAN: Should we overlook that? Should we just be forming at this point a regionally-based, ethnically-based or religiously-based military forces, like the peshmerga in Kurdistan?

Lt. Gen. GARNER: I mean, as I look at it, you only have three choices. You can partition, as they're saying - and there's variations to partitioning, but you can end up partitioning. You can have the coalition forces try to eliminate the militias - the Badr Brigade, the Mehdi Army - which the Iraqi people won't go for, neither will our people I don't think. Or you can stay the course; and we stayed the course for three-and-a-half years, and clearly that's not working. So I think the best thing on the table right now, whether you like it or not, is partitioning.

CONAN: Let's see if - I mean but partitioning holds inherent dangers. There's going to be violence over these borders. And the Sunnis, where they live there's not a lot of oil.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: We don't know that. We don't know that. But - there hasn't been a great deal of oil exploration in the western part of Iraq. However, you can solve that by putting an amendment to the constitution. There's already a place in the constitution for the sharing of - for the division of oil. And you can go in and amend the constitution where you give the Sunnis a guaranteed portion of the oil revenues based on their population, their percentage of the population.

The other things we ought to do in oil is we ought do with the Iraqi people just what we did in Alaska with the permanent fund, where every Alaskan resident gets a portion of the oil revenues every year. We ought to do that for all the people in Iraq to give the people of Iraq some of the wealth of their nation, which is oil.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners on the line.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Sure.

CONAN: Again, 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Peter's with us, Peter calling from Berkeley, California.

PETER (Caller): Thank you. First of all, let me say thank you Gen. Garner for supporting that idea of sharing some of the oil wealth among the people. And for heaven's sake that should help stimulate a market economy there, too, and entrepreneurial, you know, innovation and so on. So that's great.

I wanted to ask if there's been or could there be an effort to use media to bring conflictual parties together to a greater understanding, just like TALK OF THE NATION. Is there anything like that going on, or could they not be created something like that in Iraq?

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Well, you know, I think you can always use the media to your advantage. And the interesting thing about Iraq is within days after the occupation of Baghdad, every shop on the street was selling satellite antennas. So there's certainly the opportunity to beam what you want to into the households of Iraq.

You hit on one of the major items, Peter, and that's the economy. Until we jump-start the economy and get it going, we're going to have a hard time there. You know, with all the money we're putting there with the contractors I think we ought to insist that the contractors bring on Iraqi companies as their subcontractors on something like a 51-49 split. And we ought to let the Iraqis pick the projects for reconstruction so they have part of that. We ought to be infusing I think dollars into the families.

I'd give every family $1,000 if they produced an operational weapon or an operational explosive device. We need to put the youth to work. Where do you think you recruit people? You recruit them out of the 14 to 26-year-olds. We need to put them to work. Take a page out of Roosevelt's book and bring back the Civilian Conservation Corps and pay them good money and send half of it home, give the other half to them to work on the reconstruction of their country.

PETER: Back on this media question, though, I heard you talking about beaming whatever you want, but that's like a one-way process of media. What about the two-way, you know, the participation factor in the discussion and letting these people who are the insurgents, you know, blow off some steam verbally instead of through explosives?

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Well, if they'll do that, I think that's a good - I mean one of the best tools we have - any problem we have is a dialogue, and to create a dialogue among people I think is one of the best things we can do. So I agree with you. I don't disagree with you at all.

PETER: Well, great.

CONAN: Peter, thank you very much. Appreciate the kind words.

PETER: Sure.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Rory(ph) in North Carolina.

Why can't we focus U.S. military efforts on the Iraq border control, thus limiting imported weapons and hostile recruits and allow the Iraqi military to maintain civilities in the inner areas? This will lead to a phased approach to migrating out of the country for the U.S. military and control the borders.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: I think that's a great idea. I don't think we're ready for that. I don't think the Iraqi army's ready for that. But right now we've certified I think over a hundred battalions. Now it's questionable what is the skill level and what's the capability level of those battalions. But as you create battalions that are able to operate on their own, I think we should give them an area of operations where they work in; and we should pull the U.S. or British troops off the street and put them in containment areas or safe areas, where they become a 911 force.

So I think over the course of the next year, year and a half, we ought to see a rapid replacing of the U.S. forces and British forces with Iraqi forces. But don't move them out of country yet. Just put them in safe havens where they can strike back out as a 911 force.

CONAN: Yet you see problems like that when the British withdrew from Amara, a Shiite city, and then two different Shiite factions got into a very bloody fight there.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Yeah, they did, but I don't think that the Iraqi forces we had were at the skill level to control that. Now they're getting better skill levels now.

CONAN: How long is that going to take?

Lt. Gen. GARNER: I don't know. I don't know the answer to that, Neal. But I think that you probably have a few battalions that are there now, but I think the rest of it will probably take one or more years - one, two, three, four years. It takes - you know, it takes a long time to create an army that's capable.

CONAN: And you would say that U.S. forces, as the backbone of the multinational force, that U.S. forces cannot withdraw before that time?

Lt. Gen. GARNER: I don't think they can. You know, I want them home as fast as anybody else does. But I think that if we withdrew from the country now and turned it over the Iraqis to soften the cells, I think it would just break down in more of a civil war than we have right now. I don't think we want to see that. I don't think that serves anybody. And I think the end result of that would be worse than what we're going through right now.

CONAN: Our guest is retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the first American administrator to oversee the interim administration and reconstruction of Iraq after the invasion of that country in 2003. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. And the e-mail address is talk@npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get Harvey on the line, Harvey calling from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

HARVEY (Caller): Yes, how are you today?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you, Harvey.

HARVEY: I'm wondering if the General is familiar with the new book out by McGovern and Polk that is called Out of Iraq that lays out a step-by-step proposal on withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. And one of their contentions is that there was never any bloodbath in Vietnam or many other places, that this was just one other reason for people having an excuse to stay somewhere where we weren't invited. And I'll take your answer off the air.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Harvey, I haven't read the book. I can't answer it in terms of that book. I served twice in Vietnam, and there was a bloodbath in a few places. But I'm sorry, I just can't address your question based on that book.

CONAN: Let's get Andrew on the line, Andrew with us from Portland, Oregon.

ANDREW (Caller): Oh hi. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Sure.

ANDREW: And Gen. Garner, thank you very much for your service.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Thank you, Andrew.

ANDREW: I'm reading or almost done with State of Denial, the latest Woodward book, and something just kept on popping up as I'm reading this. And I really appreciated kind of the information you gave to Woodward or he gleaned from your experience there.

My question is about the active versus retired military and how there is certainly a very strong code, or least an adherence to a code, about not speaking up while you're within the active military. And there's so much coming out of retired generals now. I'm wondering how much affect or change can a retired general have, and is there any avenue within the active military to voice these concerns? I saw a lot of hedging when you're speaking to the executives within our government and just want to get your comments on that.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Well, I think the code in the active military is that you remain a-political while you're wearing the uniform.

CONAN: Stay in the chain of command.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Yeah, you stay in the chain of command, and that's pretty important, I think. In the retired community, of course when you're retired, then you can voice your opinions whether it's anti-administration or pro-administration.

I'm not a big proponent of the retired military really taking on the administration to try to affect radical change. And I realize a lot of my friends to do that, and I realize that, and I understand that. But it seems to me an undermining of the civilian aspect of the control of the military, and I just don't think we want to go down that road.

ANDREW: Sure. And thank you. I just - I get so frustrated hearing - you have so much experience, direct knowledge, and you seem to be the one, or one of the few, who probably can give us a set of ideas or maybe were positioned to give us the right map or roadmap, if you will, early on. And it seemed to be that your concerns were not heeded, and now here we are, you know, still dealing with this so many years later. And I wish there was an avenue for the active military to really get their point across and it would be listened to. And I guess that's my final point there.

CONAN: All right. Andrew, thank you.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Thank you.

ANDREW: Thank you very much.

CONAN: One of the things you advocated at that time, Gen. Garner, was turning things over to the Iraqis a lot quicker than it actually happened. I wonder what are your thoughts now, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki publicly disagreeing with the United States over U.S. imposing timetables on his country. Today's news, he ordered the lifting of blockades around Sadr City, where U.S. troops were looking for a captured American soldier?

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Well, you know, I think Maliki's boxed in. You know, number one he has to rely on us for the majority of security of the country; but number two, his political support really comes from the strong Shiite elements, especially from Moqtada al-Sadr. And so he has to play both ends of the street, and he's in a box that I don't know how he gets out of it.

CONAN: Bob, Bob gets the last question. Bob calling from Grand Rapids.

BOB (Caller): Yes, hi. Thank you, General Garner. One of the things I want to say is first and foremost, thank you. And it truly is the sacrifice and hard work of the soldiers that give us the freedoms we have and the opportunities to have this kind of dialogue. So I don't think we could say thank you enough.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Well, you know, I go to Walter Reed almost every day and I see all these great young soldiers and Marines and airmen and sailors in there that are being prepared and put back together to the degree that they can be put back together, and they're marvelous. I was in there last week, and I was going from the first floor to the seventh floor and I was by myself on the elevator. And the door closed and a hand went in there, and opened the door up again and it was a mother and father rolling their son in.

He was bandaged from his waist down. And I put my hand on his shoulder, and I said Iraq or Afghanistan. He said, it's Iraq, sir. And I said was an IED? And he said yes, sir. And I said well, let me tell you something. I said I've got you on my prayer list, and I'm going to pray every day for your safe recovery and your rapid recovery.

And he reached up and he put his hand on my hand and he looked in my eyes, and he said: Sir, I don't need your prayers for my recovery, because I'm going to get well. He said I need your prayers to get me back to my unit. And I mean that's the kind of kids we have over there, and we can't do enough for them. And by the way, they're the only ones that are at war. The rest of the nation isn't at war, and the rest of the government isn't at war.

CONAN: Bob, I know you had a question, but I'm afraid - well, that story was well worth the time. I'm afraid we're out of it, otherwise, but…

BOB: Thank you very much.

CONAN: We appreciate the phone call.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Thank you, Bob.

CONAN: And, Gen. Garner, thank you very much for being with us here today.

Lt. Gen. GARNER: Thank you, Neal. I enjoyed it. Appreciate your time.

CONAN: Jay Garner was the first director of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq. He joined us today here in Studio 3A. Our series on Rethinking Iraq continues tomorrow. Our guest will be retired Major General John Batiste, who commanded the Army's 1st Infantry Division in Iraq.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.