'Tell Me How This Ends' Quizzes Petraeus On Iraq

As General David Petraeus leaves Baghdad to head central command, what's next for Iraq? Author Linda Robinson talks about the extensive interviews she conducted with Petraeus for her new book, Tell Me How This Ends. Also, Dexter Filkins, foreign correspondent for The New York Times, discusses his book The Forever War.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation, I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the Knight Studio at the Newseum, Washington, D.C.'s newest museum devoted to journalism and the news business. Yesterday, here in Washington President Bush announced a plan to withdraw about 8,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by February and increase forces in Afghanistan. Those are likely his last decisions about troop deployments in those conflicts. He's also put Army General David Petraeus, credited with the success of the surge, in a new position as the head of the U.S. military's Central Command where he will oversee military involvement throughout the Middle East including Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Journalist and author Linda Robinson recently returned from Iraq where she interviewed General Petraeus about the state of affairs and the way ahead, she joins us in just a moment. Later, we'll talk with New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins in Baghdad. If you'd like to ask them about the situation in Iraq and about U.S. policy over the next five months and beyond, our phone number is 800-989-8255, email us, talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later on the program Pulitzer-Prized winning novelist Junot Diaz joins us to talk about this American moment. We'll also ask you to step back from the daily news of this election and tell us what this moment in American history means to you. You can send us your thoughts now by email if you'd like, that address again is talk@npr.org. But first, Linda Robinson, a senior writer for U.S. News and World Report who specializes in military and national security issues, her new book is called "Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and The Search for A Way Out of Iraq." She joins us here at the Newseum and it's a pleasure to have you on the program today.

Ms. LINDA ROBINSON (Senior Writer, U.S. News and World Report, Author "Tell Me How This Ends"): Thank you, Neal. Glad to be here.

CONAN: And you spoke with General Petraeus - and I guess it's essentially an exit interview, as he prepares to leave as the commander in Iraq for the promotion of the Central Command - command in Tampa, Florida. What did he tell you about what he thinks he's accomplished, and what he thinks to be next for Iraq?

Ms. ROBINSON: Well, I did, as you say, I interviewed him this last trip over, I got back on Friday and oh, it's probably about the 10th interviewed that I've had with him over the course of doing the research for this book. But, also of course, I spent a lot of time with folks out in the various neighborhoods, and I think as he said it, it's a job of the leader to get the big ideas right. And I think that's probably sums up what he did do, a man with tremendous energy. So, he also communicated those ideas in the variety of ways in the daily briefings, which I sat in on and he was very active and contrasted with some of the previous generals.

He was always poking, prodding, demanding. I mean he's just ceaseless, kind of whirling dervish. He goes out, runs with his battalion commanders, gets information from them, tells them what he thinks they need to be doing and just deals with hundreds and hundreds of emails a day and just you know, he's really trying to be every where at once. But I think he said it was a matter of pulling Baghdad and Iraq generally back from the brink. So, I think the declines in violence, which have been going on really for one year last August was when the tide began turning a year ago. And I think the security picture is much improved, but he's the first to acknowledge there's still a long way to go and the way I look at it is we're on a declining path in terms of troop numbers, but there's still a big menu on the political front that needs to happen.

CONAN: There's also a lot of other things that happened along with the surge of American forces that contributed to the decline in violence and the somewhat improved political situation as well. First and foremost I think, was the reaction of Sunnis in Anbar province, principally at least at first, in reaction against al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had been such a devastating impact.

Ms. ROBINSON: Yes. You're quite right and this is I think very important for people not to think it was simply numbers of troops. It was much more the way in which they were used and there were five or six key measures that were undertaken, that were all kind of an interrelated. I've also tried to emphasize that it was not the spontaneous conversion of the Sunnis or frankly the spontaneous conversion of the Shia. These measures were undertaken over the 18 months of Petraeus' tour and they allowed the Sunnis, who felt their backs were against the wall - because what was going on in the summer of '06 was a sectarian cleansing of Baghdad. And...

CONAN: Meaning they were being forced out.

Ms. ROBINSON: They were being killed and forced out with the connivance of the Shia Islamist government. So, you had a situation there whether they were - it was an existential fear and they were ready to come over to the U.S. side. And they would not have come over had there not been troops dispersed out into these combat outposts and joint security stations who literally went out and had secret meetings often setup through the imams in the various mosques in the neighborhoods. And I watched this in two of the most violent neighborhoods in Baghdad. So, this was going on throughout '07 and '08.

CONAN: This is a change in tactical deployment. Previously, U.S. forces would go out on missions and come back into bases at night. Instead, they went out onto this smaller neighborhood bases, stayed there, continue to occupy the area, that meant of course there was a rise in American casualties at least for a while.

Mr. ROBINSON: Absolutely. It was a very high cost that was paid on part of U.S. soldiers, of course, as well as Iraqis in that period. Nine hundred and one U.S. soldiers were killed during this. And these neighborhoods initially grew very violent before the flipping of the insurgency, I call it, occurred. So, yes, it was due to that - also you had walls being put up in some of these most violent neighborhoods and around the markets that have been repeatedly hit by car bombs.

You also had biometric registries conducted of some of the military age males in these target neighborhoods. For the first time, there was a shareable computerized database to try to target the actual insurgents and not the innocent people. So, you had a wholesale of change in tactics from troops being sequestered on bases, going out and doing sweeps on the basis of minimal intelligence to finally have in part of the population. Actually a significant part of the Sunni insurgency and its support base coming over and helping the U.S. troops go after what they then called the irreconcilables.

CONAN: We're talking with Linda Robinson, she's written a new book "Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and The Search for A Way Out of Iraq." If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. Dan on the line. Dan is calling us from Birmingham, Alabama.

DAN (Caller): Hello. I wanted to ask what are the things that General Petraeus said that he needed or wanted that he couldn't get or didn't get fast enough?

Ms. ROBINSON: Well, I'm not sure - if you mean what that he wanted from the U.S.

CONAN: And I think from the U.S., yeah.

Ms. ROBINSON: Yes. He had originally hoped to have all of the U.S. troops, the surge troops, sent in as quickly as possible. He wanted to start this off with the bang all at once and it was simply impossible. I mean, the troops had to go through some training, in some cases that training was done at the home bases. There were various ways undertaken to try to get them over there quickly. But the bottom line was - it wasn't until June when they were all there and I think he did. He was very insistent upon asking for what he needed. He said, my job is to ask for what I need and if the commander-in-chief turns me down, then I'll have to explain the risks of not getting what I need. But, I think overall he was satisfied in the end. But he did have a constant battle with, I would say, the military establishment. The Pentagon was very concerned about the stress that the Army in particular was under and I think we have to recall what the mood was back in '06, was that the war was lost, yet there was a wide perception that this was hopeless, we had to turn around and leave. And it wasn't just in the Pentagon or in the Army. I mean, Secretary Rice was opposed in their internal debates. She was opposed to the surge, as well. So, I think there are a lot of people now who - maybe trying to rewrite history.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Dan.

DAN: Bye

CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's see if we can go now to Eric. Eric is calling us from Sacramento in California.

ERIC (Caller): Good afternoon. Thank you for this opportunity to ask a quick question. I was wondering if your guest could discuss how the ethnic cleansing in mixed neighborhoods resulted in reduced violence there once that ethnic cleansing was completed, and whether that sparked new violence if people try to repopulate those neighborhoods.

Ms. ROBINSON:: I want to clarify, if I wasn't clear before that these various measures that were undertaken in the last 18 months actually halted the sectarian cleansing that was going on.

CONAN: But a whole lot of it, Eric is right, did happen.

Ms. ROBINSON: Oh, absolutely. You - the toll was - I don't think we really know the death toll but we certainly know that two million people were displaced and two million all left the country. So we're talking about a very large number. Those statistics are from over the course of the year - the course of the war. But a great deal of this did occur through that very bloody late '05 and 2006 period. Now, the future, and this is one of the big questions that I think remain for the next president. Will there be a welcoming back of many of these refugees and displaced people to their original neighborhoods? Will they be able to vote in the two critical upcoming elections? And will, fundamentally, this Islamist Shia government welcome and give a place in the society to the Sunni minority. That is still the 100,000 dollar question that's unanswered?

CONAN: Eric, thanks very much for the question.

ERIC: Thank you.

CONAN: And indeed, we're going to talk more about this with Dexter Filkins in just a few minutes, but just last week, sort of overshadowed by both the Republican Convention and I think Hurricane Gustav, there was a handover of power in Anbar province, formerly the heart of the Sunni insurgency, now turned back over to Iraqi authorities, but a lot of concern that some of these Sunni previous insurgents who went over to the American side and that they are now on the arrest lists of by the Iraq government.

Ms. ROBINSON: Yes, that's absolutely a concern. Anbar was a process that kind of got, as you mentioned before, underway earlier but there were some key things that were done during the Petraeus period that really cemented the success there. And that involved the incorporation of these Awakening members into the army and the police. Unlike what's going on now in Baghdad and the environs where they have not been incorporated in great numbers. In Anbar, they were incorporated. Also some of these awakening leaders were given seats on the provincial council. They were also, the Iraq central government, pumped millions of dollars in supplemental funding out to Anbar. Their decision was, we can let the Sunnis have Anbar. They did not consider the strategic area and I think that is - you've got a big piece of the solution for Anbar, but you don't yet have the central government deciding that they can let the Sunnis have a role in the critical capital area and in the central government.

CONAN: We're talking with Linda Robinson, a senior writer for U.S. News and World Report about Iraq. Later, we'll also talk about Afghanistan, what's next for U.S. involvement in both countries. Dexter Filkins, of the New York Times will join us shortly, and we'll take more of your calls, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I am Neal Conan. It's the Talk Of The Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk Of The Nation. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the Knight Studio inside the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Next Tuesday, General Ray Odierno takes over as the top U.S. commander in Iraq. He replaces General David Petraeus who moves on to Central Command in Tampa, Florida. There he will oversee operations not just in Iraq but also in Afghanistan throughout the Middle East. Our focus today is on what's on next for Iraq and for Afghanistan. Linda Robinson is with us. A senior writer for U.S. News and World Report who specializes in military and national security issues. Her new book is titled "Tell Me How This Ends, General David Petraeus And The Search For A Way Out of Iraq." In a few minutes, Dexter Filkins will join us from Baghdad .

If you'd like to ask them about the situation in Iraq and about U.S. policy over the next five months and beyond, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org and you can also comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Here's a question from Rick by email in Madison, Wisconsin. The primary purpose of the surge was to provide the basis for Iraq to make key political moves to stabilized the country. This has not happened but the Republicans have once again redefined the terms to claim the surge worked. The military has done their part, but he adds, the surge has not worked. Would you agree with him?

Ms. ROBINSON: Well, I think that the glass is probably half-full. I don't think that would be an exaggeration to say because you did have some very important pieces of legislation that did finally pass. And I think it's important to note the role that Ambassador Ryan Crocker has played, he was really a key partner of General Petraeus in this. And they formed what I call a good cop, bad cop kind of partnership in pushing and pulling the Iraqi government to get some of these bills before the parliament. And they have incorporated, we're talking about the incorporation of the Sons of Iraq, which is really vital piece of this settlement. They've incorporated about 5,000 in the non-Anbar area. Their commitment is to incorporate 20,000 into the Iraqi security forces. So that's kind of a rough barometer.

They've moved somewhere about a quarter of those they've promised to bring in have been incorporated. And this is critical because these Sunni areas want to have local security by their own population. That's really part of the formula for success. The provincial elections that General Petraeus told me, that he has a commitment from Maliki that they will be held in December. We will see if that happens but this is critical because, for example, in the Baghdad provincial council, they only have one Sunni. And Baghdad has one of the largest Sunni populations. That's a 41-member council with only one Sunni. So there's a lot to be done on the political front, but it is incorrect to think nothing has been done.

CONAN: There is another explosive issue down the road and that is Kirkuk, we are talking there about the Kurds in the northern part of the country. For the most part, that's been the safest most prosperous area of Iraq. But this is city that was a Kurdish city, when Saddam Husseun cleaned a lot of Kurds out of that town, moved a lot of his Sunni supporters into that town, there's also - well, Iraq is a very complicated place, Turkmen tribes and various other minorities who consider Kirkuk their home. That is supposed to be decided by a plebiscite as to whether it's Kurdish or not and that could explode, it's also the center of the northern part of Iraq's oil industry.

Ms. ROBINSON: Absolutely. That's a crucial part of the menu of things that so have to be done and the Kurds have waited. It was supposed to have been decided last year by plebiscite, that was what hung up the recent deal on the provincial election law. So, it has to be worked out. I think to their credit, the Kurds have been willing to postpone some of their demands for the sake of the greater good there and Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister, who is a Kurd, has been, in my view, the statesman of Iraq. He is very much worked beyond his parochial Kurdish interest to broker some of the compromises there. And I would say if it weren't outrageous to think a Kurd could be the leader of Iraq, I think he is a good candidate.

CONAN: Well, joining us now on the line from Baghdad is Dexter Filkins, foreign correspondent for the New York Times. His new book "The Forever War" comes out next week and he joins us. Dexter, nice to have you back in the program.

Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (Foreign Correspondent, New York Times, Author, "The Forever War"): Hey, thank you very much.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you more about the security handover in Anbar to Iraqis last week. Just how important is that, it didn't seem so long ago that places like Fallujah seemed like a nightmare for Americans.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, let me just -before I talk about 2008, let me just talk for a moment about 2006. I was in Ramadi, which is the capital of Anbar Province in July and August of 2006. I can tell you it look like an old - one of those old black and white photos that shows Dresden in the 1945. And they look like Grozny. It was an absolutely devastated city, heavily obliterated. And the only building that still stood in the middle of town was the government center, and it was kind of, you know, it's just this building surrounded by rubble for a mile in every direction. And it came under attack everyday. And that was the reality in 2006. In Anbar Province, oneMmarine or soldier was being killed everyday and it was just the most violent and the most lethal place in Iraq.

And fast forward two years, just last week, I took a helicopter to Anbar province and as I describe this, I am not joking. I was standing in the road and there was a newly paved road, I really did not recognize where I was. And I had to look around a lot and I sort of focused on this building. And the building was the government center and it was the same government center that used to come under attack everyday, that I remembered so well. It had a new facade, it's painted. They had a parade. And the most remarkable thing is, the American Marines they were walking around without guns, without helmets, with flak jackets. The only people who had guns there were the Iraqi and so, it was a really remarkable scene.

But I think the significance of what happened in Anbar province and really the handover of the responsibility for security that I witnessed, which was really more symbolic than anything. The violence has dropped there and the drop has been, you know, that's been sort of been in motion and clearly evident for many, many months. But if you take 2006 as the high point for the violence, it's come down 90 percent. I mean, it has basically dropped to nothing. And the Iraqis are taking over. The Americans are getting out. And really, if you would have told me that - but more important, if you would have told an American Marine colonel that two years - two summers ago - I mean, he would have tilted his head and looked at you like you were out of your mind.

CONAN: And the change is remarkable. That is we've talking about with Linda Robinson, there is a great deal that remains to be done in Iraq. But is the remainder from your vantage point, is it a military, primarily, or is it political?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think it's political. I mean, God, it's terribly complex. I mean, I've never, you know, Iraq is just sort of - you know, you open one door in Iraq and there's a hundred more, you know. I mean, that's just the way Iraq is. But I think, if you ask me, I'd say that the whole - apart from the surge, the real big factor in what brought down the violence here, and I think you had to talk about it, is the Awakening - it's the Sunni Awakening. The tribes decided to turn against al-Qaeda and join hands with the Americans and they did that. And when they did that the effect kind of cascaded all across Iraq. And the violence dropped precipitously, and when you're in Baghdad now, it's actually really stunning, how much the violence has dropped. Now, is that going to last forever? You know, God only knows.

But I think the immediate problem here, I don't know if I would tell a political or military problem, but I think the immediate problem that is the Shiite-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki has made it very clear that they don't like these Awakening groups, which of course are, you know, dominated by Sunnis, a lot of them are former insurgents. You know, old Baathist military colonels, Guys that used to be shooting at Americans, guys that used to be blowing up, you know, Shiite police officers. And so they want to shut this things down and I think the concern is, certainly among the American officers, and I think reasonable concern, is that if he starts doing that, if he gets his ways and after all he is the prime minister, he is going to drive a lot of these people back into the shadows, you know, back underground, back to the gun.

And I think that's you know, Iraq is sort of a crisis a week and you know, this week that's the crisis. And so it's kind of, you know, the kind of never ending, you know, management of, you know, this crisis or that, or this catastrophe or that. And not to minimize that one, but that's the big one today.

CONAN: And Dexter, let me ask you, to switch fronts if you will, you were recently in Pakistan's frontier area to write a piece for the New York Times magazine called Talibanistan, and it was interesting that today in testimony here in Washington, D.C., Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress the U.S. military was looking at a new more comprehensive strategy for the region that would cover both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He went on to say, in my view these two nations are inextricably linked in a common insurgency that crosses the border between them. That's been true of course for some time. Military commanders, American military commanders are not really been saying that out loud, but we've seen an enormous escalation and the number of cross border attacks just in the past couple of weeks.

Mr. FILKINS: That you know, you know, I'm not in the United States right now. I didn't realize that Mullen had said that, that's actually remarkable. You know, that's not terribly (unintelligible) language for what's been happening over the last several days, which is as you said, there's been a huge uptick in American activity in the Pakistani tribal areas and you know, as I think probably your listeners know. What's significant about tribal areas that there are - you know, they are on the eastern border of Afghanistan and it's essentially comprised of sanctuary, the safe haven for hundreds and hundreds of Taliban fighters for a lot of the Taliban leadership and in for al-Qaeda and possibly even for Osama Bin Laden and Ahman Zardari.

And yes, the cross border attacks and I mean, the Taliban crossing in to take on the Americans and Afghans, has surged dramatically in the past six months. And what we've seen in the past four or five days really, or just the past week, as if the Americans are finally sort of taking it - taking it to Pakistan. And that's not just with the attacks and the missile strikes by the predator drones, you know, the unmanned airplanes that kind of come over. But for the first time I - in two years than, then the American forces, Special Forces actually landed inside Pakistani territory to conduct a strike on some suspected terrorist leaders. And I think it's pretty clear, and based on the testimony that the general gave today it seems even more so, we're going to see a lot more of that. And where does that go? Boy, I don't know, but I think when the general said that this - that the borders - that these two countries are inextricably interlinked, it's absolutely accurate. You can't solve the problems for the American forces in Afghanistan without dealing with Pakistan and Pakistan is a country of a 175 million people, it's one of the largest countries in the world. And it is absolutely deteriorating very rapidly.

CONAN: Dexter Filkins, thanks for staying up. We know it's late there in Baghdad. We appreciate your time.

Mr. FILKINS: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Dexter Filkins, foreign correspondent for the New York Times, his book "The Forever War" comes out next week. We're talking about the way ahead in Iraq and Afghanistan. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can get a question from the audience here at the Newseum.

MAY ELIONE(ph) (Audience Member): Hello. My name is May Elione(ph). I'm a freelance journalist from Lebanon, Beirut and I'm on a visit here. I just wanted to keep my question for the end of the show but I'm going to ask it now.

CONAN: It's getting there, so go ahead.

MAY: OK. I would like to know how do you think - you entitled your book "Tell Us How This Ends," I was surely - I make sure I will buy this, but I would like to know how do you see it in a couple of years and how would you like it to end in Iraq? What is the best scenario a way out of there?

Ms. ROBINSON: I end the book with actually taking off my journalist hat and giving some actual policy conclusions. I think that the next president has got a fundamental choice to make, because if they shift not only troops, but focus, away from Iraq, the Shia Islamic parties will consolidate power. And that poses the possibility that the Iraq peace will unravel, because the Sunnis will go back and fight as Dexter was just saying. It's quite clear. I talked to a number of these leaders on my trip I just got back from and it's quite clear you'll have resumed war there.

But not only that, the possibility of a closer alliance with Iran will drive some of the neighboring countries to become more hostile rather than less hostile to Iraq and that would destabilize the region. The other option facing the next U.S. president is to keep slogging forward, again not in a combat troop mode, we're really past that. We're looking more now at some small ongoing presence in a non-combat mode.

CONAN: Small, 60,000, 50,000?

Ms. ROBINSON: Yes, I think that's the range I use and some people have done these analyses and I think that's about right. But in the, you know, five to seven brigade level, but mostly as trainers. They also are eyes and ears out there because what we really have to watch is happening down at the ground level. I talked to some captains there and they were saying, you know, we expect about a third of these guys will wind up in jail, go back to the fight and a third may get incorporated. Is that enough to keep this from slipping back into war? Well, we'll see.

CONAN: But Iraq also doesn't have an Air Force. It doesn't have armor, it doesn't have logistical capabilities.

Mr. ROBINSON: This - right. Their needs for what are called the combat enablers but air, intelligence, surveillance, assets, Medivac, all kinds of things they still need and they want the training and they want U.S. equipment, although it's been slow to arrive when they've tried to buy it. All of these represent leverage for the U.S. to push that government toward the needed compromises. And it is not a sure thing that the outcome would be an Iraq at peace with these three communities living together. But I think that their - in my conversations with just ordinary Iraqis, I think it is a far more secular country for one thing, far more cosmopolitan than people realize and they do not, by and large, want to live in an Islamist-style government such as Iran has.

So, I think that if the elections can be held successfully and pressure's put on this government, the Iraq - current Iraqi government to make some concessions and resettle some of these people and provide services to Sunni neighborhoods, they're still being starved of services that you will slowly get there. And you also need original diplomatic effort to try to balance this Shiite-Sunni equation and get the Sunni states around Iraq to support Iraq. And that's in their self-interest because Iraqis actually want a counter-weight to Iran. They do not want to be the 51st state of Iran. So this is where we're willing to step up with the sophisticated political strategy, to take the place of a military combat approach. I think we could have a successful and - or at least an acceptable end to the story.

CONAN: Linda Robinson, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. ROBINSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Linda Robinson, a senior writer for U.S. News and World Report where she specializes in military and National Security issues. Again, her new book "Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and The Search For a Way Out of Iraq." She joined us here at the Newseum. Coming up, we're going to go back to our series that we began when the Democratic Convention began in Denver and continued with the Republican Convention in St. Paul. We're asking writers, thinkers, observers, journalists, politicians to step back for a moment and think about this moment and tell us what they think about this American moment. Stay with us. Junot Diaz will join us. The Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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