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NEAL CONAN, host:

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

Over the past week, the country's unease with the Iraq War reached a new level. Just today in an emotional news conference, Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania called the Iraq War `a flawed policy wrapped in an illusion' and called for the immediate withdrawal of American forces. Murtha is a retired Marine colonel, Vietnam veteran, and one of the more hawkish Democrats in the House.

Earlier this week, the Senate passed a resolution that calls for 2006 to mark the beginning of the end of the war, and though the Republican-controlled Senate rejected Democratic demands for a specific timetable, the bipartisan message to the president was unmistakable. This shift in the conversation raises a host of questions about exit strategy: How do we leave, in phases or all at once? Is it responsible to leave before Iraq's government and military are ready to take over? What's the best way to support them? And what happens if civil war erupts after we've left?

If you have questions about how an exit strategy might work and what it would mean for the Iraqis, join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org. Later in the program, we'll listen to the unusual tunes and instruments of musician Andrew Bird.

But first, exit strategies for Iraq. Our first guest is Gareth Stansfield, an associate professor at the University of Exeter and fellow at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. He joins us from his home in Exeter, and it's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor GARETH STANSFIELD (University of Exeter, Chatham House): It's a pleasure to be on.

CONAN: I know you've just returned from northern Iraq. What is the sentiment there about the presence of US forces and about the possibility of an exit strategy?

Prof. STANSFIELD: Well, the situation in the north of Iraq is somewhat different than the rest of the country, as it's predominantly populated by Kurds, and they, on the whole, are supportive of the coalition presence, as they see it's in their interests in securing what they want in a future state. However, I think it's fair to say that in the rest of the country that they are--particularly in Shia- and Sunni-dominated areas, there is certainly a very strong wish to see the coalition presence end arguably as soon as possible.

CONAN: Yet, you also hear from people who say it's too early for American forces to leave because they're the only things at this point holding back the possibility of a civil war.

Prof. STANSFIELD: Well, yes, there are varying ways of looking at this situation. Some people would argue that it's the coalition forces themselves that are causing the constant insurgency against the newly formed institutions of the Iraqi government and the coalition itself. There are others who are saying that the--that the new Iraqi government is simply not in a position to defeat the insurgency and survive without having coalition backing behind it. It's a very difficult one to call. I would personally say that I would agree with the latter analysis; that at this moment, the new security structures of the Iraqi army, the Iraqi police forces are simply not strong enough, they're not large enough in terms of numbers. Their quality is not yet high enough to defeat the insurgency if Americans and British forces left.

CONAN: And in terms of that timetable, any time that you can see when Iraqi forces might be said to be ready?

Prof. STANSFIELD: Well, I think it's very difficult to--first, to judge the numbers involved. We hear figures from the Pentagon and from the Ministry of Defense in the UK as to how many forces have been trained. But it's very difficult to really ascertain the quality of these forces and just how capable they are in the field. I think there is a further problem with the Iraqi military insofar as the more effective units tend to come from either Kurdish peshmerga or Shia Badr Brigade units and I would argue are fighting more for those particular groups rather than for the idea of a umbrella Iraqi identity. And so it's very difficult, I think--almost impossible--to say when the Iraqi military will be able to take on its responsibilities as an Iraqi military, capable of defeating the insurgency without having a greater allegiance to communal identity.

CONAN: And what about the government? Obviously, we're still in the midst of a process with elections coming up again next month, in December. In terms of administrative structure--and again, northern Iraq is different, the Kurds have enjoyed local autonomy since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991--but throughout the rest of the country.

Prof. STANSFIELD: Well, yes, I think that's a very important question to ask. I would say that Iraq, in some ways, isn't even a failed state. It's very difficult to even find the state in Iraq, outside the north. I think there is a fragmented power--fragmented pattern of political power and administrative structures in the rest of the country. That certainly doesn't bode well for holding the state together in the future. So, again, I think the institutions that have set up have certainly not been institutionalized within Iraqi society and I think have little longevity beyond--if the coalition forces did actually leave.

CONAN: Does the government have legitimacy?

Prof. STANSFIELD: Again, it depends who you ask. I think there is a sizeable proportion of Iraq's population that would say that it is legitimate in one way or another, but more importantly, there are very sizeable groups of the population that do not recognize this government and its legitimacy, and I cannot imagine how those groups, and particularly those groups associated with the Sunni insurgency, could be brought into thinking--any thinking that this government is legitimate.

CONAN: Now you've been to Iraq several times and you lived there for some years before the invasion. How do you feel about what has transpired there? I mean, the--Iraqis, for the most part, were quite pleased with the eviction of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen.

Prof. STANSFIELD: Well, yes. I think whether or not you supported the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam--and I personally--I was academically confused, I think. I believe that there was a need to remove such a grotesque dictator, but I also considered that the reasons given for going to war were flawed. But still, whether you supported the war or not, following the removal of Saddam, I think there was a great opportunity to do a lot of good within Iraq.

There was a window where I think there was a lot of support from--pretty much from all groups of--all sectors of Iraq's population in the two months following Saddam's downfall; yet I think that that period was wasted--criminally wasted, I would say, with inactivity, with poor planning, if any planning at all, which resulted in power devolving in a chaotic sense and fragmenting authority within the state down to groups such as--well, communal groups, tribal groups, groups that identify themselves by a particular localized coloring. And once that happens, it's very difficult, I think, to then draw power back to a centralized structure, as I think the Iraqis are trying to do now. So I think the great tragedy of Iraq in recent years has been that wasted opportunity, which was hard-earned by coalition forces and then subsequently by Iraqis on the ground and was just wasted.

CONAN: Major James Gavrilis was on the ground in Iraq during the period that Gareth Stansfield is talking about. Major Gavrilis is now a political military planner in the Iraq Division of the Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon during the invasion of Iraq. He's just written about his experience as the commander of Special Operations Forces in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine. And he joins us here in Studio 3A. Major, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Major JAMES GAVRILIS (Iraq Division of Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate): Thanks. It's good to be here.

CONAN: Now your article is called The Mayor of Ar Rutbah. Please orient us a little bit. Where is Ar Rutbah?

Maj. GAVRILIS: It's the furthest city west in the Anbar province.

CONAN: So near the Syrian border?

Maj. GAVRILIS: Yes, it's near the Syrian, Jordanian and Saudi borders.

CONAN: And according to your article, your men were going into Ar Rutbah as Saddam's statue was being pulled down in Baghdad.

Maj. GAVRILIS: Right.

CONAN: And when you arrived, your first concern was, of course, security. Obviously, the insurgency was nowhere near as well-organized as it is now. But nevertheless, you had to fight your way in.

Maj. GAVRILIS: Right. We had fought the conventional forces, Saddam's conventional forces, for a couple weeks, and then we found that it was the irregular forces, the paramilitary, the Saddam Fedayeen that had entrenched themselves in the city. And so we ended up fighting a pretty long campaign over a couple of weeks to get them out of the city. Once we forced them out, the city was relatively calm and peaceful. When we went in, there were no more exchanges of fire.

CONAN: Now describe that two-week period for us when your forces were there.

Maj. GAVRILIS: Well, initially, what we did was stand up the police force, the Iraqi police, and we wanted to get them back in uniform, on the streets, and we wanted everyone to understand that the Iraqis were in control. Within hours, we appointed an interim Iraqi mayor, because we wanted, again, to get an Iraqi civilian leader in charge of the city, but what we also did was focused on public administration. We didn't try to introduce democracy right away or a pure form of democracy right away. What we needed was strong leadership. We needed to get essential services back running. We needed to get someone who could control the police, so we focused on the executive side of governance first and then slowly introduced more representation into the governance.

CONAN: You focused, you said in the article, on governance and security, but also found you could not ignore economics.

Maj. GAVRILIS: Right, there is an interdependence between all three of those. And an open, free market was a real tangible, you know, example of what this good governance was going to produce, and you have to understand that a lot of the people--they wanted more efficacy in the politics, but they also wanted economic prosperity, because of the depravation under Saddam, and so that free market, that open market, we were able to open up the borders and get fresh fish, fresh meat into the market within days after arriving there.

CONAN: In fact, you used your cell phones to allow the local merchants...

Maj. GAVRILIS: Right.

CONAN: ...to order supplies in from Jordan.

Maj. GAVRILIS: Right, exactly.

CONAN: And you--in terms of empowering the Iraqis, you made sure that not only were the Iraqi police back out on the street and in uniform, but armed.

Maj. GAVRILIS: Right. Exactly. They needed some kind of teeth to be effective and to be respected, and as we put them on checkpoints and as we put them in areas where we weren't going to be alone, they had to have some kind of power.

CONAN: Did you put them on checkpoints because you needed their manpower or because you needed them for their presence and for their local knowledge?

Maj. GAVRILIS: Well, both. Working together built mutual understanding, but it also enabled each other to do better at our tasks. For instance, because of our presence, we were able to back up any Iraqi policemen that encountered some kind of threat that he couldn't handle. But by integrating them with us, they were able to identify who was really from the city, who was even a foreigner and not even Iraqi, so we complemented each other's efforts.

CONAN: We're talking about the past and the future in Iraq; (800) 989-8255 if you'd like to join us. E-mail is totn@npr.org. Back after the break.

It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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

We're talking about the US role in Iraq and what it might mean if US troops left and how they left. And, of course, we're taking your calls, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: totn@npr.org.

Still with us are Gareth Stansfield, associate fellow at Chatham House and co-author of the book, "The Future of Iraq: Dictatorship, Democracy or Division." And James Gavrilis, political military planner in the Iraq Division of the Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. He's a major. And if you'd like to join us, again, it's (800) 989-8255.

And let's get a caller on the line. This is John. John's calling us from Sacramento.

JOHN (Caller): Yeah. My comment was just on the--what was said by the expert earlier that, you know, we can't get out until the Iraqi military is of a sufficient size and quality, and that just perpetuates the myth that this is going to be gotten out of militarily. I mean, we're not going to stop the insurgency that way, and so waiting for it is just going to be forever.

CONAN: Gareth Stansfield.

Prof. STANSFIELD: Well, yes, I think as the major said from the Pentagon that there are interrelated dynamics, including the economy, security and promoting institutions on the ground. But I think when the Iraqi government is faced with such a wide-ranging insurgency that has legs--and this insurgency is very capable and active, then the security element does come to the fore at that point, so I think increasingly, the focus on the structures of the Iraqi security forces have to be taken into account and given pre-eminence in any analysis. But I do recognize that the issues particularly about the economy and providing employment are also very important. I think it is a chicken and egg sort of idea. Can you do both together or does one have to come before the other?

JOHN: Well, my feeling is--just the big question, is it for us to stay there and do it or just get out and let the Iraqis sort out their own economy and security?

CONAN: Well, Major Gavrilis, let me bring you in on this. Given your experience, is this something that the outsiders have to do for them? Is this something they can do themselves?

Maj. GAVRILIS: It certainly is a combination. But you have to remember that, you know, we're not rebuilding what was destroyed during the invasion. What we're rebuilding is what Saddam had destroyed during his dictatorship. And security services inside Iraq were tools of state coercion, and if you want to transform these security institutions into public servants, institutions that respect human rights and individual rights, it's just going to take time, and they need assistance, and it's that institutional development that takes a little bit more time, but that's what creates lasting change, and it's going to allow any withdrawal from the country to be permanent.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, John.

JOHN: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Major, when--in your article, you described how your forces in the space of two weeks--and again, this was right at the beginning of the war or right at the end of the major military operations phase of the war--were able to win over this town, Ar Rutbah, in the space of two weeks. Obviously, a lot has happened since then. But it seems that that formula--empower the Iraqis politically and militarily, let them handle the situation, get the economy up and going again, and move American forces out of the town itself--is that a formula that can work today?

Maj. GAVRILIS: Yes, I think it is. I think it's a useful model. There's going to be differences for different locations, but generally, I think it is still a useful model.

CONAN: But what happened after your forces did leave?

Maj. GAVRILIS: Well, you have to understand that the police that we stood up were--we were just beginning, and it was very clear to us early that the police needed a lot more time, guidance, supervision, and it's one thing to stand up a police force but it's another to actually develop an organization that can maintain that police force, sustain it, and then also, you know, ingrain a particular culture that is different from what the police forces were before. And so what had happened was in that short period of time, we weren't able to develop the police fully so they could stand on their own, and so when we left, they became vulnerable to regime elements that could come back in or foreign fighters that could come back in and intimidate them. So it's probably a good example of why withdrawal should be conditions-based and not based on a time line.

CONAN: Conditions-based meaning the conditions of--the state of the Iraqi military, the Iraqi government and the Iraqi economy.

Maj. GAVRILIS: Right. Right. We were successful in a lot of ways because we helped the Iraqi mayor and the Iraqi government that we established--we helped them pass binding laws that the police--and with our support--enforced, but without those kind of enforcement mechanisms, the government becomes ineffective.

CONAN: Gareth Stansfield, in miniature, what Major Gavrilis is talking about that happened in Ar Rutbah is, in a way, what the United States is trying to do elsewhere. Of course, it gets more and more complicated as you get into more and more--larger towns and more complicated ethnic situations. Can that model still work, do you think?

Prof. STANSFIELD: Well, I think it has worked in various places, but my impression is that there simply are not enough security forces with coalition backing to put down the insurgencies that have taken hold of the country, so you can operate in one town very well, but then the insurgency simply starts up somewhere else. And it is this--almost like a fairground game, like whack-a-mole game. You hit them in one area and they come up in another. And this isn't really at all helping the development of a stable, secure, new state of Iraq, and particularly as I think the insurgency is gaining momentum. We see peaks, we see troughs with insurgent activity, but there seems to be little evidence that its effectiveness and its ability to really damage the new institutions of government and security forces, and still coalition forces, has been at all diminished. If anything, it is continuing to grow.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Scott, and Scott's calling us from St. Louis.

SCOTT (Caller): How's it going today, guys?

CONAN: All right.

SCOTT: Good. Hey, I think that we should wait. I don't think there should be any timetable. We should wait until Mr. Talabani says he doesn't need us anymore. We haven't left Germany. We haven't left Japan, Italy, Serbia, Afghanistan. I mean, what's the rush?

CONAN: I'm not sure we're still in Serbia, but Bosnia, I'll grant you. But let me put that question to you, Gareth Stansfield.

Prof. STANSFIELD: Excuse me. Well, yes. I mean, the idea of setting a time frame--the problem, it is argued with us, is that insurgent forces play towards that time frame and perhaps everything isn't then in place by that date necessary in order to leave comfortably, and I think there is an issue that it is up to the Iraqi government not to demand that coalition forces stay. They cannot do that. But to at least request them--feed into the equation as to when it would be best from their perspective for coalition forces to leave. The problem is--I think, is that Mr. Talabani may have quite a different idea on that compared to other political players in Iraq, including Ibrahim Al-Jafari, the prime minister, and any Sunni politician that may appear in the forthcoming elections. So each of these political characters has quite a different game plan.

SCOTT: Al-Sadr might think differently.

CONAN: Pardon me? I'm sorry. Scott, we missed that.

SCOTT: Mr. al-Sadr might think differently. I don't know how much he wants us there.

CONAN: Yes. Moqtada al-Sadr, one of the Shiite clerics there.

SCOTT: Yes.

Prof. STANSFIELD: Well, yes. And I think it depends on how the new governments of Iraq will be stretched after the December elections as well. But I would tend to agree that setting a time for the withdrawal of coalition forces could create more problems rather than resolve them.

CONAN: At the same...

SCOTT: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Scott. At the same time, though, Gareth Stansfield, isn't there a developing problem with public opinion in the United States, public opinion and opinion in Congress as well?

Prof. STANSFIELD: Well, yes. I mean, following from the other side of the Atlantic, it certainly seems as though American public opinion is falling away from supporting the policies of George Bush in Iraq, and certainly with the rising death toll of American soldiers on the ground. It's not surprising that the president seems to be losing support, and especially when, again, the insurgency seems to be going from strength to strength, and the political process--it doesn't really take a political scientist to realize that the political process in Iraq is flawed at best, if not downright unworkable at worst.

CONAN: Major Gavrilis, I know we have to let you go...

Maj. GAVRILIS: Sure.

CONAN: ...but I did want to ask you, is it your view now from the Pentagon--you've served two tours in Iraq now. Is the insurgency growing from strength to strength as...

Maj. GAVRILIS: No, I don't think it is. It's very potent and it's very lethal but we had not seen it expand beyond the Sunni areas, and I don't think we've even seen it expand within the Sunni areas. It is formidable and it has roots and has good external mechanisms, and there is some popular appeal amongst a lot of the disenfranchised Sunnis, but I don't think it is completely undefeatable, and I think that our strategy has been working. A lot of people want to focus on these tactical engagements in the streets, but they're overlooking the larger political developments. They're overlooking a lot of the community building, and it's just important that we continue this democratic process over there, because--and it's important that we develop Iraqi good governance. We help them develop Iraqi good governance because that's what has been missing under Saddam.

That's what we found in the city, what most Iraqis responded to, a government that could take care of them. And if we can establish a government that could take care of people, take care of its citizens, then that's what really can remove the discontent that drives a lot of these individuals to extremism or towards the insurgency. That's really the answer. And I'm very optimistic and I've been optimistic because the majority of the Iraqis--in any section of the country, the majority of them have been in support of a democratic transition.

CONAN: Major Gavrilis, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate it.

Maj. GAVRILIS: Thank you.

CONAN: James Gavrilis is currently political military planner in the Iraq Division of the Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate at the Joint Staff in the Pentagon. He's the author of The Mayor of Ar Rutbah in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine. He was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A.

We want to bring Leslie Gelb onto the program now. He's president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and has written on the viability of a three-state solution for Iraq. He joins us now by phone from his home in New York.

And it's nice to speak with you again.

Mr. LESLIE GELB (Council on Foreign Relations): Afternoon.

CONAN: How would federalism work? There's a constitution now that calls for modified federalism.

Mr. GELB: Yeah. Well, the key to all this is having a power-sharing agreement among the three major groups in Iraq: the Shia Arabs, the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds. That's viable. It works. If you can't have that, nothing else is going to work. And the idea of a federal system is to allow these different groups, which essentially want to rule themselves, to be in a position to do that. So you have strong regional governments, three strong regional governments in the federal system, and a central government in Baghdad with limited powers, more or less as was the case with the United States at our founding. We--rather, you know, limited central government in Washington, and states rights (technical difficulties).

CONAN: Under the articles of confederation?

Mr. GELB: No, no, no, under our Constitution. The states were the basis of lawmaking until very late in our history, until people had the confidence that they could turn the lawmaking powers over to a central government. You know, the history of Iraq is not the history of one country. People who talk about that don't know anything about the history of Iraq. It's really been one country only under centralized, despotic, ruthless rule from Baghdad under Saddam or under British-imposed rule. But otherwise it's really been different constituencies, different ethnic groups essentially living their own way. Iraq is only a modern, unified country late in--you know, beginning 1920s in this century.

CONAN: We're talking about the future of Iraq and a possible exit strategy for the United States. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Leslie Gelb, the Kurds would presumably leap at the opportunity for autonomous control of their region. The Shiites might as well. But wouldn't such an arrangement deprive the Sunnis in the middle of the country of, well, a lot of the oil?

Mr. GELB: Well, the Kurds would leap at independence and that, I think, would be bad for them, bad for us, because it might cause a war between them and Turkey. So I don't want three separate, independent states. I want a federal state with three of them still under the yoke of an Iraq. Now as far as the Sunnis are concerned, you're quite right to raise that. There's no peace, there's no unity without the Sunnis, and under the plan that I'm proposing, the Sunnis would have the same authority to legislate for themselves in the central region as the Kurds would in the north and the Shiites in the south. You know, otherwise the Sunnis really are going to be in a position down the line where a Shiite majority legislates for them, and they aren't going to like that one bit.

Right now they've only been focusing on a strong central government because they're still under the illusion that they're going to be in charge of it again, that they're gonna run Iraq the way they did in the previous 80 years. But that isn't going to happen. And once they adjust to the new reality of things, they'll see they're better off, far better off with a more autonomous region of their own in the center.

Now the problem--I'll just take a moment more. The problem is money, because they haven't got any revenues, any reliable revenue stream, and what I would do is I'd put in the constitution itself a revenue-sharing agreement for oil that would give the Sunnis even more than they deserve based on their population levels, and guarantee it for them, for both new oil revenues as well as the old oil revenues. And that would make their central region viable and give them a reason, a powerful reason to stay in a united Iraq.

CONAN: Gareth Stansfield, we just a minute or so left, but I wanted to ask you if that's an outline that you think might be viable.

Prof. STANSFIELD: Well, I would tend to agree with Les Gelb that the only future that Iraq has as a state as we've seen within its historical parameters is if it's a federal entity with maybe three states, but perhaps even more, five states that ...(unintelligible) talked about with two Shia provinces, a metropolitan Baghdad, a Sunni area and a Kurdish region. Now there are all sorts of permutations on this, but I think if it's--if we describe it as the only future or the only possible future for Iraq, it's often not a terribly good one because federal structures are notoriously complex models to impose. They're highly--they're the most sophisticated form of government and democracy that have yet been developed, and to imagine putting such a model in place in Iraq, and the basic requirements of federalism would require trust to exist between these groups, would require agreement to be reached on these complex issues such as revenue sharing, upon the status of the very troublesome mixed cities, particularly of Kirkuk and ...(unintelligible).

CONAN: And I'm afraid we're running out of time but, Gareth Stansfield, we wanted to thank you very much for joining us today.

Leslie Gelb, appreciate your time as well.

When we come back from the break, Andrew Bird.

It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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