A Report Card on the Shifting Goals in Iraq What would a report card on Iraq look like? Washington Post correspondent Thomas Ricks returned to Iraq in late May and offers a progress report.
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A Report Card on the Shifting Goals in Iraq

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

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

The so-called troop surge in Iraq is supposed to make a noticeable difference by September. That's what the White House said when it unveiled its new strategy for Iraq back in January. Now, the new commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, says the much awaited progress report will be more of a snapshot than a definitive list of accomplishments.

Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, who manages the day-to-day operations of the war, says he can't predict when the extra 30,000 troops that surged in this spring will be pulled back out of Iraq or when base U.S. troop levels could be drawn down. These developments begged the question once again: what is the benchmark for success in Iraq? Are the goal posts shifting again?

Washington Post correspondent Thomas Ricks returned to Iraq in late May, and he has his own snapshot of the expectations and morale in Iraq.

Later, can Echinacea really help you beat the cold? Do cell phones cause brain cancer? We'll find out the answer to those and other questions when science writer Anahad O'Connor joins us. And you can e-mail your questions for him now, talk@npr.org. Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?

But first, changing goals in Iraq. If you have questions for Tom Ricks about his trip to Iraq or questions about our goals in Iraq, join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our blog, it's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Joining us from our studios at The Washington Post is Thomas Ricks, military reporter for The Washington Post and author of "Fiasco." Welcome, Mr. Ricks.

Mr. THOMAS RICKS (Pentagon Reporter, The Washington Post): Thank you.

SEABROOK: You traveled to Iraq at the end of May. Tell us what you saw there and what you've seen changed since your last trip to Iraq.

Mr. RICKS: I think the biggest single thing that struck me was on every previous trip, I think I've been on seven previous trips to Iraq, every time I've been there, things have been notably worse than on the previous trip. People always say it can't get any worse than this, and it did. First thing that struck me was it's not any better, but it's not any worse than it was, the last time I was there.

The second thing that struck me - I mean, you know, but we're talking about degrees of hell, basically. You know? It hadn't descended from the ninth to the 10th circle. It is still on the ninth circle of hell. It's not a great improvement to us to be holding steady in hell.

The second thing that struck me was, I used to hate going into the Green Zone, which is the international zone in downtown Baghdad that's walled off and very tightly guarded, even though mortars come in, and is the headquarters of the U.S. effort and of the Iraqi government. I used to hate going in there, just because it was such a sea of nonsense to wade into. It was totally divorced and isolated from the realities of Iraq.

I remember talking to some American officer, two years ago, he was briefing me on something. At the end of the briefing, he said, by the way, what is it like out there? And I said, what do you mean? He said I'm not allowed out of the Green Zone. He'd never been out.

The people who are running the U.S. effort there now do get out. A lot of them spend more time outside the Green Zone than they spend in it. And also, they -I think they have a more realistic attitude. They recognize that the official optimism of the U.S. effort over the last several years was part of the problem, not part of the solution. And so I think they are trying to be more sober, more realistic in their assessment of the situation. And so I found, I didn't get a headache every time I went to the Green Zone.

SEABROOK: So you're seeing the change in strategy that the Bush administration unveiled in January has led to a change in a way this war is being operated in the military.

Mr. RICKS: Absolutely. I think the single biggest difference is not the troop increase, which is a relatively small number dribbled in over several months. It's not really classically what in military terms you'd call a surge. It's more a dribble.

The real big difference aside from the new cast of characters running it, which is significant, is the deployment of troops, the movement of troops off big, isolated bases and out into a small vulnerable outpost across the capital. Last time I looked I think it was about 70 such combat outposts or joint security stations. And that's a real significant difference on how the U.S. operates in Iraq.

SEABROOK: Can any of this change be translated into something some amorphous idea of success? The military is gathering data all the time that it calls metrics on whether or not things are quote, unquote, "working." But they're also seemed to be telling reporters which data to look at and which not to look at. For example, not to look at - I think it was Lieutenant General Odierno, who said not to look at - the number of troop deaths, for example. What is the military gathering? And what should reporters be looking at for some measure of success?

Mr. RICKS: Well, there's two different levels you want to look out. One is tactical, what's happening day to day on the streets of Baghdad. The other is strategic, what's the overarching situation, what is the trend and direction of Iraqi politics. Tactically, I think people would generally say that the troop surge has had a mixed record at best on the ground in Baghdad.

We do have - we are taking larger risk with our troops by deploying them out into the city. We are taking more casualties. That said, in parts of the city, they do seem to be improving security somewhat, not absolutely is a totally relative term. It's nothing like what you would call secure in any other city of the world. Anytime you hear machine gunfire or have mortars flying overhead, you're not going to feel secure.

SEABROOK: Is the Pentagon…

Mr. RICKS: But that said, though, the real problem is strategic. You've had some mixed tactical success, but you've had no indication of strategic movement, which is to say, no signs of political movement in Iraq towards reconciliation or even simply accommodation between the various parties on this low-level civil war. And that's a really bad sign.

This troop surge, this new plan was announced six months ago - more than six months ago at this point - yet there's been no indication that Iraqis are going to solve their political differences. And every single officer who follows this in Iraq, will tell you ultimately, you've got to solve this politically. And so the - the indication is that this is not really going anywhere.

SEABROOK: So what does the Pentagon, Thomas Ricks, say is the goal here?

Mr. RICKS: Well, I noticed your introduction talked about changing definitions of success in Iraq. That's not altogether bad. I think the beginning of wisdom is to recognize that Iraq is a tragedy for us and for the Iraqis at this point. It's not going to end well. The question is, can we mitigate the damage we've done? Can we, somehow, get out of Iraq more intelligently than we went into Iraq?

And actually when I say that I'm quoting what an officer in Iraq said to me. That's part of, I think, the new sobriety in the U.S. approach. So the changing definition of what we're trying to do there, I think, is actually a sign of wisdom. The bottom line that I'm hearing is - look, we'd like political accommodation, but now, we need to begin to talk about what we would settle for. There's a new study that's put out by a new think tank, the center, CNA yes. It's Center for National - New American Security.

SEABROOK: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RICKS: That was just released, I believe, today by a guy named James Miller, which says, look, our bottom line in Iraq should be the three nos, no safe haven for al-Qaida, no regional civil war, and I think the third was - can't remember what's third - but no attacks or something, what was it? No genocide, which is to say no genocide against Sunnis.

That's a pretty minimalist agenda. It's certainly not what we went to Iraq to go after several years ago, and it's certainly not anything the Bush administration would recognize. But I think that may be about where we come out, which is, look, we're not going to really achieve what we - what the Bush administration said it wanted to achieve at the outset, which is to turn Iraq into a beacon of democracy that they would then transform the Middle East. That was a huge agenda. Instead, what this Miller report says is this is the bottom line of what we minimally might achieve there, and this is what we should aim for.

SEABROOK: Tom Ricks, let's go to the phones quickly and get in a couple of questions specifically for you. This is Melissa(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina. Go ahead.

MELISSA (Caller): Good afternoon, Tom.

Mr. RICKS: Good afternoon.

MELISSA: I wanted to, first of all, say that I certainly loved your book, "Making the Corps" from many years ago. And…

Mr. RICKS: Thank you very much. Actually, it's interesting partly because of the success of "Fiasco," "Making the Corps" is being reissued next month in a new edition with a new update.

MELISSA: Oh, my goodness.

SEABROOK: Is that about the Marine Corps?

Mr. RICKS: Yeah. I followed one platoon of Marines through a boot camp and under - through their first couple of years in the Marine Corps. And for this new edition of the book that comes out next month, I actually went back and talked to a lot of the Marines in the platoon and also to the drill instructors. And it really struck me. I had not expected this. What we ended up talking a lot about was Iraq.

And so the new afterward to making the corps to a surprising degree is about Iraq, because so many of the people who stayed in have done now one or two or three tours of duty in Iraq. Also, in a rather sad coincidence, the Marine battalion commander who oversaw the troops who killed a (unintelligible) or more of Iraqi civilians at Haditha was one of the Marines I knew at Parris Island, I wrote about him in my book. It's Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Chessani.

SEABROOK: Melissa, what's your question?

MELISSA: Okay. I was kind of framing that in context of, I know that you were, you know, so familiar with the Marine Corps, and it seems I don't know if it's the province of Anbar that the Marines have been stationed in lately…

Mr. RICKS: That's right.

MELISSA: …or the operating methods in the Marines versus the operating methods of the Army. What - do you attribute that to part of the reason that seems we're seeing seemingly more Army casualties than Marine Corps casualties?

Mr. RICKS: I don't really. I think it's more attributable to the politics of the places. The Marines were taken a lot of casualties in Anbar province over the last couple of years.

MELISSA: Yes.

Mr. RICKS: You go back to November '04, the Battle of Second Fallujah. That was an awfully tough battle, and the Marines took a whole lot of casualties. Things have quited down in Anbar. It seems because a lot of the sheikhs there, the tribal leaders, have turned against al-Qaida. Evidence of that is the attack yesterday in the Mansour Hotel in Baghdad, where a bunch of the sheikhs got blown up, the pro-American or at least anti-al-Qaida sheikhs.

The Army casualties have gone up recently because of this redeployment of troops out of the bases into the combat outposts, which is a far more aggressive posture. In a way, much more like the Marines had been out on Anbar province.

SEABROOK: Tom Ricks is a military reporter for the Washington Post.

Coming up after the break, we'll talk with Major General Mike Davidson. He's retired. And we're talking about the changing goal posts for Iraq. More of your calls in a minute. Send us your email too at talk@npr.org, or at 800-989-TALK.

I'm Andrea Seabrook. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Right now, we're talking about the shifting goals in Iraq. My guests are Thomas Ricks, military reporter for the Washington Post and author of "Fiasco," and other books. And now, Major General Mike Davidson. He's retired. He is the former assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Gentlemen, let me start with this. In Sunday's paper, New York Times columnist Frank Rich quoted retired Army General William Odom saying, quote, "the endgame will start when a senior senator from the President's party says no, just like Mr. Fullbright did to LBJ back in the day." Last night, listen to this, Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican from Indiana, on the Senate floor.

Senator RICHARD LUGAR (Republican, Indiana): Our struggles in Iraq have placed United States' foreign policy on a defensive footing and drawn resources from other national security endeavors including Afghanistan.

SEABROOK: General Davidson, let me start with you. Does it sounds like Mr. Fullbright? And does this spell endgame to you?

Mr. MIKE DAVIDSON (Retired Major GeneraL, U.S. Army): Well, to quote that famous American philosopher, Yogi Bear, "it is deja vu all over again." Politics can un-declare a war. And I still hold the Congress accountable - and, Andrea, you know a lot more about Congress than I do - for not declaring the war. The President went to war preemptively on his own initiative. And I think what's happened now on the ground is more or less unrelated to what's happening in the Capitol.

SEABROOK: Thomas Ricks, what do you think of - how did Richard Lugar's statements last night on the Senate floor, how do that changed the political landscape of this war?

Mr. RICKS: Well, I think I'll follow General Davidson's lead and quote Yogi Berra, "it ain't over till it's over."

SEABROOK: He's so quotable.

Mr. RICKS: Yes. I think it may look like Fullbright but may not walk or quack like Fullbright in this way. I think President Bush is basically going to stay in this war until the day he leaves office. I doubt that the Republicans, even if they bolt against the President's position, will join with the Democrats and pull the plug on this war.

So, you may have a lot of political sound and fury, but it's not clear how much ultimately will signify. I think also Bush has basically played his cards, put his chips on the table and made his decisions. He doesn't have a whole lot more decisions to make in Iraq. This has rapidly becoming the next president's war. We will be in Iraq when the next president comes into office. The question is how long will the next president keep us there, and what will the mission be as he or she sees it.

SEABROOK: But, gentlemen, let's think back just a few weeks ago, just really a couple of months ago to when the Democrats tried to force benchmarks and an end, a pullout or withdrawal from Iraq. Of course the President's veto is the only thing stopping from going through. But doesn't the change in Lugar's stance. I mean, he's one of the wadiest Republicans when it comes to foreign policy. Doesn't that change the way this is debated at least in the Congress? General?

Mr. DAVIDSON: I don't think so, Andrea. I think the Cooper-Church Amendment was the legislation that actually ended funding for the war in Vietnam. You're going to have to get to Cooper-Church level of political commitment by members of Congress in the Senate to pull the plug. And I don't see that happening before the presidential election.

SEABROOK: Why not?

Mr. DAVIDSON: This is a learning enemy they were fighting in Iraq, and they will change their tactics to meet our political needs. So, we're not calling the shots entirely ourselves. And I think our Congress will respond to public opinion in the United States, and I think public opinion will respond to what's happening on the ground in Iraq.

SEABROOK: Tell me…

Mr. RICKS: Andrea, I agree with the general for two reasons he didn't lay out. First and foremost, I think that the Democratic Party does not want to get tagged with the people who did Iraq like they did Vietnam. That the Democratic Party carried that burden for decades and they don't want to renew it for another three decades. Second problem is that Vietnam, in retrospect, was at the periphery of American interest. Iraq is not. Getting out of Iraq is going to be a lot harder than getting out of Vietnam.

SEABROOK: So, let me ask you all this. There is a lot of talk in both parties, and not just increasingly, it's now - comes up ever time. Any politician talks about the Iraq war and that is the two words - exit strategy. What is the talk right now, General Davidson, about an exit strategy? What does it mean? What might it look like?

Mr. DAVIDSON: There is a lot of contingency planning. There is no focus strategy that I'm ware of being put on paper because presidents and secretaries of defense get to set war policy, generals and admirals and soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines implement that policy. So you can't operate it from the ground up. You can't go bottom up on a strategic decision like this. So I'm not aware of any senior military officers who thinks they have, to include our new war czar, who thinks that they have the authority to make a decision like that.

SEABROOK: And, Tom Ricks, what - how are people talking about this in the military on the ground in Iraq?

Mr. RICKS: Somewhat differently than the way General Davidson just laid it out for this reason. While they know they're not there to make strategy, they also see certain imperatives. Foremost is that troop levels are going to come down next year. That's not an opinion. That's a 99 percent fact.

SEABROOK: And that's politics, right?

Mr. RICKS: Well, no. It's actually not. It's simply that there - as my favorite strategist over the Pentagon says, we're out of Schlitz. There are no more troops available. And so, sometime between now and March of next year, troop levels must start coming down unless you do something nobody wants to do, which is make troops start doing 18-month-long tours of duty. That is the only way to keep troop levels at their current level of between 150,000, 160,000 in Iraq. So…

SEABROOK: Aside from the unspeakable word of draft.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah, and even then. I mean, first of all, nobody in the military wants to draft less, and they don't want a bunch of surly draftees who don't want to be there. But the second thing is, even if you started a draft right now, it would give you enough troops to keep troop levels up just eight months from now or 10 months from now.

So, if everything goes much better than expected, if we start seeing political accommodation and things start going well in Iraq, starting about March of next year, you're going to start seeing troop levels go down. On the other hand, if everything continues as it is, which is pretty poor, or worsens, and you start getting things like Iraqi units turning on American troops, which is one of the nightmares, then starting in March of next year, troop levels are going to start to come down.

SEABROOK: Let's go to the phones. Nathan(ph) in Columbia, South Carolina. Hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

NATHAN (Caller): Hi.

SEABROOK: Go ahead.

NATHAN: Glad to be here. Hello gentlemen. The question that I had for you all was, there is a - there's this overall strategy that gets spelled out of bring democracy, save the world. What exactly, though, are the objectives, they've shifted so much, I guess where does it get to a point where we have a solid objective that's achieved to a certain percentage rate, and then the situation reaches critical mass it becomes self-sustaining. Obviously, as the troops surge was put in place, there must have been some objective to meet especially if in 10 months, we're not going to be able to sustain those levels, so I guess, where do we go from there?

SEABROOK: Good question, Nathan. It's exactly what we wanted to do this hour. General Davidson was asked - you two, what's the goal? And how are we getting there?

Mr. DAVIDSON: We have a phrase for that in the military, the truth changes. And the truth may not actually change but the circumstances on what makes something true or untrue change a lot. So it's a very fluid situation. The caller is entirely correct. There have been half a dozen different goals, strategies, objectives set out, each one changes. The next three will change as well.

SEABROOK: Tom Ricks?

Mr. RICKS: To follow the general's lead, there's also an acronym I've heard occasionally in the military, an abbreviation actually - NGH, not going to happen. The purpose of the surge was to operate tactically in such a way as to create a breathing space for Iraqi political movement. That was the strategic goal of the tactical operations we're supposed to lead to. That is not happening. And so, the question is, okay, then what else do we do out there? And that's why you're seeing a lot of talk in the ground in Baghdad about, if it's not political movement, what's - what else do we do out here? And what do you do with the next precedents for us, which is what they're talking about now.

SEABROOK: So I'm not clear on what exactly the goal is with what's happening now. Are we just biding our time? Is the US biding its time until it comes up with another goal, General Davidson?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Let me try and explain that very briefly. The strategic center of gravity is a political allegiance of the Iraqi people toward a form of government or a government and their willingness and their commitment to make sacrifices to support that government. For them to make that kid of commitment, they have to see a better life ahead with that government. That's the strategy. That's what will determine who wins, who losses, outcome, good, bad, or indifferent.

Now, militarily, we are trying to provide a security environment where the Iraqi government can begin to function effectively. We've got a lot of great young Americans, some not so young, trying very hard to make this war work to a deeply flawed policy. Because at the end of the day, I don't think any number of American soldiers can secure Iraq. I think only Iraqis can secure Iraq. So our strategy, I'm afraid, has us on a treadmill right now.

SEABROOK: And Tom Ricks, let me ask you this, you've said a couple of things that have, sort of, picked my interest. One thing you said was - it's holding steady in hell. You said that one of the nightmares, scenarios you listed. So let me ask you, if the strategy or the goal right now is predicated on things going well, what would it look like if things got worse?

Mr. RICKS: Well, it could easily get worse. You could have isolated U.S. outpost cutoff and wiped out. That's one of the big worries. The other is, the Shiites have been relatively quiet. Another nightmare scenario that's present constantly is the possibility of Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army, which is a - he's a radical Shiite cleric, probably the most powerful Shiite and certainly the biggest winner in post-Saddam Iraq, if he calls his troops out again, then you basically have a two-front war that the US military is confronting in Iraq.

So there's lots of different ways it can go bad. We've experienced some of them already. There's really only one way it can go better, and that's what the General just laid out, which is Iraqis saying actually, we want this to be different. We want some sort of political reconciliation.

SEABROOK: And is there any indication that it's going to, that it really is moving towards that one better scenario and not towards one of the many worst scenarios?

Mr. RICKS: At the provincial level, at the low level, yeah. When you see these tribal leaders cutting deals, and we really don't know the details of those deals, but cutting deals that somehow get them out of the anti-American camp in at least into a neutral camp, and sometimes even supportive camp, that's one -that's clearly been a problem for the enemy. It's one reason they attacked the Sheikhs in the hotel yesterday and killed four of them.

But we're not seeing any movement at the national level. Now, what they'll tell you in Baghdad is, you know, give it time. If we could see more and more of this provincial movement, ultimately, that might lead to movement at the national level. The other thing that's going to happen is, you're going to see one or more Iraqi leaders die. One is very sick with cancer, and the way Iraqi politics have gone, another is likely to get blown up - I don't know which one - over the next year. And so, the players will change, and that will change the political possibilities at the national level as well.

SEABROOK: Okay. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And thank you very much for your call, Nathan. Let's go back to the phones. And David(ph) in Kiefer, Oklahoma. Hi, you're on TALK OF THE Nation.

DAVID (Caller): Hello. Thanks for taking my call. I'm really glad to hear people talking about definitions, what is the definition of a good exit strategy, what is the definition of success in Iraq. And the word I've heard the administration use with regards to the way votes are going to turn out in Congress as well as the way things are turning out in Iraq is the word surrender. And to me surrender has always meant throwing your arms up, giving up your weapons and such. Isn't a surrender kind of an inflammatory term when it's used in that context? And I'll take my answer off the air.

SEABROOK: Thanks for you call, David. General Davidson?

Mr. DAVIDSON: David, we don't surrender. And finding a solution for Iraq that does not involve the only Army of the United States has in Iraq, certainly, I would not consider that surrender nor, I suspect, would the Iraqis.

SEABROOK: Tom Ricks, let me ask you, the idea of maintaining a small combat force in Iraq seems to bubble up every single time someone talks about, you know, members of Congress or an official talks about the end strategy for Iraq. What's the argument for that?

Mr. RICKS: Well, first of all, I think we should ban the phrase the end strategy. We're a long way from the end in Iraq. I'm a fan of Shakespeare's tragedies. His tragedies have five acts. And I'm pretty persuaded we're only in act three. Fortinbras is - not Fortinbras, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are still alive and operating on the stage.

There's along way to go here. The reason people talk about a residual combat force is basically this, they are betting that for all the rhetoric, the Iraqi Shiites, who've really - are the big winners in post-Saddam Iraq, don't really want us to leave Iraq. And that includes Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric.

So the thinking is, you probably want to leave a guarantor force to guarantee the security of the Iraqi government to deter coup attempts, to deter foreign intervention and also to prevent the Sunnis from thinking that they can launch a big new offensive against the Shiites as soon as we leave, and also, to keep the Shiites from thinking that they can commit genocide against the Sunnis.

So you have a combat force - I've heard one reinforced mechanized infantry division, which would total about 20,000 troops. You obviously need people to supply them, to help their communications and command a control, headquarters, logistics, that gives you another 5,000, then you probably want an advisory force of five to ten thousand, and you'll have a special operations force of several thousand to focus on al-Qaida in Iraq.

So very quickly, you get to a residual force of about 40,000 to 50,000 troops. And that's what people on the ground of Baghdad are betting, that the new president - Democrat or Republican, male or female - will likely say, okay, that's what we're going to have in Iraq for several years.

SEABROOK: But let me - forgive me for pushing you both, gentlemen, on politics again, but it seems as though there is really a dissonance between what experts like you two understand is the Pentagon way and must be the way forward in Iraq, and what the American people want. Is there a void of political discourse here that correctly explains to American people that the US will be there for sometime for better or for worse?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Perhaps. There was a good column in Tom's paper this morning on Nixon's reelection in 1972, in that the public would continence a president who is making progress in a difficult war, in this case, Iraq. What people forget now is that Nixon started his withdrawal in '68 and was still withdrawing in '72. So I think a phased withdrawal by someone in the White House, of either party, a lot of time and a lot of goodwill from the American public.

SEABROOK: And Tom Ricks?

Mr. RICKS: One thing I picked up on the ground at Baghdad last month was the strong feeling among a lot of officers that the political debate back here was indeed, as you say, a sterile one. The term I heard was stale and that it presents a false dilemma - all or nothing. Either stay in Iraq like you are now, at about 150,000 troops, or get out altogether. And one officer made the point that even if you began getting out now, it would take you 12 to 18 months to withdraw, if that were your aim.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Tom Ricks is a military reporter for the Washington Post and author of "Fiasco." Major General Mike Davidson is the former assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gentlemen, thank you very much.

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