Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Thomas Ricks on the "surge," David Petraeus, and Washington politics

Thomas Ricks on the "surge," David Petraeus, and Washington politics

From the Brian Lehrer show this morning, a discussion with Thomas Ricks, author of "Fiasco" and Washington Post military correspondent:

Brian Lehrer: I think it's the Washington Post... that's saying the troop surge is not what Prime Minister Maliki asked for? Just the opposite? He asked for US withdrawal from Baghdad? Are you familiar with that?

Maliki, real politik and America's "surge"

Thomas Ricks: I am. Very much. When I was with Defense Secretary Gates in Baghdad last month the Iraqi officials hanging around the meetings would tell you that what they had asked for was that US forces move to the periphery of Baghdad and basically beat up the Sunnis for them while they more or less finished the ethnic cleansing of central Baghdad with the Shiite army.

BL: That's an interesting way to put it!

TR: Well, it's my characterization. It's not quite how they put it! But -- reading between the lines -- that's where they were going. It's a kind of "donut strategy": you guys get out of here and be useful chumps while we sort out our internal differences, finish the ethnic cleansing, and consolidate our hold on power. I don't think that's where the Americans wanted to go so, while they called this "Maliki's plan," it's almost the opposite. It's "we're going to send troops into the middle of the city, double the American presence on the streets of Baghdad because we don't trust your army.

BL: Why? I mean seriously. From a strictly cold, calculating US national interest perspective, why would the US care if the Shiites finished the ethnic cleansing job in Baghdad if it gives the US a structure for some kind of internal solution, even if it's a "use your guns"-power-oriented military solution in Baghdad, while the US saves its fire power to go after Al Qaeda?

TR: Well, there's a good reason why the US has to worry about that. The US government still hopes for a reconciliation, that some sort of political solution can be worked out between the Shia and the Sunnis that includes the Kurds as well and averts a full-blown civil war. They're in a chronic, low-level civil war. Today was a particularly nasty day in Baghdad already.

BL: More than 70 people killed and two bomb blasts in the city...

TR: Yes. And actually in the last few minutes there's been another one in a police station -- another 14 people. You've got 27 US troops dead over the weekend. So it's been a rough few days there. My worry about the US insisting on reconciliation is that politically the Bush administration consistently has been about 6 to 12 months behind the curve in Iraq from the very get-go. In military terms, it's called "losing the initiative." We've been operating off balance -- basically fighting from our heels rather than our toes since about 2003. The reality of Iraq that they haven't caught up with, I fear, is that the Shiites have concluded that they've won. And that's why we're proposing this "donut" strategy. And as you say, if the Shiites have won, then it has won the civil war, won control of Iraq. All we're doing is being a useful tool to help them out and keep the Sunnis off their back while they consolidate their hold. I think the US is going to try over the next 6 months to operate more independently and say, "No, we're not just going to be a tool for the Shiites." Whether they can pull that off is a wholly different question.

BL: You must be doing this interview with your AP wire or something in front of you because I see now that it moved across the wire just 3 minutes ago that a bomb and mortar attack has hit a market in a volatile area north of Baghdad killing 12 people and wounding nearly 30. So that's in addition to the 70+ reported in the earlier attacks and that's the one you were referring to.

TR: Yes. I never do interviews without the wire in front of me!

Muqtada al Sadr and Maliki -- who's in charge?

BL: But despite what we were saying about this Maliki plan and the US going against the Maliki plan, there's something else from the AP today. It says, "Iraq's prime minister has dropped his protection of an anti-American cleric's Shiite militia after US intelligence convinced him the group was infiltrated by death squads, according to two officials speaking yesterday..."...

TR: ...Are you a basefall fan?

BL: Am I a baseball fan? Well, yeah.

TR: The Iraqi prime minister saying he's dropping his protection of Muqtada al Sadr is like the third-base coach of the Yankees' single A farm team saying he's going to straighten out George Steinbrenner! That's the power relationship between Maliki and Sadr. Sadr commands a more powerful force than Maliki does. By US military calculations, Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, has more effective fighters than the Iraqi army does.

BL: But... if you're right then the Bush administration strategy right now -- this "troop surge" as they call it -- hinges to some degree on an impossibility. Because yes, the US is going to go after Sadr's militia itself, I guess, with this troop surge in Baghdad, but they're looking for cooperation and they say it's vital to get the cooperation of Maliki. And it seems to me what they mean by cooperation is his willingness to crack down and continue cracking down. Am I wrong about that?

How Bush lost Iraq

TR: Not at all. The problem here, as you may suspect, is that two aspects have characterized the American approach in Iraq over the past three years. One has been official over-optimism in which institutions fail to recognize the basic reality on the ground. The second is a rush to failure with Iraqi forces. I think the concern of a lot of people in the military right now -- especially officers who have a tour or two in Iraq -- is that the new plan combines both those flaws: official optimism about what Iraqis are willing to do, and a rush to failure in pushing Iraqis too soon to do too much.

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