Policy Council Q & A on Iraq

This interview is from a Q&A with the National Journal’s Policy Council

POLICY COUNCIL: What is currently most alarming about the situation in Iraq?

MR. O’HANLON: The risk of civil war, in a nut shell, is the most alarming feature. Last year and the year before it was the insurgency that we couldn’t really get a lid on but now it’s the threat of all out civil war.

POLICY COUNCIL: What would such look like if it starts?

MR. O’HANLON: I think it would look like Bosnia. It would look like ethnic cleansing with isolated acts of genocide or near genocide and the kind of thing we’ve been seeing in Baghdad this summer but on a massive scale, maybe five, ten times worse.

POLICY COUNCIL: And what impact would that have on the region, specifically on Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia?

MR. O’HANLON: Well, that’s a question that a couple of my colleagues are really starting to hone in on; you might have seen Ken Pollack and Dan Byman’s Washington Post Outlook article a couple of weeks ago. There are all sorts of things that could happen depending on the specifics.

One possibility of course is that in a worse case these various counties not only intervene but wind up fighting each other. The Saudis and the Syrians are interested in the well-being of the Sunni Arabs and Jordanians as well. The Turks are interested in restraining the Kurds. And the Iranians would have that attitude but also want to make sure the Shi’a wound up in a good position, and maybe that the certain factions of the Shi’a that were most friendly to them did well within internal Shi’a civil wars. So you have the possibility of actual direct military intervention by several parties.

But frankly my own focus — and maybe it’s just because I don’t understand the region as well as Ken and Dan, who are really Mid-East experts — my concern is simply what happens inside Iraq, and I think that’s plenty bad enough, even if there are no particular regional spill-over effects.

Frankly I’m not so sure the regional spill-over effects are inevitable. There are people talking about, you know — the coming Sunni/Shi’a schism and the Shi’a Revival, as Vali Nasr has written, and who worry that you could wind up with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Sunnis in Iraq all fighting, essentially along with al-Qaeda, and again, the Shi’a and the Kurds are another factor that’s possible. In other words, you get a broader regional war.

But I really think that the main worry is simply that Iraq is blowing up itself, and it is recent enough to consider this a pretty catastrophic event should it happen.

POLICY COUNCIL: Let’s talk about the new Iraqi government. Has progress been made towards establishing a true unity government that reflects the ethnic composition of the country?

MR. O’HANLON: Yes, but I think there’s been a little too much focus frankly — with all due respect to your question — on that question. In other words, yeah, the government looks okay ethnically, but the question is: Is it defending the core rights of each of the major parties very successfully. And on that point — which I think is the more important point — I would say the answer is no.

So, for example, on making sure that oil revenues were shared equitably in the future so that Sunni Arabs get their fair share, even though they don’t sit on a lot of the oil in the regions where they are the majority. That’s a critical issue that right now — the trends are working against the Sunni Arabs. And getting lower level and mid-level Ba’athists rehabilitated and back into public life is a core Sunni Arab interest, and it’s not being handled expeditiously either. And, of course, the death squads are now starting to go rampant after a couple years of restraint, which is one more reason why the Shi’a are going to feel disenfranchised and bitter and paranoid.

And so the fact that the coalition government looks good doesn’t do much for me. It’s sort of like saying, you know, because Condoleezza Rice is in the U.S. government therefore our policy towards black must be good at home. It’s almost a — you know, a mistaken way of looking at it.

POLICY COUNCIL: Security in Iraq is obviously a major issue. How long will it be before the Iraqi security forces have the command and control and logistical capabilities necessary for true self-sufficiency?

MR. O’HANLON: Well, it could be awhile, but I think if those are the only issues that I was worried about I wouldn’t be that worried — because to me the real issue is do the fights — do the fighting forces hold together inter-ethnically, even in doing their main core combat jobs, or do they wind up splintering apart and taking sides in the civil war? I don’t really care if the U.S. military has to provide logistical backup for Iraqis for five more years; I mean, — for heaven’s sakes, even if we did that we could — if that was our only job we could probably cut down to 30-50,000 U.S. troops with no particular difficulty, if we were just doing logistic backup at the lines. So it’s certainly going to take several years for the Iraqis to be totally self-sufficient. But I don’t think that’s really a big problem. It’s not really my main worry. My main worry has to do with whether they can hold together inter-ethnically and whether they can even do their main job effectively, which is, you know, fighting insurgents and providing security for Iraqi citizens on the streets. If they can do those two things increasingly well I would be more than content to see us play a continued backup role for many years. And I think that would be sort of the least of our problems.

POLICY COUNCIL: Are there currently enough U.S. troops on the ground, even if we moved towards playing a backup role?

MR. O’HANLON: I don’t know. Certainly if we’re in a backup role we have more than enough. Although, you can obviously define the backup role in many different ways. But in terms of what’s on the ground right now, you know, we’re still challenged. We still don’t have enough to do everything that you would tactically want to do throughout the country.

POLICY COUNCIL: How many more would we need?

MR. O’HANLON: Well, I don’t know if there’s anything extra. I mean, it’s not something that, you know, some people use the Bosnia or Kosovo experience as if that was some how the right answer, quote, unquoted — as if you just have to scale for the size of Iraq’s population and that would give you the right answer, or some other previous experience. I don’t know if there’s ever been a perfectly sized mission in the history of counter-insurgency and nation-building operations, so I think we have to say that, you know, in the end it’s a judgment call.

There are some people who believe that if the Iraqi forces have, let’s say 100,000 good fighters, which may be an overestimate, but let’s say that they do, that if we had 200,000 coalition enforcers we would be getting into the right ballpark in terms of what we know about the history of counter-insurgency. That’s probably a reasonable way of thinking about it. So, you know, if I had to ballpark, and there was no limit on the size of the force and it was just being determined based on needs on the ground, I would guess that we’d probably want to be up in the 200,000 range as opposed to the 130,000 range. But that’s just a broad ballpark.

POLICY COUNCIL: There’s been a lot of talk recently about setting a deadline for withdrawing troops. What effect would such a deadline have on the country both in terms of the insurgency and the average person?

MR. O’HANLON: Well, I think that the idea of a deadline for complete withdrawal is a prescription for outright defeat. I’ve never been supportive of that and I think it’s as bad of an idea as ever. I think the Iraqis are not going to be in a position to hold their whole country together, and we’re going to have to do even more than your one question implied – we’re going to have to do more than just backup of logistics. We’re going to have to continue to be involved in training them, in doing some operations with them for many years to come.

To me, the only — the interesting question has been: Is there a value to setting a timetable for reducing the size of the U.S. presence? Because that way you at least send a message that you are not intent on occupying the country or, you know, becoming a quasi-imperial power; also, it’s a strategy to put some pressure on the Iraqis to make some more decisions and take some more responsibility. And so, a couple of years ago I was writing with my colleague, Jim Steinberg, that we should set a schedule for reducing by about two-thirds within about two years.

Now I think that since then the circumstances have changed, because now, as I mentioned earlier, there’s more of threat of civil war, and there’s a little bit less of a sense that the main security problem in Iraq is the U.S. presence. I think there was that worry early on, that we were both the solution and the problem, and that therefore we really had to, you know, make a drastic proposal for getting out, getting down scale quickly. I still think there’s a value to saying that we want to be, you know — we want to have our forces cut by half within, you know, a year, but the idea of thinking about any kind of a concrete timetable for getting down to zero, to me, is entirely counterproductive.

POLICY COUNCIL: How might the U.S. encourage other countries to share more of the military burden, and what countries, given the bitterness over the decision to invade and the situation on the ground, could be persuaded to do so?

MR. O’HANLON: I think it’s a basic non-starter unless you fundamentally refine the mission. For example, one thing that I suggested recently in a Los Angles Times op-ed was we might want to acknowledge that the mission is basically starting to fail and go for a lesser goal, which would be, you know, some level of confederation between three blocks — Shi’a, Sunni Arab and Kurd-dominated blocks — and you would help the Iraqis relocate ethnically and give land and housing swaps in order to make that possible. If you did something like that and you were essentially helping people resettle peaceably with a specific end goal in mind with these three blocks that look sort of like Bosnia, maybe there’s a chance you’ll get more international help.

Now, maybe the — maybe some of the Sunni Arab countries would help protect the Sunni Arab region of Iraq, for example, but I think right now unless you do something like that it’s basically a non-starter, and you’re just trying to do a holding action to prevent people from deserting the mission.

POLICY COUNCIL: Last question for you. We’ve talked a lot about what is alarming in Iraq, but what is most encouraging about the situation there?

MR. O’HANLON: There’s not a whole lot that’s encouraging. I used to be a 50/50 guy for about the first year-and-a-half of this mission and I became sort of a 45/55 guy, more negative than positive — but now I’m more of a 30/70, 20/80, guy with increasing pessimism.

But if you wanted to look for anything real concrete to hold on to, you can still say that the Army is not doing too badly — the Iraqi Army — but also say that the Iraqi political leadership is — to go back to one of your earlier questions — at least showing the complexion of a multi-ethnic balanced force and balanced political leadership.

POLICY COUNCIL: Have the Sunnis really bought into the idea of taking part in the political process?

MR. O’HANLON: No. But you do have some Sunni leaders who are involved, as you, you know — as you were getting at with your earlier question. And, you know, at least the political leaders are not passively supporting the militias and calling for, you know, further ethnic cleansing and killing. They’re not doing enough to bring them in but they’re not really actively supporting them. So you don’t have the political leadership calling for a civil war.

That’s about the best I can say. I mean, the economy at least is not a complete disaster, but it’s also not very good.