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Exiting Iraq: Frederick Kagan's View


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, a drum major for justice in Soviet Russia dies in the United States. But first, the United Nations reported this week that the number of civilians dying in Baghdad now exceeds more than a 100 day as sectarian violence rises and everyday life becomes more dangerous for Iraqis. The debate over the U.S. commitment in Iraq has largely focused on when and how rapidly U.S. troops can be drawn down. But Frederick Kagan, military historian, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that the U.S. needs to put more troops in Iraq, not fewer. He joins in our studios. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. FREDERICK KAGAN (American Enterprise Institute): Great to be here.

SIMON: And your point is that an insurgency dies when people who live in the country begin to conclude that they're going to lose.

Mr. KAGAN: That's right. I mean, the key thing to defeating any insurgency is persuading both the insurgents and would-be insurgents that the cause is hopeless. People really don't flock on the whole to run and join causes that are going to lose, especially when it means that they'll probably be hurt or killed. And so, the key thing is really absolutely taking the question of victory off the table. We need to make it very clear that the Iraqi government is going to be the government of Iraq and that violence is not going to prevent that from happening, and the sooner we make that clear, the sooner this insurgency will start to fade away.

SIMON: You have a very specific recommendation for how many troops you think would be necessary to have.

Mr. KAGAN: Yeah, I think something on the order of 25,000 more troops probably would be necessary to do what I think we need to do in the Sunni areas of the country, which is to establish security. Security's really the essential element here. It's very hard sometimes for Americans to think about this because we haven't had to worry about these sorts of basic issues for a long time, but if when you wake up in the morning, you actually have to worry about whether you're going to survive until the end of the day and whether your family is going to survive, a whole host of issues that we tend to think of as being critically important really kind of fall to secondary relevance.

Questions like economic performance and justice and how you feel about the government and even sectarian issues, all of that kind of goes by the wayside, and until we have established security or helped the Iraqis establish security throughout the country, we're going to continue to have people making decisions based on what they think is going to help them live, and that means that the insurgents are going to have an advantage.

SIMON: I think there's some people who would offer one word - I bet you know it too - to try and counter your argument, and that's Fallujah, that in the first battle of Fallujah U.S. forces tried to essentially squash the insurgency and discovered that, although they could technically win a battle, they could not hold the area long term.

Mr. KAGAN: Well, and I would offer two words in return, Tal Afar. Fallujah was the first such effort that we launched to clear and hold a city. It was launched on the spur of the moment in response to an unforeseen development. The Marines did not have adequate force, they hadn't really thought through how they were going to deal with the problem, and they went in, found themselves in a very difficult situation and were stopped before they actually could carry through the operation. In Tal Afar, the situation was the exact opposite. It was a planned operation, they knew who the enemy was, they had adequate force, and the result was that they actually managed to clear Tal Afar with minimal civilian casualties, capture a lot of insurgents and hold the town.

SIMON: Were you initially in favor of the war?

Mr. KAGAN: I was, yes. I did think it was the right thing to do.

SIMON: And how much time have you spent in Iraq, over what period...

Mr. KAGAN: I have not been in Iraq.

SIMON: Does that give you any pause?

Mr. KAGAN: It doesn't. You know, my role is to try to gather as much information as I can from a lot of different sources, people who've been over there, people who have a lot of regional expertise and understand their viewpoints, and so I talk to a lot of the people who've been coming back and the people who spend a lot of time over there, and I bring to the discussion an understanding of how in general to deal with insurgencies that comes from a career spent studying that problem.

SIMON: You've written that you think it's important to rebuild areas that have been cleared and then held, and of course this is coming at a time when the congress doesn't want to authorize any more funds to do that.

Mr. KAGAN: Well, and which I think is terrible. I mean, I think the truth is we're getting into a situation where we're saying, well, we don't have a military solution, we want to build up the Iraqis, we want to have - use soft power to do this, and then we're talking about cutting the funding for the soft power that we would be doing. So the question is, so what's our strategy actually? The truth is we have to do both.

It really is essential to rebuild, because it's important not to just make it clear that the insurgents are going to lose, but to make it clear that the government is going to win and that it's going to be a good thing when the government wins, and that means that you want to bring tangible rewards to populations that you've liberated from the yolk of insurgent violence. I think we really missed an opportunity after the death of Zarqawi to go in and clear out Ba`qubah and reward the people in Ba`qubah who had given us the information that led to Zarqawi so that we could catch him and then rebuild the city, and show Iraqis if you cooperate in the destruction of the insurgents, if you come over to this side of the government, then there will be tangible, positive rewards for doing that. I think it's incredibly important.

SIMON: In a democracy, politics has to be part of - of any solution, and I have to tell you, I would be surprised if there's a single major party candidate for congress running for election or re-election in this country who will put on his or her campaign literature promises to pledge - to send more - pledges to send more troops to Iraq. That just doesn't seem to be part of anybody's popular platform at the moment. So how do you - how do you get people to listen to a plan like that, when that is so clearly the important ingredient?

Mr. KAGAN: Look, in the first place, what matters most is the strategy, not the number of troops. If it's politically impossible to send more troops, then you can still execute elements of this strategy with the troops that we have available, and what matters is whether you think that it's a priority to establish security or not, and you can do it better and faster with more troops, you could do it with what we have now. As far as convincing people that this is important, look, I don't think that there's anything that the United States is doing in the world right now that is remotely as important as the war in Iraq. If we lose there, the consequences will be devastating for the region and for us directly.

I'm afraid that we're on a glide path toward defeat right now because we're pursuing a strategy that is not accomplishing the essential missions that has to be accomplished. So you don't put on your resume or on your platform, I want to send more troops to Iraq. You put on your platform, I want to win in Iraq and I'm willing to do what's necessary in order to make that happen.

SIMON: But what does winning look like to you?

Mr. KAGAN: Winning looks like you have a stable democratic Iraq where security is established, where you don't have large-scale violence. You will certainly continue to have terrorist attacks in one form or another, but the government has to be able to function, you have to be able to establish local police and have them feel secure and safe and able to perform their duties. But above all, Iraq has to be at peace with itself, and once Iraq is at peace with itself, then I think the progress of democratizing it and stabilizing it can proceed.

SIMON: Frederick Kagan, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, he taught military history for ten years at West Point, thank you very much.

Mr. KAGAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World Weekend Edition Saturday