Brian Katulis: Why were we initially with the redeployment report? This is essentially what the Democrats have been pushing for the last two years—saying that there should be a residual force based on three pillars: one, to continue the training of Iraqi security forces; two, counterterrorism efforts; and three, to protect our embassy and different diplomatic personnel. As we were wrestling with these issues earlier this year, we increasingly became skeptical of simply moving forward on that first pillar. Our argument, if you read the draft, essentially says that given the lack of political consensus among Iraq’s political leaders, we actually may be arming up different sides of Iraq in this war. Is this security force assistance the glue that’s going to bring Humpty Dumpty back together again? We were really skeptical that that was the case.
Mother Jones: Maybe the function it is thought to be able to provide is not to be the glue to prevent a soft partition of Iraq, but to mitigate some of the genocidal level of atrocities that might take place.
BK: U.S. forces are still the target of the vast majority of attacks that happen in Iraq. When you look at the metrics of 80 percent of Iraqis seeing us as more as a destabilizing force rather than stabilizing force, when you look at the lack of capacity among our mid-level and lower-level troops to speak Arabic and really understand who you’re dealing with, and then you also look at the historical record of the last two or three years, it raises serious questions of whether we are actually asking of our troops to do something that they simply aren’t capable of doing. But here’s the main point: We’re going to replace—or ask the Iraqis to replace—a commander that is in charge of sectarian cleansing. Is it simply enough to have him replaced and then allow him to walk the streets of Iraq?
MJ: What about the counter-Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq mission? With a reduced U.S. presence in Iraq, how would we deal with what really is a national security threat to us?
BK: You don’t need the American crutch to get Iraqis to do what they themselves would do naturally. You have some Shiite leaders saying, “Look, we need to take the gloves off,” and others saying, “We need to go after Al Qaeda really hard and strong.” If there’s anything that I think we need to learn from 2001 to the present, it’s that the application of conventional military could be necessary—strategic strikes and things like this. But maintaining some sort of ground presence is not the best way to actually go about doing this. The best way is to use our intelligence, take down some of these networks, and have targeted strikes. When you talk to most counterterrorism experts, they say, “You don’t want to stay there in large numbers.”
MJ: Are the Sunnis looking to us at this point, in spite of their resentment, for protection?
BK: It depends on which Sunnis you are talking about. The fundamental problem with the Sunnis is that there has been such fragmentation. It is the story of Iraqi politics, period, but especially on the Sunni side, the frustration of those U.S. diplomats who were trying to work with the different Sunni elements. There are all of these intra-communal tensions that I don’t think we understand too well. If and when the U.S. leaves, we’re likely to face the reality of a strong Shiite hand, and maybe keeping the U.S. here might help us a little bit more. There are strong so-called trends toward pushing the so-called occupation out, but then there are other growing concerns that maybe you don’t want them to leave all that quickly.
MJ: Is it logistically really hard to move so many forces out in two years?
BK: Two years is a Pace kind of argument; I think that’s one of the higher ends. The real question is, What do you want to leave behind? Because you can move troops pretty rapidly in and out. The real question is equipment, and weapons, and things like this, and then cleaning that equipment.
MJ: What does cleaning mean?
BK: A lot of the tanks and heavy armory and things like this. You need to make sure you’re not bringing back equipment that is a mess, and then there are some things that would be simple Iraq bugs that you can’t bring back into the country. This is the devil in the details when you talk to people like the planners.
MJ: How do you see the U.S. trying to prevent regional players from playing a greater destabilizing role in Iraq?
BK: Iran basically asserts its interests in Iraq in many different ways. Good ties with sectarian government, funding militias, and doing a whole bunch of things, but they’re mostly trying to prevent the complete collapse but also the re-emergence of a Saddam-like figure. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have been passive-aggressive in many ways. There is a lot of funding and support and not through different channels.
MJ: And how do we get out so it’s not like the Soviets pulling out of Afghanistan?
BK: I actually think that it is a good opportunity to call for responsibility on the part of people in that part of the world. This sounds like American political dialogue. I actually think it is helpful, though, because we have been doing that for years in the Persian Gulf, and is that region of the world any more stable than it was, say, 25 or 30 years ago? We’re going to have a military presence in that region of the world for years to come. The question I have is, Can we get to a point where there is a self-sustaining collective security arrangement that has buy-in from other major world powers to rely on the energy resources that come from that part of the world? Can we plant the seeds for some form of security cooperation? You talk to the people in CENTCOM, and they say that we want to decrease our footprint overall in that part of the world because it’s been quite inflammatory—that’s why we made the decision to leave Saudi Arabia in 2003. So then how do we fill the gap? How do we get others to do their share and to pay up? And to defend their own precious resources in that part of the world?