Mother Jones: You have studied the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. What, if any, lessons could we apply to our current situation in Iraq?
Major Daniel Morgan: What I learned, based on the actions of the Afghan mujahideen and the Soviet military, is that any publicly announced timetable for withdrawal from Iraq that does not have the provisos to modify, or even reverse, the withdrawal process due to changing political or military circumstances on the ground will only accelerate the withdrawal itself. It would increase the violence, set conditions for civil war, and have dramatic repercussions for U.S. foreign policy in the region, if not the world.
MJ: Most of the current presidential candidates advocate a timetable for withdrawal. If we were to launch into one of these timetables and were unwavering in following it through, that would be the wrong move?
DM: Yes, a publicly announced timetable that is not linked to the stability of the Baghdad government, local government, or provincial or district governments is going to set the conditions for civil war.
MJ: But given the political climate, what are the odds that a political figure would reverse a withdrawal once it was already underway?
DM: The announcement of any public timetable that is not linked to stability within Baghdad or that does not include any provisos to the U.S. ambassador or the military ground commander will precipitate a lot of actions by resistance groups inside of Iraq, particularly the militias. What you saw in the Soviet-Afghan conflict was the moment that a timetable for withdrawal was announced, the mujahideen maneuvered onto lines of communication, the roads, and began to isolate population centers, effectively cutting them off from Kabul. As a result of that, the Soviets actually had to fight out of Afghanistan. As a matter of fact, they had to be airlifted out of the city of Kandahar. So it’s likely that we could see that as well with regards to certain militia groups.
MJ: How can we minimize the impact of Iraq’s militias during a withdrawal?
DM: Historically, most counterinsurgencies have been successful when the counterinsurgent has been able to isolate a particular country in order to deny insurgents external support from allies. Ironically, in the Soviet-Afghan case, the United States supported Pakistan and the mujahideen. It was the aid we gave to Pakistan and the mujahideen that allowed a safe haven for the mujahideen, allowed more fighters and more arms for the mujahideen, and a lot of other support that would come across the borders. Ironically, this is the same thing as the Shiite in Iran and the Shiite in southern Iraq. We are not going to be able to stop external support from Iran and Syria in the form of allowing the transit of foreign fighters into Iraq. We’re not going to be able to do that with military means alone. It’s going to require a diplomatic approach, which means that we do have to consider concessions or agreements with regards to Iran and Syria in order to isolate Iraq and deny the infiltration of arms and fighters and other type of support.
MJ: What could possibly motivate Iran to participate in diplomatic talks? If it is now in the position of the Americans in Afghanistan in the 1980s, handing out Stinger missiles and killing Soviets, why stop if in the end they are accruing regional power by indirectly attacking U.S. troops?
DM: That is a very good question. The irony is that in the Soviet Afghanistan conflict we did the same thing. Here’s where the mistake was with the Soviets: The people who were at the negotiation table during the Soviet negotiations in Geneva were only Islamabad and Kabul. The mujahideen, the legitimate resistance group in the eyes of a lot of people in the world, had no seat at the table. They were not a recognized belligerent. That was a decision made between the Soviets and the United States. The Soviets and the United States conducted their own private negotiations, back-channel stuff. They decided to agree on continuing to supply the mujahideen and Kabul, respectively, without ending it. As a result, the United States was able to outspend the Soviets. The mistake was that they did not, the two large powers, agree to cease external support to the resistance groups and the government inside that country. The lesson we can glean from that is that the balance of power that unraveled during the Afghan-Soviet conflict is the same sort of situation that we face in the Middle East, although it is much worse because of the Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq. The United States must, in my opinion, enter into some type of regional, international transparency. We have to begin developing some type of a compromise strategy to get some agreement within that region to bring stability. The United States is going to have to provide security for this, because we are actually the only ones that have the resources to do it.
MJ: So, to be clear, you’re saying there’s no chance of a military solution to this problem.
DM: Let’s be honest. We all know that we are going to withdraw at some point. We are going to withdraw to some degree at some point. And it’s going to have to be soon. There is no question about that. That’s why I think a publicly announced timetable is irrelevant in the current situation, because everybody knows we are going to withdraw at some point to some degree. So if we are going to do it, let’s do it right and set the stage for a long-term success, not only for the United States and our foreign policy, but also for the region. That’s going to require some concessions from us to Iran and Syria. What they are going to be, I don’t know, that’s for the political leaders to decide.
MJ: Given that we’re facing multiple enemies, fighting multiple insurgencies, who do we invite to the negotiating table?
DM: There’s no question that any extremist groups that the State Department or the Defense Department would identify would not be invited. One way around it is to look to influential tribal leaders. Another avenue is to get certain militia leaders to agree to something, and then maybe they can come to the table. The more collective participation that the United States can get diplomatically, the better. It would bide some time; it would allow us to withdraw to some level that was more acceptable. It is going to take a few years.
MJ: Well, what if countries like Iran and Syria don’t come to the table? The papers are reporting that unless current 15-month deployments are extended to 18 months, the surge is going to die a natural death. The troop numbers are going to come down no matter what. If Iraq’s neighbors refuse to engage in a meaningful dialogue, where does that leave us? Should we then withdraw anyway or wait until a new president is elected?
DM: Well, I think that when the new president comes, we will probably start pulling the plug on a lot of things. The recommendations from a military perspective alone, if a diplomatic approach to negotiations cannot set an exit strategy without an arbitrary timetable, if the negotiations on a diplomatic level do not work regionally, politically we are going to have to do something as the United States alone. The military recommendation I would make, number one, is that we are going to have to transition our forces from the advisory effort that we currently have right now to a partnership effort, which is going to require a large force presence that is partnered with Iraqi army and police forces. The second part is that we would actually have to then begin transitioning the Iraqi Army to key scenes of instability, not only between Al Qaeda and Iraq elements, but in between the militias. So, there are going to be some scenes of instability where we will need to put some Iraqi Army forces, and there are going to be some vacuums as we pull our military forces out of certain areas. I’m sure it will increase to some degree, but that is where they are going to have to go. In order to prevent full-out defections, we’re going to have to have a substantial force presence that will partner with the Iraqi Army units.
MJ: In your view, how long would we need to maintain that?
DM: I don’t know. That would be a situation where we would kind of push the goal post farther down the field for a later decision. But at least it is a change in strategy, and it is meeting some public demands and public opinion right now with regards to the war in Iraq. The second part that we have to worry about, as well, is the isolation of the area, the denial, the containment of Iraq to prevent any type of regional spillover. That is going to require a substantial force presence ground-wise, as well as in air capacity to provide surveillance so we could at least mitigate the infiltration of any other fighters or other types of weapons and arms.
MJ: That doesn’t sound like a withdrawal.
DM: It is a withdrawal with regard to the troop numbers that we have now.
MJ: We’re talking about thousands of troops remaining in Iraq?
DM: We’re still talking thousands of troops. It isn’t going to be 160,000. It can’t be. It won’t be. It would have to go down, and that requires a lot of analysis from the planners to look at the terrain and the threat. There are ways we can enhance or share the burden of the boots on the ground with regards to the technology we have. But in this type of fight the human dimension is huge, so it is hard to actually overcome that as well.