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02.27.09

Obama's Wrong About Iraq

Today, the president announced he would pull all combat troops out of Iraq by August 2010. Thomas Ricks, author of an acclaimed new book about the war, thinks that’s a pipe dream and that Obama is suffering a case of Bush-like optimism.

President Obama told troops at Camp Lejeune today that the United States will remove all combat troops from Iraq by August 2010 and take away the remaining 35,000 to 50,000 troops by the end of 2011. Thomas Ricks, author of two of the most acclaimed books ever written about the war, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq and The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, talked to the Daily Beast's Benjamin Sarlin about why Obama's new strategy is a Bush-like recipe for failure.

"Basically the surge failed. It was intended to improve security and lead to a breathing space where political breakthroughs could occur. None occurred."

Q: President Obama announced a 19-month withdrawal today that would leave some residual force behind until withdrawing completely under the Status of Forces Agreement's deadline at the end of 2011. What do you think of this new approach?

That it's not going to happen. I think the speech had a lot of Bush-like optimism in it. I think he's walking in the failed footsteps of his predecessor when he says we'll get down to 30,000 troops quickly. Bush's original plan was to get to 30,000 by September 2003, so what you have is Obama saying he can do that too by August 2010. The other thing that struck me was that he was talking about transitioning to Iraqi Security Forces, what Bush called "standing down as they stand up." I found it overly optimistic and a bit worrisome because of that.

Q: You mentioned how Obama has similarities to Bush in terms of optimism, but one of the chief criticisms in your book was how Bush ignored advice from his generals when they didn't have good news about the current strategy. Is this more of a potential concern with Obama or are you hearing from the military community that Obama is shutting them out in similar same ways?

No, I think Obama is listening to the military. Partly because this plan for this post-occupation force, down to 35,000 or 50,000, that's something the military has been talking about for over a year. It's right at the end of my book, reported in Baghdad last summer. I wouldn't pay too much attention to the Status of Forces Agreement. That was a bit of window dressing drawn to give [Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki cover in Iraqi politics because it was necessary to take the divisive issue of the American forces off the table. It can always be renegotiated. I think we're there for many years to come—Gen. Odierno says he'd like to see 30,000 troops there in maybe 2015, well into Obama's second term, and I think that's probably a pretty accurate view.

Q: One issue you've raised is that a lot of the political issues the surge was intended to create space to resolve have yet to go away—things like the Kurdish issue and how to share now-dwindling oil revenue. The other day, Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack had a piece also warning about the political situation in Iraq still being unresolved. Can we withdraw while these lingering issues hang over us and leave the Iraqis to take care of them alone?

[The political problems] kind of keep us there. Basically the surge failed. It was intended to improve security and lead to a breathing space where political breakthroughs could occur. None occurred. None of the basic questions facing Iraq have been addressed: sharing oil revenue; the basic power relationship between Sunni, Shia, and Kurd; the shape of the country—strong central government or loose federation; what's the state of Iran or the status of Kirkuk? We are keeping the lid on things now, we are the glue holding things together. Nobody likes us there, but nobody wants us to leave immediately.

Q: Which of these outstanding issues are the most crucial to getting out of the way before leaving? Is there any that absolutely must be taken care of before we leave?

I suspect none of them will be, really. I think it's a generational problem. I think it was silly to think they could be solved in 18 months. The question is can you create some sort of security arrangement so someone besides American troops can keep the lid on and provide the glue to hold the country together. Right now there isn't a lot of evidence the Iraqi Security Forces can hold the situation together, there's just a lot of hope.

Q: Not a lot of attention has been paid to the millions of refugees and internally displaced persons that have been forced from their homes during the war, who Obama specifically mentioned in his speech today. You cited the completion of ethnic cleansing campaigns in Baghdad as one major cause of a decline in violence—one officer put it bluntly in The Gamble that militias "ran out of people to kill." With their original homes seemingly gone forever, what kind of efforts are going on to return displaced Iraqis and should we be concerned that this could be a potentially destabilizing force in coming months as they come back?

Well, it is sort of destabilizing, because when people come back they tend to find their old houses occupied by someone else. So do you kick out the new residents? Well, a lot of the new residents are Shia because Sunnis were disproportionately cleansed out, so will Shia-dominated forces eject Shi'ites who've taken up residence? Well, probably not, so the question is where can they go, is there housing available elsewhere? Well, no, so new housing has to be built, so that's expensive and time consuming. All these issues play out over the long term so it makes it silly to suggest the war is somehow going to end 19 months from now.

Q: You've written that confusion between the counterinsurgency mission in Iraq and the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan has created problems for the military. What are the most crucial distinctions between the two kinds of wars and what are the implications for the now escalating conflict in Afghanistan?

The crucial difference between the two wars is Pakistan. There is no problem as unsolvable as Pakistan in the Iraq war. The key to understanding the Afghan war is that it's a regional war, which I would prefer be referred to as the Afghan-Pakistan War. In the arena of the two countries, Pakistan is the more significant problem. Some have talked about Afghanistan becoming a new Vietnam, but I think the potential for a Vietnam situation is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

Q: One aspect of The Gamble I found interesting was how strongly it drew a connection between the political realities back on the domestic front and how they connected to and helped shape the situation on the ground in Iraq. How do you see the current political climate affecting Obama's war policy—is he constrained at all by the Democratic majority or is he likely to have more free rein than Bush thanks to his popularity?

I think Obama has inherited the worst foreign policy situation any new president has ever taken on. What's scary about that is that it isn't even his top-most problem—that's of course the economy. I think those two arenas are going to conflict with each other. You already have a substantial number of Americans who voted for Obama just to get us out of Iraq, and this is especially true of the Democratic majority in Congress. I think a lot of Americans, as they look around at an economy in free fall, losing their jobs, seeing layoffs in schools, they're going to say, "I don't want to spend another penny in Iraq, let’s get out." I think Obama's speech was trying to address that, but at the same time he won't walk away from Iraq and let it blow up into a huge mess. I think he's going to find a lot of pressure from his own party to get out fast.

Q: And this impulse could also complicate Afghanistan and Pakistan as well? Afghanistan has generally been regarded as the "good war" it seems.

I think you'll see people really wanting to get out fast and now, a real isolationist impulse of “I don't want to care what happens” and Obama trying to counter that.

Q: "How worried should we be about the situation in Pakistan right now as it relates to national security? Is there any way we can better fight this war by more closely coordinating our policy, or reevaluating it entirely, in Pakistan and Afghanistan?"

There are tactical things you can do. Right now American forces on the Afghan side can't communicate directly with Pakistani forces on the other side. There are a number of steps you can do to coordinate and do it better, but in the long run there's going to have be a Pakistani solution and there needs to be time for it to emerge. But in the meantime there's an existential threat to America in Pakistan that does not exist in Afghanistan—there's nothing that threatens the United States directly in Afghanistan. In Pakistan you have two worrisome ingredients, Islamic extremists and nuclear weapons, and if Pakistan collapses, those two things come together. That's Al Qaeda's dream and America’s nightmare.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.