Situation in Iraq and U.S. StrategyBrett McGurk, Director for Iraq, National Security Council
"Ask the White House" Online Forum
April 10, 2006
"Ask the White House" is an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Brett McGurk is Director for Iraq, National Security Council. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.
April 10, 2006
Bryan, from Doughty writes:
Each of the three tracks is vital to success, and gains or losses in one area, affect our efforts in other areas. Along the political track, we are working to forge a broadly supported national compact for democratic governance by (a) isolating the enemies of a democratic Iraq by expanding participation and demonstrating to all Iraqis that they have a stake in the process; (b) engaging those outside the process and inviting them in; and (c) building stable, pluralistic, and effective national institutions that can protect the rights of all Iraqis. Along the economic track, we are helping the Iraqis establish the foundations for a sound economy by (a) restoring Iraq's neglected infrastructure, (b) reforming Iraq's economy, which has been shaped by decades of war and dictatorship, and (c) building the capacity of Iraqi institutions to deliver essential services to all parts of the country. And along the security track, we are working to develop the Iraqis' capacity to secure their country while also carrying out a campaign to defeat the insurgency. To achieve this objective, we are helping the Iraqis (a) clear areas of insurgent control, (b) hold those areas with an adequate Coalition and Iraqi security force presence, and (c) build security forces and the capacity of local institutions to deliver services, advance the rule of law, and nurture civil society at the local level.
Any strategy of course - is just that, a strategy. Implementation requires resources, tactical decisions, and what we call "lines of action" to effect meaningful change on the ground. And here at the NSC we work everyday to ensure that our strategy is advancing along each of the three tracks and that our military and civilian teams in country have the resources they need to succeed. The final ten pages or so of the National Strategy addresses implementation measures and describes the 8 "strategic pillars" that outline how the United States is organized as a government to win the war. Each of these pillars has an inter-agency working group that meets every week and is linked up with teams in Iraq to constantly assess the situation there. When it is determined that tactical refinements are needed to advance the mission, we make them. Below the strategic pillars and lines of action discussed in this unclassified document, of course, are scores of classified missions that are ongoing constantly.
This is a long answer to your very short question. But I think it is essential for us to correct the false impression that the United States lacks a strategy for winning the war in Iraq. You can also read on the State Department's website the details on how the United States is working to ensure that our people in the field have all the resources they need to ensure success along all three strategic tracks (political, economic, security). http://www.state.gov/p/nea/rls/rpt/62397.htm
Daniel, from Harrisburg,Pennsylvania writes:
Let me discuss political progress, because that is the hot topic right now. The news at the moment is the Iraqi prime minister contest and when the new government will finally be formed. The President has been very clear: the Iraqi people have risked their lives to vote and it is now time for the elected leaders to form a government. Our Ambassador is working with the Iraqis every day to ensure this is done as soon as possible. The current situation is indeed difficult and tense. But does it show lack of progress?
Absolutely not. The amount of political progress over the past six to eight months has been remarkable and something most critics said could never happen. As late as last fall there was a real question whether Sunnis would participate in the political process at all. And even if they did participate there was a real question whether they would accept an electoral result that showed Sunnis to be a minority in Iraq (many Sunnis, thanks to the decades of dictatorship under Saddam, do not believe they are a minority). Throughout 2005, we worked intensely - diplomatically and militarily - to create the conditions that led to the huge Sunni turnout in the December elections. The next step was ensuring the Sunnis - and all other groups - accepted the result as free and fair.
That is what happened for about six weeks after the December 15 vote. The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) released preliminary results shortly before the New Year. Between then and early February, the IECI and an independent panel of Iraqi judges reviewed scores of challenges to those results. The Iraqis followed a process set forth in their electoral laws to ensure that all challenges were fully reviewed and adjudicated. This was tedious and took time - but it was also required under Iraqi law and helped ensure full confidence in the outcome. The United Nations also played an important role and helped facilitate visits to Iraq by an international advisory team to review the vote tallying and complaint adjudication process. This team, which included representatives from the Arab League and the EU, found the Iraqi electoral process to meet international standards - a finding that helped encourage all Iraqi leaders to come together and accept the results.
It was not until February 10th that an independent panel of Iraqi judges dismissed final challenges to the vote and formally certified the results. Only then did government formation talks begin in earnest. And since then, elected leaders from all constituencies have been negotiating to form a national unity government. Although they have yet to agree on the prime minister and other top posts, they will soon do so, and those leaders will have the consent of all major constituencies in Iraq. The Iraqis have already agreed to the basic elements of a unity government, including a 32-point unity government platform, which the President discussed in his remarks today. This is significant step forward.
In sum, while the day-to-day coverage on the prime minister contest may suggest a lack of progress on the political front, projecting outward and looking at the full picture shows remarkable and sustained progress over the course of many months.
Jason, from Oklahoma writes:
The best indicator of Iraqi attitudes is the increasing participation in the political process. If your professor doubts that Iraqis want to live in a free democracy, consider the three elections that took place last year. In January, roughly 8.5 million Iraqis voted for a transitional government. In October, roughly 9.8 million Iraqis voted in a nationwide constitutional referendum. And in December, nearly 12 million Iraqis -- almost 75% of eligible voters nationwide - voted for a new government under the new Iraqi constitution. That turnout is higher than any American presidential election since 1896. I don't know if your professor has ever been to Iraq or spoken with Iraqis who lived under Saddam Hussein. But this massive expression of a universal right after three decades of a horrific tyranny is truly remarkable and should end any debate on whether the Iraqis want to live in a free democracy. The overwhelming mass of the Iraqi people surely do - and they have defied terrorist threats and suicide bombers to let the world know it. It is now up to the international community -- and all free nations -- to stand with them as they take on the difficult work of building democratic institutions and the structures of effective governance.
Your professor says "Saddam is gone but the issues of the region remain." Surely he has a longer view of history than that. In the years after World War II many were asking whether we won a war to create an even more dangerous and unpredictable world. Communism was on a global march and within five years we were in another conflict on the Korean peninsula. What did we do? In the face of uncertainty, the United States set out on an extraordinarily bold course of action: we would pacify a militaristic Japan and Germany, make them our allies, and integrate them into a peaceful, international economic structure, while standing up to an expansionist Soviet Union and containing its rise until it ultimately collapsed from within. Simple . . . right? Surely not from the perspective of the late 1940s, when leaders like George Kennan and Harry Truman had to make the tough decisions that ultimately led to a lasting peace.
The President has explained his vision for winning the war on terror: expanding the opportunities of freedom and democracy to the greater Middle East which for generations has fueled the radicalism that spawned transitional terrorism and ultimately led to 9/11. Iraq is now the central front in this war, and its development as a decent, responsible, democracy, as difficult as it may seem at the present moment, will open new possibilities for hundreds of millions in this vital region. The stakes could not be higher - and we must not lose our will based on the grind of the daily news cycle or a snapshot of current events. You can read more about the President's global vision in the National Security Strategy. Print an extra copy for your professor.
Jeff, from Ely, Nevada writes:
As this report explains in great detail, we are holding the Iraqi forces to a very high standard. There has been some cheap talk in the commentary about the number of units at "Level 1" - a number that has fluctuated from three battalions to zero battalions in recent months. But it is rarely noted that a Level 1 unit is a unit that requires no Coalition assistance whatsoever (meaning no assistance with logistical capacity, ministerial support, intelligence structures, command and control, and so on). Some NATO units could not meet this standard when deployed with our forces in a war zone. The critical achievement mark for an Iraqi unit is "Level 2" - meaning the Iraqi unit is "in the lead" and capable of controlling their own areas of responsibility. When an Iraqi unit can control its own area of responsibility, Coalition units can focus elsewhere, such as hunting down high level terrorists like Zarqawi. There are now 62 Iraqi Army and Special Operations battalions "in the lead" and this number continues to grow. As the President noted in his speech today, Iraqi units have assumed primary responsibility for more than 30,000 square miles of Iraq - an increase of roughly 20,000 square miles since the beginning of the year.
Numbers of course do not tell the real story. Brave Iraqis are volunteering everyday to serve their country and many have given their lives in the battle for a free Iraq. They are our allies in this fight - serving along side our own troops - and we need to support them as they develop, mature, and begin to take the fight to the enemy on their own.
Roger, from Hagaman, New York writes:
Iraqi citizens are helping us decimate even the most deeply rooted terrorist networks. In the city of Mosul, Coalition Forces, in cooperation with Iraqi Security Forces and local residents helped eradicate one of Zarqawi's most notorious cells. This past week, the Central Criminal Court of Iraq (CCCI) sentenced Mohammed Khalaf Shakara (also known as Abu Talha) to death under the Iraqi penal code for planning, coordinating, and conducting deadly attacks against Iraqi citizens in Mosul and Baghdad. When he was captured nine months ago, Talha was known as the Emir of Mosul and had been Zarqawi's most trusted agent in all of Iraq. Now he is on death row in an Iraqi jail cell.
There are many other stories like this. A few weeks ago, the CCCI sentenced to life imprisonment five terrorists who were arrested holding the Australian hostage Doug Wood. That rescue operation was the result of tips by Iraqi civilians and solid intelligence work by Iraqi and Coalition Forces. The leader of this terrorist cell, Chiad Al Jeboury, was tied directly to Zarqawi. He will now spend the rest of his life in an Iraqi prison. In the past week, we confirmed the capture of one of Iraq's most wanted terrorist leaders - Abu Ayman. Ayman was the prime suspect in several high profile kidnappings and executions as well as some of the most lethal bombings on Iraqi citizens and security forces since the fall of Saddam. He will soon face justice in an Iraqi court.
These are not ordinary criminals - most are terrorists with global ambitious that directly threaten our own national security. To those who argue the Iraqi people support the terrorist we are fighting - look at what the terrorist are doing in Iraq. Do they move freely and control Iraqi towns with consent of the townspeople? No. They rule with ruthless intimidation: killing patients in local hospitals, beheading hostages, killing young children and then booby trapping the body to kill a father who comes to claim his slain son. One American officer involved in the recent operations around Tal Afar was quoted in the press, saying: "I know people at home will roll their eyes, but [we] cleansed this place of something genuinely evil." That is true. This is a heroic and noble fight. And the Iraqi people are on our side.
morris, from brooklyn writes:
Note that the Iraqi constitution permits a number of different arrangements for Iraqi federalism and it will be up to the new parliament to fill in the details. This will take time but the Iraqi constitution establishes procedures for resolving all of the questions related to federalism in Iraq. Some have said the constitution is inadequate because it fails to definitively decide the precise division of power between the central government in Baghdad, provincial governments, and regional governments (provinces bound together as semi-autonomous units). If you are familiar with American federalism, however, you will know that we are still debating the precise division of authority between the states and the federal government more than two centuries after our constitution was ratified. The Supreme Court every few years seems to issue an important decision in this area - the scope of Congressional power under the Commerce Clause, for example. We have a 220-year head start on the Iraqis - so some patience is warranted as the Iraqis work to define their own institutional arrangements.
Marja, from Finland writes:
How do you see the progress in Iraq, mainly considering the hopes of getting an active independent Iraqi regime at work there? I know there has been discussing of this already but I would still like to ask this: It seems that it might be almost impossible for the different (Iraqi) tribes to work together in peace and for peace. theyve been the opposites for so long and it feels like there is way too much "bad blood" between them. So Id like to know whats your opinion; are they able to put the differences and the violent past behind them and work together creatively to make things better for the whole nation?
Thank you Marja
To your question, and whether the Iraqis can come together and heal their divisions: again, the answer requires projecting outward from day-to-day events and looking at Iraq in historical perspective. One of my favorite books on American History is a biography of our great Chief Justice John Marshall. Marshall fought in the revolutionary war and suffered badly. But after winning the war, he found a country hopelessly and violently divided. He then dedicated his life to establish institutions that would help forge a sense of nationhood. Marshall understood that any democracy at its core required well-designed institutions led by individuals with consent of the governed. And overtime, such institutions, led by such individuals, could bridge divisions and move even the most fractious society forward.
There is no direct analogy to the American and Iraqi experience, obviously. But what you are seeing in Iraq at this very moment are elected leaders from all areas of the country debating and horse trading through an institutional framework set forth in Iraq's national constitution. This is something that is completely new and cannot be taken for granted. No political party or electoral list enjoys an absolutely majority in the new 275-member parliament and the constitution requires a 2/3 consensus (186 votes) for key appointments. This ensures that all groups have a say in who governs them - but it also requires that all sides make compromises to make the system work. Sunnis and Kurds need to recognize that the Shi'a won the most seats in the new parliament, and the Shi'a need to recognize that they cannot govern effectively without support from all major lists. Discussions are continuous and ongoing and bargains are being struck. The Iraqis will meet this challenge, as they have met every challenge put before them since the fall of Saddam.
The important point is to see Iraq in its full context: see where it has been and where it is going; understand why some are so violently opposed to a free Iraq; and support the Iraqi people in this difficult but noble undertaking. Your question was asked about Germany, Japan, India, South Africa, and many other fledgling democracies at various points in modern history. As these countries have shown, the imperative of human dignity can transcend all cultures and all nations. The Iraqi people want and deserve to live in freedom. They want and deserve to replace the alienation of Saddam's tyranny with the hope and optimism that stems from democracy and the chance to shape one's own future. The framework is in place for them to do so - but we need to be patient.
Aaron, from Portland, OR writes:
We are also of course working to overcome the sectarian divisions that the insurgency is seeking to foment. The formation of a national unity government will be a major step in overcoming these divisions. But there will be work to do even after the new government is formed. As the President discussed in his recent speeches, Saddam ruled Iraq for almost three decades by dividing Iraqis and instilling fear and distrust between all communities - the insurgency is now playing on these fears and trying to spark widespread violence. They have failed thus far thanks to the steady leadership of Iraqi politicians and religions figures. We will be working over the coming year to help the Iraqis stand up effective government institutions that will allow alliances to emerge over time based on issues rather than sect or identify. This cannot happen overnight, however.
Christine, from Minnesota writes:
But Iraqis voted in the millions for a new government and we expect those bestowed with the people's trust to work day and night until a government is sworn in. This is what Iraq's leaders are doing now. The United Iraqi Coalition (the main Shi'a list) met throughout the day today to discuss the Prime Minister issue. Our position is very clear: we want a prime minister who can meet the constitutional requirements and form a national unity government. But it is up to the Iraqis to decide who that individual will be. The leader to emerge from this process will have the consent of all major lists, which is precisely what the constitution was designed to ensure. Ambassador Khalilzad has said he is hopeful that the prime minister issue will be resolved in the coming days.
On how long American troops will stay in Iraq: as the President has said repeatedly and consistently -- as long as our commanders in the field say they are needed. Our strategy in Iraq is "conditions based" and that means it is based on the conditions in Iraq. Period.
To implement a conditions-based strategy, we are constantly adjusting our posture and approaches as conditions evolve and Iraqi capabilities grow. You can get a sense of how these assessments are made and what we hope to achieve in the coming year with respect to our military posture in the National Victory Strategy document (at page 12), the State Department's recent 1227 Report (19-20), and the Defense Department's 9010 Report (at pages 55-56).
Robert, from Norfolk, VA writes:
The enemy in Iraq is a combination of rejectionists, Saddamists, and terrorists affiliated with or inspired by Al Qaida. Rejectionists are the largest group. They are largely Sunni Arabs who have not embraced the shift from Saddam's Iraq to a democratically governed state. From our experience in Iraq, however, we judge that many in this group will support a democratic Iraq provided that the federal government protects the legitimate interests of all communities. Saddamists harbor dreams of reestablishing a Ba'athist dictatorship and play a leading role in fomenting the sectarian strife you see on the evening news. This group will never support a democratic Iraq but we assess that they can be marginalized and ultimately defeated by the Iraqi Security Forces. Terrorists affiliated with or inspired by Al Qaida are the smallest enemy group but they are the most lethal and pose the most immediate threat to a peaceful and secure Iraq. They are responsible for the most dramatic atrocities which kill the most people and they openly espouse the extreme goals of Osama Bin Laden. This group cannot be won over and must be defeated - killed or captured - through sustained counterterrorism operations.
Our three-track strategy (political, economic, security) is designed to defeat each enemy element and we are seeing real results - in particular with respect to isolation of the terrorist element from the larger pool of rejectionists. The intelligence tips mentioned earlier are one indication of this success, as is the massive Sunni Arab turnout in the most recent election. Regional and Arab League support for Sunni participation in the political process is also helping to drive a wedge between Sunnis who desire political participation and those who reject the political process. Sunni Arabs in overwhelming numbers are rejecting the terrorist vision for Iraq.
David, from Clearwater, Florida writes:
Brian, from Mont writes:
On constitutional review, what we hope to see over the next year is work toward a real national compact, as the Iraqis begin to tackle the issues mentioned above. This can be done through a constitutional review process or it can be done through the legislative process, because the constitution requires roughly 50 pieces of legislation to fully implement its many provisions. The Iraqis will need to make this decision and determine which process (or a combination of the two) is best of them. It is entirely up to them. The United Nations has a team of experts on the ground to assist with some of these issues, and it will be an important topic to watch as the year unfolds.
Jonathan, from Concord, NH writes:
I would recommend starting at the State Department's Iraq page. This should provide some contacts for you to pursue and I am sure we can help match your talents to current needs. The Iraqi Reconstruction and Management Office (IRMO) is also looking for motivated private citizens to join the mission. You can find information here: http://www.careers.state.gov/opportunities/iraq/
If you do choose to serve, you will be making a difference in one of the most important issues of our time - and you'll work with remarkable people. I wish you all the best.
For the many others who have written to ask how they can support our troops overseas, the best resource is http://www.americasupportsyou.mil/americasupportsyou/index.aspx. There is a link to the left that directs you to the thousands of ways to show your support for our people in the field.
Marcus, from Princeton, New Jersey writes:
Today, approximately 25% of Iraq's new parliament is made of women members -- fulfilling a constitutional mandate, and making the proportion of women in Iraq's new parliament among the largest in the world. There are real challenges ahead, such as the elimination of private militias that purport to enforce religious law through illegal courts. Our Provincial Reconstruction Team initiatives and institutional capacity building programs are dedicated to overcoming these challenges and ensuring that the Iraqi government lives up to its own obligations under international law and its national constitution.