By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 18, 2006
Former secretary of state Colin L. Powell said yesterday that the United States is losing what he described as a "civil war" in Iraq and that he is not persuaded that an increase in U.S. troops there would reverse the situation. Instead, he called for a new strategy that would relinquish responsibility for Iraqi security to the government in Baghdad sooner rather than later, with a U.S. drawdown to begin by the middle of next year.
Powell's comments broke his long public silence on the issue and placed him at odds with the administration. President Bush is considering options for a new military strategy -- among them a "surge" of 15,000 to 30,000 troops added to the current 140,000 in Iraq, to secure Baghdad and to accelerate the training of Iraqi forces, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others have proposed; or a redirection of the U.S. military away from the insurgency to focus mainly on hunting al-Qaeda terrorists, as the nation's top military leaders proposed last week in a meeting with the president.
But Bush has rejected the dire conclusions of the Iraq Study Group and its recommendations to set parameters for a phased withdrawal to begin next year, and he has insisted that the violence in Iraq is not a civil war.
"I agree with the assessment of Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton," Powell said, referring to the study group's leaders, former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D). The situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating, and we're not winning, we are losing. We haven't lost. And this is the time, now, to start to put in place the kinds of strategies that will turn this situation around."
Speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation," Powell seemed to draw as much from his 35-year Army career, including four years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as from his more recent and difficult tenure as Bush's chief diplomat.
The summer's surge of U.S. troops to try to stabilize Baghdad failed, he said, and any new attempt is unlikely to succeed. "If somebody proposes that additional troops be sent, if I was still chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my first question . . . is what mission is it these troops are supposed to accomplish? . . . Is it something that is really accomplishable? . . . Do we have enough troops to accomplish it?"
Although he said he agrees with Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, that there should be an increase in U.S. advisers to the Iraqi military, he said that "sooner or later, you have to begin the baton pass, passing it off to the Iraqis for their security and to begin the drawdown of U.S. forces. I think that's got to happen sometime before the middle of next year."
Before any decision to increase troops, he said, "I'd want to have a clear understanding of what it is they're going for, how long they're going for. And let's be clear about something else. . . . There really are no additional troops. All we would be doing is keeping some of the troops who were there, there longer and escalating or accelerating the arrival of other troops."
He added: "That's how you surge. And that surge cannot be sustained."
The "active Army is about broken," Powell said. Even beyond Iraq, the Army and Marines have to "grow in size, in my military judgment," he said, adding that Congress must provide significant additional funding to sustain them.
Powell also agreed with the study group's recommendation that the administration open talks with Syria and Iran as it seeks a solution to the Iraq problem. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have explicitly rejected talks until Syria ends its destabilizing influence in Lebanon and its support for anti-Israel militants, and until Iran suspends its nuclear enrichment program. The administration has charged both countries with aiding the Iraqi insurgency.
"Do they get marginal support from Iran and Syria? You bet they do," Powell said of the Iraq militants. "I have no illusions that either Syria or Iran want to help us in Iraq. I am also quite confident that what is happening in Iraq is self-generated for the most part. The money, the resources, the weapons are in Iraq already."
He added: "Are Iran and Syria regimes that I look down upon? I certainly do. But at the same time, I've looked down on many people over the years, in the course of my military and diplomatic career, and I still had to talk to them."
During Bush's first term, Powell was often on the losing side of disagreements with then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney and the president over a range of foreign policy issues, including the Arab-Israeli peace process, North Korea and Iraq. Although he ultimately supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- and played a major role in building public backing for war when he delivered a U.N. Security Council speech saying Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction -- he objected to the administration's detention and interrogation policies for "enemy combatants" and privately questioned the lack of planning and troop strength for postwar Iraq.
His low-key departure from office in January 2005, after Bush's request for his resignation, stood in contrast to Friday's ceremonial farewell to Rumsfeld, whose retirement festivities at the Pentagon were attended by Bush and Cheney. Asked yesterday whether he agreed with Cheney's assessment that Rumsfeld was "the finest defense secretary this nation has ever had," Powell demurred.
"Well, that's the vice president's judgment," he said. "I've known many fine secretaries of defense. . . . But it's history that will judge the performance of all of us in this troubling time . . . and it is a history that I think will ultimately be written as a result of what happens in Iraq."