The War Over the War

Post Reporters Examine U.S.-Iraq Policy Debates

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, March 6, 2007; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran on Tuesday, March 6 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials over what course to follow in Iraq and beyond.

The transcript follows.

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Chandrasekaran, the author of "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone", is an associate editor of The Washington Post. He is spending this year on a special assignment focused on chronicling U.S. government efforts to stabilize Iraq.

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Hello everyone -- sorry I'm starting a few minutes late here. It's a pleasure to join all of you for The Post's weekly Iraq policy chat.

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Fairfax Station, Va.: Rajiv -- could you explain your current assignment to Chronicle the U.S. government's Iraq stabilization efforts? Is it to identify and measure individual tactics' success? From whose perspective -- Congress, Iraqis, Military, Administration, polls of Americans? Thanks and good luck.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Good question, and it's one I'm still figuring out! Seriously though, I intend to examine U.S. policy toward Iraq across various institutions of government. I'm not going to be tied down to any particular bureaucracy -- I'm talking to people at the State Department, in the White House, in the Pentagon, on the Hill and perhaps most importantly in Iraq. Some of what I'll be doing is looking at how various initiatives are working, but I'll also be looking for important stories that have gone untold. My goal is to illuminate aspects of our engagement in Iraq that have not been written aboutyet.

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Cortez, Colo.: What do you think of the way so many politicians are now saying "Well, we gave the Iraqis freedom and they aren't willing to fight for it. Nothing more for us to do here." I get so angry at this and wonder why the President just won't come out and say "look we burned down these peoples' house and we have to fix it." I did not believe invading Iraq was right but we cannot just abandon it.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I think we're going to hear more of that argument -- we've expended blood and treasure in Iraq, now it's up to you Iraqis to take responsibility for your country. If for instance the president's surge doesn't yield the improvements he hopes it will, and if the United States begins to disengage from Iraq without improving security, I think the rhetoric from the administration could shift to blaming the Iraqis. Of course, Democrats and other critics contend this is simply a blame-the-victim strategy -- it neglects, as you point out, the U.S. role in what has happened in Iraq. But either way, I think it's highly unlikely that the president ever would acknowledge that we've burned down the Iraqis' house.

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Breaking news: Libby verdict is in. You may want to check out the story on our homepage and then return to the chat.

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Cambridge, Mass.: The frequently repeated administration assertion "failure is not an option in Iraq" strikes me as linguistically nonsense and an example of magical thinking. It has no connection to reality. One might as will assert that a dropped spoon will fly up in the air because one doesn't believe in gravity. Do you have an comment?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: It's a convenient sound bite to justify an increase in troops, but it does speak to how the White House views the situation in Iraq: Bush and his advisers don't want his legacy to be defined by an ignominious departure from Iraq, and they hope that by making another try they'll be able to turn the situation around. If the White House forces Democrats to be the ones to pull out the troops Bush can attempt to shift the blame to them -- saying, for instance, that if we had only tried a little harder, if we had only stayed a little longer, we could have turned things around.

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Washington: Do you know of any current or recent efforts by the Bush administration to screen civilian hires for Iraq in terms of their political loyalty (who they voted for, their views on abortion, etc.)?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I'm not aware of that happening now.

As many of you might recall, officials in the Pentagon did ask some of the people who sought employment with the Coalition Provisional Authority questions designed to elicit their political views, as I explained in "Imperial Life in the Emerald City." Some said they were asked for their views on Roe v. Wade, and whether they voted for George W. Bush in the 2000 election. Those revelations have prompted Rep. Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, to demand that the Pentagon hand over information about the CPA's hiring practices.

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San Francisco: Hello, Rajiv, thanks for joining us to chat today. Embedding our forces in improvised Baghdad police stations seems like not just a completely new -- and dangerous -- strategy, but one for which counterinsurgency math says we have woefully underforced. Is there any indication that Green Zone security might suffer as a result of this new positioning?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I think you're very correct that embedding U.S. forces in police stations in Baghdad poses some very significant risks. Many of the police stations don't have the same sorts of fortifications (set back from roads, etc.) that the military's forward operating bases do. An example of the danger was seen in a recent attack on an embedded military outpost near Taji that involved dozens of insurgent attackers and a suicide bomber. At least two Americans were killed and several -- most, by some accounts -- of the others in the outpost were wounded, some seriously.

No indication however that the GZ's security will suffer because of the new strategy. Most of the troops moving into the police stations will come from forward operating bases that were located outside the GZ, or they will be new forces.

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Cambridge, MA: On Feb 17 Doonesbury had a cartoon:

"To the Surge!" Any questions?

Sir, if it fails who lost Iraq?

"We're still working on that. Probably the media."

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Garry Trudeau's strips about Iraq have been brilliant. I'm amazing at his ability to capture battlefield lingo and the angst felt by the troops who are serving there.

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Washington: Thanks for taking my question, and first I must say your book explains a lot about why the civilian side of the reconstruction in Iraq failed. A year from now, what do you think the U.S. presence in Iraq will look like?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I've given up looking into my crystal ball -- but that said I think that surge or no surge, Democratic redeployment or not, there still will be tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. Perhaps they will be more focused on training Iraqis, perhaps not. Perhaps many of them will be relocated to outposts near Iraq's borders and in the northern Kurdish region, perhaps not. And of course, there still will be thousands of American civilians in Iraq, many of them in the Green Zone -- we're in the process of building a $500 million embassy there.

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Florissant, Mo.: Probably too early to tell, but have the journalists currently in Iraq noted any improvement in safety where they are working thanks to the surge? Are they able to move out from the green zone or is that still the only reasonably secure acreage in the city? I noticed Brian Williams went over there -- the first big name to go over there since the unfortunate Bob Woodruff. Is that a ratings ploy, or is he assured of safe passage?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: American journalists in Iraq tell me that their ability to move around Baghdad has improved slightly in recent weeks as additional U.S. and Iraqi forces have taken to the streets, but they note that they still face very grave threats.

The Sunni insurgents who have been responsible for most of the attacks on journalists haven't backed down from their terror campaign. They're still setting off car bombs -- they hit Baghdad's book market yesterday -- and there's no indication that they've lost their appetite to kill or kidnap Western journalists. It does seem that Shiite militia activity has declined somewhat in the past few weeks, but the Shiite militias have not targeted Western journalists in the same way the Sunnis have.

I don't know about NBC's calculations in sending Williams over, but I don't regard his visit as indicating a major change in the security situation for journalists or other civilians who live and work in Iraq.

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Silver Spring, Md.: As far as I can tell, the deeper we get into the Iraq quagmire, the clearer it becomes that there really isn't any way out. Only now do we begin to understand that the schisms in the country, and the pressures involved in neighboring countries -- for example, it is unacceptable to the Saudis that the Sunni in Iraq fall victim to genocide, and it is unacceptable to Iran that the Sunni retain power in Iraq. Have you seen any legitimate efforts to address any of the real problems, or is the posturing as bad over there as it is here?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Not really. Iraq's neighbors are as good as -- if not better than - the United States government is at posturing. That said, the Saudis have opened a dialogue with Iraq with the tacit support of the U.S. government. Iran's president did visit Saudi Arabia during the weekend, which is a positive step toward starting Sunni-Shiite discussions among Iraq's neighbors. The U.S. government also has said it will attend a conference of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, that will be held in Baghdad this spring. While the discussions between the U.S. government and those two governments will be important, the conversations among all the neighbors, Sunni and Shiite, also could be a helpful step forward.

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Herndon, Va.: What will tell us better whether "the Surge" is working: improved U.S. counterinsurgency tactics or Iraqi government progress?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Several metrics to look at:

1. The overall level of violence in Baghdad. Number of suicide bombings, extrajudicial killings. Daily death toll from violent attacks.

2. Refugee flow. Are Iraqis still fleeing the capital? Do any of those who have left feel that Baghdad is safe enough to return?

3. Economic activity. Are commercial districts that have been shuttered coming back to life?

4. Are institutions of local governance able to operate? Are neighborhood councils and district councils able to meet peacefully?

5. Will the Iraqi government make progress on national reconciliation? Will it revise the deBaathification law? Will it modify the constitution to address some of the concerns of the Sunni community?

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New York: I just want to thank you for your fine work. I recall reading one of your articles a few years ago in which you wrote about the Heritage Foundation as a job recruitment center for the CPA. I had wondered who those people were at Bush's Thanksgiving visit. Whatever happened to Michael Ledeen's daughter -- is she still there? It's no wonder things turned out so badly when we sent these inexperienced partisans to run the post-"shock and awe" redevelopment projects.

washingtonpost.com: In Iraq, the Job Opportunity of a Lifetime (Post, May 23, 2004)

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: To the best of my knowledge Michael Ledeen's daughter, Simone, no longer is working in Iraq.

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Scottsdale, Ariz.: In his opinion column March 3, Zalmay Khalilzad stated the following point in Iraq's pending oil law: it "provides the legal framework to enable international investment in Iraq's oil and gas sectors, a break from the statist and overcentralized practices of the past." I read that as opening the way for BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and other big oil companies. My reaction: I'm not at all surprised. My question: When this becomes the new law ... then can we bring our troops home?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Don't expect all of the troops to come home once the oil legislation becomes law. By the way, the legislation still has to be approved by Iraq's National Assembly, which could take several weeks or longer.

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Bowie, Md.: Thanks for taking my question. Yesterday 38 Iraqis were killed in the bookstore district bombing (and presumably many more wounded). Today in Hillah, there may be more than 90 killed. Given its total population, I was wondering how long Baghdad can absorb this rate of death and injury before something critical snaps and all the factions involved commit to out-in-the-open war -- even with the presence of the U.S. soldiers?

washingtonpost.com: Bombers Kill Dozens Heading to City of Karbala (Post, March 6)

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: That's the big question: Which major bombing will push Iraqis into a fuller-blown civil war? It's worth noting, however, that the one attack that seems to have sparked a new level of Sunni-Shiite fighting was the bombing of the shrine in Samarra -- nobody was killed in that attack, so market bombings, as horrific and bloody as they may be, may not be the trigger that sparks a new level of violence. If there is an attack that does that, I think it will be something that is very different from the usual type of attack, perhaps one directed at a prominent political or religious leader or at a holy place.

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Seattle: Hello Mr Chandrasekaran. I want to start by saying how much I enjoyed reading "Imperial Life" -- it was quite an eye-opener.

From all you've seen and heard in Iraq, do you believe there is an internal solution to the security problems there? Or are we just watching the Southwest Asian version of Yugoslavia, the logical conclusion of a forced juxtaposition of ethnic groups who have hated each other for a long time but were forced to live together by a brutal dictatorship? Is there any way to avert ethnic cleansing short of a neo-colonial solution that no one wants?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Thanks.

I think the question of whether the center can hold -- of whether a strong central government comprised of Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds can work -- is the central question today. Given the way the situation has unfolded, I remain doubtful that the multi-ethnic, multi-religious Iraq that we want is viable, but at the same time, many Iraqis -- maybe even a majority of them -- don't like the idea of having their country chopped up. Yes, there is historical tension between those groups, but Iraq also was a model of religious and ethnic tolerance -- there were more Sunni-Shiite mixed marriages in Iraq than in any other Muslim country. I don't think sectarian war and separation was inevitable, but it was made far more likely by the way the United States dealt with post-Saddam Iraq. All that said, I think the next year will be crucial in determining whether center holds.

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Thanks for joining us today on what has turned out to be a very busy news day. It was a pleasure to chat with you -- check back next Tuesday at noon, when I think Karen DeYoung will be taking your Iraq questions.

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