The War Over the War

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post National Editor
Tuesday, September 11, 2007; 1:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran on Tuesday, Sept. 11 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials over what course to follow in Iraq.

The transcript follows.

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Chandrasekaran is the author of " Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone," which was released on paperback on Sept. 4.


Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Good afternoon. It's great to be back for a War Over The War chat. I've stopped doing these a few months back because I got a new job -- as the paper's National Editor. But with Petraeus and Crocker on the Hill this week, and with my book, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone," now out in paperback, I thought it would be a good moment to return for a guest appearance.


Taji, Iraq: The most significant of many considerations lacking in the debate about Iraq seems to be perspective. Do you think that too much criticism has been levied against the Iraqi government in light of the ineffectiveness of our own government? And is criticism of the Iraqi Army excessive in light of the fact that they are being recruited, trained, and employed while at war and doing so at risks to their families that most Americans cannot comprehend?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: It's great to have a question from Iraq -- and a smart question at that.

When it comes to political compromise and military performance, we're asking the Iraqis to do something that's very difficult, if not impossible. Sure, it sounds straightforward to ask Iraq's political leaders to strike a grand political bargain -- to achieve a compromise on legislation allowing former Baathists back into the government, to share oil revenue equitably, to hold province-level elections and to give minority Sunnis a greater role in the government -- but we can't underestimate the level of mistrust and tension between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs in Iraq today. Asking political leaders in Iraq to reach a deal on all of those issues is like asking our Congress to reach a compromise on divisive issues like abortion and capital punishment, within a few months -- it's pretty much impossible.

The U.S. government may need to recognize that there are deep divisions between the principal groups in Iraqi society and then implement a policy that seeks to manage that division. The same applies to Iraq's security forces. The U.S. government abolished Iraq's army in 2003. It takes time to build new security forces. We can't expect it to happen overnight.

But it's not just an issue of training. Iraqis aren't going to fight for a central government that they don't trust. If there's isn't a grand political compromise, don't expect lots of Iraqi soldiers to step up and fight in a more meaningful way. And if a grand political deal isn't possible, perhaps we need to rethink elements of the security-training strategy.


Steamed in New York: Rajiv, I have just finished watching four hours of the Petraeus/Crocker hearings in the House, and I just can't believe how ill-prepared the members were for asking incisive questions. Instead of zeroing in on any number of problems they've surely had time to ponder -- the mission of the post-surge troops, how long we'll be in Iraq, how to deal with the refugees -- they pontificated, rambled and in general wasted everyone's time. How can people who are supposed to be immersed in national security and military issues contribute so little to the discussion?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: You know, we were just taking about the same thing here in the newsroom. This is a unique opportunity for members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle, to ask tough questions of Petraeus and Crocker. Thus far, most members seem to be more interested in hearing themselves speak than in asking probing, incisive questions. Perhaps they should subject both men to a panel of reporters who have served in Iraq...


Sonoma, Calif.: Hi Rajiv: I finally found and read "Imperial Life in the Emerald City." What a must-read for anyone interested in the underlying reasons for the current fiasco. My question is: Irrespective of the surge and splurge, at the end of the day won't Iraq, as a Shia-dominated state, be more closely aligned with Iran than the U.S.? Many if not most of their leaders were in exile in Iran during the Saddam era. Secondly, if as Petraeus claims there is a decrease in violence in Baghdad, isn't that more attributable to the de facto ethnic cleansing that already has eventuated in that city?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Thanks for the kind comment about the book.

Second point first: The impact of ethno-religious cleaning in Baghdad on violence is an important issue that has not been addressed in a meaningful way by the statistics presented by Petraeus or by members of Congress. As Sunnis stay in Sunni areas and Shiites remain in Shiite-dominated areas, the number of sectarian attacks may well decrease. While any drop in violence is a good thing, we also also should note that Baghdad fundamentally has changed in the past few years. What was once an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous city has been remade into a metropolis of religiously homogeneous enclaves. The New York Times had a fantastic set of maps on Sunday showing this transformation.

On your first point: It's not at all certain that a Shiite-dominated Iraq will be closer to Iran than the United States. Although Iran is Shiite-dominated, Iraqi Shiites (who are ethnically Arabs) see themselves as different from Iranian Shiites (who are predominantly Persians). The United States has an opportunity to build a strong relationship with Iraq's Shiites, but if we're seen as favoring one group over the other -- as some Iraqi Shiites interpret the recent security deals between the U.S. military and Sunni tribal sheiks in Anbar province -- we could push Iraq's Shiites closer to Iran.


Austin, Texas:"Perhaps they should subject both men to a panel of reporters who have served in Iraq..." Or soldiers who have served in Iraq...

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: True enough. Petraeus and Crocker do speak to many soldiers in Iraq. Both men get out and about a fair bit and they take pains to hear what men and women serving on the front lines are saying. It's worth noting that there's only one member of Congress who has served in Iraq.


California: If our purpose is to prevent civil war, how does arming the Sunnis help? Also, we basically are giving arms and money to the Shiites through their control of the government. It appears we are supporting the civil war. Without our arms and money, it would be more difficult for these groups to kill each other.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Good question. Arming the Sunni tribes may turn out to be a deal with the devil. What happens when they've pushed out al-Qaeda fighters? Might they turn on the Shiite leadership in Baghdad? Sunnis in Anbar feel like they've been disadvantaged by the central government. Some of them believe Sunnis should be running the country. They regard Iraq's Shiites as Iranian stooges.

We can't have it both ways: You can't have a strong, multi-sect, multi-ethnic central government in Baghdad with a nonsectarian military, and at the same time be arming Sunni tribal fighters in one province. There's a contradiction here. While there are problems with both approaches, the deals with the Sunnis recognize the divisions that exist in Iraqi society. I just hope those deals are being struck in a way that seeks to minimize risks in the future.


Arizona: The Reagan administration seemed to mistake anyone fighting the Soviet Union as friendly to the U.S. As a result, they aided and armed Afghan jihadis. These same jihadis became the Taliban. Is the Bush administration making the same mistake in its dealings with militias in Iraq? Along similar lines, given your hard-won experience, do you consider the central front in what is being called the War on Terror to be Iraq or Pakistan?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: See my answer above. I do think there are huge risks involved in the deals with the Sunni tribal militias. As far as the central front in the war on terror, don't ask me. Just look at the last National Intelligence Estimate.


Kansas City, Mo.: Rajiv: Can you sort out the issue of individuals being shot in the front of the head being counted differently than those being shot in the back in the head? I heard Gen Petraeus deny it yesterday, but I've continued to hear it repeated since then. Can you tell us what the truth is on this? Thanks.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Good question. This is what we printed on the front page of The Post last week:

"The intelligence community has its own problems with military calculations. Intelligence analysts computing aggregate levels of violence against civilians for the NIE puzzled over how the military designated attacks as combat, sectarian or criminal, according to one senior intelligence official in Washington. 'If a bullet went through the back of the head, it's sectarian,' the official said. 'If it went through the front, it's criminal.' "

This is what Petraeus said yesterday:

BARTLETT: The Washington Post is reported as saying that we -- that you will only count assassinations if the bullet entered the back of the head and not the front. Unless you interrupt me to say that I am wrong, I'm going to assume that both of these allegations are false.

PETRAEUS: They are false. That's correct.

BARTLETT: Thank you for confirming my suspicions.

PETRAEUS: We have a formula for ethno-sectarian violence. There's a very clear definition

Petraeus was asked about "assassinations," not sectarian killings. Was he speaking about how sectarian killings are counted? We're asking for clarification, and when we find out more we'll publish a follow-up.


Helena, Mont.: Rajiv, I respect your knowledge of the war and Iraq. I don't think we are going to be able to achieve anything in Iraq because we keep trying to impose our vision of what Iraq should be -- tolerant Sunnis, Shias and Kurds working together to build a country - and do not understand and have not even pondered what the Iraqi vision for Iraq is. Until we align our vision to theirs -- and theirs will have to be the one we align with -- we cannot achieve anything.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: There's another vision that needs to be aligned: The vision of Iraq's political leaders, who lived inside the fortified Green Zone, and the vision of ordinary Iraqis.

I don't think ordinary Iraqi Arabs want their country to be chopped up into Sunni and Shiite enclaves. (The Kurds are a different story -- most of them do want an independent Kurdish state.) But many Iraqi Arabs are moving into homogeneous enclaves, joining militias and otherwise acting like they want to separate because they're trying to protect themselves. They don't trust the Americans or the Iraqi security forces to help them, and they don't see political leaders -- who don't have to worry about their neighbors attacking them in the middle of the night -- taking meaningful steps to promote national unity.


Anonymous: The Senate is at least asking some decent questions -- unlike the House pontificators. It sounds to me as though the new new plan will be to segregate the various groups in order to establish short-term peace. My questions: What happens to the groups other than the "big three" (Sunni, Shiite and Kurd)? Also, I'm curious as to how Iraq's population diversity compares with other countries in that region?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: For Iraq's religious minorities -- Chaldean Christians, Assyrian Christians, Yazidis and Sabeans -- the future seems grim. Thousands of Christians have fled from Sunni areas toward Kurdish areas because they fear attacks from al-Qaeda-linked extremists. But Christian leaders say the Christians have encountered new types of discrimination and persecution in the Kurdish areas. The Yazidis, as you may recall, were the target of that horrific attack a few weeks ago that killed more than 500 people. Further divisions among the principal groups -- the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds -- could leave the minorities even more marginalized. If Iraq eventually becomes three or four federated mini-states, where would the minorities go? What rights would they have? Who would advocate for them? Right now, each of the groups has at least one representative in the national legislature, but it hasn't helped them much.


Boston, Mass.: Although we hear a lot of talk about "reconciliation" and some sort of rapprochement between the Shia and the Sunni in Iraq, the talk seems to make little sense in view of the following: The Shia are now in charge and have no need to "reconcile" with a minority Sunni group who oppressed them for years; reports suggest that more than 1.8 million Sunnis have fled Iraq and some 2 million are displaced; it appears that the Sunni intelligentsia, professionals, skilled workers and bureaucrats with any means voted with their feet and left. Given the above, what hope is there of even finding a viable Sunni society with infrastructure capable of making a viable deal with the Shia? How does one get this message across to the administration and Messrs. Crocker and Petraeus? Thanks.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: You make very good points. Let me add one more: Who are the Sunni leaders who could forge a deal with the Shiite-led government? The educated, professional Sunnis largely have left; Saddam went after Sunni rivals just as viciously as he went after the Shiites and Kurds. At least there were Shiites and Kurds who formed political organizations while in exile; there were no significant Sunni-dominated exile groups. The result is a lack of a Sunni political elite that can represent Sunni interests and engage in meaningful discussions aimed at bringing about reconciliation.


Washington: You wrote: "And they don't see political leaders, who don't have to worry about their neighbors attacking them in the middle of the night, taking meaningful steps to promote national unity." What, in your opinion, would those steps be?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Actually passing legislation to roll back de-Baathification and to share oil revenue and to reorganize the cabinet to include more Sunnis. I realize that step wouldn't solve Iraq's problems, but it's a start. Yet despite repeated promises to do so -- and a recent handshake agreement among top political leaders -- the parliament hasn't actually passed any significant legislation aimed at promoting national reconciliation.


Urbana, Ill.: Rajiv, really enjoyed your book. I've never seen any new "strategy" in the past six months in Iraq -- I've seen a change in tactics and maybe some operational concepts, but not a change in strategy. If there has been any change in the approach to using diplomatic or economic instruments of national power, they have not been reported on. If this is correct, we essentially are continuing to use a failed strategic approach while hoping for a different outcome. That sounds like a definition of insanity.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: The part of the surge that seems to be working is the tactical half -- the addition of 30,000 more troops has improved security in parts of Baghdad and in the areas around the capital. But the strategic side of things isn't working out as planned. The military surge was supposed to create the conditions for political leaders in the Green Zone to start making compromises and engaging in reconciliation; that obviously hasn't happened. It raises the question of whether what we're asking them to do is even feasible.


Rajiv Chandrasekaran: As usual, there were far more excellent questions than time to answer all of them. My apologies if I didn't get to your query. Thanks for participating in this chat and come back next week to engage with Tom Ricks or Karen DeYoung. If you want more information about my book or you want to send me a note, visit


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