The War Over the War

Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, September 25, 2007; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post associate editorKaren DeYoung on Tuesday, Sept. 25 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials over what course to follow in Iraq.

A transcript follows.

More coverage of The War Over the War| War Over the War discussion transcripts

DeYoung, author of " Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell," is senior diplomatic correspondent and an associate editor of The Washington Post.


Karen DeYoung: Good morning/afternoon on this bright and beautiful day in Washington. Some good questions already posted...


Minneapolis: Thanks for an excellent story on an important topic -- the effect that different ways of categorizing killings in Iraq and compiling statistics have on the picture of ground-truth in Iraq that different actors present. The most striking detail in your previous story on the subject was that a killing by a bullet to the back of the head was categorized differently from one by a bullet to the front of the head. Are you walking back from that detail in today's story when you say:

"Signs of torture or a single shot to the head, corpses left in a 'known body dump' -- as the body of the Sunni man found on Sept. 3 was -- spell sectarian violence, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dan Macomber, the team leader."

Or do some other group of compilers/analysts, who don't use the military manual you refer to, only count some shots to the head as sectarian violence, and not others?

Karen DeYoung: This reference, in a story published in early September, seems to have taken on legs, although the military didn't take issue with until it appeared elsewhere in print in a somewhat misstated form. What I've tried to do in several stories on the subject of war statistics is point out how truly difficult it is to count these various topics and how the military has few other ways of gauging how it is doing. The "bullet in the back of the head" was a quote from a senior intelligence official who was trying to illustrate some of the confusion they had in trying to assess levels of violence as last summer's National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq was being written. That's what he said, and I have no reason to doubt him.


Washington: Karen, I know there has been a lot of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad neighborhoods in the last couple of years. I've read various articles that anecdotally point to less violence in ethnically homogenous neighborhoods, but I haven't read anything that has systematically examined neighborhood violence and ethnic homogeneity. Has there been any analysis on that?

To follow up, if ethnic homogeneity is the way to go, do you think Americans should try to speed up the process, with force if necessary (even knowing that it would certainly engender a slew of bad press)?

Karen DeYoung: The extent and effect of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad was discussed at the Petraeus/Crocker hearings early this month. I'm unaware of any particular study on how that relates to levels of sectarian violence, although it is clear that there has been less of it in neighborhoods dominated by one or the other groups.


Bethesda, Md.: What is your personal assessment of Maliki's statements on Civil War (avoided), Iran (it is behaving now)? Regardless of veracity, it seems to me Maliki is trying to lay the groundwork for a request for the U.S. to leave Iraq. Again, your thoughts?

Karen DeYoung: As Maliki himself also said, the Iraqi government -- despite the domestic political imperative to demonstrate sovereignty -- is not in a great hurry for U.S. forces to leave.


For the love of God, please...: no MoveOn questions.

In my opinion, the fact that this debate has dragged on two weeks shows that politicians have lost all sense of what their and the U.S. priorities should be.

Karen DeYoung: Posting a comment.


Washington: I might be too philosophical or simplistic, but I see this issue plainly: it was a dumb move to invade and now we're stuck there for some duration and will continue to take casualties as such. Withdrawing would be nice but would unleash greater genocide and/or regional warfare at the least. There is no happy ending, and no victory, rather all we can hope for is avoiding greater tragedy, which will require costs in U.S. blood and money. Is there any D.C. policy community that adheres to this "we're screwed" idea? I get sickened by all this Pollyanna talk of victory and such.

Karen DeYoung: Not an isolated view on both sides of the political divide, although not anyone's articulated policy in terms of cause and effect.


Washington: Maliki says civil war has been prevented. Iran's president says they don't have homosexuals in Iran.

Are there any leaders in the Middle East who have a grasp on reality?

Karen DeYoung: I agree those comments were surprising. But it must also be said that there are those in the Middle East who don't think the U.S. has a very tight hold on reality in their countries.


Anonymous: I find it exasperating how little the U.S. and its allies, as they try to affect the politics of Iraq and neighbors, look at their track record in this regard. Britain, ruling Iraq after the Turks were kicked out, drew boundaries that lumped the currently warring factions together. The U.S. installed the Shah of Iran in power in an attempt to block forces hostile to the U.S., and the opposition to his dictatorial rule eventually helped fuel the movement leading to the Islamic revolution and, eventually, the current nut case ruling the country. We also eagerly backed Saddam Hussein when he looked like a counterweight to those Islamic rulers in Iran. Our record is not good, as people in the region, but few Americans, seem to know.

Karen DeYoung: Why anonymous? It's a good, often stated point. A cliche -- doomed to repeat history, and all that -- but like most cliches, based in truth.


Seattle: I can understand the cold, unemotional logic behind the "baiting" technique, but from everything I've heard, the insurgents would just get children or civilians to get the weapons for them. Did the military ignore the "human element" aspect or was this plan still just a plan that they were floating?

Karen DeYoung: I'd refer this question to my Washington Post colleague Josh White, who wrote that fine story the other day.


Rolla, Mo.: Between the President's statements and Sen. Clinton's unwillingness to commit to a complete withdrawal from Iraq, it is finally sinking in that we are there for the long haul, and it is really depressing. Do you read it otherwise?

Karen DeYoung: Barring unforeseen events, I think that U.S. troops, in some capacity and number, will be in Iraq for some time.


Princeton, N.J.: Thank you for your wonderful article today on Iraq statistics. Richard Cohen had a column today advocating the partition of Iraq. Here is a letter I sent him.

"1. 200,000 people died in Bosnia before it was partitioned. This is equivalent to 3,000,000 in Iraq. The situation is more complex in Iraq. Probably more would die. Is this okay with you, Mr. Cohen?

"2. Look at the North. You say the Kurds have their own state, but they are not content with what they have. They want Kirkuk. The 1,000,000 Sunnis in Mosul will fight Kurdish expansionism. Where do you put the Turkmen or the Yazidi?

"3. Look at the South. There are only Shia there. Is there peace? No, there is chaos in the cities of Basra and Nasiriyah. Two governors (out of four) were assassinated last month. Why would the various regions be peaceful after the breakup?

"What you and Biden propose will not avoid the coming catastrophe for which all Americans share responsibility."

What do you think about partition?

Karen DeYoung: I'll leave it to Dick Cohen to answer your questions about his column. In general, however, "partition" is a word thrown around fairly loosely these days and, depending on the speaker, can mean anything from dividing Iraq into three separate countries (something only the Iraqis could do), federalism (a single country with well-defined regions and defined separation of powers between the central and regional governments), decentralization and lots of other terms. The Iraqi constitution, and the central government's own words, are pretty clear on what Iraq should be. But Iraqis haven't yet agreed among themselves on how to implement.


Washington: I eagerly look for your byline these days, because I see you "calling it as you see it" more than many of your colleagues, who are more likely to rely on the he-said-she-said construction. Your thoughts?

Karen DeYoung: That's a kind of troubling comment. I hope that I'm reflecting a range of important views on important subjects.


Chicago: The conventional wisdom seems to be that even if/when we withdraw from Iraq, we will need a force of 40,000-60,000 just to protect the green zone and our massive U.S. embassy. Since Blackwater already has the contract to protect the State Dept., why can't we just outsource it to them, and get the heck out?

Karen DeYoung: Although the 40,000-60,000 figure has come up, I haven't seen anybody talk about it as necessary to protect the Green Zone and the Embassy. Rather, it has been described as a residual force that will have functions other than the current one of securing Iraqi cities and neighborhoods -- containing al-Qaeda, protecting borders and training Iraqi Security Forces.


Chicago: If you were in charge the U.S.'s Iraq policy what would you do? And what is the best outcome you think is possible?

Karen DeYoung: One of the many great things about being a reporter (as opposed to an editorial writer or columnist) is that you don't have to opine or advocate. The classic corny response -- which I think has the virtue of being true -- is that if you do your job right you do what Thomas Jefferson advocated: inform the electorate so that they have access to a range of views that help them make wise decisions.


Anonymous: Does Iran have formal troops (for example, their equivalent of our Special Forces) fighting in Iraq? Is there any sense of how Iranians feel about being involved in Iraq or becoming involved in Iraq?

Just as an aside, there are areas of Iran where Ahmadinejad is referred to as 'our Bush' -- as in 'our Bush' and 'their Bush.'

Karen DeYoung: The administration and U.S. military have said that Iran's  Quds Force is providing weaponry (including enhanced projectile roadside bombs), training and direction to certain militia forces in Iraq. They have provided some evidence of this. Don't know how Iranians feel about it, although it's clear that there are many different policy opinions there about a lot of things.


Washington: Hi. Why don't we just quit playing with Iraq? We need to do the job right or not at all. Doing it right means truly mobilizing this country, building up the army and just take over Iraq. Shut down all the militias, by force if necessary, and run the country while training up a government. Why some Democrat doesn't advocate this I don't know, but what we are doing now just means indefinite bleeding of wealth and blood.

Karen DeYoung: Posting a comment.


Takoma Park, Md.: Thanks for taking questions, Karen, and thanks for today's article.

My basic question is, who makes up these rules? Is it really this simple: a single shot to the head means "sectarian violence," two or more shots mean it isn't sectarian violence? I'm having flashbacks to Vietnam and the body counts (of course, the purpose of those counts was large numbers, whereas the purpose of the counts in Iraq is small numbers).

Karen DeYoung: There are a lot of differences between Vietnam and Iraq wars. But one of the things that is the same is the difficulty of quantifying success. There is little question that the "body count" as a valid measure got out of hand in Vietnam. The U.S. military is aware of that and is trying to ensure that its numbers are as good as they can be. But there are inherent faults in statistical analyses of such a confusing situation.


Austin, Texas: Karen, thanks for doing this Q&A. I think the War over the War Q&As are the best.

My question is this. On the one hand, we have all these rumors out of Washington that the Bush administration is thinking of attacking Iran. On the other hand, we are also assured that the U.S. can't get rid of its private security force, Blackwater, because it doesn't have one thousand soldiers to replace them. Even though Blackwater has committed acts that would get it shut up for life in the U.S. How can we be so strong we are thinking of warring on Iran, and so weak we can't even protect our own people in Iraq? Isn't something wrong with this picture?

Karen DeYoung: There are some within the administration -- and outside it -- who believe that early U.S. military action against Iran is both justified and imperative. But the dominant view for the moment is that it's a bad idea for a whole lot of reasons, among them: no telling where it would lead, existing strain on U.S. military, opposition from U.S. allies.


Washington (different commenter): For the earlier Washington poster:

Why would any Democrat advocate such a dumb policy? The Democrats are for getting out of Iraq, not "finishing the fight" that President Bush started. The end to this situation will be political, not military. I don't think there's a single Democratic candidate (and not many Republicans either) who would endorse vastly increasing our commitment there.

Karen DeYoung: Posting a comment.


Hampton, Va.: I don't know why liberals have such trouble with this, but it's the simple truth: regardless of your feelings about how we got where we are in Iraq, we can't leave. The price of leaving is much higher than staying.

Here's a simple comparison: North Korea vs. South Korea. Same people, same environment, same everything. One had the benefit of 50-plus years of American "occupation."

Here's another: West Germany vs. East Germany. One ended up a strong vibrant independent democracy with a world leading economy. The other was hell on Earth.

Vietnam vs. Japan. It goes on and on.

And we all know that Iraq will be a godawful hellhole if we pull out, Democrat-style. So we need to change the debate.

Karen DeYoung: Posting a comment.


Wheaton, Md.: Does the recent attack of the Syrian/North Korean nuclear program by Israel change the urgency in Iraq by proving the intent of Islamic terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons?

Karen DeYoung: We still don't know exactly what, if anything, happened in Syria ... there is a lot of differing opinion by people who don't know and an absence of comment by people who do. Did North Korea send nuclear parts? Or did they send something else? Was it intended for Syria or passing through there on the way to somewhere else? Is the administration playing coy on the subject because it doesn't want to upset it North Korea negotiations applecart? Or any one of a number of other scenarios.


Charlottesville, Va.: Thank you for your fine reporting.

Is anyone trying to trace the cause and effect of our failure to safeguard weapons we brought into the country (as well as those of the former Iraqi government), with the current capacity for violence? We've all heard allegations about weapons coming from Iran, but how about the ones we "lost"?

Karen DeYoung: Good question, and one that is being looked at by a lot of investigations at the moment.


Chicago: If the Bush plan works out won't we just end up with a Shia controlled Iraq next to a Shia controlled Iran with a Shia majority sitting on top of the oil in northern Saudi Arabia? How is this good for stability in the region and for America?

Karen DeYoung: I think the verdict is still far away on this one. Remember that Iraqi Shiites are Arabs, who have no great love for the Persian Iranians next door. And there are still long memories on both sides of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s. Iran is clearly vying for influence in Iraq in many ways, and has an access point through the Shiite majority. Most analysis I've seen indicates that various Iraqi Shiite groups are using Iranian assistance in their fights with other Iraqi Shiites -- and against U.S. forces in some cases, but that they see themselves as Iraqi nationalists. Of course, that might not be the way Iran sees it as it seeks to expand its regional influence.


Detroit: Do you know of military officers who in private are optimistic about a long-term presence in Iraq?

Karen DeYoung: I think most officers are trying to get through the next day, week and month, focused on the mission immediately ahead of them and believe that thinking about what the long term might look like after that mission is somebody else's job.


West Hartford, Conn.: Weren't Maliki's comments at the Council on Foreign Relations off-the-record? How did you report them?

Karen DeYoung: The meeting was on the record.


Raleigh, N.C.: Hope this question reaches you in time. Is the advantage of private security contractors in their operational flexibility, or is it just them adding numbers?

Karen DeYoung: Other than the traditional Marine guards at U.S. embassies, the military has never seen itself as a protective force for U.S. diplomats and government civilians. Until recently in Iraq -- when the administration's new strategy added Provisional Reconstruction Teams embedded with U.S. combat brigades -- it has specifically not been their job.


Karen DeYoung: Signing off now. Thanks for the good questions, everyone.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company