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The War Over the War

Karen DeYoung.
Karen DeYoung.

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Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, December 18, 2007; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post associate editor Karen DeYoung on Tuesday, Dec. 18 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq.

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The 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.

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Karen DeYoung: Good afternoon. We don't have a lot of questions so far ... maybe people are preoccupied by holidays and not focusing today on Iraq. I'll answer as they come in.

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Washington: Ms. DeYoung -- two diverse questions: What is our objective in Iraq now (i.e. what is victory, what are the administration's short- and long-term goals)? Also, with the State Department debacle about mandated assignments to Iraq and the new downsizing because of insufficient staff versus positions, how are Powell/Armitage looked at compared to Rice/Negroponte by Hill staff and State personnel?

Karen DeYoung: Short term goals are to keep violence levels going down and get Iraqi security forces up to speed so that U.S. forces can be "thinned," as the U.S. commanding general said yesterday in Baghdad. Longer term, although time here is growing short, to get the Iraqi government to get its act together enough so that there is at least a veneer of political reconciliation that would allow the U.S. to declare some sort of victory and move to an "overwatch" situation rather than direct combat. All of which is a somewhat narrower definition of success than where this enterprise started. Re State Department Iraq assignments, Powell applied his organizational military mindset to personnel and expanding the foreign service. The number of FSOs increased by 300 a year under Powell but have remained stagnant under Rice.

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Los Angeles: Have you seen this New York Times piece about the wholesale slaughter of gay people in post-Saddam Iraq? Your comments?

washingtonpost.com: Gays Living in Shadows of New Iraq (New York Times, Dec. 18)

Karen DeYoung: Saw it but haven't read it yet.

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Peak Island, Maine: What is your opinion as to whether statements of the president et al implying great progress toward a stable, more or less democratic Iraq, take adequate account of facts like those you describe in "Balkanized Homecoming," which seem to not bode well with respect to the long-term prognosis?

washingtonpost.com: As Iraqi Refugees Start to Trickle Back, Authorities Worry About How They Will Fit Into the New Baghdad (Post, Dec. 17)

Karen DeYoung: The bottom line is that security trends over the past few months are good, political trends are not. The one truism about Iraq is to expect the unexpected; any number of things can cause an explosion -- including the problems of returning refugees. As retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey said in a report following his recent visit there: "We are clearly no longer on a downward spiral. However, the ultimate outcome is still quite seriously in doubt."

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Santa Fe, N.M.: So now we're helping Turkey to bomb the Kurds in northern Iraq. We've been helping a motley assortment of private militias within Iraq; I frankly can't keep up with who is on which side. Granted, who is on which side is none too clear in Iraq, but it looks like the U.S. administration/military is responding primarily to the exigencies of the moment: Turkey is about to leave NATO because of their problem of the Kurds, and we need someone -- anyone -- to appear to be on our side in Iraq's civil war. Looks like lots of opportunity for later blowback. Is there any overall strategy here, or is it all opportunism? If other countries in the region see the U.S. as behaving in a completely exigent way, won't this encourage them to follow their own exigencies when they can?

Karen DeYoung: The Turkey question has been a hard one for some time. NATO members are committed to helping each other in the event of outside attack. ... Turkey clearly has been attacked; as far as Turkey is concerned, the U.S. military owns the Iraqi battle-space and is responsible for making the attacks stop. On the other hand, the last thing the U.S. wants is to pick a fight with our best allies in Iraq, the Kurds. For now, U.S. has decided to split the difference -- providing Turkey with intelligence on PKK locations and turning a blind eye to Turkish incursions.

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Fairfax, Va.: The reason previously given for little on-the-ground Iraq war coverage by our media was understandably that it was too dangerous to cover the situation. But now that we are "winning" according to the president and the choir at Fox News, why isn't media coverage increasing rather than almost disappearing, as is happening now? Is it because Bush's strategy is to claim that, because the surge "succeeded," nothing else is happening in Iraq and we should just "move along" to something else? The MSM seems only too happy to concur, but is it true little is happening other than our troops continue to die and suffer horrific wounds? What is happening there, and have we become so desensitized we don't care? If so, Bush has succeeded in putting the national consciousness to sleep, hasn't he?

Karen DeYoung: I disagree that we haven't been increasingly out and about. The Washington Post in recent weeks has reported from Basra, Najaf and a lot of Baghdad neighborhoods. Others have done the same.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Hate to be disrespectful to the reporting you people do, but I remember well the "peace with honor" mantra of Kissinger and Nixon in 1972-73; at a time when they knew that the whole thing was a cynical exercise (and both liars said so on tape), that the fine "democracy" we were building in South Vietnam barely would survive the withdrawal of American troops and that the inevitable collapse would just be kicked down the road -- to a time, hopefully, when the voters would be more engrossed in the opening to China and other matters.

Appearance over reality -- it's what we do. There's nothing new under the sun, and the "victorious surge" in Iraq is, if anything, much less credible than the lies of 1973. At least back then we had spare troops to prolong the agony. Why are we expected to swallow this nonsense, when a child could see that the Baathists are waiting us out, the two sides are taking our bribes for the meantime, and Iran is pressuring their puppets to lie low? Put another way, no public official should be permitted to claim that "we're winning" without being subjected to withering cross-examination. The voters deserve much better than what we're getting from the press and the politicians.

Karen DeYoung: I respectfully would submit that the reason you know about payments to insurgents, what Iran is up to and a lot of other elements of what's going on in Iraq -- way beyond any positive effects of the surge -- is because the media has been covering it. We certainly have an obligation to report what senior officials say, with an equal obligation to look for ourselves at what's happening on the ground.

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Peaks Island, Maine: What do think the likelihood of there emerging in Iraq a stable democracy along the lines depicted by the president et al? Do you foresee a time when Israel and Iraq together enter into a peace treaty? If so, when?

Karen DeYoung: Virtually no one at this point thinks there's a likelihood of a U.S.-style democracy emerging in Iraq. Whether that's because they're making the best of a bad situation or genuinely feel it's not a viable model to impose on Iraqi culture, a lot of experts and analysts now say we ought to pay more attention to what Iraqis want than what Americans want. Re: An Israel/Iraq treaty, I don't see that any time in the near future.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I just wanted to point out the great job our Marines doing in the virtually all Sunni Anbar Province, which once accounted for to half of U.S. fatalities in Iraq (47 last December of last year, per icasualties.org). There hasn't been a single combat fatality there in more than two month, about seventy days to be more precise. Our Marines should now get their way and be sent to where there's actually a real kinetic fight going on -- perhaps Afghanistan, LOL.

Also, this month is on track to have the second-lowest number of military fatalities in Iraq since the war was launched in 2003. This month is actually on track to be the month with lowest military fatalities rate since February of 2004. (As a final point of reference, the casualty number for December of last year was 112; so far this December the fatality number is 13.)

Karen DeYoung: The Marines themselves have been pushing to move on to Afghanistan.

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Oxford, Miss.: Ms. De Young, could you break down the PKK/U.S./Turkey situation? First we supply intelligence to Turkey, Turkey strikes Northern Iraqi areas, then Rice tells everyone to play nice?

Karen DeYoung: I think what she's saying is that it's in Iraqi Kurdistan's interest to get a grip on the PKK, although the Kurdish Regional Government doesn't necessarily see it quite that way. There are local interests at play -- it's not politically palatable for the Kurdish Regional Government to come down too hard on PKK and side with Turkey. There are regional interests -- a whole lot of Iraqi trade is with and through Turkey and they're going to have to live together for a long time -- and international interests -- the U.S. wants Iraq to stay quiet, and also wants to placate Turks by recognizing the validity of their complaint while keeping them from outright invasion. The decision to supply intelligence to Turkey was an attempt to do that.

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Bethesda, Md.: Is it reasonable to expect the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq to provide funding and arms for the Sunni paramilitary groups that the U.S. has established with tribal support in Anbar and elsewhere? If not, where does that leave the prospects for any longer-term stability in those areas?

Karen DeYoung: The idea has been that the Sunni "concerned local citizens" will perform defensive police operations in their own, Sunni-dominated areas where Shiites didn't want to go or could not gain local trust. The U.S. military has been recruiting and paying -- about $300 a month each -- to do that, but the program only stands a chance of long-term success if the Iraqi government takes it over. Maliki's Shiite-dominated government has resisted, saying that many of the Sunni volunteers are former insurgents who will turn on them once the U.S. leaves. Government has been slow to conduct "vetting" of the volunteers and even slower to approve them for official police duties. The U.S. is ready to give up banging its head against the wall in trying to incorporate Sunnis into official police and is trying to transform the program into a jobs corps. It's unclear whether the Sunni volunteers will agree to get a paycheck for doing reconstruction tasks rather than patrolling their neighborhoods, or whether that idea is any more attractive to the government.

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Freising, Germany: From afar, the main conflicts in the Shiite areas seem to be between Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim -- leader the largest Shiite political party and the Badr Brigade militia, and the Al-Fadhila party -- which also has its own fighters and a member as Basra's governor. Are there any more factors to confuse and disrupt the fabric of Shiite unity in Iraq? How do you think that a British pullout will affect Iraq in the short-term?

Karen DeYoung: That is the basic breakdown in southern Iraq, where the three are contending for power and control of resources. The Brits, who have completely withdrawn to their air base outside of Basra, have been out of that fight for some time.

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Winnipeg, Canada: How dangerous is the U.S. action on the Iraq border with Turkey? Could this open up another quagmire front?

Karen DeYoung: One is always liable for surprise in this part of the world, but for the moment it looks like there will be a lot of shouting and not much more. The Turks have been present in northern Iraq along the border and have conducted cross-border raids for years. The difference this time is the use of air power, which puts the Kurdish Regional Government in a position of having to complain even more loudly. And also runs the risk of more civilian casualties.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon! How will the need for more boots on the ground in Afghanistan affect the mission in Iraq? Also, is there any way to predict what will happen in Basra in the next 6-12 months?

washingtonpost.com: Bush Faces Pressure to Shift War Priorities (Post, Dec. 17)

Karen DeYoung: Afghanistan has been going south for some time, with tactical military successes but without a viable long-term strategic horizon. Right now, the U.S. is concentrating on getting other NATO members to increase their presence and expand their mandate. Re: Basra, the Iraqi government has increased its military presence there and replaced a bunch of senior officers. How well they are willing and able to mediate between groups and take control of the situation will determine what happens next year.

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Ottawa, Canada: What effect will the British withdrawal in Basra have on the potential reduction of U.S. forces? Would an increase in violence in southern Iraq require even more U.S. troops, or are the Iraqi military units that the British left in charge competent, and able to handle the challenge?

Karen DeYoung: Following on previous question, U.S. strategy has been to leave the south to its own devices. No real plans to replace the British (who pretty much have been out of it for some time down there anyway). The thinking is that Shiites fighting among themselves is not a U.S. priority, and that this will be a good test to see whether the Iraqi military can get it right.

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Chicago: Would you consider this new development with Turkey today an escalation of the war, or would the Bush administration merely consider this a part of the greater war? By this I mean, they don't consider this a neighboring country to be actively invading or occupying land in Iraq?

Karen DeYoung: They consider it the least expensive way to deal with a vexing situation and are crossing their fingers and hoping it doesn't expand.

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Anonymous: What do you know about the safety and security of the Mosul dam? I've read that not only is its design flawed, but it is high on the list of terrorist targets, and a failure of that dam would send a 50-foot wave of water through Mosul and flood Baghdad hundreds of miles away.

washingtonpost.com: Iraqi Dam Seen In Danger of Deadly Collapse (Post, Oct. 30)

Karen DeYoung: Don't know much beyond what was in cited The Post's story.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon! Who monitors the Iraqi political process for signs of progress? By that I mean, what is the military's role in that function, and what is the State Department's role, and what is our intel services' role?

Karen DeYoung: The military, State and intelligence community all have their own people assessing the political situation. Sometimes they even talk to each other.

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Seattle: If Turkey is going after the PKK using intelligence the US provided, where is the US getting that intelligence? If it's from the Kurdish Regional Government, will that come back to bite us? Are we robbing Peter here?

Karen DeYoung: U.S. has satellite, overflight and intercept intel, some human -- all the usual stuff. It's not clear to me how much information is coming from the Kurdish Regional Government, although this is one of the arguments the U.S. has made to the KRG.

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Nashville, Tenn.: The economy is now the number one concern of the American public. Do you think Iraq will be No. 1 at election time? While violence is down in Iraq right now, there is nothing more demoralizing than repeated failure. Just like the Tet offensive in Vietnam shattered the belief that we were winning, in an insurgency the enemy is in control of the level of violence, and can manipulate it to greatest political advantage.

Karen DeYoung: It will be interesting to watch for the next big progress report to Congress from Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker in March. Barring unforeseen events, declining violence will be old news and the focus likely will be on reconciliation and quality-of-life issues for Iraqis. But the military is not unaware that insurgents/militias are still capable of significant attacks. The goal for the moment is too keep them as small and sporadic as possible.

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Anonymous: Based on your replies, you seem to be under the belief that the Bush admin. is trying to keep the lid on Iraq until January 2009. Am I close?

Karen DeYoung: I think the bottom line -- of trying for improvement, or keeping the lid on -- is the same.

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Washington: Are any new Sunni leaders emerging? I guess they'd need to be credible among their constituencies as well as in Baghdad; I don't get the impression that Hashimi really represents anyone.

Karen DeYoung: This is one of the reasons why political reconciliation is important. The vast majority of Sunnis boycotted the December 2005 elections and now feel that Sunnis in the government don't really represent them. On a provincial level, there are provinces with Sunni majorities that are not reflected in those governments. The U.S. thinks there are some up-and-coming political leaders (especially those cooperating with U.S. forces) who should have access to elected power. But there are a lot of people who don't want elections -- not just elected Sunnis, but Shiite groups who fear their 2005 victories will be upset by other groups, etc. The result is gridlock on this particular benchmark.

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Chicago: With the violence down in Iraq, we still hear very little -- or not enough in my opinion -- about the daily lives of Iraqis. Can you tell me how many hours a day a Baghdadi gets? What about access to clean drinking water? And what about other basic civic responsibilities, such as garbage collection, or roads and infrastructure? To name a few. Thank you for your reporting.

washingtonpost.com: Iraqis' Quality of Life Marked By Slow Gains, Many Setbacks (Post, Nov. 30)

Karen DeYoung: You can check the linked story, which a colleague in our Baghdad bureau and I did late last month, and others. You also can check the State Department's Iraq Weekly Status report, which is posted on State's Web site. And the Pentagon is on the verge of releasing its quarterly report to Congress, which includes figures on services, among other things. The military maintains that increased security means that Iraqis now focus more -- and complain more -- about services, but the fact remains that electricity production is still far below demand, water is a problem and unemployment is still about 50 percent. Judging by polling done among Iraqis, they're not very happy about their lives.

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Re: Tet Offensive: What are the chances that the insurgents are actually watching CNN or C-SPAN and taking notes? Do you really think that elections affect their behavior on a strategic level?

Karen DeYoung: If you look at various speeches by Zawahiri and other al-Qaeda types posted on the Internet, they clearly pay attention to what's going on in the world and in this country. Whether that is the case for insurgent commanders on the ground in Iraq, I think they have more immediate, tactical concerns.

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Karen DeYoung: That's it for me today. I was wrong -- you are paying attention to Iraq. And I've left a lot of good questions behind for next time. Thanks.

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


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