The War Over the War

Karen DeYoung.
Karen DeYoung.

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Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, April 29, 2008; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post associate editor Karen DeYoung on Tuesday, April 29 at noon ET to discuss the latest developments and the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about 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.

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Karen DeYoung: Good morning/afternoon all. Ready to roll.

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Peaks Island, Maine: To what extent do you believe U.S. troops are fighting on the side of one Iran-friendly Shiite faction against another Iran-friendly Shiite faction?

To the extent this is the case, for how long do you believe a President McCain would have the congressional support necessary to get to his goal, i.e. a relatively stable, reasonably democratic, U.S.-friendly, Iraqi state that would be an ally of the U.S. in the "war on terror"?

Karen DeYoung: This has become the big question in Iraq since al-Qaeda capabilities have been "degraded," in military speak, Sunnis have signed up for Sons of Iraq, and the battle among Shiite groups for dominance has been well and truly launched with the U.S. in the middle. Prime Minister Maliki represents Dawa, a political group without a militia. The Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council has renamed itself the Badr Organization and says it's no longer in the militia business. Fadhila has little clout beyond the South.

Although all these militias and others can be reactive at any time, the Sadrists are the only ones really fighting at the moment. The situation is confused because Sadr has said the cease-fire is in place, the Americans insist they're only fighting renegade Sadrist "special groups," and yet there is a whole lot of fighting going on between U.S./Iraqi forces and Sadrists in Baghdad's Sadr City. Americans say they are trying to separate the "good" Sadrists from the "bad," but even if one believes that such separation exists, the military presence in Sadr City is irritating a whole lot of people and presumably blurring the lines between good and bad. Sadr himself is playing a dangerous game, holding out the possibility of a return to a major political roll. At this point I think no one knows which was Sadr is going to move.

To your second point, Congress is certainly conscious of the difference between the war on terror and civil war in Iraq. The administration has tried to blur that difference by emphasizing Iran's participation in a battle I think would exist whether the Iranians were helping or not. Sorry for such a long answer; there are a lot of questions on this subject today.

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Fairfax, Va.: Since the most recent Petraeus testimony things seem to have taken a turn for the worse with the "surge." Is that accurate, or is the progress attributed to the surge still on track toward victory in Iraq?

Karen DeYoung: The military feels it's still making a lot of progress against al-Qaeda and insurgents who were the original targets of the surge. The inter-Shiite violence is something that seems immune to the surge and depends largely on political accommodation and how the majority Shiites divvy up power and resources, and whether they decide they'd rather be a government than a kleptocracy backed by militias.

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Princeton, N.J.: Ms. DeYoung, what the happened in Basra? First we get reports of a major defeat of the Iraqi government forces, then we are told there was a cease-fire negotiated in Iran(!). Now we are told the Iraqi government has won a great victory -- "a defining moment."

Did they Iraqi Army drive out the Mahdi,? If so, did they capture or arrest them? What of the other two major militias, Badr and Fadhila? Does Fadhila still control the oil area? Have conditions improved in Basra? Is there less corruption? Can a woman walk on the street in Western garb without a male relative? Is there a functioning police force?

Karen DeYoung: I think it was more of a draw, followed by a cease-fire, than a major defeat for Iraqi forces. On the plus side, the Maliki government managed the logistics of getting a lot of troops down there quickly and a good number of those troops actually fought fairly well. On the minus side, many in the Iraqi military--where there are residual loyalties to various Shiite leaders--decided not to fight or to go over to the other side. Maliki subsequently replaced senior officers and fired a bunch of people. The government seems to recognize that it needs to win a lot of hearts and minds there very quickly during this relatively calm interim and is budgeting a bunch of money for Basra reconstruction and development. The question is whether the money actually gets there and can be spent effectively.

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Richmond, Va.: Now that Moqtada al-Sadr has determined that it is better to stop internecine fighting and just concentrate on getting the foreign troops out, does that mean he has the ability to influence groups other than his own for this common purpose? How will such a directive change the dynamics of the war? And will there be a huge increase in American casualties?

Karen DeYoung: As per my previous answer, fighting seems pretty intense in Sadr City in recent days, including today. As with Basra, the Maliki government says it's about to spend a lot of money there making people happy and weaning them away from militia influence, but so far it has been rough going. They sent a bunch of garbage trucks in the other day as a show of good faith, but the trucks got shot at and had to pull back out. Among the many unknowns is how much power Sadr actually has over the fighters, and whether he has a long-term strategy to work within the political system. Getting the Americans out is popular in his constituency.

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San Clemente, Calif.: Holy cow! you've usually got about three or four answers up by now, where is everybody?

Are we starting to do the very thing we have been trying to avoid for five years -- street-to-street, house-to-house combat in the most densely populated area of Iraq? Can we really avoid the type of civilian slaughter that could just refuel Iraqi nationalism and the insurgency?

Karen DeYoung: San Clemente -- there are lots of questions here, I'm just trying to type a bit more carefully than my usual rapid fire. The street-by-street fighting in Sadr City is a problem. The Americans sent a Bradley tank or two in there yesterday, which managed to blow up some things and drive back the militia front lines, but we all know the difficulties of fighting trained guerrillas in their own neighborhoods with big conventional weapons.

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South Holland, Ill.: Why isn't the state of Israel held under the same oversight as the other nations in the Middle East regarding nuclear technology and the right to possess it? If there is to be some kind of peace in the Middle East, then nations seeking military superiority should have to deal as equals. Israel should be required to declare all its nuclear programs, just like every other nation in the Middle East. Should America support Israel in this endeavor (nuclear technology) when our national interest is at stake?

Karen DeYoung: There's always a chicken-and-egg quality to questions about nuclear weapons. Those who want them and don't have them in the Middle East say they need them because Israel has weapons. Israel (while not publicly admitting it has them) feels it has to have them because it's surrounded by hostile states. The past six decades of U.S. governments have made the defense of Israel a priority.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Methinks there's a strong touch of MacArthur in Petraeus, and that once a Democrat gets elected in November he will resign and start the process of launching his political career, premised of course on the fiction that we were winning the war under his leadership, but the surrenderists in the Democratic Party pulled the troops out prematurely. A sort of "Rambo 2009." What's your prediction? I don't see how he stays, or how he can be allowed to stay.

Karen DeYoung: Maybe a touch of MacArthur in terms of his influence on political strategy, but the personalities are very different. It will be fascinating to see how he shifts gears from focusing on Iraq to the entire region and two different wars. Resign? I don't have a clue. If a Democrat is elected, it will be a long four years during which a lot of things could change in the region, and he would have to keep himself in the public eye. Rather than whether he would resign, I think the question will be whether a Democrat in the White House would seek to replace him early on. Regardless of what the military hierarchy thinks of him, that has all kinds of ramifications for White House-military relations.

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Winnipeg, Canada: Do the numbers still support the thesis that violence is down since the surge? I seem to have read about a lot of violence in the past few weeks, but I'm not sure how that would play out numerically. What would a long-term trend line look like?

Karen DeYoung: Haven't checked out the trend lines recently. It has been down steadily since late last fall, and trending up slightly in March. I would assume, just judging by news reports, that they're still up a bit but nowhere near where they were last year, and it's too early to say they're trending back up.

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Washington: The Christian Science Monitor reported today that the Taliban are expanding operations and attacks well north of their previous strongholds.

Are we beginning to lose the war in Afghanistan? Do we have the resources (military, diplomatic, political) to turn things around?

Karen DeYoung: The Taliban are expanding north and west from their southern Afghan strongholds ... we and others have reported this. The new U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, is in Washington this week with some interesting analysis of how things are going and in which direction they need to go. The fact that the administration is listening to him carefully and nodding is, I think, indicative of a desire to make some changes in what remains a difficult situation.

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Helena, Mont.: How much of the PowerPoint presentation on Syria would pass objective muster, and how much is just more of the "mobile bacteria-warfare-producing labs" that we were given prior to the Iraq war?

Karen DeYoung: I have to refer you to my Post colleague, Robin Wright, who has been covering that situation while I've been Iraq-ing for the past several weeks.

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Ocala, Fla.: McClatchy newspapers are reporting on the influence of Revolutionary Guards Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani in Iraq. He seems to be the latest in a long line of bogeymen for the administration, somebody to focus as the source of our troubles in Iraq. If only we eliminate Saddam, or the latest head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, or al-Sadr, or the next guy, all the ducks will line up. Is there nobody in the Pentagon with a more profound understanding of the complexities in Iraq?

Karen DeYoung: Suleimani is definitely the evildoer of the moment -- the administration believes he is involved directly in training and directing of Sadrist "special groups," and that he had direct role in arranging the Basra cease-fire. I actually think there are a lot of people around the Pentagon and elsewhere who either understand the complexities or at least realize all is far more complex than it seems. That doesn't mean, however, that they've figured out what to do about it.

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Anonymous: By saying she would "obliterate" Iran, a nation of 75 million people, if they attacked Israel, who is Hillary hoping to get on her side?

Karen DeYoung: I guess she thinks her position is more likely to garner voter support than the opposite.

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Re: Badr's militias: Have the Badr militias been disbanded, or have they just been reclassified as "security forces"? It's wishful thinking on my part that we would get some straight answers from the administration, but how much of the changing security situation and tactical progress has been a result of name-changing?

Karen DeYoung: A good question that I don't really know the answer to. I know that's what U.S. officials now say. We need to do some reporting on it.

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Chandler, Ariz.: How much does the new United States embassy in Baghdad look like another Baathist compound to Iraqis?

Karen DeYoung: First of all, few Iraqis have actually seen it as it's inside the Green Zone. It doesn't really look like the many Baathist Saddam palaces (except in size -- it's bigger), which usually have columns and decorative domes with blue tiles. It's a big, dusty compound with a lot of square, ochre-colored buildings spread through it, and a high wall around it. Not much charm to it.

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Washington: There's a debate? I though that -- given the approval numbers, the state of our economy and the state of our military -- the universal consensus was that spending $170 billion a year in Iraq was a waste. These resources are much needed in our economy. Why are we still building infrastructure in Iraq, when our country us so desperate for hospitals, schools, bridges, combined sewer overflow and transit infrastructure? Do we really have to wait till January for this nightmare to be over?

Karen DeYoung: The administration's argument is that we're no longer building physical infrastructure in Iraq. All those bridges and roads and big buildings -- some of which still exist, some of which never got finished -- were budgeted out of the original $21 billion or so reconstruction money that has now been spent, and the Iraqi capital budget is supposed to fund them now. But it's a bit of a shell game, because U.S. is still distributing money in other ways, through USAID programs, Commanders Emergency Response and other programs.

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San Clemente, Calif.: Would the replacement of Gen. Petraeus by a Democratic president really be the breathtaking move many in the media are making it out to be? President Bush has gotten rid of any number military leaders who dared to offer advice that didn't fit into his plans. There has been at most a little tut-tutting, and not much more.

Karen DeYoung: I think some would argue that he stuck by some commanders longer than he should have. What I'm saying is that either of the Democratic candidates would have a dicey initial time with the military. Although many in uniform are unhappy about Iraq/Afghanistan, they are very institutional people, and any new president likely would have to at least go through the motions of seeking their advice before making abrupt decisions.

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Alexandria, Va.: Has there been any talk about Petraeus as McCain's running mate?

Karen DeYoung: I haven't heard that.

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Freising, Germany: Inspired by The Washington Post's Global Food Crisis Series and by Wilfred Thesiger's famous book, I was wondering how Iraq's Marsh Arab's have fared in the years following Saddam Hussein's regime.

National Geographic wrote in 2007 that reflooded soils were releasing toxins from military ordnance, and that land mines are littered throughout the marshes. Also, agricultural practices in 2007 were still ancient, and vast areas of the marshes could not be sustained unless new agricultural methods were adopted.

Have you been able to visit the Marshes or spoken with anyone who has been there? Presumably, Iraq imports most of it's foodstuffs, but is there any indication that the marshes ceventually ould contribute food for the rest of Iraq?

Karen DeYoung: Haven't been there. There were early reconstruction programs to reflood some of the marshes and re-establish that way of life. I don't think they ever produced food on an industrial scale, but honestly I don't know what's going on there now.

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Phoenix: Karen, I remember being in Jordan during the mid- to late-'90s. It seemed many of my colleagues there had sons and daughters who competed for university entrance slots in Iraq, especially to study computer science. Now I see a country where even the capitol city lacks essential services like electricity and water. We have replaced a ruthless dictator with an apparently unsolvable set of contradictions. We speak of diminishing sectarian violence and proof of progress, then in the next breath talk about an Iraqi reconciliation government -- even though we know full well the diminishing sectarian violence is because the country is entrenched into essentially cleansed sectarian enclaves down to the neighborhood level.

When the administration talks about what the end of the Iraq war may look like, how does it view what happens after the combat troops are withdrawn? What happens to the Iraqis? Given Iraq's position in the Middle East, and the lines all sides are drawing in the dirt, doesn't the real Iraq war begin, not end, when U.S. troops withdraw? Is there a Bremer in the background, working on this now?

Karen DeYoung: You've posed the $64,000 question that I think is a big one now for Pentagon planners: What happens when U.S. troops leave -- regardless of when that is? The timing obviously has some bearing on the answer, and the administration is trying with little success so far to get services up and running and get the Iraqi government to function on its own so that the dike doesn't collapse when the American thumb is pulled out. Some say certain levels of function and peace must be established before it can even be imagined. There are others who argue that the government never is going to function -- and ethnic fighting is only going to increase -- until the Americans leave and they have to do it on their own.

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Mount Rainier, Md.: Karen, a different sort of Iraq question: Given that the Democrats seem to have no spine in dealing with the war, how do we ordinary citizens stop this fools errand? Can we reasonably hope the next election will send an even clearer message then 2006, or should we expect to continue to be ignored?

Karen DeYoung: As several lawmakers commented during recent Iraq hearings, the only power Congress ever has had or will have over the war is the power of the purse. Unless and until a majority is willing to exercise it differently than up to now, the current president and his successor will decide. That's why we have both presidential and congressional elections.

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Seattle: I think the removal of Petraeus will depend on his response to any Democratic president's request to draw down troops. If he refuses, ala MacArthur, expect him to get canned hard, like MacArthur. If he complies, he shouldn't get fired.

Karen DeYoung: He certainly would give his advice. But don't see much chance that he would refuse an order from his commander in chief. That's one of the differences with MacArthur.

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Williamsburg, Va.: No Iraq articles, but several Obama/Rev. Wright articles "above-the-fold" on washingtonpost.com. Small links to "Four U.S. Troops Killed -- Iraqi Official Assassinated" below-the-fold" in small print, along with "Shame on Miley? Of Course" in large print. No wonder the American public has lost focus on Iraq.

Karen DeYoung: Another chicken-and-egg. Do we write less about Iraq because people are more interested in other things at the moment, or vice versa? We actuallyare writing as much about Iraq as ever, and there are days when it dominates the front page, but you're correct that there certainly are days -- when important things happen there -- that it doesn't.

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Karen DeYoung: Time's up for another week. Thanks for the good questions. Keep reading -- and keep asking.

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