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The War Over the War

Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, July 1, 2008 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post associate editor Karen DeYoung on Tuesday, July 1 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.

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 day. Sorry to be a bit late. Let's talk about Iraq and whatever else is on your minds.

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Rockville, Md.: How are the politics going in Iraq?

Karen DeYoung: Slowly. The General Accountability Office last week published an update of their last September report on progress in Iraq. Their assessment was that while some laws have passed -- de-Baathification reform and a few others -- none has yet been implemented. Others still are not passed. Provincial elections still are scheduled for October, but a lot needs to be done before then, and there's little optimism they'll make it. You can find the GAO report on their Web site.

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Austin, Texas: From the New York Times: "A number of the half-dozen badly wounded Iraqis interviewed for this article said they had been effectively drummed out of the Iraqi security forces without pensions, or were receiving partial pay and in danger of losing even that. ... The American commander in charge of Iraqi police training, said that in just two years, from September 2004 to October 2006, about 4,000 Iraqi police officers were killed and 8,000 were wounded. ... That number does not include soldiers in the Iraqi Army, who are far more numerous than the police and, Iraqi commanders say, have suffered injuries at a far greater rate."

Colin Powell told us before we started this war that if we broke it, we own it. Not withstanding the trillions we may spend on the long-term costs for our own troops, do you think Americans will or should provide support to injured Iraqi police and military personnel?

washingtonpost.com: Wounded Iraqi Forces Say They've Been Abandoned (New York Times, July 1)

Karen DeYoung: Will and should are two different questions. On the "will," I'd say no. The U.S. goal is to build the Iraqi security forces institutionally, so that it can take care of itself. We are phasing out of the "take care of" business.

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Princeton, N.J.: The recent GAO report told us that we are still being lied to about such important matters like the capability of Iraqi forces, the success of the surge, and the existence of an overall strategy. Why do the people still believe the rest of what we are being told?

Karen DeYoung: I would characterize the GAO conclusions less as "being lied to" and more as a different selection of data to analyze, differences in emphasis in certain categories, and differences in interpretation. In other words, the administration and Pentagon choose to emphasize the decrease in violence and aggressive action by the Shiite government against Shiite extremists. The GAO agreed with that, but went on to analyze political and economic factors that the administration largely has tried to downplay.

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Mons, Belgium: Hello and thank you for the chats. How is the political reconciliation going? Some benchmarks were met, but it's hard to tell if they were significantly implemented. Any assessment yet on the de-Baathification and amnesty laws? I also read that the central government accepted about 20 percent of the Awakening Councils members in the regular Iraqi security forces. On the other hand, I read that the Councils, which started as a Sunni experiment, also now are approximately 20 percent Shia. Is there any study of which Council members are now ISF? Are at least 80 percent of them Sunnis, or are Shias more likely to be accepted by the central government, which would undermine the reconciliation narrative?

Karen DeYoung: Look to the answer above on political progress re: laws. In terms of Awakening Councils and ISF ... the phenomenon that began in Anbar has spread to other parts of the country, and there are now more than 100,000 (the vast majority of which still live on U.S. salaries of about $300 a month). The Shiite-Sunni breakdown still tends to reflect location -- the idea is that these are local people who want to protect their neighborhoods, and neighborhoods still are very segregated along sectarian lines, especially in Baghdad. They are still overwhelmingly Sunni, however, although Sunnis are minority in population. The U.S. military says that more than 20,000 have been incorporated into ISF, but nearly all of those are Sunnis in Anbar, where the Shiites don't particularly care. The government has made very little progress on incorporating the rest. Most probably won't end up in the security forces, and U.S. military has suggested a government jobs program. There has been little progress there, either.

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New York: Karen, this is not a war question, but I like to save my Colin Powell questions for you. Is he likely, from what you know of him, to support Barack Obama for president? What would such a move mean to the Republican Party, and to the military establishment? Thanks.

Karen DeYoung: Powell considers McCain a friend (he supported him in 2000 before Bush got the nomination). While only a nominal Republican, Powell feels some loyalty to the party -- but as a centrist/pragmatist, he is concerned about some of the conservatives and so-called neoconservatives around McCain, particularly on domestic policy. He is intrigued by Obama for all the reasons you can imagine. Powell is probably the most important pending endorsement out there -- if and when he moves it will make a big splash.

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Chicago: Hey Karen, what do you think about the parallels between the British occupation of Iraq in 1920 and the current U.S. occupation?

Karen DeYoung: One can draw all kinds of fact-based parallels, but not many Iraqis around now were around then. I think the most important thing is how large the whole question of "occupation" looms in the minds of Iraqis, who are simultaneously fearful of an American departure and resentful and suspicious of the American presence.

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Princeton, N.J.: I beg to differ. The GAO report detailed how the Pentagon changed the rating scale to make it seem like more of the Iraqi Army was combat capable. They went though Bush's January 2007 speech on the surge and showed how the claims of success are false. Finally they pointed out that the surge was not a strategy, and that we don't seem to have any. If they are correct, we are being lied to.

Karen DeYoung: The GAO did indeed question the way the Pentagon rates Iraqi force readiness. This is an argument that has been going on between the two institutions for a very long time, and the GAO questioned whether the military was softening its criteria (while still refusing to declassify the actual numbers). Its questions about tactics vs strategy, I think, don't fall into the category of "lies." Similarly, the GAO and the State/Treasury departments have deep disagreements about the most accurate way to tally Iraqi budget expenditures, etc., and come to very different conclusions.

I would argue that in the 94-page GAO report, the most critical and concerning part was the lack of political and economic progress, and the extent that assessment contrasted with the only passing reference to those same subjects in the simultaneously released Pentagon quarterly Iraq report. Short-term, the surge was supposed to decrease violence, which it apparently has done. Medium- and long-term, the goal of the surge was to allow breathing space for political reconciliation and development. That hasn't happened. The Pentagon (which issued its own quarterly report the same day) prefers to concentrate on the short-term success.

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Army Iraq history report -- what is new to you?: And are you or Tom Ricks going to do a piece on it?

Karen DeYoung: The Post had a piece on Monday, but perhaps we'll return to it.

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Sun Prairie, Wis.: Good morning, Ms. DeYoung. Your colleague Tom Ricks wrote of Congress some time ago that it was passive and ineffectual in its oversight of the executive branch prior to and immediately after the start of the Iraq War (the chapter in "Fiasco" that dealt with Congress was call "The Silence of the Lambs"). Years have passed and Congress now has Democratic majorities in both houses. In your view, what has changed? Are either the House or Senate Armed Services committees more active in holding hearings or conducting other oversight activities of the military? My own perspective is that there is a lot more criticism coming from Congress (a lot of it rote repetition of presidential campaign rhetoric) but, with few exceptions, not a great deal more oversight. Do you disagree?

Karen DeYoung: There certainly is a lot more criticism, hearings and oversight, but beyond voting on the supplemental appropriation for war funding -- which always is going to pass while troops are deployed -- Congress has no more sticks with which to beat the Bush administration. The supplemental was pretty much their last hurrah until a new administration.

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Denver: Hi Karen. One of the outcomes of the invasion of Iraq appears to be that Iran's hand was strengthened in the Middle East. Have you gotten a sense that the Administration is planning any action against Iran?

Karen DeYoung: That seems to be the question of the week, following Sy Hersh's New Yorker article. Call me naive, but while there are certainly those who want to take on Iran, there are powerful people in the administration and the military who think it would be foolhardy at the very least.

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Fairfax, Va.: Has the Iraqi occupation institutionalized the use of "private contractor" mercenaries now in our military operations when we don't care enough to send the very best (our own soldiers in our own army)? If so, do most Americans approve of what some believe is a first step toward fascist rule?

Karen DeYoung: At this point, I don't think it's a question of not "caring enough," but rather not having enough troops to do the jobs being done by contractors -- and a strong feeling within the military that "personal security detail" is not what they signed up for.

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Winnipeg, Canada: Has the availability of electrical power and water improved to preinvasion levels yet? Which areas are doing better in this regard? Which are worse? What about schools? Are more Iraqi children able to go to school yet?

Karen DeYoung: Water is better, electricity only marginally so. In terms of prewar levels, not yet. There were more hours of power under Saddam, although it was inequitably distributed, with Baghdad getting it full-time and southern Shiites not. Now it's more evenly spread, but there still is less overall. I assume more children are going to school now that it's safer to be outside in more places.

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San Clemente, Calif.: I was wondering if any one has mentioned what sort of jobs the excess "Sons of Iraq" might be trained for? Iraq has something like 50 percent unemployment, and presumably some of those unemployed have job skills. Also, I wonder if some guy who was getting good pay for a few minutes work planting an IED and now gets good pay for standing around with a gun will be happy wearing an orange vest and picking up trash or scooping up poop. The "make work" made sense five years ago when there was still a lot of good will, but does it now?

Karen DeYoung: Good points/questions. USAID and the military both have civilian "employment" programs that largely consist of clean-up work and some construction. They want the government to start widespread vocational training for these guys, but nothing much has happened. The U.S. military says that most of the Sons of Iraq members don't really want to work in security, preferring stable work and stable pay in civilian sector -- but as you point out, there are few jobs.

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Obligatory Iran Question: Do you want to knock down the latest Seymour Hersh story about a possible attack on Iran after the election? You realize that the more insane that such an idea sounds, the more likely it appears. Besides, they threw the dice on the surge, which has resulted in glorious victory, so why not throw them again?

Karen DeYoung: Sy's a great reporter, and far be it from me to argue that the fact that a plan may sound insane means it won't happen -- but I haven't done that reporting myself yet.

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Fairfax, Va.: Now that some details are surfacing of the very favorable terms for American oil companies, do you think that information will affect the debate about whether we invaded Iraq for the oil as opposed to the reasons Bush gave?

Karen DeYoung: I don't think oil was the primary reason for the invasion, but neither do I think it wasn't in the heads of those who made the policy.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Can you imagine a worse military decision than the US invasion of Iraq, based almost entirely on wishful thinking and hubris? Seriously, the U.S. military loves to laugh about Saddam's various misadventures, but at least he had an exit strategy from Kuwait!

Karen DeYoung: On your last sentence, I'm not sure I'd call retreat in the face of defeat an exit strategy.

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Seattle: What is at stake in the provisional elections -- local council positions or Parliament seats or what? My primary worry is a repeat of the Palestinian elections, where the elections were declared a major breakthrough until the people we didn't want to win actually proved to be popular.

Karen DeYoung: Did I say "provisional?" I meant "provincial." Bad typing. The provincial elections, currently supposed to take place in October, are for local and provincial government seats. What's at stake is a reordering of party and political power. In Sunni territory, many didn't vote in the 2005 elections, giving power to political groups that didn't necessarily represent the majority and now are afraid of losing power. On the Shiite side, the big parties -- ISCI, Dawa, the Sadrist trend and others -- are competing for dominance. Parliamentary elections are due to be held next year, and what happens in the provincial and local races surely will influence that outcome.

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New York: Hi Karen, and thanks for chatting. If I read your story correctly, the GAO report on Iraq is calling for a "what's next" scenario, now that the "surge" has ended and the troops are being withdrawn. The administration says no new plan is needed, that the current strategy remains valid. Given that the "surge" did not lead to the political reconciliation needed to stabilize Iraq, what does the administration believe to be the next step under the current strategy? Aren't we still at the same problem as before -- can the Iraqi security forces maintain stability when we leave, and is the Maliki government competent enough to run the country?

washingtonpost.com: GAO Report Faults Post-'Surge' Planning (Post, June 24)

Karen DeYoung: That pretty much covers it.

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San Francisco: Yesterday, the Washington Independent published a security assessment from an Iraq contractor, GardaWorld, that seems to show violence is up since October in Baghdad and steady in Iraq as a whole. I wonder if you've seen this analysis and have a comment on the difference between its conclusions and what Americans are being told about violence in Iraq since the "surge."

washingtonpost.com: Iraq Contractor Security Assessment Differs From Bush/McCain (Washington Independent, June 30)

Karen DeYoung: Haven't seen it. Will look.

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Fort Myer, Va.: I guess I hate myself for saying it, but I disagree with the president, at yesterday's signing of the $162 billion war bill, when he said that "our nation has no greater responsibility than supporting our men and women in uniform -- especially since we're at war." He added that "this is a responsibility all of us in Washington share, not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Americans."

Somehow -- and I'm war-weary, maybe -- there's not a a lot of shared responsibility, we haven't sold war bonds (if anything, the administration wants to reduce tax for some), we haven't moved our industry to a war footing, there haven't been any calls for sacrifice beyond those in the military and their families, and we've upped the ante in bonuses, etc., in the search for recruits. We haven't called for sacrifice, we haven't rationed anything. We're not at war, we're just fighting wars, and that's a different thing.

Karen DeYoung: I like the way you put that.

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Karen DeYoung: Time's up. Good questions, as always. Thanks for joining in.

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