The Decision to Surge: Inside the Security Council

Meghan O'Sullivan
Meghan O'Sullivan (Bill O'Leary -- The Washington Post)
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Meghan O'Sullivan
Former Deputy National Security Adviser on Iraq and Afghanistan
Monday, September 15, 2008; 1:00 PM

Former Deputy National Security Adviser Meghan O'Sullivan was online Monday, Sept. 15 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the research and decision-making process that led to the "surge" strategy in Iraq ( recently detailed in Bob Woodward's new book "The War Within") and the state of the war today.

The transcript follows.

O'Sullivan is now a lecturer and senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Prior to her position on the National Security Council she was a political adviser and Deputy Director of Governance for L. Paul Bremer with the Coalition Provisional Authority, and served in the Office of Policy Planning in the State Department.


San Francisco: The conventional wisdom is that the surge worked, but the fact is that the surge has failed to reach nearly all of the political milestones that President Bush said it would when he announced the surge in January 2007. For example, he said that Iraq would take over security in every province by November 2007. That didn't happen. He said Iraq would pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis. That didn't happen. He said Iraqis would hold provincial elections in 2007. That didn't happen. And so on.

Meghan O'Sullivan: The strategic review that took place in 2006 and 2007 acknowledged that the key challenge in Iraq is reconciliation - or better put, agreements among Iraqi leaders over how they are going to share power and resources. For much of the period from 2003-2006, the administration's strategy was based on the idea that such political bargains were the key to success. Political progress would bring about security improvements. The strategy review of 2006 looked hard at that assumption. And, based on what was happening in Iraq, people concluded that - while there is a complex relationship between security and politics - at a certain level of violence, one can't expect people so focused on daily survival to make good decisions about big political issues. So new strategy called for a focus on bringing down levels of violence and as a way of creating an environment in which Iraqi could make hard political decisions. Understandably, Americans (and many Iraqis) wanted there to be a seamless transmission belt between better security and politics. The reality, however, is that sorting through issues that will influence the shape of the country of Iraq for decades to come (much as our country's own debates over civil rights and states rights did) is as difficult as it seems urgent. And the jury is still out on whether Iraq's leaders will resolve the outstanding issues in the space that has been created by the new security environment. One can already point to a variety of ways in which the politics of Iraq have improved since the security situation has eased: Sunni-based political parties that boycotted the government in 2007 have returned to the cabinet; the Iraqi parliament passed legislation on de-ba'athification reform and pensions for former army officials; a law delineating powers between the provinces and Baghdad has been passed. In fact, according to the U.S. government, 15 of the 18 benchmarks that Congress demarcated for the Iraqi government last year have been met. That said, enormous work remains to be done - and much of it in very hard areas, over very central issues. The burden on Iraqi leaders to resolve outstanding issues such as oil, Kirkuk, election laws, and constitutional review is large.


Meghan O'Sullivan: Hello, I've logged on and am looking forward to answering your questions. Thanks for having me join you today. Meghan


Fairfax, Va.: If the surge was successful, why is Gen. Petraeus saying the situation in Iraq is so fragile that we can't bring the troops home any time soon, like the voters wanted in 2006? How much longer will it take the successful surge to bring the troops home? Or will we need more surges? And by the way, what does "victory" mean to your administration?

Meghan O'Sullivan: People closest to the situation in Iraq, like General Petraeus, are understandably cautious about the durability of the gains Iraq has seen over the last year. While the improvement in the security situation is impressive, there is widespread agreement among experts that it is no way irreversible. A number of factors - including but not exclusively the change in U.S. strategy and the infusion of more forces - contributed to the improved situation. Changing too many of these factors at once risks destabilizing the "virtuous cycle" that has helped the situation. Nevertheless, U.S. forces have begun coming home - the five brigades that entered Iraq in 2007 have all departed Iraq without any replacements. And the level of violence has not ticked upward, suggesting both that Iraqi forces are better able to handle security responsibilities with less (but still substantial) Coalition help and that the threat from Al Qaeda in Iraq and Shi'a militias has diminished. This is cause for optimism and helped make possible General Petraeus' recent recommendation to remove another brigade from Iraq by February of next year. But the cautious nature of these recommendations reflects the desire to maintain this "virtuous cycle" - and the recognition that declaring Iraq 'solved' too soon risks the gains for which the Coalition and Iraqis have fought. Ultimately, as I mentioned above, the situation in Iraq will be stabilized when its leaders have made further progress on tough political issues, when Iraqi forces have further consolidated, and when the region is supporting even more robustly Iraq's new government.


Bloomfield Hills, Mich.: Thank you for your service to our country Ms. O'Sullivan. Why wasn't the need for a troop surge in Iraq preempted by an occupation strategy that sent enough troops initially to achieve operational goals? Did the occupation strategy change over time, or was it really the same strategy all along, with varying degrees of success?

Meghan O'Sullivan: You give me the chance to explain a very important point. Too often, people have equated the strategy announced in 2007 by President Bush simply with the sending of more troops to Iraq. Perhaps more important than the insertion of additional U.S. troops into Iraq was the change in the mission these troops were given. Before the strategy review, the primary mission of U.S. forces was to train Iraqis to take over the combat missions and counterinsurgency operations. This mission was predicated on the idea that whatever U.S. forces can do, Iraqi forces can do it better and that we should err on the side of transferring responsibility to Iraqi forces as soon as possible, even in the face of possible concerns about their capabilities. This wasn't a crazy idea - it was one grounded in the belief that the primary challenge in Iraq was an insurgency base on a foreign occupation, so the sooner that foreign forces left or were made less visible, the sooner violence would come down. While there may have been a rationale for this line of thinking in 2004 and 2005, by 2006, the challenge in Iraq was more a sectarian conflict between certain Iraqi groups - not a conflict between the United States and an insurgency. In the eyes of many Iraqis, coalition forces had moved from being a major irritant to being the only neutral force between parties to the conflict. While Iraqis may have had issues with U.S. forces, many viewed them as the only possible keepers of the peace, especially in violence-ridden Baghdad. Many Iraqi forces, at the time, were viewed as sectarian and in some cases were actually parties to the conflict, not mitigators of it. In this new environment, transferring security responsibility to Iraqis as quickly as possible did not make sense; it was a recipe for further violence. The new strategy recognized this, and designated the primary mission of U.S. forces to be to help the Iraqis protect the population, to provide security to people. This new mission was deemed to be essential to bringing down the violence and creating an environment in which Iraqi leaders could decide how they would share power and resources - and thereby address the root of the violence. This new mission, it was recognized, was a more labor intensive mission and therefore required more troops - hence, the decision to send 30,000 more U.S. soldiers to Iraq. So, it is a long way of saying, our strategy changed - and it had too to help spur the improvements that Iraq has seen over the last year.


Arlington, Va.: I have a question about the politicization of "the surge." The left wants to point out that the surge was not a success (politically), and the right wants to take credit for a military success (I hate when the government takes credit for operational success). My frustration comes from the lack of reporting that delineates the political side of this from the operational side. Where can I read about the success or failure, without reading a reporters' view of the Bush administration, etc.?

Meghan O'Sullivan: I appreciate your desire to get a view of the war distinct from politics, and the difficulty in doing so. (Neither "camp" above has it quite right, of course. Politics are happening in Iraq, although slowly, slowly. And military success is striking, although not sufficient to ensure long term success.) In terms of leading you to the best sources of what is happening in Iraq, I would recommend the interviews and testimonies of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. Having worked closely with both men in Iraq in 2003 and again in 2007, I can attest that they are two people who are dedicated to presenting the realities in Iraq - the good and the bad, and in public and private. They are very aware of the dangers of misrepresenting a situation and have consistently applied the highest standard to the judgments they make and present to the country. There are of course many others who share the desire to report objectively on Iraq, but none with as much information and few with as much experience as General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. Both have done regular briefings from Baghdad, which are worth reading when possible in transcript form.


Richmond, Va.: There are a lot of analyses that say the "U.S. surge has been only partly responsible for the lowering of violence in Iraq, and has done nothing to help reconciliation, which what is was supposed to do." And yet, McCain, Bush, etc. talk about its being the only reason the violence is down. Why isn't the media calling them on this?

Meghan O'Sullivan: I can't speak for the media, but my feeling is that there has been a fair and interesting discussion of the factors contributing to the decline in violence over the last year. I've addressed the issue of reconciliation above, but let me take a moment to give you my view on the decline in violence. The improvement seen in Iraq over the last year is the result of a confluence of events. Of the most important of these developments are: the change in U.S. strategy ("the surge"), the "Awakening" (the mobilization of tribal groups to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq), and the cease fire of the largest Shi'a militia, the Jaysh al Mahdi (JAM). It is senseless to heap credit on one of these factors, without recognizing the synergy that existed between all three. The Awakening was gaining ground in Anbar when the strategy review was underway in Washington. In fact, input from Marines on the ground that additional U.S. forces in Anbar could help consolidate and expand this movement against Al Qaeda was one of the reasons why the president decided to send more forces to Anbar, as well as to send more forces to Baghdad for the population security mission. The JAM cease fire was also influenced by the shift of the Iraqi government toward confronting all those who broke the law, including Shi'a militia. The Iraqi Prime Minister and government get credit for this shift, but it was a prerequisite for the United States committing more troops to help the Iraqi government. Moreover, the surge helped sustain successful Coalition and Iraqi operations against such groups throughout the summer of 2007.


Cambridge, Mass.: Experts at the Center for a New American Security have proposed conditioning future U.S. assistance on Iraqi progress on political reconciliation. A key element of their plan is a timetable to withdraw all U.S. combat brigades. In your experience working with the Iraqi government to implement the surge strategy, do you think the CNAS "conditional engagement" plan would work?

Meghan O'Sullivan: The investment that America has made in Iraq - both in blood and money - has given it enormous influence. But often it has been a challenge to translate that influence into leverage to encourage Iraqi leaders to take specific actions. The United States should use its influence to encourage, cajole, urge Iraqis to move in the direction of reconciliation, but it needs to be cognizant of a few things. First, if we make a threat about withdrawing support, we need to be able and willing to execute it if the Iraqis do not come through. And this of course can have major implications as it means that we have to be willing to see Iraq fail. This is particularly tough when the consequences of Iraq's failure are significant for the United States. Second, before exerting such conditionality, one must be confident that one is asking the Iraqi government to do things that it actually has the capability of doing. Iraq is a very damaged and frail state and much of what seems like business as usual to Americans (such as the letting of contracts and the execution of a budget) actually requires capabilities that the Iraqis are just building. Thirdly, one should recognize that hard and fast deadlines about troop withdrawals will change the dynamics in ways that may actually make it harder for reconciliation to come about. Although things are changing quickly in Iraq, in the past, when the United States has signaled an intention to depart Iraq, Iraqi leaders have responded by turning inward and examining how to protect sectarian or tribal interests first (rather than Iraqi ones). In this new political environment (both in Iraq and the United States), aspirational timelines may be useful in allowing both countries to envision the end of the current U.S. involvement in Iraq - without mandating the withdrawal of combat forces regardless of the situation on the ground.


Dallas: Woodward's book lists several instances where generals in Iraq reported numbers that were wrong or misleading (e.g. the number of Iraqi police and soldiers trained). Were there any repercussions for reporting bad numbers? Should there be? Wasn't this similar to corporate management teams who fudge the numbers to fit their optimism?

Meghan O'Sullivan: One of the many lessons from the past years in Iraq is the importance of having the right metrics to measure progress. In the early years, the military reported numbers of Iraqi police and army that were trained, but these numbers did not necessarily reflect the actual number of Iraqis who were on the field at any given time. In fact, such numbers were often significantly wrong, as they did not reflect desertions, those on leave, those returning home to deliver pay, etc. These numbers were reported not because someone in the military was trying to intentionally mislead Washington, but because these were the best/only indicators available at the time. The problem this measurement created, however, was particularly acute because, in those days, the primary focus of our strategy was on building the Iraqi forces. This led to pressure for better metrics, which were devised and now allow the U.S. and Iraqi governments to get a better sense of the true capability of an Iraqi unit. These measures today take into account things like leadership and experience on the battlefield.


International Zone, Baghdad: Informally, most folks I work with believe that we will leave when the Iraqis tell us to leave. Do the Iraqis have a say in how much longer we stay?

Meghan O'Sullivan: Thanks for your service in Iraq. As you likely know, Coalition forces are in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi government and consistent with a UN mandate that provides, in part, the legal basis for their operations. Every year, the Iraqi government has made a request to the UN Security Council for the extension of this mandate, and the council has renewed the mandate to allow Coalition forces to stay. The Iraqi government has the right to request Coalition forces to leave at any time and, as many U.S. officials including President Bush have underscored, the United States would honor the formal request of the Iraqi government. There is an important wrinkle to this arrangement. In short, Iraqi and U.S. officials agreed last year that 2008 would be the final year under which Coalitin forces would operate under the UN mandate. Iraqi leaders felt (and feel) that the UN mandate - which calls Iraq a "threat to international peace and security" - makes them a second class citizen in the international community. So, the United States and Iraq agree to negotiate a strategic framework agreement, to include something akin to a status of forces agreement, to take the place of the UN mandate when it expires at the end of 2008. Negotiations have been happening in Baghdad for months on this agreement, with both sides struggling to come to agreement over tough issues such as immunities for American soldiers and the mechanisms needed to ensure Iraqi sovereignty over airspace, detentions, operations, etc. I understand many details still need to be worked out, but if this agreement is concluded, it will be a historic one in which a sovereign Arab country and the United States come to agreement on the terms of an equal partnership.


Arlington, Va.: After your experience in the government can you reccomend any book (or perhaps a Web site or magazine article) that best describes our foreign policy in the Middle East, especially in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? There is so much out there, and I would your appreciate your feedback.

Meghan O'Sullivan: Two books that I would recommend highly are "The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for the Middle East Peace" by Dennis Ross and "The Shi'a Revival" by Vali Nasr.


London: How important were actors outside of government in influencing a shift in strategy, such as those participating in the American Enterprise Institute's Iraq Study Group?

Meghan O'Sullivan: Some of the scholars at AEI played a number of very important roles in the shift in strategy. Fred Kagan came and, with other outside scholars, spoke to President Bush at Camp David in June 2006 - which was an early opportunity to air views that were outside conventional thinking on Iraq and helped ensure that the debate would consider all the options as it matured. But perhaps among the most useful role played by AEI scholars was their ability and willingness to be public advocates for a move - the addition of more troops into Iraq - that was nearly universally unpopular in the country at the time. As Woodward's book chronicles, there were active debates inside the administration and internal supporters of such a strategic shift. But these people were not in a position to discuss such views externally. Other outsiders also played important roles, by providing different perspectives, offering candid assessments, and challenging conventional thinking.


Bow, N.H.: According the Woodward (and other sources), the administration takes a strong position on civilian control of the military -- the civilians are in charge and get to make the ultimate strategic decisions. Most people would agree that this is how it is supposed to be. Why, then, does the administration take such pains to make people think the military makes these strategic decisions, and that we can only do in Iraq what the generals tell us to do?

Meghan O'Sullivan: As you know, our constitution specifies that there will be civilian control of our military. The chain of command goes from our commanders in the field, to the Pentagon and Secretary of Defense, to the President. True, President Bush often gave the impression that decisions on military matters were made by our generals in the field. This, I believe, was in part because he felt such decisions were often tactical and operational in nature (not strategic), because he had learned from history that micromanaging a war from the Oval Office can have disastrous consequences, and finally, because he wanted to assure Americans, especially military families, that he was not swayed by Washington politics in executing the war. There may have been too much deference to the field in the early years of the war, but there is no question that President Bush showed his willingness to make military decisions on strategy with the shift to the surge. But let me also say something on a more conceptual level. One of the great tensions throughout this war (and I would imagine any war) is how much weight to give decision makers in Washington and how much weight to give to the advice of the people in the field. And I speak as someone who spent close to 2 years in Iraq and more than 3 at the National Security Council in Washington. People in the field obviously have the best feel for things on the ground, are most aware of current dynamics and local complexities. There is no way people in Washington can know all of these nuances. Yet, the crush of daily happenings, and the need to manage the unexpected, can often frustrate the ability of people in the field to sit back and map out strategic trends and identify strategic impasses. So, leaving the strategy exclusively to those in the field is not also wise. Ultimately, the best strategy is going to be one with strong input from the field, but decision making on the grand contours in Washington, at the level of the president, who is ultimately responsible to the American people for the outcome of any such engagement.


Meghan O'Sullivan: Many thanks for joining me today. My apologies to everyone who had a question I was not able to answer. I enjoyed my time with you. Best wishes,



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