Americans should forget about winning hearts and minds as a prelude to establishing democracy in Iraq, an Australian security expert suggests, and instead focus on training national forces and meeting such basic needs of citizens as food and jobs.
"You are never going to get hearts and minds; you have to be more practical," said Peter Khalil, 31, who spent nine months beginning in September 2003 traveling across Iraq and meeting with L. Paul Bremer, the head of the former Coalition Provisional Authority, and other officials. "After security, the most important concerns of Iraqis are stomachs and pockets."
Bureaucratic jams and red tape have stalled the disbursement of U.S. tax money for funding crucial projects, he said. Only $1.2 billion of the $18 billion earmarked for reconstruction has been spent, and more than half of that on security, he added.
Khalil came to the United States this fall as a visiting scholar with the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. He was commissioned to produce a paper on U.S. policy options for rebuilding Iraqi forces and national institutions, and on the implications for political reform in the Middle East produced by this endeavor.
Khalil said the reelection of President Bush was important for continuity in Iraq. "I honestly think that can be an advantage, because keeping people who have worked on Iraq issues and have learned from past experience is better than sending out novices," he said. But the administration faces danger, he warned, if it becomes "less flexible and narrow with directives coming only from the top down."
There is no reason to "cut and run, given the genuine belief that democracy should take root in Iraq. They have gone too far; the gamble and the risks have been too great. If they do, we will end up with a completely failed state" and "immense suffering that will destabilize countries around it. The Bush administration has four years to follow through. In realpolitik it makes sense."
Khalil was born in Melbourne, the son of Egyptian emigres, Coptic Christians who fled their country during the days of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Khalil trained as a lawyer at the University of Melbourne and received his graduate degree in international law at the Australian National University. He later worked as a trade negotiator and strategic defense policy analyst. After dabbling in law, professional tennis, banking and in jobs at Australia's Defense and Foreign ministries, he ended up as a national security policy director for the Coalition Provisional Authority for Australia, which is part of the coalition in Iraq.
His fortuitous mix of qualifications and mastery of Arabic complemented his skills as a military analyst, making him ideal for an assignment involving crucial consultations with Iraqis on behalf of the CPA.
Khalil found himself negotiating with tribal chiefs and religious leaders, characters such as "Sheik Mohammedawi, lord of the Marshes," and with various commanders of factional fighters. He served as a coalition representative on the security committee of the former governing council with such figures as Prime Minister Ayad Allawi; Ahmed Chalabi, a member of the council; President Ghazi Yawar; and with Kurdish leaders.
Khalil said he read hundreds of books before going to Iraq but learned the most when he ventured out of the U.S.-controlled Green Zone to meet with tribal leaders, academics and working class Iraqis. He had to adapt to a cultural language to win trust. "If you pull up with four armored vehicles, you are not showing trust," he said.
He talked about a time when he spent weeks coaxing clerics to visit troops on Fridays. "They were stopped, searched and asked to take off their turbans for inspection before they boarded the helicopter. Some refused to get on board. These are just some of the practical difficulties," Khalil said.
The new army, which so far has only 7,000 trained graduates, should include a mix of officers from the former Iraqi army and new recruits, he recommended. Thousands of other forces are being trained on counterinsurgency tactics, rapid-response skills and SWAT team action as part of the Interior Ministry, he added. "The most important elements of the training are not so much on the tangible hardware equipment but the underlying principles that underpin military structures, such as transparency and civilian control of the military and an even power distribution among executive officers reflecting Iraq's demographics."
He said he believed that "once Iraqi forces increase in number and capability, it is a losing game for the insurgents.
"When they can maintain security and keep young men gainfully employed, most Iraqis will support them. This is crunch time for the insurgency's agenda. They don't want to allow Iraqi forces to grow and develop."
Khalil said that "rebuilding Iraq's security sector institutions will have an impact in the region, not only on security but on political reforms."
It is crucial that the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra and other towns in the area known as the Sunni Triangle be retaken from insurgents and that Iraqi security forces stabilize these area, he said, so the Sunni population can vote in elections planned for January.
"Worse than having no elections at all in January is having elections in which only two-thirds of the country is represented," he said. "That would create an illegitimate government."