A Decade Later, What Was Accomplished In Iraq
TOM GJELTEN, HOST:
Ten years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This is an NPR news special. I'm Tom Gjelten. Neal Conan is away. March 2003, U.S. troops sped up across the desert from Kuwait into Iraq. The goal was to topple Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator. Resistance to the invasion was light. Within weeks, the Hussein regime had fallen.
But then came the long occupation. A bloody insurgency emerged: car bombs, ambushes. Sectarian conflict tore Iraq apart. Eventually U.S. commanders adopted new tactics and thousands of extra troops were brought in to quell the violence.
In December 2011 the last U.S. combat forces pulled out of the country. Ten years later, we look back at the Iraq war. Where did it succeed? Where did it fail? Joining me now is NPR commentator Ted Koppel. He's the former host of ABC News "Nightline," and he's now a special correspondent on NBC's "Rock Center with Brian Williams." He's with us from his home in Potomac, Maryland. Ted, thanks for joining us. Good to have you back.
TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: Thank you, Tom.
GJELTEN: So Ted, I remember you gave us some of the first accounts of this invasion. You were there riding along with U.S. troops. If I'm not mistaken, it was troops from the Third Infantry Division. Is that right?
KOPPEL: You're exactly right, yes, and I left out the most important part. My then-producer, the late Leroy Sievers, and I walked many, many miles along the (unintelligible) Canal carting backpacks with 40-pound weights inside, and we didn't realize it was the Third Armored Infantry Brigade and we would never have to walk a step.
GJELTEN: You rode.
KOPPEL: We rode all the way.
GJELTEN: Leroy Sievers was a great producer, and he was of course a blogger for us here at NPR. And we remember him fondly. So you rode into Iraq in an armored personnel carrier. Take us back to those first few days, Ted. What are some of the thoughts that you have?
KOPPEL: Well, first of all, and I think it gets right to the point, Tom, of - as we look back now 10 years later, what did we believe back then. All I can tell you is we were wearing biochemical suits back then. We had gas masks strapped to our legs, strapped to our hips. And I had learned how to put that gas mask on in the requisite eight seconds that I was told by the military I had in the event of a gas attack.
The point I'm trying to make is you may remember the - it was a sad little joke, but it was a little joke before the invasion in February of 2003, and people said we know that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. We still have some of the receipts. And what they meant was that the United States and Britain and France and Germany had sold Iraq, sold Saddam some of the component parts for chemical weapons and indeed for poison gas, which he had used back in the 1980s against his own people in Halabja.
So in March of 2003, 10 years ago, the notion that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, the notion that he might use poison gas or chemical weapons against U.S. troops in the invasion force didn't seem at all ridiculous or far-fetched to us.
GJELTEN: And you had been trained to use those gas masks, to put on those chemical suits. Were you, Ted, personally convinced, or were you ready to believe that in fact Saddam had those weapons and was prepared to use them?
KOPPEL: Well, as I say, Tom, back in 1988, when Iraq was fighting against Iran - you know, we tend to have short memories in this country. Back in those days there was an eight-year-long war between Iran and Iraq - 800,000 people died in that war.
And the United States came down, claimed publicly neutrality, but came down on the side of Iraq and Saddam Hussein; so great was our fear of growing Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf that we came down on the side of Saddam. And the fact of the matter is that he used poison gas against his own people, against Kurdish Iraqis, in a place called Halabja in 1988.
And essentially the U.S. government neither did nor said anything about it. So the idea that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction was not an abstract notion. He had had them, he had used them, and the notion that he might use them again didn't seem at all strange.
GJELTEN: OK, so there's the issue of the WMD. Now in addition to that, Ted, of course this is just a year and a half after 9/11. We had seen an outpouring of patriotism in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, broad support for the war in Afghanistan. What do you recall, Ted, about the attitudes as we went into Iraq, both among the public and among the soldiers you accompanied?
KOPPEL: Well, if I may, Tom, let me stretch it back here into Washington and into the Bush administration. I think the attitude that existed back then was one of an almost existential nightmare, the thought that - and I'm really glad that you're raising the issue of 9/11, which after all occurred only a year and a half before this. And in the wake of 9/11, I think the great fear of members, senior members of the administration was what if that had had happened but with chemical weapons or with poison gas or, God forbid, even with a nuclear weapon.
Now, as we learned later on, Saddam had no nuclear weapons, had nothing like it, and indeed even his stockpile of chemical weapons and poison gas was much diminished. But the notion that weapons like that could be used against the homeland clearly was what motivated the Bush administration in those early months.
GJELTEN: I want to bring in now Frederick Kagan. He is the director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. He wrote the 2007 report "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq." We're talking to him from a studio at AEI. Fred Kagan, welcome to the program.
FREDERICK KAGAN: It's good to be with you.
GJELTEN: So Fred, Ted just laid out what weapons we knew that Saddam Hussein had had. He of course is no longer in power. Looking back, what are your thoughts today, Fred, about the worthwhileness of this war?
KAGAN: Well, I think Ted laid out the context extremely well. Certainly everyone believed that Saddam had a nuclear weapons program, partly because he was working very actively to persuade everybody that he did, even when he didn't, and that was a major concern, and of course equally certain he was an incredibly vicious dictator.
So it was an accomplishment to remove him from power, and it was an accomplishment, I think, to give the Iraqi people, after considerable tribulation and a number of errors and sacrifices on our part, the opportunity for a different kind of future and a more democratic kind of future.
Whether they will actually get there or not I think is very much in question at the moment, and I think part of that has to do with the way things evolved in Iraq, and part of that has to do with the way U.S. policy has evolved subsequently.
GJELTEN: I have a question here for both of you. Considering what you have said and laid out as the thinking that lay behind this decision to go to war, what options, if any, did the United States and its allies have at that moment, thinking, believing, knowing that Saddam Hussein had had weapons of mass destruction? First you, Fred. Do you at the time and perhaps now in hindsight see options that the United States had and did not follow?
KAGAN: Well, if you mean options to ensure that Saddam did not have a weapons of mass destruction program, we had pretty much exhausted all of the other options since Saddam had expelled the international inspectors that had been looking at the program and issuing, frankly, rather alarming reports about it.
And our own intelligence services had come to the conclusion that he did have them. So clearly there wasn't an option other than actually going in and looking to make the determination that he did, or in this case actually didn't.
GJELTEN: What about you, Ted? Do you - looking back, do you see that the United States had options that it should have considered more carefully that it did?
KOPPEL: I think it did. We did a program on "Nightline," oh, I guess about a month before the invasion called "Why Now," and that's the question that I not only raised back then but would raise now also. I don't think there was any reason to believe that the nuclear - that Saddam's nuclear program was advanced, certainly, let's say, beyond the point at which Iran's nuclear program has advanced today.
There was no reason to draw any connection other than the ones that I drew a moment ago between the events of 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. The notion that he had somehow been in any way complicit in or responsible for the events of 9/11 was nonsense and I think was perceived by most people at the time as being nonsense.
So was it essential that we went to war? Absolutely not. And was it essential that we went to war as we did, which is to say without raising a nickel in additional funding for the war? If you look back now, and you look at the trillion, trillion and a half, maybe even more, dollars that were expended on that war and look at the financial situation that we're in right now, setting aside for a moment the 4,500 dead, setting aside for a moment the 35,000 wounded, setting aside for a moment the 70,000 Americans with PTSD, which is a very hard thing altogether to set aside, it was a strange war to get into.
I'm fully aware of what the psychological context was at the time. But was it the right move? No, it was not.
GJELTEN: And Fred Kagan, I assume you would not dispute this idea that in fact in hindsight Saddam Hussein should not have been held responsible for 9/11; in fact there was a group affiliated with al-Qaida that was in Iraq at the time, but they were actually enemies of the Saddam Hussein regime, weren't they?
KAGAN: I've never believed that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attack, and certainly it was not. As it happens, the al-Qaida group that was in Iraq before 2003 led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi turned out to be, whether he was an enemy of Saddam, quite a significant enemy of ours and a member of the global al-Qaida movement. But he was not involved in 9/11, and that was never a reasonable reason to be arguing for the invasion.
GJELTEN: All right. Well, Ted Koppel, thanks so much for joining us. It's always good to have you on the program. Frederick Kagan...
KOPPEL: Thank you, Tom.
GJELTEN: And we look forward to seeing you again. Frederick Kagan, please stay with us. After a short break we're going to be joined by former Army officer John Nagl and Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich to talk more about the legacy of the Iraq war. There is so much to consider: the costs, the casualties, the current conditions in Iraq, the future of Iraq, and the broader regional context, from Syria to Iran to the Sunni-Shiite split in Saudi Arabia. Many topics to discuss, and we're going to bring them all up if we can. More in a minute. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is NPR News.
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GJELTEN: Ten years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This is an NPR News special. I'm Tom Gjelten. Today we're taking a look back at the Iraq war, a decade-long conflict that started with a shock and awe campaign, an aerial assault that struck at hundreds of targets in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk. A long occupation followed that initial strike, and today we're taking a look back at where the Iraq war succeeded and where it failed.
Our guest is Fred Kagan, director of the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project. And two more guests join us now: Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl is the Minerva research professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He's a retired Army officer with combat experience both in Operation Desert Storm an in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome to the program, John.
JOHN NAGL: Thank you, Tom.
GJELTEN: And Andrew Bacevich joins us now from a studio at Boston University, where he's a professor of international relations and history, and he is a former Army officer. Welcome, Andy Bacevich.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Thanks very much.
GJELTEN: John, let's start with you. You helped write the famous counterinsurgency manual, which guided U.S. operations in Iraq. Of course a question that people always wonder is whether we are as well prepared for the next war as we are for the last war. You know, it's often said that we fight the last war. Will there be another counterinsurgency situation like the one that we saw in Iraq and for which you wrote the manual, literally?
NAGL: I certainly hope not. It was a horrific series of mistakes, frankly, that led to the Iraq war, that - a bungled occupation after a war that initially didn't need to be fought. But for all the political mistakes that got us there, there were also critical military errors, a military in the wake of Vietnam had decided it wasn't going to fight this kind of campaign anymore, found itself totally unprepared for counterinsurgency.
And so when I fought in Al Anbar in 2003, 2004, sustaining very heavy casualties in my tank battalion task force, by the end of our year of very hard fighting we were no further forward than we had been when we started. And so it was that sense of loss and of failure that really led us to try to create something not cataclysmically bad out of the situation we found ourselves in.
GJELTEN: And John, you felt that sense of loss while you were there fighting?
NAGL: It was impossible not to. We lost five platoon leaders. We lost a company commander. We lost a first sergeant, 22 dead, 150 Purple Hearts just in my task force of some 800 souls. A battle captain made up coffee mugs when we got back to Fort Riley, Kansas, that said Iraq 2003, 2004, we were winning when I left. We weren't, we knew it.
GJELTEN: Andy Bacevich, you have written in a trenchant piece in the Washington Post a week ago that this war may be remembered the way the War of 1812 is remembered in this country. Now, I think it's fair to say that a lot of Americans really don't know very much about the War of 1812. So are you suggesting that this war will be remembered as kind of an unimportant war, a nonconsequential war? What is your idea here?
BACEVICH: Well, this is entirely speculative, of course, but yes, I am suggesting that in the longer run that history will probably view it as irrelevant to the big story. And I say that guessing that the big story, one of the big stories of the 21st century is likely to be this evolving Arab awakening, that people in the greater Middle East are determined to assert their own right to self-determination. They're going to decide their future.
And therefore in the long story of history, our effort to impose our will upon the people of Iraq, and more broadly our effort to impose our will on the greater Middle East will both fail and come to be seen as irrelevant.
GJELTEN: I'd like to go to you now, Fred Kagan, from the American Enterprise Institute, because Andy Bacevich brought up this issue of unrest across the Middle East, the Arab uprising that we call the Arab Spring. What connection do you see, Fred, between what happened in Iraq and the fact that Saddam Hussein was toppled and this subsequent outpouring of popular sentiment across the Middle East?
KAGAN: Well, I think it would obviously be a mistake to draw direct ties and direct links, but I think that the beginnings of an establishment of an Arab democracy in Iraq, which as Andy says was the will that we were trying to impose on the Iraq people with a democratic system that is actually what the overwhelming majority of people involved in the Arab Spring are pushing for, I do believe that there was a modeling effect, and I do believe that there was a useful spur in the notion that dictators could be removed, permanently removed, and then replaced by elections among Arab peoples that were free and fair and brought into power new governments.
And I think that that was a part, but only a part, of a catalyst of what I agree is a fundamental transformation in the Arab world.
GJELTEN: John Nagl, did you see any moments in your time fighting in Al Anbar Province where the Iraqi people were encouraged by the prospect, the hope of sovereignty that they had not had before? There must have been some bright moments.
NAGL: There were very few. I was in Al Anbar Province, as you mentioned, which is overwhelmingly Sunni. The Sunni population had enjoyed disproportionate power in Iraq prior to our invasion. And so the Sunni population of Al Anbar felt dispossessed, very dissatisfied by both the American occupation and the fragmentary beginnings of some degree of Iraqi government in Baghdad once the American occupation officially ended.
And so the Sunni tribes were upset by what had happened, and they were so upset that they were willing to fight and bleed and die, as well as kill us to prevent - in an attempt to prevent that eventuality from happening.
GJELTEN: Andy Bacevich, your book "The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War" is coming out in an updated edition this month. What lessons are you highlighting right now from the Iraq war for the way that Americans and U.S. administrations approach war in the future?
BACEVICH: Well, I think one of the things that we ought to learn is that the expectation that American military power, often described as American military supremacy, the expectation that this is an all-purpose instrument for solving problems is an illusion. We need to recall the extent to which I think the mood that existed prior to the Iraq war that helped to persuade people foolishly to think that this was a necessary enterprise to some degree derived from the expectation that we would win a quick, decisive, economical victory.
That turned out to be wildly mistaken. And so looking forward, we need to be more modest in our expectation of what force can achieve, and I think more broadly we should be modest in our expectation about what American power and influence can achieve in the world.
GJELTEN: Fred Kagan, we're being pretty negative here about the way that this war went. And you have joined in some of that criticism. But I want to go back to something that you mentioned earlier that we didn't give you a chance to expound on, and that's that you partly blame U.S. policy in this fiasco, to use the title of a book that one of our upcoming guests, Tom Ricks, wrote.
Was there a way that the Bush administration and then the Obama administration could have conducted this war that wouldn't have left it to be such a disappointment as it has turned out to be?
KAGAN: Well, I believe that there was, and in fact before the invasion I was writing and already concerned that lessons that had been drawn in Afghanistan were going to be applied to Iraq and principally those that Andy Bacevich referred to, namely that we could somehow do a really clinical, quick strike, not stay very long, be in and out and be done.
And by the time the Iraq invasion got going it was already plain to me that an attempt to that in Afghanistan was not working. So I think obviously from the outset we should have understood that this was going to be a significant undertaking, that if you were going to remove a government and an army, that you're going to making a long-term commitment, and it would've been a good idea to have John Nagl and his troopers and all of the others with him armed with an intelligent doctrine for how to go about doing this if we were going to do it at all.
I think that we allowed the situation to deteriorate for far too long in the hope that elections that were held at the end of 2005 would resolve the problem, and we discovered, which shouldn't have surprised us, that elections don't solve problems on their own. We then conducted the surge and reversed some of the damage that our mistakes and that our enemy's activities had caused, and created a situation that was very precarious when President Obama took office. And I think unfortunately this administration has never seen Iraq as a priority and has never wanted to devote a lot of energy to it, either politically or militarily. And I think that it was unfortunate that at a moment when Iraq actually required quite a lot of the kind of nonmilitary attention that so many people say the Bush administration should had been paying, it didn't get even really that from this administration.
And as a result, we had a government formation process in Iraq that went very badly and where the U.S. position was very passive, and I think, largely not helpful. And, of course, the Obama administration attempted to negotiate an extension of American forces past the end of 2011 and failed to accomplish that negotiation. And I think that that failure was very important and has had some very negative consequences.
GJELTEN: OK. Fred Kagan, thank you so much for joining us. I know you have to leave.
KAGAN: My pleasure. Thank you.
GJELTEN: Fred is the director of the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project. He's also the author of the 2007 report "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq." John Nagl, Fred suggests that maybe you and your fellow battalion commanders perhaps could have been better prepared for what you saw, and if so, maybe things would have turned out differently.
NAGL: There's no doubt we could have been better prepared. The American Army in the wake of Vietnam neglected counterinsurgency. I didn't study it at West Point. I never trained in it in any of the Army preparations for battle that I participated in, in well over a decade of training. In fact, when we got the abrupt orders to deploy to Iraq, we were conducting preparations for a conventional war against another enemy tank army, one which no longer existed anywhere in the world that we could conceivably fight. So the Army ignored those lessons.
But Fred misses some other things that we could have done and should have done differently. The number of the troops we deployed to Iraq to initially topple Saddam Hussein's government was hugely inadequate to secure all of the supposed weapons of mass destruction sites that were the reported cause of the war, so there was a gross mismatch between the objectives we had and the resources we had to accomplish those objectives with. And so when I got to al-Anbar, six months after Saddam fell, there was a huge arms dump at Taqaddum Airfield, literally hundreds of thousands of weapons completely unsecured, weapons laying in the ground.
Defenses around the facility had been torn down and sold for scrap metal by the Iraqi people. So the national policy in proportioning against the means, the decision to disband the Iraqi army - which was ready and willing to secure Baghdad to keep the insurgency from erupting to the extent that it did - we actually poured fuel on the flames of the insurgency by disbanding the Iraqi army. The mistakes just piled one after another, multiplying each other.
GJELTEN: You're listening to NPR News. Andy Bacevich in Boston, I'm guessing that you would argue that this war was not worth it.
BACEVICH: Oh, I would. I mean as I listen to both Fred Kagan and John Nagl talk about the things that we could have done to perform somewhat better, and I'm sort of nodding my head and saying that's probably true, that's probably true, but it misses the larger question of whether or not the enterprise was necessary in the first place. And I would argue that it wasn't. I mean if Fred Kagan wants us to stay longer in Iraqi, we need to remind ourselves that the war has already cost us something in the order of $2.2 trillion.
That's the latest estimate from the Brown University Cost of War Project. We lost almost 4,500 Americans dead, a couple - tens of thousands others wounded, lives shattered, probably something in the order of 140,000 Iraqis dead. And it need not have happened, and it should not have happened. And it seems to me that that is the most important thing for us to focus on as we consider the 10th anniversary of the war, not whether or not an American army more interested in fighting counterinsurgencies might have been somewhat better postured to do so.
GJELTEN: Andy, you mentioned the 4,500 American service members who died in Iraq, and I want to, sort of, dwell on that for one second because you said something very interesting in a recent interview when you were asked by - it was by Bill Moyers actually what will all of our soldiers have died for there, and this is what you wrote - I think this is very poignant. I think the answer to that question is that they died for their country. Soldiers don't get to choose the wars that they fight.
They are sent to serve. They are sent with an understanding that they may be called upon to sacrifice, and the value of the sacrifice is inherent in the act of sacrifice and is independent I think of questions about the merit of the policies that sent the soldier into harm's way in the first place. That's really quite a strong statement because you are not willing to say that the soldiers who died - soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq, died needlessly.
BACEVICH: Well, no, I'm not willing to say that, and I mean I think the judgment applies more broadly. John's war is our war in Iraq, our 20-year long war in Iraq. My war happened to be the Vietnam War where we lost an even larger number of Americans in a conflict that I think most of us, in retrospect, view to have been both grossly mismanaged and also unnecessary, and also to have ended in failure. But I'm not inclined to stand in judgment and say that those 58,000 Americans died for no purpose whatsoever.
They died for their country in a cause that they did not choose. And I think that applies also, that judgment should apply to the Americans who sacrificed their lives for their country in Iraq, despite the fact that I think, historically and politically, this was a catastrophic error.
GJELTEN: John Nagl, how do you deal with the painful reality of all the soldiers you lost?
NAGL: They are with me very often. And my hope is that the efforts General Petraeus, myself, others made to try to turn the war around, to keep it from only being a catastrophe, to prevent further bloodshed from having to happen, to allow us to depart Iraq with some semblance of a responsible government there and some degree of our national objectives at least possibly being met, that that effort pays them some of the tributes that they earned.
GJELTEN: John Nagl, lieutenant colonel, Army - U.S. Army retired, command of the - a tank battalion in Iraq. He's now Minerva Research professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. Thank you so much for coming in, John.
NAGL: Thank you.
GJELTEN: And Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations and history at Boston University, also a retired Army officer. Thank you, Andy.
BACEVICH: Thanks very much.
GJELTEN: Up next, Tom Ricks and a former fixer and interpreter for NPR, join us. Stay with us. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is NPR News.
Ten years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This is an NPR News special. I'm Tom Gjelten.
Today, we're talking about the 10 years since the U.S. invaded Iraq. 10 years, though, is a kind of a tricky number. 10 years ago yesterday, the United States gave Saddam Hussein an ultimatum, leave Iraq in 48 hours or face invasion. The first strikes of Operation Iraqi Freedom came two days later, the night of March 19 in Washington, a day later in Baghdad. And by May 1st of that year, President Bush declared major combat operations over.
Joining us now is Tom Ricks, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He's most recently the author of "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to today." He joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome back, Tom. Good to see you again.
TOM RICKS: Thank you.
GJELTEN: And we're also joined by Kais Al-Jalili, an Iraqi now living in Chicago. He was an interpreter and fixer for NPR in Iraq between 2004 and 2009. He joins us now by phone from Chicago. Welcome to the program, Kais.
KAIS AL-JALILI: Thank you, Sir.
GJELTEN: We'll actually begin with you, Kais. Tell us very, sort of, succinctly, briefly, your experience of those five years of war in Iraq.
AL-JALILI: Yeah. My experience working in Iraq with NPR - it's two hands. One hand, it's really - I enjoyed it. I liked it. The other hand, it's extremely dangerous to work the job in Iraq during the war and to have - you can't imagine how dangerous working for NPR, but it's happened. And it was - one of them in 2006, one of the example, I get kidnapped. I was doing interview with the - one of the minister. In my way back home, they stopped me. They pulled me out from my car. They hit me. Thank God, they thought I'm dead. I had a brain injury. That how I gets released. So it's a lot of things happened. I joined Najaf war. I joined Fallujah war. All - every war in Baghdad since 2004 and 2009, I was there.
GJELTEN: And you saw it all?
AL-JALILI: I saw it all.
GJELTEN: Yes. Kais, what would say is the - is, you know, sort of the feeling of - I'm sure that many Iraqis have different feeling. Iraqis have different feelings about this war. I mean, there were segments of the population that were brutally repressed by Saddam Hussein. And no doubt, they're glad he's gone. There are, of course, sectors of the population that were favored by Saddam Hussein. Certainly, there must be some Iraqis who feel that this war has accomplished something.
AL-JALILI: Yes. They say different opinion of the Iraqis, of the whole - like some - especially for Sunnis, now, they feel weak because if the - especially after the American troops left Iraq because they've been - they've - Americans were supporting them. They gave them some support because now, a lot of neighbors, countries interfering Iraq. Iraq is open borders, like the - everybody can interfere in Iraq and most especially against the Americans. And they play the game in Iraq because it's open area. So people feel very weak, like most of the Sunnis and the Christians. They just feel sad. So they feel - Americans to stay better than leave. The other peoples, they don't want American troops to stay. It's really complicated and especially - also Prime Minister Nouri Maliki - most of the Iraqis now feel he's a dictator again because he didn't, like, you know, pay attention for the - like any - respect people, anybody who won't ask for the needs, he don't pay any attention for them.
GJELTEN: Many Iraqis, you say, feel that Maliki is a dictator, not necessarily in the same mold as Saddam Hussein but a dictator, nonetheless.
AL-JALILI: No, they're different. Yeah, the same name but in different ways.
GJELTEN: Mm-hmm. Tom Ricks, so you've got a new book out, "The Generals." How did this war change - over the course of these 10 years, how did the war change the commanders who commanded it?
RICKS: We don't know yet partly because the U.S. military has been reluctant, extremely reluctant to review what happened there, being strategic in terms of leadership. They've done a lot of work looking at it tactically, the small unit level, how we fought and so on. The amazing thing to me is there's nothing like The Pentagon Papers. There's nothing like the review that the Army did in 1970 of the state of its officer corps, the sort of period of sober reflection.
I'm quite worried by the state of the military, especially the Army, about this. I think they're going to blame what happened on civilian leadership, and they're going to come away with a lesson, you know, we did pretty much everything right. Sure, there were mistakes, but pretty much everything right is all the civilians' fault. And I think that's a terrible lesson to take away, and it amazes me that there was less reflection going on now in the U.S. military than there was after the Vietnam War.
GJELTEN: Of course, that's - you're saying that in spite of the fact the U.S. military actually has institution called the Center for Lessons Learned, and you're saying that you're not convinced that lessons have been learned from the military point of view. We're not talking about geopolitics here. We're talking about the way wars are fought.
RICKS: Yeah. How we fight at the tactical level, sure. The Center for Army Lessons Learned reports are great up to the level of colonel, but you will search in vain for any criticism of our leadership out there. And that's striking because tactically, we were magnificent. We never lost a platoon out there, let alone a regimen. In the Korean War, we lost a whole army regimen of the east side of Chosin Reservoir. We never had mass casualties, big military disasters. Abu Ghraib was a disaster but not quite a military one.
But what they never criticized is, hey, General Sanchez really screwed things up. Hey, we wasted a lot of time not adjusting. Hey, Tommy Franks thought the war was over when he got to Baghdad. You will not find those discussed in official Army conclusive studies about the lessons learned.
GJELTEN: What is to say about state of civil military relations? Do you think - I mean, have you found commanders to be sort of overly differential to their civilian leaders or, you know, maybe the opposite that they're overly inclined to, as you said in the beginning, to blame their civilian leaders?
RICKS: I think, generally, there's sort of a cultural reflex in the military to blame the civilian leaders. The civilian leader response, of course, is to pick people they generally find pliable and manipulable, especially in the Bush and Rumsfeld era when they picked Chandler the joint chief they thought they could intimidate.
I think that Obama has done somewhat better with this. At the same time, the Obama people seem to think they should be able to push around their generals and don't really like it when generals ask tough questions, like General Mattis, who is actually retiring from Central Command early this week, is leaving in part, I am told, because he asked a lot of tough questions like if you get an Iraqi - an Iranian nuclear deal, what happens at them confronting you conventionally and try to push the U.S. Navy out of the Persian Gulf? They don't want to hear those what-then questions, and that's kind of a duty of generals to ask those.
GJELTEN: Mm-hmm. Kais Al-Jalili, as an interpreter for NPR in Baghdad, I'm presuming that you were out with NPR reporters as they interacted both with the Iraqi population and also with U.S. forces. I'm wondering what your impressions were, Kais, about the way that U.S. forces interacted with the Iraqi population. Did you sense, did you see evidence of sensitivity, of understanding of outreach or the opposite?
AL-JALILI: Yes, the problem is - the big problem is they misunderstand both American coalition and the Iraqi people. That's a huge problem. Misunderstanding each other, that's what the problem happened in the beginning, especially in Fallujah, Ramadi in the 2004. And it's (unintelligible) when - sort of when Saddam left, everybody was happy. But after that, it's - a lot of things happened and a lot of parties (unintelligible) up and then not showing up and especially Iran. It's interfering Iraq in almost everything. So that's - make a lot of change. People get really tired of all this happening.
The sectarian violence was number one in 2006 and '07. It was the worst two years in Iraq. The sectarian violence, that's - it's really a huge problem happened in between Sunni and Shia and the Christian also. And, you know, what happened in Sadr City and Fallujah and not just everywhere, that's after the war. So it give people really bad reaction, but we don't know what to - how to defend themselves.
RICKS: I think it's significant that he mentions Iran here. We've had a conversation here, and it's been a good one. But I think Iran is such a key thing. I'm glad that it was brought up, and it's interesting that it was brought up by an Iraqi participant in this conversation. How we remember the Iraq War, I think, will, and to a surprising degree, turn on what happens with Iran over the next 10 to 15 years. Did we open the way for a vast expansion of Iranian power westward?
GJELTEN: What do you think about that, Kais? I mean, you left, of course, in 2009. There was still U.S. troops there at that time. You mentioned already it was clear that Iran was gaining influence there. I'm curious the extent to which you're still in touch with people in Iraq. Is that a greater concern even now?
AL-JALILI: Yes, sir. Every single day, I receive text message, phone calls, Facebook, everything on from my colleagues and friends back home and relatives. And most of them, like even - like they told me what's happened in Baghdad street or the people saying like about concerning from Iran side because like a few days ago in Kalimah area, they found a holy Koran book, it's a bomb. They opened it. They found a bomb inside the Koran. And a lot of cellphone charger, a lot of things that all people they thought it's from Iran. So people having this in their mind in Iraq right now, and they're afraid (unintelligible) back again and - or some of my friends they told me it's already - it's going to start again.
GJELTEN: Tom, the Shia population in Iraq was suppressed under Saddam Hussein. And in - it would seem that in any kind of post-Saddam Iraq, inevitably the Shia are going to have more power than they had previously. To what extent is some of this inevitable? Iran's influence sort of being greater in Iraq than it was under Saddam?
RICKS: Well, I think it's actually one reason we should reconsider whether removing Saddam was a good idea. I think we have taken a brutal dictator who was anti-Iranian and replaced him with an authoritarian leader who is pro-Iranian not a net strategic gain. One of the reasons we never should've invaded Iraq in the first place. But we also could see in the future the Syrian war merge with the ongoing Iraqi civil war and Sunnis splitting off from Iran to fight Maliki and to join Sunnis in Syria. The point, I think, needs to made in this conversation that we're talking about this war if it's over. It is for us, but it is not. Right now, today, Iraq is still more violent than Afghanistan is.
GJELTEN: And, in fact, if the war continues to deteriorate in Syria, we may yet see more U.S. involvement there. Tom Ricks is senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the author of a new book, "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today." You're listening to NPR News.
And we're talking about the - looking back at the war in Iraq 10 years later, 10 years from the date when we sent troops across the border from Kuwait and, of course, bombed in Baghdad. Tom, remind me - take - go back to those early days yourself as someone, a Pentagon reporter following this effort. How well did you do anticipating where this war was going to go? How did we all do in the Pentagon press corps or in the press corps sort of raising the proper questions?
RICKS: I think the press did a pretty good job, actually. I think we raised the questions. I remember one of my editors telling me in the fall of 2002, he was sick of all the articles I was writing about deaths at the Pentagon. I actually had a story slugged "Doubts" so you have one word named from our stories. And I gave it to him and he said, you know, Tom, I want fewer stories about the doubts the generals have and more stories about what's going to happen because this war is going to happen. And he was right.
But I think that's just the questions, the concerns we raise in our articles didn't resonate, didn't lead to congressional inquires partly because there was no information for people to ask questions. I think the American system was not working. We had still - we were still knocked off our equilibrium by 9/11. And it took about another five or six years, I think, for the American system to start working again. If I - I would actually blame the Congress much more than I would blame the press for failures in the run-up to the war.
GJELTEN: There is an important chapter in this war that we need to spend a minute or two on, and that is the decision to surge U.S. troops there in 2007. And I'm going to ask in a minute, I'm going to ask Kais Al-Jalili, our former NPR interpreter in Iraq, what he saw as a result of that surge. But what did you - what's your analysis now of the surge and whether it was a success in neither a sort of short-term sense or a long-term sense?
RICKS: The surge was a short-term success and it created the conditions for the Americans to leave with some shreds of dignity. We were not chased out of Iraq. We left in an organized formal fashion. It was a failure in that we hoped - the American government hoped that the surge would create an opening for political movement forward. And, in fact, the more of an opening we created, the more Maliki move backwards towards authoritarian dictator-type actions. And basically, we left and the war continued.
GJELTEN: And, Kais, you were there in 2007. You were out with NPR reporters. You were talking to Iraqis. You must've noticed any difference that came about as a result of the surge in terms of the violence experienced by the Iraqi population. What are your recollections?
AL-JALILI: You see - you're talking about like American leave Iraq?
GJELTEN: In 2007, we sent in an extra, what, 20,000 troops into Iraq in order to sort of put a lid on the violence.
GJELTEN: You remember...
AL-JALILI: Of course. And also - there are two sides of people, the one of against this and the other one they just welcome and because some of the Iraqis feel our government controlled by Iran. That's like 60 percent. People felt that. And so those people, they concern if America leave, they will be a very weak country and they - Iran could do - or other country they could do anything in Iraq that's why they feel not safe. On the other hand, with that government, they, of course, they want American troops to leave.
GJELTEN: Right. OK. Kais Al-Jalili is an Iraqi now living in Chicago. He was an interpreter and fixer for NPR in Iraq between 2004 and 2009. He joined us by phone from Chicago. Thanks, Kais, for talking to us.
AL-JALILI: Thank you so much.
GJELTEN: And Tom Ricks is also been with us. He's a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, most recently the author of "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today." And he made the very important and useful point that even though we're looking back at the Iraq war today, this week, in many respects that is an ongoing conflict, certainly, in the wider sense. Tom joined us here in Studio 3 A. Thomas, thanks for being here.
RICKS: You're welcome.
GJELTEN: From NPR News, I'm Tom Gjelten. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.