Mother Jones: It's increasingly looking like the White House will try to maintain a maximal U.S. presence in Iraq for the duration of this administration. What are the implications of there still being something like 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in December 2008?
Colin Kahl: The administration is likely to let the surge die its natural death, claim some progress, and then claim to ride out the highest possible sustainable level of forces until the end of the administration. The intent is to basically provide sufficient population security so that the various Iraqi parties can reach some accommodation, both at the national level and at the local level. Having forces of above 100,000 is pretty significant politically. If you pursue these high levels of troops through the end of the Bush administration, you risk creating such a backlash with the next administration that you kind of pull the plug on Iraq altogether.
MJ: Some people have argued that even a couple years ago, the atrocity level of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia had turned the Sunni tribes against them. Those tribes are equally against the Americans, but we're alliances of convenience at the moment.
CK: If Al Qaeda lives in their neighborhood, Al Qaeda is trying to dominate their political space, and so Al Qaeda in Iraq is their number one proximate enemy. I think the number two and three enemies on their list, however, are some combination of the Shiite government and what are perceived to be their Iranian patrons. And then the fourth threat on their list right now is the Americans. So the Americans are useful because we help target and eliminate Al Qaeda in Iraq, their proximate enemy, while deterring the Shiites and what are perceived to be their Iranian patrons from asserting dominance over Sunni areas. We are useful in the short term, but also to help build up their defenses against the prospect that once we leave the Shiites will massacre the Sunni. So it's not that they love us. It's that there are longstanding tribal engagement efforts. This is something we've been trying to do for years, but it has been unsuccessful. The launch of the tribal engagement efforts allowed us to seize an opportunity.
MJ: So there were these longstanding efforts—sort of enemy-of-my-enemy logic—already occurring. Did the surge influence that? Was there another element that made the surge so successful in the past few months?
CK: First, let's start with how the surge was framed, and how success was supposedly going to be measured when the surge was announced. Success was going to be measured in several ways. One was, is the surge having an effect in lowering overall levels of violence?
MJ: Some would argue that it just takes more time of the violence level being down for political progress to take hold.
CK: That strikes me as a little wishful thinking. Magic Eight Ball stuff, to be completely candid.
MJ: Is the implication of this a soft partition? Do the players foresee now a time in the next five years when the U.S. will not be there in a big way?
CK: Most analysts believe that Iraq is headed firmly in the direction of what we might call a highly decentralized state. Some people call it 'soft partition,' which it may, be but I think it's just that Iraq's population is fundamentally un-mixing. There have always been parts of Iraq that have been dominated by particular sectarian ethnic groups, but there have been huge swaths of Iraq that have been very mixed. Baghdad is on the brink of becoming a Shiite-dominated city when it used to be incredibly intermixed.
MJ: Is there any security or logistical concern for the American forces about moving out? Do you foresee someone trying to make it embarrassing for them if they leave because they don't want them to go?
CK: The big question is whether you are going to totally withdraw American forces. That would have to be done with a lot of careful thinking, because the people I speak to say as a rule of thumb that given the number of forces and the amount of equipment we have in Iraq, and given the dangerous circumstances, it'll take about a year if all you want to do is get our troops out, and it'll take two years if you want all their stuff out. All people talk about a precipitous situation. What would that mean? I think that would mean a withdrawal that is shorter than a year or a year and a half. And there is danger when we withdraw large numbers. We're not talking about withdrawal of 50,000 troops in that context. We're talking about if you start to cut the force in half. If that is not done carefully, there are risks. There are groups that will try to establish their credentials by attacking us so they can claim they drove us out. There may be incentives, something a lot of people aren't talking about, to leave Iraq the way we came, which is down south. We'll have to go through southern Iraq, which the British are withdrawing from, where violence is increasing, where the Iranians have a lot of influence, and where Shiite and Iranian groups may have incentive to do things to American forces to bloody their noses on the way out.
MJ: What about the concern about Al Qaeda dropping bridges?
CK: Earlier this year, there were a couple of high-profile demolitions of bridges by the insurgents. There are only something like 13 bridges in Baghdad. If they were blown, that would funnel American forces into a small number of bottlenecks that could be targeted. That is one theory of why the bridges were being blown up—just to practice. We have to plan to leave more carefully than we planned to enter. People thinking about this issue, whether they be groups inside the Pentagon or associated with Petraeus' command in Iraq, are not allowed to talk to each other. All of their efforts are basically secret and sealed off from one another. It's such a political hot potato. Once it looks like we're doing contingency plans for withdrawal, it's seen as politically problematic. But I will say the think tanks aren't the place where military planning should be done.
MJ: As we reduce our presence in Iraq, do you think this administration will feel that we're less vulnerable in a way, and that it might try to take action against Iran on its way out?
CK: There are some who argue that we need to demonstrate to the world that we can walk and chew gum at the same time, that even though we're bogged down in Iraq, we're still capable of doing enormous damage to our enemies, including the Iranians and their nuclear program.
MJ: Do you think that essentially there is undeclared war between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq, or is that overstating it?
CK: One could make the case that we're at war with Iran throughout the entire Middle East, but more in a Cold War sense of backing proxies than of killing one another. The dynamics are self-sustaining and are rooted in the fact that both we and the Iranians are seeking to influence politics throughout the Middle East. I think it's important to talk with the Iranians for transparency purposes, so that we can vent our concerns, and they can do likewise and maybe open up some space for dialogue on a very limited, narrow range of issues that we might have agreement on. I think it may also be important simply to demonstrate that we are willing to talk to the Iranians, period, which may have a broader diplomatic benefit. I don't know that anybody looking at it as a sober assessment believes that the talks will generate kind of a magical solution to Iranian involvement, let alone help the political problems in Iraq, in part because it's not even clear that the Americans and the Iraqi government are on the same page as it relates to Iran.
MJ: I know you've thought a lot about our moral obligation to prevent massive bloodletting from occurring in Iraq as the U.S. tries to disengage. Yes, in principle we have a moral obligation to stop that bloodshed, but what's achievable?
CK: If the goal is zero sectarian violence or zero violence that looks genocidal in character—what I mean by that is groups being targeted for their ethnic or sectarian identities—I don't think the Americans have the capability to stop all instances of genocidal violence in Iraq. It's proven, as a matter of fact, that we can't do it now, even though we are at the highest troop level of the entire war. But do we have an obligation to prevent all-out genocide? I think an argument can be made that we do. I mean, all-out genocide would look like an organized effort by the Iraqi government and affiliated militias to project power deep into the Sunni heartland and kill hundreds of thousands of Sunnis. There's a debate about how likely that is. I mean, one of the reasons for believing in a rough equilibrium of power within a highly decentralized Iraq is that it makes all-out genocide less likely, in the sense that the Sunnis would basically be too strong for the Shiites to wipe out.