Mother Jones: Assuming a decision is made to withdraw the U.S. military from Iraq, what sort of timetable can we expect?
Williamson Murray: There are two or three distinct issues here. One, I would argue, is that a rush withdrawal would come with an absolute confrontation next year between the Democrats and the Republicans which in some ways Bush might almost want because the result would be catastrophic political fallout. We would not be able to get out lots of the stuff we now have. We would have to blow stuff up. We would have to fight our way out in some areas. Plus, we would be in the midst of massive civil war. It's going to have to be a measured withdrawal, or we will face a major catastrophe. I think a measured withdrawal with some hope of leaving behind something other than complete wreckage and chaos would require two or three years.
MJ: Some people believe we could be out within a month or two.
WM: Again, I am putting it into political context. If we tried to get out in month, we wouldn't be able to do it because civil war would explode.
MJ: How do you anticipate a withdrawal might work?
WM: Theoretically, the easiest way out would be on the highways through the south but the problem is that Moqtada al-Sadr and other groups down there are not our friends.
MJ: What about the Sunnis?
WM: To a certain extent, I think the Sunnis have woken up. Allowing Al Qaeda to have its full run in Iraq was doing them no good. Continuing with that might have pushed us to the point that where, if we got out, we might have turned everything over to the Shiites and just said, "Kill them all." So. I think the Sunnis recent move toward reconciliation is a very calculated one to prevent that from happening.
MJ: You're referring to their alliance with U.S. troops in Anbar Province.
WM: Yes, which has clearly changed the whole situation in western Iraq, or at least a considerable part of it. The problem is that these insurgencies—there are a number of them—were allowed to bubble along for so long. We sat on the sidelines and let them establish the insurgencies without creating the possibility of stomping on it. In fact, I would argue that this kind of buildup, had it occurred in April 2004, might have stopped a substantial amount of the trouble. But you know, I feel really sorry for Petraeus, who is left with this incredibly wretched situation. However it comes out, it probably is not going to do his reputation much good.
MJ: Do you think he has been set up as a fall guy for all of this?
WM: No. I don't think this administration is smart enough for that. They just don't understand any of the issues and the president is clearly not a guy with either the ruthlessness or the ability to get a sense for what's going on. It's almost like I wish you could wave a magic wand and just get the last five years to disappear. I mean, I can't think of anything they did that was good until they put Petraeus in. You know, it's what Lyndon Johnson did with General Westmoreland.
MJ: In other conversations Mother Jones has had with experts, they seem to agree that the roads south to Kuwait would bear the load of convoy traffic during a withdrawal. Few believe that we would exit through Jordan or Turkey. The prediction is that most combat troops will be airlifted from major bases and the rest of the heavy equipment will be driven out. Does that sound reasonable?
WM: Yeah, that sounds reasonable, unless of course the situation goes completely haywire. To get to the highways on the far side of the Euphrates River, which is the route that the Third Infantry Division went up during the invasion in 2003, we would have pretty safe cover. We can put plenty of air power overhead to ensure safe movement, but you have got to get out of Baghdad and across the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. That is where, if a civil war breaks out, we're going to have to pass through, meaning we are going to have to fight our way through groups that hate us and will fight us and are fighting each other. It will be a really messy situation.
MJ: Is that something that we could do?
WM: Yeah, we can get out and kill a lot of people along the way, but the pictures won't look very nice. That's why Petraeus has been very smart about this. This is not a situation in which we can win a military victory. We have got to get some sort of political settlement that will enable us to draw that, and get out, without confronting this kind of situation. The British basically ran away and somewhere between 12 and 14 million people were displaced. Now there was no television then. There was no international CNN to take pictures. This one will be recorded in all of its grisly shame, because we went into that place with the best of intentions, and only the grossest incompetence could have prevented any kind of beneficial outcome.
MJ: What sort of political settlement might help us ease the pain of withdrawal?
WM: The essential element right now is to get some sort of a Sunni-Shiite agreement on a government that they both can accept, some sort of consensus on transferring the population and dividing up the country, and some reasonable assurance that the Sunni are not going to be dominated by the Shiite, and that the Shiite are not going to be dominated by the Sunni. There is, of course, another nightmare in all of this in terms of the messiness of the situation between the Kurds and the Turks.
MJ: What might happen there?
WM: The Turks will just not accept any independent Kurdistan. They just flat-out will not accept it, nor will the Syrians. Also, both Jordan and Syria are being swamped by refugees. We may see some willingness in those two countries to play roles in mitigating the conflicts in Iraq, so that a stable political situation will allow us to withdraw the substantial portion of our forces.
MJ: What role does Iran play in all of this?
WM: Well, I think Iran is going to be part of it. Right now, they think they are on top, and that they are winning. This is one of those situations where there aren't easy answers. We don't have much we can do to pressure them. One wish is that in 2004, Kerry would have been smart enough to bring about a national debate on what was going on in Iraq, and the incompetence that marked our performance over there. We put the Iranians in the box, and described them as the "Axis of Evil" with the clear implication that they were next. Then we got stuck in the cookie jar of Iraq. So the Iranians will not let us off the hook. They have no reason to.
MJ: How is the Iraq Army performing lately?
WM: Well, it's doing better, but the issue is—this goes back to the insane decision in 2003—we started making an army out of nothing. No bureaucracy, no financial backbone, no logistical background, no supply organization. I mean, you just run through the list of things that they didn't have when we started them up. What's even more astonishing is that not only did we do away with the Iraqi Army when there was some sign that it was willing to come in and keep large numbers of people off the street, but then we didn't do anything to start building it up for another year. To me, that's the most insane piece of the puzzle.
MJ: As we move toward an eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, is there anything to be gleaned from the drawdown experiences of other occupying forces, say from the Soviets in Afghanistan?
WM: The Soviets ran Afghanistan about as badly as we ran Vietnam, and their getting out wasn't much prettier. They did manage to keep the Afghan communist regime in power another three or four years, but in the end all those guys were strung up and murdered by the Taliban in an unbelievably brutal and cruel fashion. The difference is that when we got out of Vietnam, we knew who our enemy was and who our friends were. When they got out of Afghanistan, they knew who the enemy was and who their friends were. In the case of Iraq, we don't know who the enemies are and who our friends are, except maybe the Kurds. It's a triangle. The Shiite are as much our enemy—particularly those supported by the Iranians—as the Sunni are. So again, I think what happens in terms of the political framework is going to be the essential element for how we get out. How is that going to happen? Well, I think Petraeus would give you a couple million dollars if you could figure that out.
MJ: Do you think that this political settlement will be reached before President Bush leaves office?
WM: I think it's very difficult to predict at all. I mean, things seem to be improving now. Certainly that seems to be the impression of most people who have been over there, but whether this is a short-term accommodation or long-term accommodation, who knows.