Mother Jones: Do you think the surge has been successful?
Paul Hughes: I think that there has been improvement in the security situation from a military perspective. I don’t think that we have data that addresses the primary security concern of the Iraqi citizen. It is not Al Qaeda. It’s regular street crime. People are still kidnapped for ransom. It’s still a big business over there. There is a great deal of thievery that goes on.
MJ: Is the street crime mixed in with an ethnic cleansing element?
PH: No, it’s separate. The criminal gangs will certainly take advantage of the political tensions and sell themselves to some organization that needs some dirty work done. Anything to make a buck.
MJ: What are the implications of that kind of insecurity?
PH: The point is if you listen to somebody say, “Security is getting better,” you have to understand the parameters in which they are defining the security problem. If you define it only as Al Qaeda being the problem in Iraq, you are just blowing smoke at people who are outside of Iraq because the ground truth is there is still a lot of violence going on. If we cannot help make the average Iraqi feel that his life is predictable—that he can wake up in the morning, he can go to work and feel like he is going to come home from work alive, that his wife can go through the market and his kids can go to school, they will have little faith in the government. When you talk about an insurgency, it is all about who perceives the government to be legitimate and if you cannot get the people on your side who say, “I believe this is a legitimate government,” you are not going to quell the insurgency. We have got the tribes in Anbar and Diyala focusing on Al Qaeda, and I am convinced Al Qaeda in Iraq is getting kicked from here till kingdom come. But the problem with it is that the tribes are doing it purely at the local level because they are fed up with things. We don’t know what they are going to do once they are through with Al Qaeda. Are they going to turn on us? Right now, they don’t have faith in the Iraqi government.
When I was in Iraq working on political reconciliation issues, the thing I have always walked away with is that these people are very tired of this war, emotionally and physically. But they don’t know how to end it because reconciliation is not in their experience. Under Saddam, you didn’t reconcile with people; you eliminated them. Based on their tribal roots, there is this dynamic of power and challenging power. It happens all the time. If you are in power, expect to be challenged and react in that manner. If you are out of power, your duty, your obligation is to challenge the power. So there is this continual back and forth about who is going to be in power and who is not. So the tribes are going to be playing out that dynamic. They don’t know any better.
MJ: One way to partially square that circle, some people say, is to devolve power from the center to regional units where those issues can be worked out inside the sects.
PH: If you want to do it in Anbar, it’s easy because 99.5 percent of Anbar is Sunni tribes. If you want to do it in Diyala or Baghdad, you’ve got a lot of different problems there because they are ethnically and sectarian-mixed areas.
LR: I see maps of Baghdad that show that it is basically becoming almost an all-Shiite city.
PH: The east is Shiite and in the west you are seeing some Shiite, but you also have several districts that are just in ruins that used to be Sunni. Some of my staff, who are Sunni, still defend their districts. They are not about to leave. If you want to achieve a level of political reconciliation, you cannot accept this cleansing, not in Baghdad. It is too much of a hot-button issue. Look at what we are going through in Kirkuk. And that one hasn’t even blown off the hinges yet like in Baghdad. So these people who are saying it is already happening so let’s just accept it, that is not the proper attitude.
MJ: The reality is so grim. How much more American blood and treasure will it take to prevent Iraq from dividing along sectarian lines?
PH: I am not sure that America has the resources or the political will to do what it takes. It’s been squandered. We began this war without the right planning in place. We began it by ignoring our allies and the advice of those more expert in the region than the people in the administration and now we’re living with the consequences. You can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Our challenge will be how to contain it to the region. I say that, and I am also one of those guys who supports a drawdown and a change of mission to where we put more of an effort into training the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police.
MJ: Is most of the fighting that’s going on primarily about wealth, resources, and power?
PH: It’s important that Americans understand that it is not a theologically based war; this is war about power redistribution. The people who had power want it back. The people who have it now don’t want to give it up. There is no room for compromise. Petraeus is succeeding in his security operations, but in the long haul that’s not enough if you do not have political reconciliation. At the national government level in Baghdad, they have no credibility living outside the blast walls of the Green Zone. Most Iraqis look at the government of Nouri al-Maliki as something that exists in the artificial atmosphere of the Green Zone. Maliki has no power base with which to really work from.
Maliki has not done a very good job of keeping anybody with him. But again he’s being asked to do something that is not in the Iraqi experience, and the American people are very short-tempered people. We tend to have zero patience or tolerance for others in the world who don’t react quickly to the way we do things. And that is just not the culture over there. It’s just not the culture.
MJ: Is there enough Republican pressure on the White House for it to change course?
PH: From my observations and from what I have seen in the news and from around town, I think there is a great deal of Republican pressure growing on the president in Congress to do something different. You’ve had [Senator Richard] Lugar who comes out and says he expects a change. You’ve had [Senator Mitch] McConnell say he expects a change.
MJ: Do you think the Bush administration is so afraid of being perceived as if they lost the war that they refuse to back off?
PH: I think that they firmly believe that they cannot be perceived as having lost the war. Every president in their second term always worries about their legacy and this one’s legacy is defined by the Iraq War. Whether he wants to accept it or not, that is just the way it’s going to be defined. This is going to be George Bush’s war. And there are those who differ with me, who say whoever is president when the war ends will have ownership of the war. This is George Bush’s war. This was a war that was initiated under a failed policy that has just not gone right in terms of the politics of it. There are just two things I would point out about how the administration has planned this war. They planned it without recognizing that war is the extension of policy by other means. This did have to have a political settlement to it in order for this to be terminated. I have never met an Iraqi general, not one, who ever said that we surrendered to you or that you defeated us. All those Iraqi officers I worked with to try to bring them over to us before Bremer showed up, not one of them ever said, “You defeated us.” They did not see themselves as a defeated country. They saw themselves as a military that had done what the Americans had asked it to. To step aside or to not fight. On the second point, the logical conclusion of any war is the reestablishment of peace. This White House and the Department of Defense chose consciously to ignore that fact. Under Rumsfeld, all he wanted to do was execute a regime-change operation and leave Iraq.
MJ: Does anyone deserve to be held accountable?
PH: I think so. I think that accountability will be done through historical analysis. I think that everybody who was involved in the planning of this war at the senior level will be held accountable by history at some point and time.