Mother Jones: If and when a decision is made to withdraw or draw down a significant number of troops, what’s a realistic time frame for doing that?
Colonel T.X. Hammes (USMC, retired): Frankly, I have no idea. It’s a function of how much you’ve gotta lift and how much stuff you’ve gotta lift it with, whether we’re willing to buy or rent or how much you’re willing to commit your air assets. The planning range could be very wide based on how much money you’re willing to spend and how much damage you’re willing to do to your airframes, all those sorts of questions. The big unknown is whether the Iraqis just let us go or want to contest us.
MJ: What do you think?
TXH: I think that for most of them, letting us go makes sense. They would rather we were out, and they’ll save their energy for what most of them feel is a coming war between Sunni and Shiite. The exception might be if a group feels it needs to polish its credentials as the outfit that drove America out of Iraq. Then they will be conducting attacks. How serious they are, not sure. Ideally, from their point of view, if that’s the reason for attack, they could conduct small attacks which allow them to get credit but without irritating America forces enough to really come after them.
MJ: So for the propaganda value.
TXH: Right. Because that’s essentially what it is about at this point, getting bragging rights for the great Islamic victory over America.
MJ: Make it seem like we’re running out of there with our tails between our legs.
TXH: Right. And that you did it. Because of course the opposition is extraordinarily fragmented. It’s got a whole bunch of different parts and pieces and none of them agree on much other than they want to get rid of us. So as they achieve that, then the next step is they have to resolve who’s going to run the country now that we’re gone.
MJ: It sounds like you think there’s a good possibility we might have to fight our way out to an extent.
TXH: I don’t think it’s going to be a huge fight. If they wanted to really dig in they could make it very painful for us, but in time it would take an enormous toll on them and if what I think is happening and they’re preparing for their next fight, they’re not going to want to spend all their forces on us. Because the downside is that although you get credit for driving the Americans out, you also suffer a lot of casualties that do you no good because you’ve got the next fight coming up.
MJ: Who is likely to prevail if we are to leave?
TXH: There’s no question the Shiites will be in charge because of their sheer numbers. The question will be which faction of the Shiite. Do they have a Shiite on Shiite fight? I think there are a lot of people who think the Shiite, once they have pretty much ethnically cleansed Baghdad, will be happy to let the Sunnis sit out in the western provinces and just not worry about them. But other than that they’re more interested in the fight over who runs the valuable part of Iraq, where the oil is.
MJ: Do you think the Sunnis would sit out the fight for the oil-rich parts of the country?
TXH: I think the Sunni will be busy fighting each other. I think we’re seeing early indicators of that. The Anbar awakening has helped clear out the province. I think what we might see there is the normal competition among the tribes and various power factions for western Anbar. There is some early indication that there is oil out there. They have to get enough stability for people to come in and complete the exploration and find it. And of course you have to figure out how to get it out of the country. The key problem would be if this thing really gets going—if we’re wrong and the Sunni do fight the Shiite and then draw in the surrounding countries, and then at that point you have got to do something about the source of revenue in the surrounding countries, so you go after the oil facilities. You’d be going for both Iranian and Saudi oil facilities.
MJ: How likely is the possibility this whole thing could spill over into the region?
TXH: I don’t really know. It’s really hard for an outsider to say how much this Sunni/Shiite thing will get rolling. One model of course is the India/Pakistan separation and that was over a million dead, but it was fairly brief and spasmodic. The danger in Iraq is the communities are so mixed.
MJ: The idea of partition has been floated. Is that a solution or will it lead to ethnic cleansing?
TXH: They’re already doing it. It’s not our choice of whether it will happen or not; that’ll be up to the Iraqis.
MJ: If we were to pull out, would the plan be to turn over our bases and equipment to the Iraqis?
TXH: That would be the plan. That’s what the British did down south [in Basra] and the base just got looted. The Iraqi army is not capable of defending it.
MJ: If we do turn over basic equipment to the Iraqi security forces, can they be counted on to remain unified and not split into militias along sectarian lines?
TXH: We don’t know. It’s going to depend on whether some of the units will be strong enough and whether the leadership will be strong enough. Others are already essentially militias. Some of the police forces that have been raised in Anbar or Baghdad, some of the all-Shiite battalions, some of them are essentially militias now. Really the only chance this place has of holding together is if the army holds together. And that’s a big question.
MJ: Is there a scenario you can imagine where the U.S. pulls out too precipitously and is actually forced to re-intervene down the line?
TXH: I don’t see how we could get the political will to re-intervene. There could be a case for re-intervening in the Middle East, but not in Iraq. If this thing spills over into Saudi Arabia and really starts to threaten the facilities there and the Saudis ask for help, I could see re-intervening there.
MJ: In your view, is the surge having a positive effect?
TXH: As far as I can tell it’s having a positive effect on the security situation, but it’s a political problem. Can we make it work? Neither the U.S. Congress nor the President of the United States nor the Iraqi Parliament felt they had to work in August.
MJ: You wrote not long ago that at this point, there really is no good outcome we can expect in Iraq, but there are “least bad” outcomes. Give me a sense of what that actually looks like.
TXH: The least-bad option is that Iraq breaks into a loose federation. They’re not unified, as we would think of a unified country, but the Kurds have their area; the Shiites have theirs; the Sunni have theirs. The ethnic cleansing continues, but at a low level. Not massive amounts of bloodshed. And then they just kind of settle into some kind of border skirmishing and settle that in their own territory. So there’s a fair amount of blood flow and there’s not a lot of oil flow and things will get much better for the Iraqis, but it’s not an explosively violent situation. That I think is about as good as “least bad” gets, but maybe I’m being too pessimistic.
MJ: If we withdraw, what happens to the Iraqis that have been working with U.S. forces?
TXH: They’ve been getting killed on a regular basis. A lot of them are getting out. The guy I used to work with, I won’t give you his name because his family is still in there, he got out yesterday to Germany and he’s going to try for political asylum in Holland. Isn’t that interesting? They all know that after all that work for us the U.S. isn’t going to give them a hand. They’re going to Sweden, Germany, Holland. They’re going anywhere that they can have a chance to get a start, bring their family over, literally start over with nothing. This is after risking their lives for us for four years.
MJ: So these people are not likely to get any sort of support, either getting out of the country or getting into the U.S.?
TXH: No. In fact, we’re restricting the numbers. What did we let in, 70 last month? There’s just no excuse. This is again the Bush administration being totally disengaged from the problems it created.
MJ: I guess the broader question is: What is our moral obligation to the Iraqis now that this whole situation has been stirred up?
TXH: That’s a much broader question, because the problem is we put the Iraqis in this mess and now we’re bailing on them. I don’t know how you deal with that. Obviously, we’ve got an enormous moral responsibility for making this mess, with no plan to fix it, and essentially just kind of dithering along as it got worse and worse. We certainly owe the Iraqis for doing this to them, but there’s no way to get that balance sheet right.
MJ: People are talking about withdrawal, but is it likely at this point?
TXH: Oh, it’s coming. I just think the American people have had it. The Iraqis aren’t making political progress. If they were, then you could argue to stay. The question the American people are going to raise is how much more blood and treasure they’re willing to spend for Iraqis who are not willing to compromise themselves?
MJ: What do you think the right course of action in this situation is?
TXH: I’m not sure you can make Iraq a country at this point. I think the best thing we could do is work with them to continue to do what they’re doing already, which is this breakup. Maybe we can reduce the amount of violence that goes into this. If we were unable to do that, then we’ve got to start preparing for the possibility that the violence spills over. Certainly, the huge number of refugees in Jordan are going to be a big problem. Jordan is obviously threatened.
MJ: It seems like having all these refugees in surrounding countries is going to be a destabilizing factor.
TXH: It always is.
MJ: Do you think there was a specific turning point in this war, where things started going downhill?
TXH: Invading. The invasion was dumb. The turning point was when we went in to this place. If you were to study the entire world and pick a place where it would be hard to install a democracy, I don’t think you could have done better than Iraq. It’s on religious fault lines, it’s on cultural fault lines, it has a no-longer-functioning middle class that’s been repressed for years. The Iraqis mostly talk about justice rather than freedom. We keep pushing freedom, but what they want is justice. The incompetence of the Bush administration has been pretty stunning. What we’ve got to do now is some very serious planning within the U.S. government and with the regional powers about how we minimize the damage.
MJ: It seems like the most important piece of this is not the logistics, but the strategic planning.
TXH: I don’t care if we leave all our stuff there. What I do care about is that we come out leaving some kind of semblance of stability in the region. That’s going to be very tricky. But I can’t find any serious indicators that the administration is planning that or discussing it.
MJ: Do you think if we were to leave, the civil war would burn itself out in a decade or so?
TXH: A decade is a long time. It’s going to be at least a decade, and then the question is how many get killed and does it spill over.
MJ: It seems like any talk about withdrawal or mitigating strategies is seen as defeatist.
TXH: Yes, it is. And it’s a standard Bush administration response to any criticism—declare the guy to be supporting the enemy and ignore your own blunders and blame everything on them.
MJ: What have you thought about the efforts of congressional Democrats to end the war?
TXH: It’s been a lot of posturing. It’s really about the election. It’s not about stopping the war.