Mother Jones: You recently surprised a lot of people with your assessment of the situation on the ground in Iraq. What did you observe there that made you believe that things are moving in a positive direction?
Michael O’Hanlon: The way in which the forces are much more distributed with joint security stations would be point one. And then there are Iraqis who are now working with us at those sorts of stations. Doing these patrols was also quite striking. I did not necessarily expect to see how much the Sunni sheikhs change sides. I had not realized how systematic or widespread that phenomenon was, especially in many of the Sunni regions. Then the third thing is, partly as a result of the first two, how much we are now able to go on the tactical offensive against certain extremist groups and how much better the intelligence is, and how the greater presence allows us to both patrol areas we once failed to control and also gain more confidence from the population and therefore more help with good information about where extremist forces were located and could be attacked.
MJ: So you saw a lot of military progress. But what about on the political side?
MO: I did not see top-down political progress at all. We tried to be emphatic on that point in our op-ed. Others are talking more about bottom-up political progress. You are starting to see some deals formed at the local level across various political actors and sometimes across various sectarian lines. But I think the most striking thing I saw was this battlefield progress. My sense of optimism is very hedged and very interim based on my conviction that unless we see a lot more political accommodation and cooperation, the military successes will probably be short lived and won’t translate into anything like a stability.
There is a possibility that this effort will be called off or cut short before they can play it out the way they would like to and see if it really can be successful. There is no doubt in my mind that the American military leadership wants to keep doing this. They are worried not just about September, but about the failure of Iraqi politicians to deliver political progress and other such issues that will ultimately undercut the war, if not this September than maybe in 2008 or maybe as a result of the presidential race.
MJ: Assuming there is a decision to withdraw or draw down troops, what is a realistic time frame for doing so?
MO: Well, I think that if you look around the country in Iraq, you see certain provinces where things are going pretty well, where our presence is going to be less needed or is already less needed. You could probably get down to the range of 130,000 to 135,000 thousand by this spring. In other words you could get to pre-surge levels, and then declining into the 100,000 range in 2009.
MJ: What if political factors do intervene here and a decision is made to pull the troops out?
MO: The kind of people who are saying we can only pull out a brigade a month are thinking in terms of an orderly withdrawal where we try to preserve the sense that we are not being driven out in an almost military way. In other words, even though they are accepting under the scenario that there is some level of American defeat that is being recognized, they don’t want it to look like outright, flat-out tactical retreat. They want it to be a more managed process where we both preserve our own safety and our own honor and reputation for maintaining control, and we give the Iraqis some modest chance to adjust as we draw down, so if there is a resurgence of violence, as could be expected, there is some chance of keeping it in check and not having it ignite into a civil war quite quickly. I don’t believe it is easy to turn it into a strict logistical calculation because if you really were going to say, “How fast could we get out if we had to get out”—and I am not sure if I am accepting that premise, but if you could imagine a world in which nothing mattered except getting out as fast as possible—then I think we could do it in six months entirely. There are things you can do like destroy equipment or give it to the Iraqis or do tactical maneuvers over the open desert instead of taking the road or some combination of all that.
If you did those sorts of things, I can’t believe it would take us far longer to get out then it took us to get in. It only took us a month to get in. But if you want to do it in a very controlled way and preserve some honor for the United States, avoid the image of America on the retreat in a tactical sense and give the Iraqis some modest hope of holding onto a little stability, that’s when you start talking a year, a year and a half, two years.
MJ: Is there any withdrawal planning going on even in the early stages at this point?
MO: More drawdown planning. I think there are always two kinds of planning at the Pentagon. There are always the smart people noodling over a problem at various levels of the bureaucracy. And then there is the actually formalized process when you decide you actually want an actionable plan, and I think the former is happening but not the latter.
MJ: What chances do you give the surge of actually achieving what it is supposed to do? How much more of that will be necessary for us to see real progress in Iraq?
MO: I imagine four possible types of outcomes, and I am going to say I see a chance of 25 percent for each one. One of those is complete defeat. We leave, we stop suppressing the violence, it gets worse. All-out civil war, and you have the Sunnis realigning with Al Qaeda, chaos in a good part of the county, a mockery of any of the goals we were attempting to achieve in the first place, and no pretense of even being able to say that we have improved the life of Iraqis or the invasion was worth it. On the other extreme, I would say there is a 25 percent probability of truly achieving the goals of the surge where you actually see the Iraqis finally begin to accommodate along sectarian lines and then that spreads to the security forces and also builds up from the ground at the local levels. And there is a trajectory toward gradual improvement.
Then the two intermediate cases. One of them would be that there is a lot more violence than we would like, and there has to be more fighting and ethnic cleansing but it is sort of limited at the local level. It is not that bad. It is not that much worse than what Iraq has been, and you get an Iraq that doesn’t look like an integrated country of the type we were trying to preserve. But at least you can imagine some kind of resolution because the battlefield dynamics actually help to produce a more stable situation over time, even at the cost of a lot of people’s lives. In fact, that general type of outcome is the remaining 50 percent. You can imagine that relatively better and relatively worse outcomes fall along that. It’s a situation where we don’t get continual progress towards stability in a multi-ethnic democratic Iraq, but we do get, after a period of further killing, at least the outlines or framework for a somewhat more stable country, even at the cost of maybe many more lives and even some loss of the idea of a truly democratic, multi-ethnic country.
MJ: Do you favor some sort of partition?
MO: Yes I do, but obviously it can’t be imposed by the United States. It only works if the Iraqis agree to it. You still would need a fair number of U.S. forces. You would need to help people move and relocate to places where their own sectarian group is more in the majority. You would not require people to do that, but presumably people would want to. You would have to help create internal checkpoints and barriers and regional security forces, so it is a fairly major thing to do.
One of the reasons I wrote the soft partition paper is because I wanted to help lay out a scenario where we could keep forces in Iraq but in a much different mission that arguably would have amounted to ending the war. It would be like Bosnia. It would be in a more peacekeeping mode.
MJ: Do you feel that if we don’t extricate ourselves in the right way we would essentially be forced to re-intervene down the road?
MO: We would be forced to keep a very careful eye on the region. I don’t know if we would need to intervene in Iraq. In fact, one of the alternative missions that I have a little bit of difficulty buying into is the argument by some, to some extent beginning with Baker-Hamilton, that we can do a meaningful counterterrorism mission without having many forces in these cities. I question whether you can really do that effectively, because Al Qaeda is not going to produce a big, glamorous, huge target in this scenario. They are going to create a lot of smaller cells within population centers, and you are going to have a hard time knowing where they are unless you are out there on the street. There is a decent chance that if we largely leave then we will have to accept that Iraq will be a very problematic place that we may not be able to do much about. The idea that we are going to intervene again presumes that you could define a mission that was achievable at some future date. In fact, you could almost argue that if there was a chance to withdraw now and then go back in and wait for things to clarify and then go in and knock somebody off and have the whole thing resolved, that might even be better than trying to mutter through this morass.
MJ: Some people don’t really care if there is progress going on in Iraq; they just want out. The Democrats have been campaigning on ending the war. Is leaving troops in and letting them complete their mission even a possibility?
MO: If I look carefully at the rhetoric of Obama and Clinton, while they are both obviously very frustrated with how the war is going, and they both want to reduce our exposure drastically, I am not sure either one is absolutely committed to having zero forces in Iraq by July 1, 2009.
I would remind you and remind my fellow Democrats, because I am a fellow Democrat, that Americans may not like this Iraq war, but they also don’t like to lose. They are also street smart, and they know that it matters when you lose. I think if I were to add up all the different polls and all the different impressions that American citizens have conveyed, they would be willing to accept a bit of an ongoing effort and a bit more pain for us as a nation for us to at least prevent this thing from turning into a complete disaster. It is hard for anybody to say that with great enthusiasm, so it does not always show up in the polls in the way you might wish as a strong positive statement of commitment. There is still not a majority of Americans that want to completely be out of Iraq tomorrow. And I frankly don’t think there ever will be unless the momentum that I have seen dries up and reverses, but that is not what the polls show now. And I think Democrats will have to worry about the Iraq issue actually working to their disadvantage and losing the election if they get too extreme in their own positioning. This is not a common idea held among Democratic strategists, but they have been wrong plenty of times before on matters of national security. I think they could easily be wrong on this one again.