Mother Jones: There is a debate underway about how many U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq. Some people advocate a complete withdrawal, whereas others say we should leave some type of force in place, at least for the near term. What do you think?
Peter Galbraith: Well, the debate in the U.S. has become polarized, and the American people have rejected what is obviously a failed strategy. So the dynamics of the process tend to come to these two choices. I believe that there is a responsible course of action that focuses on the achievable. We need to have a strategy, and the strategy that has been lacking in Iraq all along, the strategy needs to be based on the realities of the country, take account of the resources that we are prepared to commit, and, with those in mind, then focus on realistic objectives. And I think there are three. First, to preserve what has been achieved in Kurdistan. It is the most democratic. It is very pro-Western. It is what we had hoped that all of Iraq would become but it didn’t. It ought to be protected, and I would say protected and also improved. The second mission would be disrupting Al Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadi terrorists that might wish to strike at the West and the United States beyond Iraq’s borders. Right now, those terrorists exist only in the Sunni Arab area. There are no Shiites that are Salafi terrorists, and the Salafis target Shiites as apostate. So it is a very finite task related to 20 percent of the population. The third achievable task, it seems to me, is to limit Iran’s influence in Iraq. George Bush has installed Iran’s best friends as the government of Iraq. The very parties that Iran funded for decades are now the government of Iraq, and everybody notices it in Iraq. The only people who seem not to notice it are George Bush and his neoconservative allies. All three of these objectives can be accomplished by a small force.
MJ: What is our moral obligation to the people of Iraq?
PG: Well, I think it is important to avoid confusing a moral obligation with an achievable mission. I mean, arguably we have a moral obligation to stop this civil war that is going on and which is taking thousands of lives, a civil war that was perhaps inevitable in some form when Saddam’s regime collapsed, whether we were the agent of it or not. What was inherent in Iraq was untenable—that is, Sunni rule over a Shiite majority, which could only exist with great brutality. Once it went, there were going to be changes that were likely to lead to violence. I don’t blame the civil war on the U.S., but our incompetence and our utter negligence in failing to plan seriously for the post war…beginning with not having any plan to provide security in Baghdad and stop the looting, has made this situation much worse, and you can argue that we have a moral obligation. But I would also argue that we don’t have the ability to stop the civil war. We’re not stopping it now.
MJ: What about recent security improvements in Anbar province?
PG: It is true that the situation in Anbar has changed very significantly, but [it] remains in the hands of bitter enemies of the United States. They are Sunni Arab nationalists, including Islamists, who do not wish to be controlled by the Salafi jihadis, by the Al Qaeda types. But they are not our friends, and as much as they hate Al Qaeda, they also hate the Iraqi government, which is a Shiite government.
MJ: That being the case, what is your view of the troop surge?
PG: Some of these statistics about the decline in violence are debatable. The statistics in Iraq are very unreliable. The government has been under-reporting. It may be under pressure to under-report. There’s been—or appears to have been—a decline in Shiite death-squad activity. But not in Sunni terrorist activity, so there’s no reason to think this is going to be sustained unless we are prepared to carry on the surge indefinitely. The longer we are there, the more likely the two parties are going to figure ways around our presence. I mean, partly they’ve moved the fight out to Diyala province and some of these other places. One of the other things we’ve done in the surge, which has been so reckless, is that we’ve added a whole new enemy to our roster—the Shiite militias. With 15 percent more troops, we’ve doubled the size of the enemy. General Odierno is saying that 73 percent of the casualties in Baghdad are from Shiite militias. Well, we went out and picked a fight with these groups. I find this whole thing to be a very reckless strategy.
MJ: Why is reconciliation between the parties in Iraq so difficult?
PG: The problem with the Shiites is the Shiites believe that because they are the majority, because they suffered for 1,400 years as Shiites, for 80 years in Iraq, for 35 years under Saddam, and the ’91 massacres, they believe their majority entitles them to rule Iraq. They voted 90 percent for Shiite religious parties. They seek to define the identity of Iraq as a Shiite Iraq. Meanwhile, for the Sunnis, who were the rulers of Iraq, who believe that they created the state, it is not just that they can’t accept that they no longer have power, although that may be true for some people; it is that they cannot accept that Iraq is defined by a branch of Islam of which they are not a member. The American impression is that these guys are unreasonable. I don’t know what your religion is, but I’m a Protestant. I’m not religious at all, but if somebody were to define the United States as a Catholic country, I would resent it because I would say, “Well, I’m not a Catholic.”
MJ: You were the U.S. Ambassador to Croatia during the Clinton administration. You were very active in the politics of the Balkans in the 1990s. How does that experience affect your view of what’s happening in Iraq?
PG: Obviously, I’m very unhappy to see what’s happening. I mean, just the loss of human life. But I’m not unhappy per se to see the breakup of Iraq. There is just a huge difference between Bosnia and Iraq. In Bosnia, the perpetrators of genocide were the Bosnian Serbs, who used it to try to create an ethnically homogeneous state to justify their secession from Bosnia, taking 70 percent of the territory. In the case of Iraq, it is the victims of genocide who wish to have their own state to protect themselves from a recurrence of genocide and from a culture that does not accept their identity. To me, they’re totally different. My lesson from my time in the former Yugoslavia is this: The tragedy is not the breakup of the country; it is the violence. We, in Yugoslavia and in Iraq, we’ve put all of our focus on holding the country together and insufficient focus on preventing or diminishing violence. That’s the tragedy. You know, God didn’t create a single country. These are human creations, and if they don’t serve human needs, then, you know, so be it.