Mother Jones: What do you think is likely to happen in September, after General David Petraeus delivers his progress report on Iraq?
Thomas Donnelly: I think it is almost impossible that there will be a withdrawal.
MJ: Sure, but everyone I’ve talked to says it will be hard to maintain the surge after March or April 2008.
TD: You mean 160,000 troops?
TD: It is technically not true. There are mobilizable forces, including National Guard troops.
MJ: These are not people who’ve already been called back from there?
TD: They may well be.
MJ: Politically, how difficult will it be for the president to maintain the surge?
TD: I think that’s hard. I don’t think it’s as impossible as people think it would be, because we’ve already seen the Iraq narratives begin to swing back in a positive direction. It is very difficult to disaggregate my desires from my analysis here. But as a matter of analysis, I expect that trend line to continue, just because I think that’s the military logic of the situation. Also, if we turn the clock back to three months from now, you would have said that we were on a course for withdrawal. So we’ve come a long way in three months. And I can see that six months or eight months from now, it is at least reasonable to believe that we can be in a quite different place. We could go to hell again, but I expect that it is a military proposition; these effects of the surge would be cumulative.
MJ: Well, let me ask you then about the argument that by continuing the surge you increase the likelihood of a precipitous withdrawal when the next administration comes in, because the country is increasingly souring on the war.
TD: I think it is straw man. This is a situation where you are either in or out. There is no dividing the baby. If you do the hardcore military analysis using their force, you quickly come to the proposition and you include their advisory force, which is one of the more attractive pieces of it. The macro picture is as follows: The combat force shrinks, basically, to three FOBs [Forward Operating Bases] and they are almost entirely consumed in protecting themselves. Let’s look at the Baghdad one. As they designed it, the Baghdad brigade combat team has the obligation not only to protect the Baghdad airport, which is huge, I mean just really huge, but also to protect the Green Zone. The Green Zone currently has, all by itself, a brigade protecting it. So even if you reduce, say, to strictly the American parts of the Green Zone and the embassy, you’ve got to at the absolute minimum assign a battalion to protect that. Then there is the infamous road between the airport and the Green Zone—there is no way you can protect that. You’ve got to turn it over to the Iraqis with whatever consequences you can imagine. Between the airport and protecting the Green Zone, basically, the force is entirely consumed in protecting itself, so it is not a rapid reaction force or a quick reaction force for the Baghdad region.
MJ: In terms of the surge, I think one thing most people agree on is that it hasn’t achieved progress on political reconciliation.
TD: Is it more likely to happen when we pull out? Look, we still have a profound interest in an Iraq that functions. A collapsed Iraq is no more appetizing tomorrow than it is today. We are a long way from an Iraq that can stand on its own. The one thing that is true, if there is any part of the Iraqi state that even functions a little bit, it is the Iraqi Army. It certainly isn’t the Interior Ministry. It certainly isn’t the Parliament. It isn’t the Iraqi police on the local level. There are questions about large parts of the Iraqi Army. I’m willing to accept that it is getting better, but it is the nucleus around which any functional Iraqi state has to form. It will be crushed and reduced to a collection of sectarian militias if the American supports are pulled away from there.
MJ: What are the logistical issues raised by even going down from 160,000 to 120,000 or even 110,000 troops by the end of the administration?
TD: First of all, it is just getting the stuff out. Really the only way out is to go out back through Kuwait. The main supply route, Route Tampa, has been pounded into dust and gravel by use. You’ve got a lot of stuff going through a very narrow straw, a vulnerable straw.
MJ: Do you worry about the troops being attacked on the way out?
TD: One of the things that’s frightened me the most, recently, has been various Al Qaeda explosions and dropping bridges. You remember how anxiety ridden we were about Saddam dropping the bridges in the initial invasion? Now just turn that around. The force is basically centered around Baghdad, a little bit to the north. All our logistics, all of our gas stations, so to speak, and weigh stations along the road are to the south.