"BLITZER: Welcome back. Year five of the war in Iraq is beginning with a new U.S. commander on the ground and a new security crackdown that will eventually be backed up by nearly 30,000 additional U.S. combat and support troops. But is it enough to pull Iraq from the brink of civil war?
I’m Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Joining us now to discuss this and a lot more are three guests: the former NATO supreme allied commander, retired U.S. Army General George Joulwan; Pat Lang, a retired U.S. Army colonel, former intelligence analyst at the DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency; and Michael Gordon, chief military correspondent for the New York Times and the co-author of the book "Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq."
Gentlemen, thanks very much for coming in.
Let me start with you, General Joulwan. The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll asked, was the war in Iraq worth it? Back in 2003 when the war started, 68 percent of the American public said yes. It’s gone down every year since then. Now as we enter year five, only 35 percent, only one-third of the American public believe this war was worth it. What you do think?
GEORGE JOULWAN, FORMER NATO ALLIED SUPREME COMMANDER: Well, I think it’s too soon to say. I think what we have to figure out is what is the long-term strategy that we need to try to achieve some degree of stabilization within Iraq? We haven’t done that yet. Would it be worthwhile if we could stabilize Iraq in a way that will bring about some degree of peace and stability? Yes. We are not there yet. So I think it’s still out.
BLITZER: Do you think it’s still feasible?
JOULWAN: The jury is still out. I think it’s much more difficult now than it would have been four years ago when we had the opportunity after the fall of Baghdad to stabilize a country. We didn’t do it then. We’re trying to do it now, only it’s much more difficult now.
BLITZER: Pat Lang, let me ask the same question to you. Was the war worth it?
COL. PAT LANG (RET), U.S. ARMY: Well, the American people’s opinion on this is tied to the lack of success there thus far. If you’re asking me about it, no, I don’t think it was worth it at all. I think it was not, in fact, an essential part of the war against the jihadis across the world and has been a diversion from that and has put us in a real mess.
BLITZER: Let me get to the statistics out there, grim statistics, indeed, Michael Gordon. And you’ve covered it from the beginning. U.S. troop casualties now 3,220 and they’re going up. Those are killed in Iraq. Among the wounded nearly 25,000, 24,042, according to the Defense Department.
You speak to these guys every single day, top U.S. military commanders. Do they honestly believe they can turn it around and win this war?
MICHAEL GORDON, NEW YORK TIMES: I think the word "win" is probably not the best term to use to describe the objectives of the current strategy. I think the United States has embarked on new strategy. It’s applying the counterinsurgency manual really for the first time in Baghdad. It’s dispersed forces in the neighborhood.
And the goal is to leave something stable behind, basically to create a political space so that the Iraqi government can try to do the right thing. That’s what the strategy is now. And it’s early days for the strategy. You know, they’re deploying five brigade combat teams and only two are there. So it’s premature to form a judgment on it.
BLITZER: Because I spoke recently with General Odierno, who’s the number two U.S. military commander on the ground in Iraq. And he says six to nine months before anyone can make an accurate assessment whether this new strategy is working. You think it’s going to take that long? GORDON: Well, we’ve reported in The New York Times that General Odierno, basically taking a cue off your program, has recommended that the surge be continued through February of ’08. And that’s because counterinsurgency really is a long-term gain. If you’re really trying to solidify your gains and if you do have some success, it takes awhile to sustain it.
I think if it fails dramatically, we’ll know that soon. But if it begins to succeed, I think it will, just from a military point, require some sustainment.
JOULWAN: While I agree with all of that, I think, in my view, the surge event is a tactic, not a strategy. A strategy is much broader-based, much more political in nature. And I think we have to understand what is that longer- range strategy that we are talking about?
And the Iraqis play a big role in that. I think the surge can help create a secure environment for that to take place, but the Iraqis are going to have to decide whether this war is going to be successful or not.
BLITZER: Pat Lang, listen to what Army Colonel J.B. Burton, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, said at a Pentagon briefing on Friday about this latest strategy in the Baghdad area.
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COL. J.B. BURTON, U.S. ARMY: The key about all of those IEDs that we are finding is not only have they decreased in number, but they have decreased in effectiveness. And I believe that has to do with us being out in the neighborhoods constantly, 24 hours a day, day and night.
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BLITZER: All right, what you do think? Because a lot of these guys are saying they see some initial signs that the new strategy under General Petraeus is working.
LANG: Well, it’s been a feature of various counterinsurgency wars over the last century that we go through periods of reform and a tryout of new methodology. And I think that we are seeing this again in what we are doing in Iraq.
And, actually, I think the adoption of a new methodology like this and the near unanimous vote for a new commander in the Senate deserve a prolonged trial period to see if this is going to work. And people like that colonel deserve a chance to try to make it work. Six months, nine months seem reasonable to me.
BLITZER: And so, at this stage, for the U.S. simply to withdraw quickly would achieve what?
LANG: Well, I think there is no doubt whatever that if we withdrew suddenly, it would further destabilize the country. And if you like to talk about civil war now, what you would see afterwards amongst all these different groups of both Shia and Sunni would be truly spectacular.
BLITZER: You have a piece in The New York Times today, Michael, talking about the surprise in who’s the bigger threat to this latest U.S. strategy in the Baghdad area. Explain to our viewers what you’ve learned.
GORDON: Well, Wolf, there is no shortage of adversaries in Baghdad, unfortunately. But when the surge began, it was commonly thought that one of the primary antagonists would be the Mahdi army or splinter groups, basically Shiite militias because they had been involved.
BLITZER: These are the militias loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American, radical Shiite cleric?
GORDON: And some of them were not loyal to anybody really, but were carrying out sort of a Shiite agenda and trying to do ethnic cleansing in Baghdad. I saw some of that myself in October. And people thought that would be the main antagonist. And, as it’s turned out, they’ve largely, but not entirely, gone the ground and sometimes gone south or gone north.
BLITZER: The Shiites?
GORDON: These Shiite militias.
BLITZER: But are they just temporarily laying low, holding their fire, waiting to attack, to pounce on another day? Or have they had a change of heart?
GORDON: It’s too soon to say they had a change of heart. I think they’re probably trying to outwait the coalition, lie low while the surge is going forward in Baghdad. But what’s happened is Al Qaida of Iraq, Aquino…
BLITZER: Which is Sunni.
GORDON: It’s a Sunni-based group, 90 percent Iraqi, although with foreign leadership, has tried to accelerate the violence in Baghdad by launching car bomb attacks, which have gone up. And, using enclaves, Sunni enclaves in the Baghdad area, this is forcing American commanders, when they think about Baghdad security now to think not only about the neighborhoods they have to protect, but also carrying out operations in these Sunni enclaves.
BLITZER: We’re going to a break but, General Joulwan, I want you to react to that.
JOULWAN: Well, I think what we are seeing now is what even the commanders on the ground will tell you is a very adaptable enemy. This enemy has adapted over the last four years to every tactic or strategy that we’ve come up. And I think you’re going to see an adaptability to this one, to what we call the surge. And I think it’s going to be interesting to see what’s going to happen, not just in three or four months like some politicians want the surge to end, but in months or years that I think it’s going to take to bring some sort of stabilization to this country.
BLITZER: What you do think, Pat?
LANG: It’s certainly going to — to see whether or not this works is certainly going to take six or nine months. I doubt if there is the political patience of this country to go on with this for years.
I definitely think it’s true that the Shia militias are lying back to see how we’re going to deal with the Sunnis during this period of advanced American operations.
BLITZER: All right, guys. Stand by because we have a lot more to talk about. Coming up, our panel’s assessment of the military challenges ahead in Iraq. Do the sectarian militias have the upper hand when all is said and done?
And later, Donald Trump’s take on President Bush, the war in Iraq and the 2008 presidential candidates. This is an interview you’re going to want to see. Stick around. "Late Edition" will be right back.
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VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: A precipitous American withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster for the United States and the entire Middle East.
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BLITZER: The vice president speaking here in Washington earlier in the week. Welcome back to "Late Edition." I’m Wolf Blitzer in Washington.
We’re talking about the U.S. military strategy in Iraq, as well as the war as it ends year four, moving into year five. Joining us, the former NATO commander, General George Joulwan; New York Times chief military correspond Michael Gordon; and a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, retired U.S. Army Colonel Pat Lang.
The vice president very tough on this issue saying a precipitous withdrawal would cause chaos throughout the region, not only in Iraq.
JOULWAN: Well, first of all, even the most ardent critics aren’t calling for a precipitous withdrawal. I think they’re calling in a change of mission. They’re calling for a different tactic to be taken on the ground.
So I think what we need to be able to see is what that change of mission is. I think a negotiated settlement rather than victory — because I could never figure out what victory meant — is a much more viable mission than defeating of all the enemy in Iraq.
So I don’t agree with the vice president. I think we could weather — even if it was precipitous withdrawal we could weather that. But I think we need that clarity in terms of what you want to accomplish. And I think a negotiated settlement between the warring factions is crucial here.
BLITZER: The administration argues, Pat, that if there was a date certain a year from now, let’s say, for a complete withdrawal of combat forces, the enemy would simply wait it out, wait for that date and then take over.
LANG: I’m not in favor of announcing a date certain for American withdrawal. I don’t mind if we have a date, and we don’t announce it to anybody. But, in fact, to announce it in public would merely set the stage for the kind of collapse that the vice president was talking about.
In fact, although I think there would be a general amount of chaos in the neighborhood if we did that, I don’t think it would lead to disaster to the United States, but it would be hell on earth in various places in the Middle East.
BLITZER: What would happen inside Iraq — and you spent a lot of time over there, Michael — if the U.S. were to announce a year from now all combat forces were out? What would happen within Iraq?
GORDON: Well, one thing, Wolf, is there is really a disconnect between the reality in Iraq and the political debate in the United States. And this is really evident in the National Intelligence Estimate, a public document — your viewers can read it in unclassified form — which was issued in January.
What it said is that the Iraqi security forces, particularly the police, are not equipped to take on alone the responsibility of controlling the country in 12 to 18 months.
And it said that if U.S. forces were to leave entirely, which not all the Democrats are proposing, but if they were to leave entirely within 12 to 18 months, the national institutions would begin to fracture, outside countries could get involved, and could you have — as bad as the situation is now could get even worse.
BLITZER: General Peter Pace, the chairman of the joint chiefs says the U.S. has enough troops around the world to deal with other crises if they should emerge. I want to play this little clip from what he said on January 12th.
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GENERAL PETER PACE, CHAIRMAN OF THE U.S. JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Most important for the American people and for anybody who is a potential enemy of ours out there, we have 2.4 million Americans, active, Guard and Reserve. We can handle anybody out there who might make the mistake of miscalculating about our strength.
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BLITZER: All right. You accept that? Because there’s a lot of suggestions the U.S. military’s about as stretched as thin as it can be right now, given the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan.
JOULWAN: When you look at what we call infantry, boots on the ground, Marine and Army units, they’re not 2.4 million. I know what Peter Pace is trying to say, but it’s much smaller than that. It’s about a third of that, and that’s high.
And so we are stretched thin. And I think it’s very difficult to meet the sort of commitments we have, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but globally. And the increase that we’re going to see in the Army and the Marine Corps is very much needed, and I think is very much in keeping with the commitments that we have.
BLITZER: You heard Zbigniew Brzezinski in the previous segment suggest that he’s really worried about a possible military engagement with Iran, even in these final two years of the Bush administration. Given the experience in Iraq, what you do think?
LANG: If there were such an engagement, it would be a terrifically foolish thing to do. We don’t have the forces to do anything like that on the ground, just as General Joulwan was saying.
And in fact, this would be an air campaign, which would have some iffect but probably could not achieve the goal of the desired degree of destruction in the Iranian nuclear program that people might want. And the devastation wrought to Americans’ position in the world would be even worse than it is now. So I think that would be a really terrible thing to do and it would be a very foolish idea.
BLITZER: We keep hearing about contingency plans. The Pentagon, they’re always having contingency planning for everything. But how far advanced are contingency plans, Michael, involving Iran?
GORDON: I think the administration has looked at Iran as a contingency because of Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons, really. But I think that the policy that I see forming is not really an offensive policy.
It’s really an active containment policy, to contain Iranian power in the Persian Gulf region, basically to prevent Iran from intervening through its operatives in Iraq. So I see kind of an aggressive containment policy at this point in time, not offensive policy.
BLITZER: You get the last word, General Joulwan.
JOULWAN: And it must include our allies and partners. I think we have to have not just pulling the military trigger, but the diplomatic and political one, as well. I think that is what’s going to be needed for Iran.
BLITZER: General Joulwan, thanks for coming in. Michael Gordon, thank you. Pat Lang, as always, good to have all three of you here on "Late Edition." "