Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad was recently back in Washington. I talked to him about how he sees things, and render the interview here in modified Q&A format.
One major misconception about Iraq is the notion that we have no strategy, when in fact we have a pretty clear strategy, although one that has achieved mixed results so far. It is to promote a rough-and-ready national compact that all major groups can sign off on, while training Iraqi troops to hold areas we clear of insurgents and to take on more of the military burden. Khalilzad, our former man-on-the-ground in Afghanistan as well, is right in the middle of this.
A top priority is getting the Sunnis involved in the political process:
I’ve reached out a lot to the Sunni population in particular, encouraging them to participate in the political process, seeking to convince them that their opposition to the political process and support to the insurgency will work to the disadvantage of the Sunni community–that the rich people will run away and that that’s the experience of Afghanistan. That their educated people will run away, reconstruction will not take place in their area, and that as education will suffer, extremism will gain. And that the balance will shift against them and their rivals will gain, and that there is a way to deal with their fears through the political process.
Of course, some of them are driven by nostalgia and I have said to them that that is a dead-end street because Saddamism is not coming back and that’s dead, but there is a legitimate role for them in this new Iraq.
This makes for a balancing act: “One of the challenges that we have faced, is to encourage them that that’s not a way forward for them but that their concerns, legitimate concerns, can be dealt with; but to go back and wish they would dominate Iraq, that’s not acceptable, obviously.”
How big a deal was the arrangement for amending the constitution that some Sunnis signed off on right before the vote last month?
That was very significant, because what it did is to give the Sunnis a way forward, that there will be a review in the next assembly. There was also some concern that they had expressed with regard to the role of Arabic language, with regard to the de-Baathification in which some had feared that because they had been members of the Baath party they might be targeted. I think it was important to win some Sunni buy-in to sort of change the draft from being a purely Kurdish and Shia document to one in which there was significant Sunni buy-in as well.
Getting Sunnis to vote is important in itself, he says:
It shows that they’re beginning to have confidence in the process, that they didn’t vote in the previous election but now they will vote in significant numbers, by all accounts. And this is what we have been encouraging them to do. In order to defeat insurgency we need to win away the Sunni population away from the two particular groups of insurgents–the Zarqawi jihadists, both Iraqi and external, as well as the Saddamist ones, those who want Saddamism to come back–and to isolate these two groups from the Sunni community to make it easier to bring them to justice. So their political participation is a significant step in that direction.
What are other areas in which the Sunnis can be reassured?
That the de-Baathification is carried out in a balanced manner; that there is accountability for crimes committed but there is also reconciliation; that there is a way for people who have not committed crimes to participate in the political process.
And also that the new institutions that are being built are such that they can be trusted by all communities, including the Sunnis. That these new institutions are not instruments of revenge because there are forces on the other side that would like to, given the suffering that they’ve experienced, take revenge.
Khalilzad cites four lessons from Afghanistan, which still has major challenges, but that has been a success compared to Iraq:
One, of course, is that it’s very important to focus on the political process, win over the population to the change, and to associate it–associate the United States with the fundamental aspirations of the local population.
A second big lesson is building local institutions and reducing the footprint of the United States. In Afghanistan, from the very beginning, we had a very small footprint. In Iraq, the situation was different. We ended up having to have a large footprint….Our goal is to decrease that footprint, lower it and build Iraqi national institutions, the army, and the police.
The third lesson is the role of militias. In Afghanistan, the militias were a source of huge problems in the earlier period, prior to the Taliban, and they were on the scene after we went in. We started there a program that’s called DDR–the decommissioning and demobilization and reintegration. In Iraq, militias are a problem….To decommission and reintegrate militias is, I think, another step that would help in this process because there is significant fear in parts of the Sunni community with regard to some of the militias.
And the last lesson would be the issue of sanctuaries in the neighborhood. In Afghanistan, there was sanctuaries for the Taliban in Pakistan and we worked with Pakistanis to try to make sure those sanctuaries are eliminated. We’ve talked about the unhelpful Iranian policies. In the case of Iraq, we’ve got unhelpful Iranian policies here too, but also the sanctuary in Syria, and that’s another issue that we need to deal with in order to succeed.
There hasn’t been the kind of Pashtun rejectionism in Afghanistan that we’ve seen among the Sunnis in Iraq. Khalilzad sees two reasons for the difference:
One is clearly that the change that took place in Afghanistan, we immediately went into the formation of a government in which the Pashtuns were a significant participant. In fact, the head of the government was a Pashtun, as you know. In Iraq, of course, we went for a period of us governing ourselves–the CPA period.
Second, and the issue there was, in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns were the largest community and they had governed, they had the dominant role under the previous government. The issue was how to, while giving them the weight that they have–should have–in a government given their representation in the country, but that other communities needed to be represented as well.
In the case of Iraq, the issue has been that the Sunnis have been a minority but they played the dominant role in the previous government and for them to adjust to this new equilibrium in which they would be a player, but not be dominant player, has been a difficult transition.
Are there elements of the insurgency that are engageable?
There are elements that are, but those are folks that are non-Saddamist and non-al-Qaeda people, some local nationalist forces that have specific grievances that could be dealt with.
Also important is, in terms of changing the calculus of these people is that our counter-insurgency strategy is evolving in the direction of providing area security so that the population will feel more secure so that they’re not intimidated by the insurgents. Part of the problem of lack of cooperation in the past has been the fear and intimidation the local population has experienced. That’s also important in our strategy, evolving the direction to add area security, providing area security and security for the population in an increasing, expanding way through the attacks against centers of al Qaeda and Saddamists, as well as building up Iraqi security institutions and improving the ability to secure Iraq’s borders.
We want the Iraqis to take a significant role in this: “It’s increasingly going to turn to Iraqi security forces, with our forces being embedded with them and helping them, but with Iraqis taking the lead increasingly to provide security for the people of Iraq.”
On the December 15 parliamentary elections, he says:
The best outcome would be that moderate cross-sectarian groups, or those groups that are willing to group across sectarian lines and form a representative government working with all communities, can come to power. And a government that gets launched immediately … can deal with the needs of the Iraqi people.
There can’t be the kind of delay there was after the January 30 elections, which squandered much of our momentum: “It took too long to form the government and I think given the situation in Iraq, the needs of the people, they need to encourage them to form a government, an effective government, as quickly as possible after the election.
He emphasizes that Iraq is not just a military problem: “I think it’s very important that it be balanced between our various instruments–military, diplomacy, reconstruction, cultural, intelligence. And I have said many times that if the only instrument you have is a hammer, soon everything looks like a nail. And I think the path that we are on, we can begin significant withdrawal of our forces in the coming year.”
Under what conditions? “The conditions are continued political progress. I think with the progress that we’ve already made and on the political track as well as on the growth of Iraqi capabilities, there has been a significant positive development. I think keeping on this track will facilitate and allow for a significant reduction in the coming year.”
He ends with a thought about the stakes:
What’s happening in Iraq is not only important in terms of Iraq itself, which is an important country, but also it’s a struggle for the entire region and, of course, it’s not only Iraqis that are engaged but also people from across the region and countries, such as Syria and Iran, are also engaged. So the outcome in Iraq will have a strategic effect on the future shape of this region. Whatever one thought of the circumstances that got us into Iraq, I think right now, given the stakes, there is no other option but to prevail because the alternative of al Qaeda taking over part of Iraq and from there expanding to the rest of Iraq or beyond the region and the world would be a huge challenge and will make Afghanistan under the Taliban with al Qaeda child’s play given Iraq’s resources, the geopolitical location, and the capabilities of its population.