The Job Ahead: 'They're Not Going Back'  America's top general in Iraq tells what can and can't be done.


Dec. 26, 2005 - Jan 2, 2006 issue - General George Casey has been in charge of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq since June 2004. He oversaw U.S. forces when they quelled a Shiite rebellion in Najaf and has since pulled U.S. troops out of the city and handed control over to the Iraqis. But Casey also ordered the huge assault on Fallujah one year ago in which more than 50 U.S. Marines died and where the insurgency continues to retain a broad base of popular support. Last week, Casey was in the air in a Blackhawk helicopter over several cities watching Iraq’s historic election with a bird’s eye view. He spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Baghdad bureau chief, Scott Johnson, before and after Election Day on hopes and concerns for the country’s future. Excerpts: 

NEWSWEEK: How did you feel watching the elections? Casey: What’s happened here is unprecedented. Saddam Hussein is on trial, they’ve gotten sovereignty, they’ve passed through three elections, written a constitution and had a referendum on the constitution and with our assistance built the security forces. That’s unprecedented. It’s unbelievable. It’s been the courage of the Iraqis and the commitment and professionalism of the U.S. military. I feel pretty good. But we’ve got a ways to go.

Election Day was quiet for the insurgency, but isn’t that part of their strategy?  What happened is that the insurgency didn’t go out because they wanted the political process to go forward. That’s a huge step. What we have to do now is continually work on the political process. You won’t see a major change in the U.S. military strategy. We’re constantly assessing that and clearly this election is a watershed for the [United States]. Now, we’ll see if this can change the reality on the ground. The [U.S.] ambassador [Zalmay Khalilzad] and I have developed a joint mission statement, it’s a refinement and a continuation of the counterinsurgency strategy that we’ve had since August of ’04. 

With the elections over, what does this mean for the U.S. military?   We will continue our efforts to put the Iraqis into the lead in security operations across the country. We expect more to take charge between now and the summer, around 70 percent of Iraqi brigades will be able to assume control by summertime. And 2006 will be the year of the police, and we’ll accelerate our program where they take the lead, which is what the Iraqis need. Throughout ‘06, the logistical units will come on line. We still have work to do on the central institutions, and all that is going to take longer. 

How do you expect the insurgency to adapt now that the election is over? The insurgency will adapt and we’ll adapt to it. On the security side, there are three tacks: developing Iraqi forces, defeating the terrorists and transitioning to Iraqi forces.  

There have been three elections now. Why should people believe that this election is going to lead to anything different?  I don’t know that it is, if you’re looking for this election to result in a diminution of the violence. The violence is about insurgency and it’s about people who feel they’re disenfranchised using violence to achieve their political ends. And what you’re seeing now is after a rejection of the political process by the Sunni population, you’re seeing a buy-in to the political process, and that’s a huge step. But it’s not going to cause the violence to stop overnight because the root causes are the political and economic disenfranchisement, and that’s going to take some time. I think the levels of violence will go down over time. I got here 18 months ago, and you’re looking out here--we wrote a campaign plan to get us here, they wrote a constitution, getting all that done in 18-month window is huge. And the fact that the Iraqi people have participated in increasing numbers in the elections and the referendum, that’s a huge step forward. 

It’s pretty clear the insurgency is pursuing a two-track strategy.   Talk and fight. And that’s why the decrease in violence is going to be gradual and not abrupt. But when you look at what has to happen next year, there’s going to be a debate on amending the constitution, there’s going to be a debate on federalism. I mean those two things alone are going to be divisive, I have no doubt. You have a lot of political challenges that still have to go on. And you have a huge economic development challenge. This is not going to be quick, but the process is on track. [The Iraqis] have met every one of their engagements and they’ve done it at great risk to themselves. We as Americans can’t appreciate what it was like to live under Saddam Hussein for three and a half decades. They know there’s something better, they know they want something better and they know they’re not going back. And that commitment, in my mind, is one of the things propelling this process forward. There are still fears and prejudices between the groups and they have to sort themselves out. And that just takes time.  

Iraqis say the only way to quell the insurgency is for U.S. forces to withdraw immediately from the cities. Why isn’t that happening?  It is. By and large, our bases are on the outskirts or on the outsides of the cities. In a couple of places, like Baghdad, the Green Zone, or downtown Basra, there are still forces in the city center, but by and large our bases are on the outsides of cities, except in places like out west, where if we left the city and there are no Iraqi security forces present to maintain order, we would just be turning them back over to the insurgents. Our goal all along has been to turn the security of these cities back over to capable Iraqi security forces. Look at Najaf. In [2004] that place was run by the Muqtada militia and they were living in a cemetery there and coming out and terrorizing. And now we have moved our battalion from the center of the city to about 10 kilometers outside of town. The second piece is that we have to find the right balance. What happened in Fallujah [in November 2004] is that you put a local brigade in there that wasn’t strong enough to control the terrorists and foreign fighters to keep them out. So they came in and they took it over. So there are instances where [the Iraqis] need our help because they just aren’t strong enough.  

But those are the areas where the demand for U.S. withdrawal is strongest, and where it could make the most difference. If we left Ramadi today, it would be Fallujah in 60 days. And we’d have to fight our way back in. And [the Iraqi forces] will acknowledge to you that they are not strong enough to throw the foreign fighters out. The minister of Defense is from Ramadi and he has said they can’t do it, they’ve told him they can’t do it. They’re really in a tough place in Ramadi, in Anbar, because they’re in the middle. If they help us, Al Qaeda gets after them. If they help Al Qaeda, we get after them. Now the operations we did out in the Euphrates valley did help. But [the insurgents] seemed to have pooled around Ramadi. 

In the last two weeks they’ve been in Ramadi. But they move around all the time.  They want you to think they’re stronger then they are. When they do an attack, that’s a way of demonstrating their continued strength. There’s no doubt that these guys avoid direct confrontation with us, because they die in great numbers when they confront us. But that’s a standard guerrilla technique. Since we’ve been here, Ramadi has been a challenge. Some of the folks that were out west went to join the others in Ramadi. It’s the capital of Anbar province, and I believe Al Qaeda is trying to build a safe haven in Anbar from which they can export terror to Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. You know the geography. They want to hold it. They fought like hell to hold Husayba and that was their base area and we took it away from them. We killed 1,700 guys out there in two months. 

In September, you said that only one Iraqi battalion was “level one,” and that the next 75 days would be crucial. We’re 80 days later.   We purposely set that as a high standard because the Iraqi security forces have to be able to sustain success after we leave. And we set that standard knowing full well it was going to be a couple of years before they got it. We know that you can’t build an army without a logistics system and without an intelligence system. What I said was that if I’m still at [level one] this time next year, then I’m worried. The important level for us right now is level 2 because that’s the level where Iraqis can take the lead with our help. And there’s one Iraqi division, four brigades and 33 battalions that are in the lead today, with our help.  

How do you “in the lead?” We have a very specific readiness reporting system. It’s similar to the one we do on ourselves. We look at people, we look at equipment, we look at training. They tell us once a month where they are on this stuff. Then there’s a 30-day transition process where they do a “left-seat, right-seat” ride and they take over a piece of ground.  

Would you be in favor of Iraqi troops calling in airstrikes from U.S. war planes? We’re a long ways from that, and it’s not something I’d want to give you an answer on right now. I can see getting to that point in a couple of years, but we’re nowhere near that point right now.  

What does the election have to produce in order to go ahead with an eventual drawdown, and what if it doesn’t produce it? The election doesn’t directly have to produce anything to directly impact on the decision to begin withdrawing. That decision will be made based on conditions on the ground and the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. If the election produces a government that is perceived as being representative, broadly, of all ethnic and sectarian groups, then that will affect our ability to draw down at a more rapid pace. If it produces a government that’s not, it will impact on our ability to draw down.  

What if this election produces an Iraqi prime minister that is from a Shiite religious party, hated by the Sunni and also not trusted by large numbers of secular and moderate Shia?   The situation you paint would be a difficult situation. It’s all about perception, if he is perceived as being not representative, then that’s obviously problematic. 

If that turns out to be the case, what will be your first concerns? I think what you’re going to see is that the Sunni are going to be represented in a big way in the parliament and as a result they’ll be represented in the government in a big way. And so they’ll have a much stronger political base from which to exert influence in the political process. But the scenario you paint would be difficult. 

Would it lead to a hold being put on U.S. withdrawal plans? No, you shouldn’t go there because, as I said, they’re not directly connected.  

You’ve been here 18 months. You came right after the Abu Ghraib scandal. Many people think that it’s scandalous that only the lowest-ranking officials have been punished. Should higher-ranking people be brought to justice? Abu Ghraib was an event that got an awful lot of attention. It has been investigated by a lot of folks, very thoroughly I assume, and they’ve made their recommendation, so I wouldn’t want to question that. But I think what is important is that now the Army as an organization has learned from that and taken measures not only to prevent re-occurrence, but to take the detention process to another level and then to start ingraining values that we hold important for our soldiers into the Iraqi Army and into the Iraqi security forces. Culturally, that’s a tough challenge here. We’re going to work very hard with them on that.  

At the Arab Summit in Cairo, there was recognition by the Iraqi government that some parts of the resistance here should be considered legitimate. That must be a hard pill to swallow. Clearly. I wouldn’t want to say that the government said it was OK, but they put out a communiqué that recognized not the resistance, but that recognized the right of resistance. To end any insurgency you’re going to have to have some kind of national reconciliation. And that resistance is going to have to be dealt with and brought back into the political process. And the Iraqis are the ones that are going to have to do that. And frankly what I’d like to see is maybe a recognition that while the right of resistance may be legitimate, the use of violence for resistance is illegitimate.  

But there seems to be a sense among many of the Sunni political groups that armed resistance got them a lot, in fact. It got them this communiqué. It got them large concessions in the lead-up to the referendum and the constitution.   This insurgency has no positive vision. They’re not going to progress. The Iraqi people are getting tired of the violence. Their strategy of violence is not a winning strategy.  

There are now more than 370,000 Coalition and Iraqi security forces operating here. And yet the level of violence is still high. What does that tell you about the strength of the insurgency?  This insurgency is not a homogenous group working toward a common goal. The largest group, disaffected Sunnis in the center, hasn’t bought into the political process and still feels disenfranchised. What’s going to make it go down is [if] as a result of this election, people feel more represented. The violence will be a lagging indicator of what’s going on here. You win insurgencies when people make the choice to accept the process of going forward. What you’re seeing here are Iraqis making choices.  

When you speak to President George W. Bush, does he ask you detailed questions about what’s going on here? The president is engaged on this. He’s driving what’s going on here. He’s been hugely supportive of us, and what we’re doing here. We talk once every couple of weeks on video-conferencing. It’s not just him, there are other people there and they ask questions. And he comes in and there are usually two or three things he wants to put on the table. 

Will you tell us what he asks you?   [Laughing] No.   

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