Only a few months to turn Iraq around, former Defense official says

On July 17, a team of experts led by John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former deputy Defense secretary during the Clinton administration, issued the first independent assessment-based on recent field reporting in Iraq-of the reconstruction effort. The findings were sobering. The enormity of the task of rebuilding Iraq cannot be overstated, the report concluded, and the potential for chaos is growing every day. Most important, the report warns that unless a very volatile security situation is turned around in the next few crucial months, the window for cooperation from the Iraqi people is likely to close. National Journal Staff Correspondent James Kitfield interviewed Hamre on July 28 about the report. Here are edited excerpts.

NJ: Before we get into the specific findings and recommendations of your report, can you share your general impressions of the situation in Iraq?

Hamre: My first impression was of the enormous, almost infectious energy of the Coalition Provisional Authority led by Ambassador [L. Paul] Bremer. Everyone knows they are working on a very important and historic project. So there is an idealism that infuses the work of the CPA staff, which is determined to help the Iraqi people who have suffered so much over the past 35 years.

Having said that, I also got the impression that the authority operates in a kind of bubble. The palace complex they occupy is in a section of Baghdad guarded by more than two battalions of U.S. troops. Inside the offices, there's a beehive of activity, but it takes place in a sort of ghost town. Outside of that bubble, you see much less American presence, and more liveliness and messiness. So even though the Americans are a big presence in Iraq, I got the impression that the authority is somewhat isolated from much that goes on in the country.

NJ: Any other general impressions?

Hamre: My primary impression is that the reconstruction of Iraq presents a much more complicated challenge than people realize. In many ways, it combines the difficulties of rebuilding Germany in 1946 and the challenges presented by the dissolution of the former Soviet Union in 1989. As in the case of Germany, you have a country emerging from a brutal dictatorship, and the thugs are still living among the populace. Remember, the Iraqi army and security forces largely dissolved rather than fight, and some of the bad guys see a guerrilla campaign as a way to continue the war by other means. So you have a conquered country, but not really a defeated country.

Related to the security problems is the fact that, much like with the former Soviet Union, you have a completely failed economy. The interaction of those two key elements-a volatile security situation and a failed economy-is really the main problem facing Iraq. We're struggling to get the economy up and running again, for instance, even while the bad guys try to wreak havoc on a fragile infrastructure as a way to humiliate us.

NJ: Can you describe in more detail that dual challenge of security and economic revival?

Hamre: We had expected to confront a difficult security environment, but it is even more complex than is generally acknowledged in Washington. In Washington, the primary focus is understandably on the Saddam loyalists who are attacking our troops, but in truth, that is only one part of the security problem. In fact, there are two other big elements to the security problem. You have the general criminality on Iraqi streets. Saddam let all the criminals out of the prisons, and now Iraqi women do not even feel safe going out on their own.

A third and underestimated factor are these big, mafia-style gangs that were created to supply the black market under the U.N.-mandated Oil-for-Food program. They are, quite simply, plundering the country. In many ways, these criminal gangs may be the biggest long-term security problem, but because they are not shooting at U.S. troops at this point, they tend not to show up on our radar. Every day we don't do something about these gangs, however, the deeper the hole we will have dug, and the harder it will be to get out of it.

NJ: Do you feel that the Coalition Provisional Authority has a strategy to confront those interlinked security challenges?

Hamre: In fairness, I think they are trying to move on all fronts, but I worry that we have a pretty narrow window for turning the overall security picture around. The authority did announce it was moving aggressively to train Iraqis to take on "site security" to free up U.S. troops for other missions. That's very important. You can't solve this problem unless Iraqis are willing to defend their own country, and we need a much larger Iraqi police presence to address this petty criminality. The authority is also recruiting paramilitary-type police forces from some of our European friends. Far and away the best contribution we could get from our European allies would be in this area of quasi-military police forces, which about half of the countries in Europe have.

NJ: Why did your report conclude that the window for turning around the security situation in Iraq could close in as little as three months?

Hamre: Because the way we've used our troops has tended to create inconveniences for the average Iraqi, without providing additional security. An Iraqi may have to go through multiple checkpoints on his way home, for instance, but once there, he is still afraid to let his daughter go outside. The authority said it has recruited 32,000 Iraqis to become police, but I must confess that I didn't see many of them on the street. So my point is that the status quo can only go on for so long.

Because we are so focused on the Saddam loyalists who are shooting at our troops, it is also not clear to me that we have a clear or workable plan to stop the sabotage of the infrastructure that is going on. Yet as I told Pentagon officials, that sabotage directly impacts on the iron triangle of problems confronting Iraq: security, electricity, and oil.

NJ: How are those three connected?

Hamre: If we cannot secure the electric distribution system, the bad guys will keep humiliating the authority and any Iraqi government that we try to help stand up. Without reliable electricity, you can't pump oil and start using the revenues to rebuild the economy. Without electricity, you can't pump water for drinking and washing.

It will probably take a couple of years to get major new power-generation facilities in place. That's why I think there is a pressing need for an emergency power-generation program to fill the gap. Bremer is already looking at the possible need for emergency appropriations to buy or lease portable power generators from countries that have them, just to get water-pumping stations back on line.

NJ: Why does your report say that the United States needs to "quickly mobilize a new reconstruction coalition that is significantly broader than the coalition that successfully waged the war"?

Hamre: We're not going to be able to get the next increment of foreign support until there is a somewhat different framework for governing Iraq. If you talk to officials from other nations, there's this sense that we need another step at the United Nations to bestow legitimacy on the effort. This new framework, in turn, will help us tap into the financial resources of the international community in terms of developmental assistance.

Personally, I think the main elements of such a framework are already in place, and I would argue that it should focus on the United Nations' bestowing greater legitimacy on the Iraqi Governing Council. Regardless of what the eventual framework is, however, some new U.N. mandate will be necessary, because right now too many nations are just sitting on their hands.

NJ: As a former top Pentagon official, how concerned are you about the morale and conditions of U.S. troops in Iraq?

Hamre: I'm worried about our troops, because in Iraq I saw a strain and tension in our military that I haven't seen in a while. Now, this popular characterization that they are nearly mutinous is just wrong. These are very disciplined troops, and their depth of professionalism is such that I don't worry about that at all. But they are really tired. It's a miserable, hot existence, and they live in an environment of constant tension.

My advice to the Pentagon would be to focus on implementing a very aggressive rest-and-relaxation program so that our troops could get away and relax every month or so. We probably also need to reconfigure our force, and swap out a lot of the heavy armored forces for lighter and less-maintenance-intensive infantry units. The problem is that we have very little wiggle room left in our force structure for swapping out or rotating units to Iraq, especially with concerns about North Korea growing. Thus a long-term occupation of Iraq under present conditions would be very damaging to our military.

At the same time, we can't slight this effort in the short term, or we will just have to stay longer. That's why our report concludes that we need to shock the present system and introduce a new security posture that includes more troops from our European allies and an enormous investment in getting Iraqi police and security forces in place.

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