Some thoughts on General Abizaid's testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee
"And when I come to Washington I feel despair."
By AcademicElephant Posted in War — Comments (19) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Last week, General John Abizaid, the top US general in the Middle East, testified before sessions of the Senate Armed Services committee and the House Armed Services committee. Some might argue that the General has better things to do with his time than be dragged back to Washington for this dog and pony show, but I think in the long term, it was worth it. Given the recent announcement of Secretary Rumsfeld's resignation, these hearings provided an opportunity to see how a top military officer rumored to be among the free thinkers who disagree in private with the Secretary handled himself without Mr. Rumsfeld sitting beside him. Would he show a crack between the civilian and military approach to Iraq and provide, at last, an honest assessment confirming conventional wisdom that the Iraq campaign, if not already lost, is failing? The assembled senators certainly seemed to hope so. In the course of this hearing, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) announced that General Abizaid has "been, to me, the most forthcoming witness as you have appeared in front of this committee over the course of time," a forthcomingness that has stood in stark contrast with what the Senator defined as the "obfuscation" of other witnesses who remained nameless. Mark Dayton (D-MN) was more explicit: "And, frankly, while finding that I could not entirely believe their comments, always believed here in this committee that I could believe and trust what you were saying and what other leading generals were telling us. And I find here -- and, again, I don't know whose account to believe, but I find here consistently contradictions of those upbeat statements and statements of agreement with, in particular, the secretary of defense about these major decisions. It's being pursued here again today, the question of troop strength. Again and again these books attest that you, sir, and the other military commanders -- at least some of the others -- believed that we needed more troops."
So, would General Abizaid throw the "Blame Rumsfeld" crowd a bone? After all, he had given a fairly dire assessment of sectarian violence in Baghdad in August, testimony that made headlines when he appeared to suggest that Iraq was drifting towards civil war. The episode was widely reported in the press, and where it contributed to the pervading sense that Iraq is a lost cause (see here, here, here, here, here, and here for a selection from the networks and major papers, and here, here, here, here and here for the blogs). You get the picture. A few short weeks later, Bob Woodward asserted in State of Denial (one of the authoritative tomes cited by Senator Dayton) that General Abizaid and John Murtha (D-PA) were closer on Iraq policy than the General was to the civilian leadership of the Pentagon, a report that seemed to confirm that Iraq is a failure, and that the top generals, like Mr. Murtha, were on the verge of giving up. And so General Abizaid's testimony without Secretary Rumsfeld but with Ambassador David Satterfield of the State Department (that many now view as the territory of the triumphant "Realists") was an opportunity for him to lend official military endorsement to what everyone else in the room seemed to already know. Yet all did not go as planned. While I have no doubt that the General spoke his mind as plainly in this hearing as he did in August, the results were not all that opponents of the Iraq campaign--both those who object to the mission in principle and those who object to the prosecution of it--might have hoped.
[Editorial sidebar: General Abizaid's testimony to the House has not been released, but the transcript of his Senate appearance is available on CENTCOM's site. CENTCOM has not been particularly diligent in providing such transcripts in the past; I hope this signals a new policy of getting first-hand information onto the web in an expedient fashion. It is becoming increasingly clear that a full picture of what is happening in Iraq can only be gleaned from the direct observations of those who are participating in the mission, as unmediated as possible by media or political bias. And so General Abizaid's testimony tells us a great deal, both about how he views Iraq at this juncture and how the Senators questioning him were trying to frame his views. For the purposes of this discussion, I have removed Ambassador Satterfield's testimony in order to focus on segments of the hearing that deal with what I consider the three central issues of the debate over Iraq: 1) Is Iraq in a state of civil war, 2) What is the appropriate troop level (increase, maintain or withdraw) and 3) Is there any hope for success? That decision had more to do with word count than any desire to downplay the Ambassador's remarks, which I encourage interested parties to review.]
Senator John Warner, the outgoing chairman of the ASC, led off by asking General Abizaid about his now-famous "civil war" prognostication in August:
WARNER: On August 3, you appeared before the committee and you stated as follows. And I quote, "I believe the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it, in Baghdad in particular. And if it is not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move to a civil war," end quote. Using that as a baseline, would you restate that or add to it or amend it?
ABIZAID: Mr. Chairman, I'm very encouraged by my most recent trip, and that, while sectarian violence remains high and worrisome, it's certainly not as bad as the situation appeared back in August. There's more confidence being shown in the Iraqi government, more independent action on behalf of Iraqi units and, in many of the neighborhoods where, particularly, U.S. forces are operating, a lot of the sectarian violence is down. It's still at unacceptably high levels. I wouldn't say that we have turned the corner in this regard, but it's not nearly as bad as it was back in August. And I am encouraged by that.
Given the exhaustive treatment of General Abizaid's ominous comment in both the old and new media in August, wouldn't you expect to see corresponding coverage of this reassessment of the situation? You might hope so, but your hopes would be in vain. A Google news search of "abizaid iraq civil war" suggests that there was virtually none.
There was, however, considerable attention paid to the General's subsequent exchange with Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), who asked a series of rapid-fire, short-answer questions:
GRAHAM: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: that Iraq is the central battlefront in the war on terror? General?
ABIZAID: I agree with that.
GRAHAM: Who would be the biggest winners and losers in a failed Iraqi state, General?
ABIZAID: Al Qaida and Iran.
GRAHAM: Was General Shinseki correct, when you look backward, that we needed more troops to secure the country, General Abizaid?
ABIZAID: General Shinseki was right that a greater international force contribution, U.S. force contribution and Iraqi force contribution should have been available immediately after major combat operations.
GRAHAM: So both of you believe that more troops would have been helpful -- we're in the central battle -- one of the biggest battles in the war on terror -- is that correct? Both of you believe that? This is a central battle in the war on terror -- Iraq.
ABIZAID: The central battle is happening in Iraq; that is, by the definition of our enemy.
GRAHAM: And you agree with their definition?
ABIZAID: Do we need more troops? Then my answer is yes, we need more troops that are effective, that are Iraqi.
GRAHAM: Do we need more American troops at the moment to quell the violence?
ABIZAID: No, I do not believe that more American troops right now is the solution to the problem.
GRAHAM: Do we need less American troops?
ABIZAID: I believe that the troop levels need to stay where they are. We need to put more American capacity into Iraqi units to make them more capable in their ability to confront the sectarian problem.
GRAHAM: So it is your testimony that we don't need any change in troop levels to get this right?
ABIZAID: It is possible that we might have to go up in troop levels in order to increase the number of forces that go into the Iraqi security forces. But I believe that's only temporary.
GRAHAM: If we withdrew troops to Okinawa, would that be a good idea?
GRAHAM: If we withdrew troops to Kuwait, would that be a good idea?
ABIZAID: Not at this stage in the campaign.
For those interested in the contentious issue of troop levels, it's a fascinating exchange. Senator Graham, along with Senator John McCain (R-AZ), has long been a strong proponent of the more troops camp--an approach tagged "Go Big" in today's Washington Post--for whom the testimony of General Eric Shinseki in February 25, 2003 has become the hallmark. General Shinseki suggested that several hundred thousand American troops would be necessary to stabilize post-war Iraq. As I have noted elsewhere, I have no doubt that those troops would have had an immediate pacifying effect on Iraq, but I remain concerned about the aftermath of this artificial calm when those very high troop numbers were withdrawn, as they would have had to have been in fairly short order. And you might notice that General Abizaid did not endorse General Shinseki's full assessment here--he noted that in hindsight, a larger force of unspecified numbers but made up not just of Americans but of Iraqis and coalition members would have been desirable right after major combat operations concluded. But, and this is a very big but, they are not desirable now. He would like to see a small uptick in the numbers of troops we have engaged in training, but he does not support either a Shinseki-scale build up or a Murtha-style withdrawal at this point. No matter for those whose minds are already made up on this topic. Coverage of this exchange focused on the isolated phrase "General Shinseki was right." But in the context of the hearing, General Shinseki's supporters clearly did not think that the issue had been satisfactorily resolved, as Senator McCain quickly returned to the topic when his turn came, and the two wrestled the issue around the dance floor once again:
MCCAIN: I don't understand that tactic, General. You just told Senator Graham that General Shinseki was right, that we did not have enough troops there after the initial military operation. Is that correct?
ABIZAID: I believe that more Iraqi security forces that were available would have made a difference. I believe more international forces would have made a big difference.
MCCAIN: Would more American troops have made a difference?
ABIZAID: I think that you can look back and say that more American troops would have been advisable in the earlier stages of May, June, July.
MCCAIN: Did you note that General Zinni, who opposed the invasion, now thinks that we should have more troops? Did you notice that General Batiste, who was opposed to the conduct of this conflict also says that they may need tens of thousands of additional troops? I don't understand, General. When you have a part of Iraq that's not under our control -- as Al Anbar Province is, which has been -- I don't know how many American lives have been sacrificed in Al Anbar Province, but we still have enough and we will rely on the ability to train the Iraqi military, when the Iraqi army hasn't sent the requested number of battalions into Baghdad.
ABIZAID: Senator McCain, I met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the core commander, General Dempsey. We all talked together. And I said, in your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq? And they all said no. And the reason is, because we want the Iraqis to do more. It's easy for the Iraqis to rely upon to us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future. They will win the insurgency. They will solve the sectarian violence problem. And they'll do it with our help. If more troops need to come in, they need to come in to make the Iraqi army stronger. That's my professional opinion.
MCCAIN: General Batiste also says that, if there was congressional proposals for troop withdrawals -- he says, quote, "terribly naive," unquote. Do you agree with that comment?
ABIZAID: Under the current circumstances, I would not recommend troop withdrawals.
MCCAIN: So we have sufficient number of forces to clear insurgent sanctuaries; hold the territory with a combination of coalition and Iraqi forces; provide sufficient security in Iraq so that economic reconstruction and political activity can take place; to arrest the momentum of sectarian death squads; disarm militias; to train the Iraqi army and keep an American presence in Iraqi units and place U.S. personnel in Iraqi police units. We have sufficient troops to carry out all those tasks?
ABIZAID: We have sufficient troop strength, Iraqi and American, to make those tasks become effective.
MCCAIN: Was it encouraging when, in broad daylight yesterday, or the day before, that people dressed in police uniforms are able to come in and kidnap 150 people and leave with them go through checkpoints? General, it's not encouraging to us, it's not encouraging to those of us who have heard time after time that things are, quote, progressing well, that we're making progress, et cetera, because we're hearing from many other sources that that's not the case. And I'm of course disappointed that basically you're advocating the status quo here today which I think the American people in the last election said that is not an acceptable condition for the American people. So I regret your position that apparently against the recommendation of most military experts, that we do not have sufficient -- Al Anbar Province is a classic example of that -- that you still are continuing to hold this position when numerically most of the attacks, most of the kidnappings, most of the others continue to be on a rise in Baghdad itself where, as you say, the majority of our effort takes place. So I respect you enormously, I appreciate your service. I regret deeply that you seem to think that the status quo and the rate of progress we're making is acceptable. I think most Americans do not.
ABIZAID: Well, Senator, I agree with you. The status quo is not acceptable. And I don't believe what I'm saying here today is the status quo. I am saying we must significantly increase our ability to help the Iraqi army by putting more American troops with Iraqi units in military transition teams to speed the amount of training that is done, to speed the amount of heavy weapons that gets there, and to speed the ability of Iraqi troops to deploy. It's a very, very difficult thing to do. Senator, I believe in my heart of hearts that the Iraqis must win this battle with our help. We can put in 20,000 more Americans tomorrow and achieve a temporary effect. But when you look at the overall American force pool that's available out there, the ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now with the size of the Army and the Marine Corps.
ABIZAID: We can -- we can -- win with the Iraqis if we put our effort into the Iraqis as our first priority. And that's what I think that we should do. I don't think that's status quo. I think that's a major change.
MCCAIN: Thank you very much, General. Could I just say in response Mr. Chairman, you say we need to do all these things, train the Iraqi. I don't know where those troops come from, number one. And many of us believe that this may not be a long-term commitment, but at least a commitment to bring Baghdad under control. And that is not happening today. And that is, in my view, where you and I have significant disagreement.
Senator McCain gave General Abizaid every opportunity to allow that he would like more troops; he practically begged the General to concur with this assessment, but even when confronted with the sage consul of Generals Zinni and Batiste, General Abizaid remained obstinate. More troops, per se, are not going to make a difference in his opinion. Switching the focus of our troops to training and embedding with the Iraqi Security Forces, a shift in policy that has been developing over the past six weeks, will. Mr. McCain was clearly disappointed that the General he claimed to "respect" could not see the wisdom of his position, as well he might--what a great thing it would be for the Senator's presidential ambitions to get General Abizaid on board with his proposed change in strategy for Iraq. That way, if things start to improve in Iraq over the next six to eight months, Mr. McCain could claim it was his vision and leadership that saved the day--which would be a powerful argument to make to primary voters in 2008. If General Abizaid was considering this from a such an angle, it might have occurred to him that it would be politic to play along with one of the leading contenders to be Commander in Chief. But he didn't. He stuck to his guns and pointed out that Senator McCain's "go big" silver bullet would be just a temporary stop gap. A band-aid, not a solution. Later, in response to questions by Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and John Thune (R-ND), General Abizaid would not rule out increasing troop levels at any future date and given unforeseen circumstances, but he reiterated that did not consider such a build up an effective policy in and of itself.
Finally, General Abizaid had a heated exchange with Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), who has a vested political interest in establishing the failure of the Iraq campaign. As a self-appointed hawk, Mrs. Clinton wants to look tough on the GWoT, but her early support for the war is a potential Achilles heel for her party's base to pepper with arrows. All her pandering to Ned Lamont has not mollified the hard left anti-war crowd, which she will need in order to win in the primaries that are now just a little over a year away. If she can establish herself as a strong critic of Iraq policy she can make the argument that she may have supported the move to go to war (after all, she wasn't the only one taken in by Bush's lies), but that she has condemned the failed strategy of this administration. As an alternative to this debacle, Mrs. Clinton proposes a phased troop withdrawal and possibly partitioning Iraq, two ideas that perhaps not coincidentally are rumored to be among those under consideration by James Baker's Iraq Study Group.
CLINTON: Well, thank you very much. I have to say to both of you that I respect the difficult task you have coming before this committee and attempting to explain the situation in Iraq, which, by any metric that I'm aware of, is not improving. In fact, the testimony to follow you, which will be in the next panel, particularly by Lieutenant General Maples from the Defense Intelligence Agency, very clearly sets out that the DIA assesses the conditions for further deterioration, and in fact lists how the overall attacks have gone up. They're up in October, up on our soldiers, up on the Iraqi security forces, up on civilians. That the kind of benchmarks which Senator Nelson and Senator Chambliss and others of us have requested in the past just seemed to recede further and further on the horizon. Hope is not a strategy. Hortatory talk about what the Iraqi government must do is getting old. I mean, I have heard over and over again: The government must do this, the Iraqi army must do that. Nobody disagrees with that. The brutal fact is, it is not happening. And with respect to the kind of insurgency that we clearly are confronting, which in many ways is perhaps the most complicated that I'm certainly aware of as you go back and look at other counterinsurgencies, we don't have a military force that is creating a secure environment and we do not have a government that is putting forth political programs and reforms that engender confidence in the population to support the government rather than seeking security behind militias and other nongovernmental forces. So from the perspective of those of us sitting on the other side of the table and on both sides of the aisle, what I've heard today is that, from General Abizaid, that all options are on the table but the Maliki government does not want more troops. What I've also heard is that withdrawal by our troops would create even more disruption and sectarian violence but that a phased withdrawal, putting conditions that can be enforced by actions taken by the American government, which apparently are the only actions we have any control over, would not be a good idea. So we're really left with very few strategic options and the continuation of hope on behalf of the Maliki government to take control of a situation that is deteriorating. General Abizaid, one of the ideas that has been proposed by a number of different sources is some kind of partition. Now, I understand the complexity of that, the difficulty of that. But is there any strategic argument to be made in favor of a partition that would at least give us territory that, along with the Kurds, for example, could be controlled?
ABIZAID: Senator Clinton, I believe that partition is not viable for Iraq. I can't imagine in particular how a Sunni state could survive. I believe it would devolve into an area where Al Qaida would have safe haven, where they would export their terror to the surrounding countries. I believe that the Shia state would be decidedly subject to the domination of Iraq -- of Iran -- excuse me -- and that that would not be good for the region. It would start to move the region into Sunni-Shia tensions that the region hasn't seen for a long time.
With regard to hope not being a method, Senator, I agree with you, and I would also say that despair is not a method. And when I come to Washington I feel despair. When I'm in Iraq with my commanders, when I talk to our soldiers, when I talk to the Iraqi leadership, they are not despairing. They believe that they can move the country toward stability with our help. And I believe that.
This has been a very hard and difficult process, and over the length of time, we have learned some hard lessons. We haven't misled people. We have learned some hard lessons. I believe that we can take the Iraqi armed forces, increase our level of commitment to them, continue to deliver the time type of security force that our current troop levels give us, and in the period of the next six months, clearly have a better understanding about the possibilities for success, but all of us that are involved in this thing believe we can be successful. It's not a matter of professional pride. It's a matter of seeing that the enemy can't win. There will be some hard things on the horizon. We'll have to do something in Al Anbar Province. We'll have to commit forces to deal with the Jaish al-Mahdi. Each of those things will be battles in and of themselves that we can win if we set the right political and military conditions. And I sincerely believe we can do that.
As is her want, Mrs. Clinton treated this hearing as an opportunity to make a short prepared speech that would get optimum media attention. "Hope is not a strategy" makes for a good, pithy line, and so it was dutifully regurgitated in isolation by the press (see here and here). But for those who want to know what the military brass in the field, not a senator in Washington, thinks about such strategy, General Abizaid's riposte should be food for thought. He talked of despair in secure, prosperous Washington and hope in dangerous, war-torn Iraq. Indeed, the "despair" the General encounters when he returns to our nation's capital is emerging as the primary obstacle to our success in the Iraq phase of the war. Victor Davis Hanson examined this alarming phenomenon at length on Real Clear Politics this morning. Henry Kissinger, in his widely-misquoted BBC interview on Sunday did not say that a military victory in Iraq was in and of itself impossible--he said such a victory could not be achieved in the "time period that the political processes of the democracies will support." That's very different from saying we can't win. Dr. Kissinger is saying we are choosing to lose. And that is a choice General Abizaid will not endorse.
Rather than revealing the internal disconnect that critics have long suspected in the upper echelons of the Pentagon, General Abizaid's testimony indicated to me a remarkable coherence. He did not nudge and wink when Senator Dayton invoked State of Denial as proof positive of such a disconnect; he directly challenged the book's accuracy ("...if you want to infer that the Woodward book is correct, feel free to do so. But I can't say that it is."). I was struck by his adherence the "go long" strategy, which resembles the "stay the course" strategy that has been implemented over the past two years. I wonder if the General didn't get the memo that "stay the course" is yesterday's news, and that it's time for "fresh eyes" and "new voices?" That the election was a referendum on Iraq policy, and that the referendum declared that policy a failure? Or did he get the memo and disregard it because in his best military judgment, such an approach is a recipe for disaster? Such a conclusion points to the hard choices that will be faced by opponents of the Iraq campaign and/or strategy as we head towards 2008. What if the military, not just the outgoing civilian leadership of the DoD, continues to insist that Iraq is the central front of the War on Terror? What if that military continues to insist that the formula that is place now is largely correct, and must be given sufficient time to mature? What if, now that the convenient lightening rod that used to exist in the person of the Secretary of Defense has been removed, such criticism must be leveled at the senior officers that presidential candidates need to "respect" and "believe"?
I don't have answers to these questions, but one thing that is increasingly clear to me after last week's hearings is that the military leadership of the DoD is not going to make dismantling Iraq policy an easy task, even in the post-Rumsfeld era. Indeed, Mr. Rumsfeld's critics may have cause to regret the loss of their easy target sooner rather than later.