Douglas Ollivant is a former officer in the U.S. Army, who is currently a senior fellow at the New American Foundation for national security. Entering commissioned service in 1989 as an infantry officer, he then went on to graduate school at Indiana University in 1997. From 1999-2002, he taught at West Point, then spent two years as a student at Command and General Staff College, and the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth. In June of 2004, he went to Iraq with the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, where he was deployed to Kadhimiyah, Arab Jabour, and Dora in Baghdad, along with Najaf, and Fallujah in Anbar. From October 2006 to December 2007, he served as Chief of Plans for the Multi-National Division Baghdad before and during the Surge. He then went on to be a director for Iraq issues on the National Security Council from March 2008 to July 2009. He then retired from the Army that summer before serving as the senior counterinsurgency advisor to the Regional Command East in Afghanistan in 2010-2011. In 2011, he wrote an article entitled “Countering the New Orthodoxy, Reinterpreting Counterinsurgency In Iraq” for the New American Foundation, which challenged much of the conventional wisdom in the U.S. about the role the 2007 Surge, and American forces in general played in ending the Iraqi civil war. While Ollivant felt that the United States military played an important role in shaping the environment in the country, he argued that it was in fact, actions and decisions made by Iraqis themselves that ultimately changed the status quo. Below is an interview with Ollivant, discussing his theory about what ended the sectarian war in Iraq, and relating it to current events in the country such as the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal, and the current political crisis.
1. In June 2011, you wrote a piece called “Countering the New Orthodoxy, Reinterpreting Counterinsurgency In Iraq,” which was a critique of the conventional American wisdom that the 2007 U.S. Surge ended the Iraqi civil war. Could you outline the general contours of what the “new orthodoxy” is?
What I call the “new orthodoxy” is the general perception that the unmistakable improvements that followed the 2007 troop surge were in fact caused by the three most visible manifestations of the surge. These three factors were the 30,000 additional soldiers and marines, the adaptation of Counterinsurgency (COIN) techniques, exemplified in General Petraeus’s COIN Guidance of July 2007, and the arrival of General Petraeus himself in February of 2007. I list Linda Robinson, Tom Ricks, and Kim Kagan as the primary architects of this view, with Bob Woodward reinforcing it in the few pages he devotes to the Iraq Surge. This is not to say that there isn’t more nuance in some of these works, but that the public takeaway, driven by these accounts, can be boiled down to these three lessons.
2. You said that a counterinsurgency is a political act, which cannot be ended through military means. In the U.S. though, most only consider the Surge as changing the status quo in Iraq. Could you explain why you think that’s the wrong take on events?
To say an insurgency cannot be ended by military means is overstated. In the paper, I give great “credit” to the Jaysh al Mahdi of Moqtada al Sadr for the indiscriminate killing of Baghdad’s Sunnis, which I think is perhaps the primary cause for the political resolution we saw in 2007-8. I think this point ties into a larger tendency on the part of Americans, and the American military in particular, to see events through the lens of their own involvement. I do not say that American actions didn’t play a part, and certainly moving past the blatant incompetence frequently displayed in 2003-2005 at least stopped making the problem worse. My fundamental point is that we may want to consider the possibility that the actions of several million Baghdadis were more important than those of 30,000 troops or even one very talented general.
3. That leads to your main argument that it wasn’t so much the U.S. military that changed the conflict, but decisions made by Iraqis, which consisted of two parts. The first involved a realization by the Sunnis. What did they figure out?
As I stated above, the Sunnis in Baghdad had been, at the very least, ethnically cleansed from the east side of Baghdad, and the periphery of Kadhimiyah by early 2007. We have good census and other data that establishes this, and I don’t think it’s a contested fact. I believed the Sunnis did a rational calculation, and realized that there was no future in contesting not only the conventional military options of the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi Security forces, but more importantly the unconventional assassinations by the Shiite militias and death squads.
|Baghdad in 2003 was a mostly mixed city as shown by the yellow areas of Sunnis (red) Shiites (green) and Christians (blue). (Dr. Michael Izady)|
4. As a result of that realization, many insurgents and tribes decided to join the Awakening and Sons of Iraq movement. There are many theories about why this happened. Could you give your own thoughts on this change of heart?
In the paper, I give three explanations for the decision to form the Awakening movements. The first was that the U.S. simply bought off the former insurgents. That just doesn’t fit the facts. We had been trying to buy off insurgents for a long time, and it didn’t start working until late 2006. This is not to say that money was not a necessary precondition.
The second explanation is what I call “al-Qaeda overreach,” in which the nihilistic Salafist terrorists finally go too far for tribal society to bear. While I’m sure that many of the activities and habits of the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) members grated on the more traditional and moderate Sunni tribesmen, and even more so on the more secular urbanites, I don’t believe this was enough to be truly causal. This looks to me to instead be a post-hoc face-saving story.
I find a third explanation the most plausible. Essentially the Sunnis, who are not a unitary actor, but we can think of them as one for this purpose, realized that they had been defeated in the Iraqi Civil War by the Shiite partisans, primarily the Jaysh al Mahdi. They therefore needed to, essentially, sue for peace with the central government and end the insurgency. They worried that since the central government was now in a position of power, it had no particular motivation to settle, so they looked to another actor, the United States, to serve as an honest broker. However, to convince the United States to serve as an honest broker, they have to establish their bona fides as a party who really does want peace. Therefore, they take on AQI, both directly by killing their fighters, and indirectly, by providing intelligence to the Americans. Once they take on AQI, they are incentivized to help the Americans in their anti-AQI battle. The Americans then set up programs that legitimize these former Sunni insurgents as quasi-governmental fighters, get them some semblance of immunity, with a plan to eventually integrate them back into Iraqi society.
Again, I think it is important, critical, to recognize the primacy of Iraqi agency, both Shiite and Sunni, in this narrative. While many want to take credit for the Sunni Awakening or Sons of Iraq, this is mostly very overblown. Some men, I’ve highlighted then Lieutenant Colonels Dale Kuel and Kurt Pinkerton in the past, deserve credit for seeing this phenomenon and realizing how they could exploit it. I am sure neither Dale nor Kurt would claim they caused the Awakening; they just saw a good thing happening that they could ride along with and reinforce.
|Former insurgents joining the Sons of Iraq program was a sign that Sunni militants were giving up the fight in the sectarian war (AFP)|
5. A second major factor was that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Shiites felt like they were winning the war. How did that come about?
Maliki is not new to this game. When the Sunni eventually started suing for peace, Maliki could then realize, if he hadn’t already, that the former regime and even the Salafist terrorists no longer presented an existential threat to his government. They could still cause violence, but the civil war was fundamentally over.
6. The Iraqi government was also actively involved in the sectarian war. What role did it play?
Elements of the Iraqi government were involved, though I don’t think you can indict the entire government. It is no secret that there were elements of the Iraqi Security Forces, particularly in the National Police, that took part in the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad. We must also remember that there were other parts of the Iraqi government that permitted the U.S. coalition to “re-blue” the National Police brigades, retraining them on human rights and rule of law, throughout 2007, and relieved the most sectarian leaders within these brigades.
|This picture taken in Feb. 2007 Baghdad shows an Iraqi Police unit forcing out a family from their home in an attempt to clear out Sunnis from a neighborhood (Getty Images)|
7. What role did you see Moqtada al-Sadr playing in these events, and especially his 2007 cease-fire?
I probably did not sufficiently emphasize the August 2007 Jaysh al Mahdi ceasefire in my original piece. Intra-Shia politics are very, very complicated. Essentially, in the person of Moqtada al-Sadr, you have the young, then-inexperienced son of a distinguished political family. He is the sole viable heir of Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a grand ayatollah in the activist Shiite tradition that believes in direct political rule by clerics, as opposed to the more traditional quietist tradition that believes clerics should remain in the background, though still be very influential, who was killed in 1999 along with Moqtada’s two older brothers, almost certainly at Saddam’s order. It is his father, Mohammad Sadiq, often referred to as the Second Martyr Sadr, for whom Sadr city is named. The Sadrs are the champions of the Iraqi Shiite underclass, primarily those who have moved from the rural south into Baghdad and Basra.
It is hard to compress the history of the Sadrist movement, but if we fast forward to August of 2007, the Sadrist Jaysh al Mahdi gets into a firefight in Karbala with members of the Iraqi Security Forces. That these forces are widely acknowledged to be members of the Badr Corps, a rival militia, who have integrated into the security forces, is beside the point. Sadr experienced a backlash that forced him to withdraw his forces from any armed role, which became the Sadrist “ceasefire” that held from August of 2007 until early 2008, when the government and the U.S. led coalition challenged his power bases in Basra and Sadr City.
8. Prime Minister Maliki eventually took on the Sadrists in 2008. Why did that happen, and what were the political results?
In March of 2008, Maliki decided that the Sadrist militia control in Basra was unacceptable to his regime, and he gave the order to move Iraqi Army units into Basra. The U.S. coalition was caught unaware by this movement, but quickly decided to support him. The authority of the Government of Iraq (GoI) was re-established in Basra by April 24, when both PM Maliki and then Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin announced that the Iraqi Security Forces had defeated the militias in Basra. By this time, fighting had overlapped with that in Sadr City, which began in earnest in early April and ended in May.
Curiously, I think this is the one exception to my larger thesis, where conventional military power is used to settle a political question. Because the Sadrists “hold ground” and are willing to fight as a more or less conventional force, the government could use military force against them for political gains. I think this one exception proves the rule.
The bottom line here was that Maliki settled an intra-Shiite dispute in his favor, and created an image as an Iraqi nationalist, willing to take on extremists within any sect to preserve the Government of Iraq. I do not believe he would have taken on his co-religionists until he was confident that the Sunni-Shi’a civil war had been settled.
9. Your thesis does not discount the role the U.S. played in the turn of events in Iraq. Could you explain what the Surge was successful at?
The Surge was successful in several ways, just not the ones usually attributed.
First, it was immensely successful politically. President Bush’s speech in January of 2007 removed all ambiguity from American policy regarding Iraq, giving predictability to the actors in Baghdad. They knew that until January 20, 2009, they could count on American support. I think it is hard to understate how important this was. Contrast this with the much more ambiguous statements from President Obama on Afghanistan, and how political leaders in the region have had to hedge their bets.
|Thousands of concrete walls were erected throughout the capital as part of the Baghdad Security Plan to cut down sectarian fighting (Reuters)|
Second, there were a lot of U.S. actions that made it easier for the Iraqis to reach an accommodation. These include the security stations among the population, erection of concrete barriers, and the elimination of both Sunni and Shi’a extremists by both Joint Special Operations Command and the general-purpose brigades in Baghdad. I believe the relationship forged between then Brigadier General John Campbell of Multi-National Division Bagdad and Lieutenant General Abboud Qanbar of the Baghdad Operational Command went a long way in synchronizing the actions of the U.S. coalition and the Iraqi forces.
I have never said that the introduction of more forces or the change in strategy didn’t matter, only that these were “supporting characters” in the story of 2007 Baghdad.
10. You personally played a role in this, as you were a strategist for the Baghdad Security Plan. Could you explain some of the things that you did in that capacity?
I was the G5, the senior strategist and chief of plans, for the division in Baghdad at the time, and therefore led the team that wrote the U.S. portion of the Baghdad Security Plan. I also worked briefly with the Iraqis on their portion. Most of this work was done in December 2006, primarily by then Majors Andy Morgado and Chuck Armstrong, long before the “New Orthodoxy” accounts tend to begin their story. From my position in Multi-National Division Baghdad, the American shift starts in mid-December, and is largely complete by early January, long before Petraeus and his team arrive. This is not to say that the energy Petraeus brought to Baghdad wasn’t very important, but the intellectual transformation pre-dated his arrival in February 2007.
Nor do I recall an important role for the much-heralded COIN manual. About a year ago I asked one of my colleagues from that period what he remembered us using it for. He thought for a moment and said, “We posted the principles on the wall, so we could count how many we were breaking them.” This is my recollection as well. This is not to say that Field Manual 3-24 wasn’t important for a host of other reasons, but we were just too busy to try to fit what we were doing into its framework.
I do think it is important to emphasize the role played by General George Casey from my vantage point. He does not tend to be one of the heroes in the popular narrative, but the man who told me to build security stations in Baghdad was George Casey. The man who decided that we would create the Baghdad Operational Command to give the Iraqis control of their Army and National Police units was George Casey. The man who kept us on track with a population security model and kept others from simply turning this into another Baghdad offensive was George Casey. I don’t pretend to know the “back story,” and whether these were his initiatives or whether he was taking direction from other quarters, but I do think it important to note that he ended his tenure in Baghdad by putting us on the path that would end in success after his replacement by General Petraeus.
It is also important to give credit to where I stole ideas from. A significant part of my role was to gather the good ideas being implemented by the brigades already there on the ground, and turn them into divisional citywide initiatives. Then Colonel Jeff Bannister was the most energetic in partnering with his Iraqi counterparts, and we stole several ideas from his headquarters that would be critical as the Baghdad Operational Command stood up. Then Colonel J.B. Burton saw the course of the Sunni-Shiite civil war in Northwest Baghdad very clearly, and worked to use both concrete, and U.S. troops to create buffer zones between the combating sides. Colonel Mike Kershaw in the rural areas south of Baghdad was creating a series of joint U.S.-Iraqi combat outposts in the fall of 2006. I think too much of the “New Orthodoxy” account leans on the role of outside experts who came with Petraeus, when in fact most of the innovation came from experiential learning on the ground and was codified that winter, again, prior to the arrival of Petraeus and his team.
11. You believe that the political support Washington provided Baghdad was even more important than the troop increases and tactics. Could you explain why?
The political support from Washington was absolutely critical. Not only, as covered above, did President Bush give-->unequivocal support to the Iraqi Government, but he made it clear to the U.S. interagency community in Washington D.C. that this was his top priority, creating a “War Czar”, Lieutenant General Doug Lute, for whom I later worked, as a full Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor. The President empowered Lute to do what was necessary to get General Petraeus the resources he needed, and Lute saw the President every weekday morning. Lute was therefore empowered to tell the President not only how the war was going, but who in the executive branch was not being as helpful as they might.
Finally, President Bush also initiated a series of teleconferences with Prime Minister Maliki. While these were much criticized at the time, we can certainly say that Maliki has learned how to wield executive power, and perhaps these tutoring sessions contributed to that.
12. Do you think that support has backfired, because many now believe that Maliki is becoming authoritarian?
I do not. While I am the first to admit that Iraq is hardly perfect, I think that given that it is still recovering from thirty years of war and sanctions, has a tenuous ethno-sectarian mix, is not yet a decade away from having its government forcefully overthrown and all its institutions destroyed, endured a more or less three year civil war and still has a significant terrorism problem; all this in a pretty rough international neighborhood, Iran to the east, Syria to the west, it is doing okay. Her institutions are still nascent, and there is much work to be done.
Maliki is clearly a forceful personality who is wielding executive power in the most forceful way he knows how. Chief executives tend to do that. No, he does not play by Queen of Marbury rules, but talk of him becoming “another Saddam” is overblown, not to mention inflammatory to someone who lost family and friends to the last regime. His approach is a little heavy handed right now, but I anticipate that lightening as the institutions of power become more mature.
13. One lesson you took away from Iraq was that the U.S. is good at building up foreign militaries, but not police forces. Why the difference?
Building the Iraqi military was relatively easy for three reasons. First, you had the U.S. military there to do it. Militaries know what another military should look like. Second, militaries tend to be more or less alike around the world. Because militaries have, over the past centuries, fought each other a lot, “best practices” tend to spread worldwide. Finally, because militaries don’t “produce” anything, but instead exist to destroy things, they don’t need to be tied into the rest of society and its institutions. So in creating the Iraqi Army, for example, we could, and did, create independent infantry battalions and then “plugged” them into the coalition support system, giving them artillery support, aircraft, logistics, intelligence, and etc. I should also add that is really helped that you had a long history of an Iraqi Army in the country, plus very high literacy rates.
Police forces, on the other hand, are both culturally idiomatic, and part of a larger structure. Police fill different roles in each society, but when they act, they produce or catch, depending on your perspective criminals or alleged criminals. These criminals then have to enter a justice system. You need initial detention, then longer term detention and/or a parole system, functioning courts with a code of law, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges. Then you need a prison system and/or other penalties. Absent this larger system, the police either catch or release criminals, which is hazardous to the health of the police, or they start utilizing non-judicial means. As anyone who works in the international rule of law business knows, this is long, slow, hard work that is measured in decades.
14. It seems like in the past, the Americans usually created a military institution, which was much more powerful than the political class. The result was that the military regularly seized power such as in Latin America and Southeast Asia. There are some that have brought up a coup in Iraq as well. Do you think that’s a concern?
I think that Iraq has several issues. Improper civil-military relations is not one of them. I think the military is fully under political control, and while you can never totally dismiss the possibility of a military coup, I think it is highly unlikely.
15. You also believed that in the end, the U.S. did not impose its will on Iraq. During the Surge, it found a congruence of events that allowed it to successfully carry out its strategy. Can the current political crisis in Iraq be seen as another example of that, because Iraqi politicians are obviously not following any script written by the Americans?
Iraq, like every other country, has its own history, its own institutions, its own politics, its own problems, its own way of doing things. It is important, but difficult, for Americans to learn that this is “not about us.” The current political crisis in Iraq, which does appear to be resolving itself, is about power, institutions, and alleged crimes within Iraq. While we should monitor this crisis closely, we should also let this work out in an Iraqi fashion. They do have a way of coming to a workable compromise at the last moment.
16. Could another example be the fact that the Iraqi government rejected keeping a large military force in Iraq after the December 2011 withdrawal date?
Absolutely. The Iraqis declining to grant terms for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq was all about Iraqi domestic politics. Though the leadership of several, maybe most, political parties in Iraq would have liked to have seen a residual American presence for a few more years, no party, save the Kurds, could sell that to their constituents. This is success. The Iraqi elites could not extend the U.S. presence in their country, because they have to be responsive to desires of their constituents with an eye to upcoming elections. This sounds a lot like democratic accountability to me.
17. That deadline was set by the Bush administration with the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Do you think that affected America’s influence in the country?
I don’t think it is quite accurate to say that deadline was “set” by the Bush Administration, but rather that is was “negotiated by” the Bush Administration. Again, the Iraqis had a vote here, and made it very clear that they wanted a clear end date when U.S. troops would leave the country after the expiration of the United National mandate. I was not involved in the negotiations in 2008, but sat right next to the people who were. I think we got about as good as we could get in the 2008 SOFA, and even that was a near thing.
Finally, I think it is important to note that while we call this agreement the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement, the Iraqis call it something like the “Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq.” I would highlight the words “withdrawal” and “temporary.” From the Iraqi perspective, this agreement was always about our withdrawal, and our presence over the last three years was simply a temporary accommodation to allow us to do that in an orderly manner.
18. Did you agree or disagree with the pulling out of U.S. troops, and why?
While there are some disadvantages to the withdrawal of U.S. troops, I think that it is, overall, a good thing. First, I think it has gone a long way towards restoring U.S. credibility in the region. There are still Iraqis who don’t believe we have really left, that the U.S. was there to get Iraqi oil. As the truth sinks in that we really did leave, in accordance with an agreement that we signed with the Iraqi government, I think that will help repair the narrative as to why we went to Iraq in the first place. This is not to say that I endorse the invasion of Iraq, but rather that we did not go there with the intention of stealing oil or setting up long term bases.
Second, I think the presence of the U.S. soldiers and generals retarded the development of Iraqi institutions and warped Iraqi politics. The Iraqis did have to spend a great deal of time figuring out how to deal with the Americans. They no longer have that problem, and will now have the ability, or at least the potential, to address their own political issues.
I wrote more about this in a New Republic piece from December 2011.
19. The end of the civil war did not mean that violence in Iraq ended. What do you think are the main drivers of attacks in Iraq today?
Iraq has a terrorism problem, mostly due to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which is clearly responsible for the latest waves of mass bombings in Iraq. It is not clear if the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Force Qods Force, and their Iraqi proxies will continue to use violent means after our departure. Iraq will have to struggle with these nihilist-Salafist AQI terrorists for some time to come. This does not mean that they cannot step up the campaign against them through the use of better equipment, and more training.
Additionally, Iraq can do more for Middle East stability by ensuring that it does not become a haven for Al Qaeda affiliated jihadists going into Syria. This is both good for Iraq and good for its neighbors.
20. Now that the U.S. has withdrawn from the country, there are all kinds of theories about what will happen next in the country. These range from an increase in violence, to a new civil war, to Iran taking over, to the nation breaking apart, to some combination of all of these. What do you see in Iraq’s future?
As Yogi Berra allegedly said, “Prediction is hard; especially about the future.” However, I think most of the possibilities you list above are unlikely. I believe that the civil war of 2005-2008 clarified the balance of power in Iraq. To speak bluntly, I do not think the Sunnis would do well at all were they to renew the civil war. Nor do I think the country will break apart. All three pieces of Iraq, even Kurdistan, know they are much better off in the current arrangement than they would be separately. As to Iran, while they will certainly continue to have influence, I do not think that they will “take over.” Again, I think Iraqi politicians will have to be very careful about keeping distance from Iran if they want to be re-elected by their constituents, many of who remember the Iraq-Iran war or just don’t like the “Persians.”
I do not mean to be overly rosy about Iraq. It faces very serious challenges in the near future and the politics are immature, but I remain optimistic both because Iraq has the raw materials, money, geography, and human capital, to build a better future and because, to be blunt, they have learned the cost of failure the hard way. I also look forward to the provincial elections next year, and the parliamentary elections of 2014, which will hopefully give a clearer mandate than did the last electoral cycle. So long as these elections occur in a free and fair manner, I think Iraq will at the very least muddle through.
21. In America, these ideas seem to be advocated by both those who supported the war, and those who opposed it. Why do you think there’s such a convergence by different groups?
I am glad you asked this question. It does not seem the Iraqis have many friends in Washington, D.C. any more. To speak in broad terms, I think that there are still many on the “left” who still hope that Iraq will collapse so that the project of President Bush and his “neocon” advisors will be a complete failure, despite the approval of the invasion by most prominent Democrats. I think this group is now joined by a growing sector on the “right” who hope that Iraq will collapse so that they can blame President Obama for his disengagement strategy, never mind that it was also President Bush’s, and who accept at face value and repeat the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ talking points on Iranian influence in Iraq. In short, I think Iraq is now caught up in U.S. domestic politics. This is regrettable, but it’s the flip side of the lesson I’ve been trying to teach here. Their politics isn’t really about us; our politics really isn’t about them.
22. One of your main lessons was that the U.S. had to think about the concerns of the locals, because if they don’t have the same interests, a counterinsurgency cannot be won. To me, that was the most important point, because Americans obviously are most interested in what they do, and believe that they control almost every situation they are involved in. You could say that is why a “new orthodoxy” about Iraq exists, because they discount the agency of the locals. Could you speak on that a bit?
I’ve said flippantly that there are two pathologies to a belief in American exceptionalism. The first is that “Americans can do anything.” The second is that “If something good happened, Americans must have caused it.” I think the New Orthodoxy accounts fall victim to the second of these fallacies. These books are all written by Americans, who spent most of their limited time in Iraq on military bases. Therefore it is not surprising that they all cast the American military in a starring role. It’s just selection bias; these are the only “characters” they meet.
What I have tried to do is set the stage for an account in which the Iraqis are the principal actors. I do not pretend that this is the final account, and I am sure I have some of the details wrong. I very much look forward to someday reading accounts by senior Iraqi leaders, not to mention ground-level memoirs by soldiers, militia members and insurgents.
The only work of this type that does exist today is Ali Allawi’s The Occupation of Iraq, which is now quite dated. It was a very important book for me, as Allawi describes three events in which I participated in during my first tour, the battle against the Sadrists at Najaf Cemetery in August of 2004, the Second Battle of Fallujah in November of 2004, and the first Iraqi election on January 30, 2005. When I first read Allawi’s account of these events I did not recognize them. His understanding of what was going on was so incredibly different than mine, and yet as I read his account, I realized how limited my perspective had been. It was this book, rather than any of the academic “counterinsurgency” literature, that most informed me as I returned to Iraq.
I fully expect that in the coming decade, we will see similar works emerge about the 2006-2011 period that will force us to further refine our understanding. And again, my primary concern is not that the Iraqis get their own story right, though I wish them all best in doing so. My concern is that the United States and its military not draw the wrong lessons about what it can and can not do.
23. Do you think that same ignorance about local agendas is behind the Iraq is unraveling argument, because they can’t seem to believe that the country will be able to get along without the Americans there?
I think there are significant American constituencies who cannot imagine how the Iraqis could possibly manage without us.
24. What kind of message does Iraq send to those that talk about regime change?
I think Iraq should teach us that while overthrowing a regime is easy for a hegemonic power like the United States, rebuilding a new one is hard. I think this calculus applies whether you are overthrowing the regime due to hard-minded choices about national interest or because of humanitarian or “responsibility to protect” concerns. Creating a new regime from scratch is difficult, but life outside a functioning state when you are used to living one can be “nasty, brutish and short.” I am not saying this concern is determinative, but we should at least take the suffering of the locals into account and include it in our decision calculus.
25. How about U.S. involvement in nation building?
I think this is a huge “it depends.” It depends on the security level of the country, what our interests are there, whether we are welcome or not, what the level of development already is, and a host of other factors. If we are talking about post-conflict reconstruction, and if we were the ones who initiated the conflict, then our war aims may well require us to get involved in creating an acceptable aftermath. Or not. It depends.
Ackerman, Spencer, “Once a Renegade, Counterinsurgency Retiree Represents Iraq Norm,” Washington Independent, 7/22/09
Manea, Octavian, “The Iraqi COIN Narrative Revisited: Interview with Douglas A. Ollivant,” Small Wars Journal, 7/24/11
Ollivant, Douglas, “Countering the New Orthodoxy,” New America Foundation, June 2011
- “Iraq is a Mess. But Leaving Was the Right Call,” New Republic, 12/23/11
Ottaway, Marina and Kaysi, Danial, “The State of Iraq,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2012