DATE January 17, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to
Colin Powell and critic of the Bush administration, on Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Today we conclude our two part series, when and how should the US get out of
Iraq. We're hearing from military leaders, prominent Iraqis, policy analysts
Our first guest today is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He was the chief of
staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Wilkerson left the State Department
at the same time Powell did in January 2005, but, unlike Powell, Wilkerson
became an outspoken critic of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.
He's currently teaching part time at the College of William & Mary and George
Lawrence Wilkerson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Where did you stand on the invasion
Colonel LAWRENCE WILKERSON: That's a good question. In that time, I was so
caught up in the resolution we'd gotten in the UN Security Council--15-0, by
the way--in November of 2002, and all the diplomacy leading up to the final
failure of our UN efforts in January that I really didn't have a whole lot of
time to think about it. I felt like Iraq had violated a number--16, 17--UN
Security Council resolutions. I felt like containment was failing, the
sanctions were failing. I felt like Saddam Hussein at some time, once the
sanctions were lifted, would go back to making his weapons of mass destruction
again, and that eventually we would have to do something about him. So I
suppose I'd have to say that once the diplomacy failed I was probably in favor
of using force to remove him from his position.
GROSS: And has the war turned out the way you expected?
Col. WILKERSON: Not at all. I did not know, nor do I think my boss,
Secretary Powell, knew that we would be so inept in the aftermath of what was
very furious and fast military action--we would see the statue come down in
Baghdad, for example, and then things would go so badly. Barbara Bodine, then
referred to as the "Mayor of Baghdad," Ambassador Barbara Bodine, put it this
way, she said, `I knew there were 500 ways to get it wrong and maybe one or
two to get it right. I did not know that we'd do all 500.'
GROSS: What about getting out? Do you think it's time to get out now? And
if not now, when?
Col. WILKERSON: I think it's inevitable that we have to get out and we have
to get out sooner rather than later. And when I say get out, I mean the
preponderant number of American forces. And I say that for two really good, I
think, strategic reasons. One, we're malpositioned right now with so
many--160,000 or so--boots on the ground in Iraq to protect our other vital
interests in the Middle East. Those vital interests include the security of
Israel, the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, the flow of oil through
the pipelines, Turkey and so forth.
The second strategic reason is that we are, in essence, adding to our problems
by having so many American boots on Arab soil. It is one of the, if not the
leading--that and Guantanamo Bay--leading incentives for recruitment by
organizations like al-Qaeda. So we need to get our boots off Arab soil. We
need to get better positioned so we can protect our real interest in the
Middle East. Better positioned means over the horizon, carrier battle groups,
Marine amphibious groups; it means prepositioned stocks and exercises. It
does not mean boots on Arab soil.
GROSS: And when do you think we should pull out our troops?
Col. WILKERSON: I think we're going to have to begin in the summer of this
year, and we're probably going to have to have a considerable portion--I'd say
somewhere, 30, 40,000, maybe even 50,000 gone very shortly thereafter, say
December, January. And that's simply because we are breaking the backs of our
Army and Marine Corps, who of course are taking the brunt of this, by the
continual deployments, the continued separations, the continued tasking of the
institutional fabric of those two services in order to provide this number of
GROSS: When it comes to pulling the American troops out of Iraq, do you think
that we should be looking for certain benchmarks before we leave, or do you
think it's time to just start moving troops out?
Col. WILKERSON: I think, this is a sad thing to say, but I think we've
passed the time for benchmarks, actually. I think the dimensions of the
problems we have with our land forces, the gravity of the situation of our
being malpositioned to protect our other interests: Afghanistan and it's kind
of going to hell, and the need to right that situation and other matters are
going to cause us to come out regardless. So to talk about benchmarks, in my
view, let's hope that benchmarks line up with that inevitability. Let's hope
there's peace and stability, reasonable. Let's hope there's a little bit of
economic turnaround in Iraq. Let's hope the oil's flowing. Let's hope all
those things coincide with our leaving. But we're going to have to leave,
ultimately, at any rate.
GROSS: Now, Iraq's defense minister said this week that Iraq wouldn't be able
to take responsibility for its internal security until 2012 and wouldn't be
able to defend its borders on its own until 2018. So how do you take that
into account when deciding when and how to pull out? What responsibility do
we have to Iraq to help Iraq defend itself from outside enemies and to help
prevent civil war from within?
Col. WILKERSON: Well, frankly, that's a preposterous statement. It's an
understandable statement, but it's nonetheless preposterous. Iraq could
handle most of the external threats to it right now if it congealed around
some form of national government and wielded the army it has, the police
forces it has, and so forth in a reasonably concerted way. So that's a
preposterous statement. It's understandable from the perspective of this is a
gentleman, and there are gentlemen arrayed around him, mostly gentlemen, not
gentlewomen, who feel like their interests are protected by the fact that US
forces are there and feel like that their interests might be threatened, not
by some external threat but by some internal threat were we to leave, and so
that's the reason that prompts him to make such statements.
GROSS: You're saying the government is defending itself with that statement?
Col. WILKERSON: I'm saying that there are certain people in the government
who have more to fear from a US departure should the Sunni, for example,
decide that it's time to have a real civil war than others do, and they would
of course want us to stay.
GROSS: Now, you were a colonel in the Army. Do you think the surge is being
effective in quieting things in Iraq, in creating a more stable Iraq, and in
paving the way for political reconciliation and a political infrastructure?
Col. WILKERSON: It is, but it had already started. The surge was just
incidental to it already starting and helped to consolidate it. What had
happened was a number of things. We had begun some really robust combat
operations in early 2007 which were coming to fruition. One of the things
that manifested itself from those combat operations was the Sunni insurgents
largely understanding that they were going to get licked, and so they began to
be more conducive to working with the coalition, to accepting training, to
accepting arms, to appearing to be aligned with the coalition until they could
find better things to do. That's one of the things that happened, very robust
combat effort operations beginning in early 2007.
Another thing that happened was that Muqtada al-Sadr, who controls the most
powerful Shia militia in Iraq, went to ground. Now, there are various reasons
that people speculate as to why he did this, but nonetheless he did it. And
so that took a lot of the violence and potential for violence away. I think
Iran has recalculated what an instable Iraq might mean to it and has toned
down its support and arming of Shia groups, and its support for instability in
Iraq in general. And I think the Kurds have decided that the operations that
are on ongoing against the PPK in their midst are conducive to their continued
stability and prosperity.
And you begin to put some of these things together, many of which--if not
all--began to happen before the surge, and you understand why we have not a
situation of peace, certainly, and not a stable situation, either, but we have
a little more stability and a little less violence now.
GROSS: What do we owe to the Iraqi people before we pull out? Like, what
degree of stability, what degree of safety, what degree of electric power do
we owe them before we leave?
Col. WILKERSON: I prefer not to look at that way because I don't think
that's a very realistic way to look at it. I prefer to look at it the way I
assume General Petraeus is looking at it. We should have been letting the
Iraqis deal with many of these challenges far earlier than we did. I think
that's one of the reasons General Petraeus has been able, as I said, to
consolidate the positive impacts of what's happened in Iraq in 2007. He's
turning more and more responsibility over to the Iraqis. So the question is
not what do we owe the Iraqis before we leave, it's what they owe to
themselves. Can they reconcile to the point that they get a petroleum-sharing
agreement through the parliament? Can they bring about reconciliation enough
to the extent that they can get outside the Green Zone and begin to see a
little more of their country? Can they bring the kind of prosperity,
economically and otherwise, to their people that needs to be there in order to
dissuade them from further violence?
These are the kinds of questions that the Iraqis are going to have to answer.
We can't answer these questions for them. For four years we thought we could,
and that's part of our problem.
GROSS: You were responsible for a review of information from the CIA that was
used to prepare Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech before the UN
Security Council in February 2003, in which he made the argument that Iraq had
weapons of mass destruction. And you've said that every time you took
something out of his speech that you didn't think really held up that the vice
president put it back in.
Col. WILKERSON: That's not exactly what I said. I said there were key
components of the script that was given us, largely by the vice president's
office, that we discarded that stayed discarded; and there were others, like,
for example, the meeting allegedly between Baghdad's people and al-Qaeda's
people in Prague, Czechoslovakia, that we threw out that kept coming back.
That one in particular was put back in several times until General Powell,
Secretary Powell, finally grew adamant and said, `That's out and staying out.'
More to the point, the 48-page script on WMD that we got from the vice
president's office, DCI Tenet, George Tenet and I, agreed--with the
secretary's, of course, approval--to throw out completely because it was,
essentially, a useless document, the document prepared in the vice president's
office for the secretary's use at the UN was a useless document. And we went
to the October 2002 national intelligence estimate and used it instead.
Unfortunately, of course, as we all know now, major components of it were
GROSS: Since you were given data that turned out not to be accurate, are you
skeptical of any data the American people are being given now by the Bush
administration about how the war in Iraq is doing?
Col. WILKERSON: I'm not skeptical, but I'm not not skeptical for the reasons
you're implying. I'm not skeptical because I have many military, diplomatic,
even contractor and other friends in Iraq who e-mail me routinely. And I have
several individuals whom I had a hand in putting there in late 2003, for
example, who've worked everywhere from the Iraqi ministries to MNSTC-I to
working for General Petraeus in training the Iraqis originally to working in
the current organization involved at the spearhead of the surge. And I rely
on their information more than I do the administration's information, and
right now I don't find a lot of difference between their information and what
the administration is putting out, except there may be possibly a little more
positive spin on the administration's information.
GROSS: But there were earlier times when you did see a discrepancy?
Col. WILKERSON: Oh, yes, absolutely, particularly like when people like
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld were saying it's not an insurgency, it's not
guerilla warfare; or people like Vice President Cheney were saying, `I think
we're in the last throes.' That was preposterous. People in Iraq were telling
me, military and civilian, that we were losing and that we were losing badly.
GROSS: You were Colin Powell's chief of staff when he was secretary of state.
I'm wondering if you have any idea whether the president or the vice president
has any second thoughts about the war in Iraq.
Col. WILKERSON: Oh, I can't imagine they don't. I just can't imagine they
don't. I would have to attribute to them a degree of obtuseness and ignorance
unparalleled not to think that they don't have second and third and even
fourth thoughts about Iraq. The president can insist--and he must do so, I
suppose, publicly, particularly to the right wing and the Republican
Party--that his principles are being followed, he'll be vindicated and so
forth and so on. But I would venture to say he probably has a little problem
sleeping at night.
GROSS: Any final thoughts you'd like to leave us with?
Col. WILKERSON: Just that Clausewitz, my mentor and theorist of war par
excellence, had a lot to say about war, as most of my colleagues know in the
military. One of the things that he said that was quite, quite clear was that
any time you embark on using your people, your young people to kill other
people for state purposes--and risk their own lives in the process--you better
be darn sure you know what you're doing before you start it. I don't see us
having done that for a long time, and I would really like to see us elect some
people who know how to do that.
GROSS: Lawrence Wilkerson, thank you very much for talking with us.
Col. WILKERSON: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson was chief of staff to Secretary of State
Coming up, neoconservative writer and editor William Kristol. This is FRESH
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Interview: Neoconservative editor and columnist William Kristol
on the progress in Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
We're asking a range of military leaders, prominent Iraqis, policy analysts
and journalists when and how should the US get out of Iraq.
Our next guest is William Kristol, a neoconservative who advocated regime
change in Iraq even before September 11th. Kristol is the editor and
co-founder of the Washington-based political magazine The Weekly Standard.
This month he became a columnist for The New York Times.
William Kristol, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's just start with a very
brief summation of where you stood on the invasion of Iraq.
Mr. WILLIAM KRISTOL: I supported the liberation of Iraq.
GROSS: And you were one of the people leading the charge, is it fair to say?
Mr. KRISTOL: Lots of people were leading the charge, but I was certainly
part of it.
GROSS: So now do you think it's time to pull out? And if not now, when?
Mr. KRISTOL: It's certainly not time to pull out. We changed strategy a
year ago, and that strategy has worked. The country's much more secure.
Deaths of all kinds are way down. We're seeing political reconciliation. We
need to stay the course. We're unwinding the surge itself; obviously we're
withdrawing about a brigade a month here for the first half of 2008, but the
US troops were necessary and essential to providing security for the Iraqis,
to providing confidence to the Iraqis to turn against al-Qaeda and also
against the Shia extremists, which they've done. The point isn't to pull out,
the point is to have Iraq be a success. We're going to end up leaving some
troops there, I think, to help them for quite a while. And it's a practical
judgment about whether that's, you know, 40,000 or 60 or 80--I obviously can't
say right now. But I would not make the objective pulling out, I'd make the
And then I would obviously draw down troops and draw back troops from
fighting, if that's possible, consistent with making sure that there's enough
security for the political process to move forward.
GROSS: Part of General Petraeus' approach to cutting down sectarian fighting
in Iraq was to actually pay some Sunni sheiks and militia leaders, and that's
been an effective strategy for the moment, but some people wonder, after we
leave, might some of the people who we've been paying to stop fighting start
fighting again, and might sectarian fighting start again? Are you concerned
Mr. KRISTOL: Well, obviously no one can say that it's not possible that the
sectarian violence could increase again. And probably there will be, I'm
sure, spurts of increase. But as long as the long-term trend is decrease, I
think that's what we want.
Look, we're not going to leave. I mean, people keep saying `after we leave,'
but it's probably not going to be a nation that we can just walk away from any
more than Bosnia and Kosovo have been situations where the Europeans and us
have been able to walk away from it, what, 10 years now after that
intervention. Some level of US support, both political and probably military,
is going to be needed to reassure the Iraqis that the worst sectarian actors,
the worst terrorists aren't going to be allowed to prevail.
GROSS: The main reason for the surge was to create a peaceful and stable
environment that would enable political progress to move forward and enable
Iraq to really start creating a political infrastructure. Do you feel like
the surge has been succeeding on that level?
Mr. KRISTOL: Sure. I mean, on the ground there's kind an amazing amount of
reconciliation, or at least accommodation. I'm not going to pretend that
people there love each other, any more than people in lots of parts of the
world love each other. The key is for them to decide they're not going to
resolve their disagreements by killing each other or slaughtering each other,
and that seems to be happening. They're not killing or slaughtering each
other, they're trying to work things out politically. It'll be a highly
decentralized nation, which is probably a good thing. But now I think the
benchmark legislation that people have been so focused on probably has been a
mistaken focus in the sense that that matters less than what's happening at
the ground level, but now the Iraqi parliament has passed the
de-Baathification law. It looks like they're going to pass some form of
revenue sharing. So clearly the political process is moving ahead.
And look, I'm not--it could get tougher again. These things don't go in one,
you know, one direction and one straight line, but the degree of progress in
the last three, four, five months, both military and political, has been
pretty astounding, I think.
GROSS: Some people say that part of the reason why violence has quieted down
in Iraq is that some cities have virtually been ethnically cleansed. For
instance, Shia have driven out Sunnis in many areas, and many Sunnis have fled
the country. But the question has been raised, when Sunnis are ready to
return to Iraq and they find that their homes and their neighborhoods are now
occupied by Shia, then what? And I wonder if you've given any thought to that
Mr. KRISTOL: A little bit. I'm no expert on exactly how to manage that, and
it'll have to be done, obviously, on a somewhat case-by-case and area-by-area
basis. There's been some ethnic cleansing, unfortunately, because we didn't
surge earlier, because we let the situation get out of control. But the good
news is that this is the problem we're facing, that Sunnis want to come back
and figure out how to, you know, reincorporate themselves into Iraq, and it's
going to require some negotiations and some accommodations; but I think the
problem of dealing with people wanting to come back to a peaceful Iraq is a
problem that I'm happy to have our government work on as opposed to the
problem of dealing with escalating sectarian violence.
GROSS: Do you think that the United States will be leaving Iraq a better
place than it found it?
Mr. KRISTOL: Yes. Sure. They'll be able to govern themselves freely and
free of a horrible dictator who killed hundreds of thousands of people. It'll
be a peaceful ally of the US in the Middle East, I think, a force for good in
the region. It's become very fashionable to mock those of us who hope that
Iraq can become something of a model; obviously it's been very difficult. But
the truth is, it looks like we're going to end up in Iraq with a
democratically-elected government, with Shia and Sunni and Kurds working
together in a reasonably constructive way. That's a pretty big
accomplishment, not so much for us but for the Iraqis, I think, and for the
Middle East. And for the Middle East. And I think people are still much too
quick to minimize the medium- and long-term implications of that in the Middle
East. The other countries will look around and see that it can work, and I
think that's a very healthy thing.
GROSS: Well, Bill Kristol, thanks very much for talking with us.
Mr. KRISTOL: My pleasure, Terry.
GROSS: William Kristol is the co-founder and editor of The Weekly Standard.
This month he became a columnist for The New York Times.
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Interview: Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project on Defense
Alternatives, on US withdrawal from Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We're concluding our two-day series, in which we've been asking when and how
should the US get out of Iraq. Our guests include military leaders, prominent
Iraqis, policy analysts and journalists.
Our next guest, Carl Conetta, is the co-director of the Project on Defense
Alternatives. Before that, he was a research fellow at the Institute for
Defense and Disarmament Studies and edited its journal, Defense and
Carl Conetta, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with where you stood on the
question of invading Iraq. Were you for it or against it?
Mr. CARL CONETTA: From the beginning, I thought that the invasion was
unnecessary from a security perspective, unwise from a strategic perspective
GROSS: Well, do you think it's time to pull out now? And if not now, when?
Mr. CONETTA: You know, practically speaking, the idea of immediate
withdrawal doesn't translate into something that would actually occur. I
think we could decide to withdraw within a six-month period, a year, 18
months--all of those are feasible--but technical practicalities put this into
the future. Given that, I think that we can do all that needs to be done
positively within the next 12 to 15 months, and our aim should be to withdraw
beginning now with the announcement of a timeline for withdrawal.
GROSS: When you say do what needs to be done, do you mean just logistically
in terms of pulling out, or do you mean accomplish what we need to accomplish
in Iraq before we pull out?
Mr. CONETTA: Logistically, the requirements are much shorter. If we had to
leave and we wanted to leave as safely and at a not-too-hurried pace, that
could be accomplished in six months. But I think we need to think about
withdrawal as providing leverage for positive change. It is a way of
transforming the political calculus of all the actors in the area. We should
use that to help stabilize the situation and reduce the possibility of
increased conflict once we leave.
GROSS: Give me an example of how you think we can use a deadline as leverage.
Mr. CONETTA: Well, one thing that we can see in the Sunni areas, although
the administration and General Petraeus have been able to bring in some of the
tribal elements and some of the Sunni insurgents in an effort to isolate
al-Qaeda in Iraq, others continue to resist, including the largest of the
insurgent organizations. They have been in conversations with commanders on
the ground, our commanders, and again and again they return to the simple
point that they cannot and will not cooperate with the United States until it
is clear to them that we're leaving. So that's one very important objective,
would be to bring them into the fold. But it requires a clear timeline for
withdrawal, something that is credible.
GROSS: Are you concerned that, if the United States pulls out in a year or a
year and a half, that Iraq will end up in a civil war?
Mr. CONETTA: Iraq's already involved in pretty substantial civil conflict,
and though we've been able to reduce some types of violence over the past
year, I thought our present stance is really not sustainable, and it doesn't
fundamentally change the opposition in Iraq. In fact, what we find ourselves
doing today is arming one side while simultaneously supporting the other.
That's really not a solution; it's not a long-term solution.
If we left precipitously, I think there's no doubt--in my mind--that there
would be a surge in violence. How bad it would is impossible to say. We need
to make provisions to reduce that probability, and I think that requires us to
reach out to other actors in the region. What we lack in Iraq is a ground
legitimacy. We don't have the power to move the people that need to be moved.
The most powerful man in Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani, will not speak to us. We
need to bring in other actors. And that requires reaching out across the
borders to all of the front line states and to involve them more substantially
in the future. They have a stake. They do not want to see Iraq fragment, and
they do not want to see a civil war, which might portend regional conflict.
So we need to use, again, use the lever of our leaving to bring in other
actors and hopefully to play a more positive role than we have in the past.
GROSS: Do you think the surge has been effective? And if so, how should we
capitalize on it?
Mr. CONETTA: I think that the surge has been effective to the extent that
all of us are now talking about the surge as though the addition of a small
percentage of additional troops transformed the situation there. I think what
has been effective has been the decision to reach out to local Sunni
authorities, tribal authorities, to bring them into the fold. It's required
devolving authority to them. In fact, we are paying and arming them. That
brought them into the fold and dramatically reduced violence in Anbar
province. And we've also successfully pushed Muqtada al-Sadr into adopting a
truce. I think these were the two principal things that reduced the violence
in the area.
Beyond that, however, I think the surge is a stopgap measure. We cannot
sustain troop levels, and at any rate, what we have not done is transform the
situation there fundamentally. This is not the first surge. We've had a
number of surges in the past, and in every case the decision to increase and
concentrate troops always brings about a temporary recession in violence. But
it has not, and it will not bring about a fundamental change in the society,
which is what we're talking about.
GROSS: One of the goals of the surge was to create a stable environment so
that the political process could move forward. Do you think that the
political process has been moving forward in a meaningful way?
Mr. CONETTA: I don't think we've seen substantial progress, and I think what
we are seeing presently is cosmetic progress. Within the past week, the
change in the law regarding de-Baathification has finally been adopted by the
parliament there. This law's been kicking around for some time, and the
objective was to induce Sunnis to see the new order as inviting to them, but
the de-Baathification change is too late and it's too little. And I think
that that characterizes most of the progress that we've seen, that in fact we
are not yet at a point where any of the principal actors feel compelled to be
realistic. We are a shield; our presence there is a shield against realism.
GROSS: So what you want to do--what you recommend doing is giving the Iraqis
a deadline, saying, `This is when we're withdrawing so get your act together.'
If we did that, if we followed your plan, what, if any, kind of military
presence do you think the United States should leave behind?
Mr. CONETTA: I think our long-term presence should be a minimal one; it
should be embedded in a different multinational arrangement, one that is
centered on a UN mission and involving, for the most part, Arab and Muslim
forces. There's already several proposals to do this. We've been able in the
past--we did in the first Persian Gulf war--a pull together a fairly large
contingent of Arab forces. Within that context, I think the United States and
others, other members of NATO, perhaps even Russia, could play a role in
training and helping the Iraqis develop the logistic structure they need. But
I think our footprint should be quite small, in the range of a few thousand
troops, and those also required to protect our embassy; and that the most
important thing is that the context be not a US mission, but a mission that is
more broadly based and hopefully viewed both in Iraq and in the region as
having greater legitimacy.
GROSS: Can we talk about logistical considerations for a moment?
Mr. CONETTA: Sure.
GROSS: What would be the most difficult parts of withdrawing the troops and
the tanks and other equipment that we have in Iraq?
Mr. CONETTA: Well, the most difficult circumstance would be a withdrawal
under fire. We would hope, and I think an objective would be to use the
announcement of a withdrawal and prior negotiations around withdrawal as a way
of bringing as many insurgents into a truce as possible so that they, rather
than impede, they facilitate a safe withdrawal of US forces. So that's not a
logistics consideration, but it's what's got to concern us the most.
The second concern is, what is the immediate objective. I think the immediate
objective is to move our forces over the border. If we think about how long
will it take to bring them home to the United States, that's longer than six
months. But the key thing is to move them over the border. And then what do
we move? Clearly, troops. Clearly, armored vehicles, ammunition stores. Do
we need to move everything? Presently we have a stockpile of 2.7 million
candy bars. I can think of much better uses than shipping them back home.
Moving the number of vehicles that we have, about 45,000, driving them down
out of Iraq into Kuwait will create traffic jams. It's important to secure
those routes and to do this in a phased fashion. What we don't want to do is
to have a long line of vehicles vulnerable to fire for a long period of time.
So we leave in bursts and, you know, that might mean trying to pull out
perhaps two brigades a month would be feasible. Presently we rotate about the
equivalent of one brigade a month, so this is not too much more than what
we're already doing.
GROSS: Carl Conetta, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. CONETTA: It's been my pleasure.
GROSS: Carl Conetta is the co-director of the Project on Defense
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Interview: Yanar Mohammed, Iraqi womens' rights activist, on
US withdrawal from Iraq and womens' rights in Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
Yesterday and today we've been asking our guests when and how should the US
get out of Iraq.
Our next guest, Yanar Mohammed, is an Iraqi womens' rights activist. In 2003,
after the fall of Baghdad, she co-founded the Organization of Womens' Freedom
in Iraq, which she now directs. She was raised in Iraq, moved to Canada in
1993, and since 2003 has divided her time between Iraq and Ontario. She
returned from her latest trip to Baghdad a couple of weeks ago. She cut the
trip short because of threats against her.
Yanar Mohammed, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start out with you very
briefly stating what your position was on the invasion.
Ms. YANAR MOHAMMED: I was in total rejection of this occupation because we
could see beforehand that it will take away the civility from our lives, and
military invasion cannot but destroy your life and bring out the worst in the
society, and it did.
GROSS: Do you think the United States should pull out now? And if not now,
Ms. MOHAMMED: I think the United States should pull out immediately because
the more we are subject to military situations, the worse we are and the more
attractive our cities are for all the mujahideen coming from all over the
world to fight this, what they call "the big evil," which is the United States
GROSS: Now, the last time you were on our show, you talked about how women
were being kidnapped and being held for ransom and how in many areas women not
only had to wear the veil now in Iraq, they had to wear the veil of the
militia that controlled their neighborhood, kind of like wearing the right
gang colors. If the United States pulls out now, does that stand to help or
hurt the cause of womens' rights? Will it empower militia leaders if the
United States pulls out now? Will it empower Islamic fundamentalists who
demand that women wear the veil?
Ms. MOHAMMED: As long as the United States Army is staying in Iraq, it has
already empowered all the Islamist factions, and it has handed over the power
to them. They feel very free to walk around the streets and to oppress women
the way they like, and they have multiplied in ways where they have now
militias, they have gangs, they have self-acclaimed vigilantes who feel very
free to kill whichever woman they find unveiled in the streets. And this
happens under the blessings and the existence of the US Army. Why? Because
they say it's democracy; they will not interfere with what's happening in the
GROSS: You got back a couple of weeks ago from a month-long visit to Baghdad.
How do you think the surge and the successes that it has had has affected
women in Iraq?
Ms. MOHAMMED: Well, you know, the very much celebrated surge in Iraq and the
relative security that it has created was something that the US government
overcelebrated. In Iraq we are desperate to have some security, and it would
make me very happy to tell you that this surge was successful. But in
reality, this surge was only arming and supporting one extra militia, which is
Sunni, which is made of the tribes of the Sunni Arabs in some parts of the
suburbs of Baghdad and the Sunni triangle, and these are some of the worst
places for woman and the worst groups to empower in Iraq. So what happened in
the last two weeks, again a rise of violence and increase in the number of
explosions; and women, their situations are as bad as they used to be actually
in the southern cities of Basra and Amara, the level of women's killings did
rise to levels that were unprecedented, and they are still rising, and nothing
is being done about it.
GROSS: As part of the surge, the United States has paid people who were Sunni
insurgents and Sunni militia leaders to put down their arms and stop fighting.
This was an attempt to stop the sectarian fighting. And by many reports, that
has had a lot of success. Are you saying that some of the people who we've
been paying to put their arms down now are actually some of the same people
who are the most repressive of women?
Ms. MOHAMMED: Yes, they are. The Sunni tribal heads in their parts of Iraq,
the young girls are not allowed to education. Multiple marriages is something
common that happens every day. This is the group which was empowered, and if
we're discussing about was it a good solution, I take you to the root of the
problem. The original policy was to divide Iraqis into Sunnis and Shiites.
And later on, when the Shiites became stronger by the American and the Iranian
and the other countries' support, the Americans decided to empower the Sunnis.
So the question here is, why divide in the first place if you don't want to
conquer? Why empower one group and wait for them to kill the other group and
then empower the second group? Well, the only natural consequence to that is
that the second group will be killing the first group and the sectarian
conflict will go on and on.
The whole political formula was wrong, was a big mistake, dividing Iraqis upon
religions and sectarian lines. Why couldn't the division has been on
political lines, like in the United States, like anywhere in the world where
you have the right wing conservative parties, the left wing leftist parties
and the center. Why did it have to be on the religious, sectarian and ethnic
lines? If it explains one thing, it explains that the
US...(unintelligible)...administration look at Iraqis in a racist way.
GROSS: When the United States does eventually leave Iraq, would you like to
see any military forces stay behind?
Ms. MOHAMMED: If there are any military forces, we prefer them not to be
American, to be multinational forces of neutral nature. And we know that is
very difficult. If you ask me, I prefer to stay with the Iraqi forces, and
the common ground of election may help us to kick out some of the bad figures,
or the bad movements that have come into Iraq. And there should be no more US
military existence in Iraq.
GROSS: What makes you think the death toll will decrease when the Americans
Ms. MOHAMMED: It will not decrease immediately, but the death toll of women
matches the empowerment of the Islamic parties in Iraq. If the Islamic
parties and the tribal groups are strong, the killings of women are more. If
the Islamic groups felt threatened and they are weaker, the killings will be
less. If the healthy political dynamics are supported in Iraq, the leftist
side of the society will become stronger. The killings of the women will not
be allowed to stay, and the Islamists will become weaker. The US troops have
to leave and have to let these natural dynamics take place in Iraq.
GROSS: Are women represented in the Iraqi government now? And is there a
proportion in the Iraqi parliament set aside for women?
Ms. MOHAMMED: In the last round, the proportion was 25 percent
representation of women, which is a very good number. But the problem was, in
this first round it was quantative representation. Half of them came from
Islamist parties, and they all voted against womens' rights. And they do not
even acknowledge womens' issues and equality. So we do not know whether in
this coming election we can maintain the proportion of 25 percent. But we
will definitely push for it, and maybe this time some of us women
activists--egalitarian women activists, let's call it--can make their way.
GROSS: Yanar Mohammed, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. MOHAMMED: Thank you, Terry, very much for having me here.
GROSS: Yanar Mohammed co-founded and directs the Organization of Womens'
Freedom in Iraq.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Author Lawrence Wright on the timeline for US
withdrawal from Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
When and how should the US get out of Iraq? That's we've spent the last
couple of days asking. We conclude our series with Lawrence Wright, author of
the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to
9/11." He's also a staff writer for The New Yorker and is on the Council for
Lawrence Wright, welcome back to FRESH AIR. When do you think we should get
out of Iraq?
Mr. LAWRENCE WRIGHT: We should get out of Iraq when the Iraqis ask us to
leave. You know, I was opposed to going into the war. Now I find myself in
the miserable spot of being opposed to withdrawing, at least anytime soon. I
think that we've done so much damage to that nation that we have a moral
obligation to do some repair work. There's the also the danger that we've
created, by creating a new sanctuary for al-Qaeda. And we have to be very on
guard about that.
GROSS: Now you say you want to leave when Iraqis say they want the US to
leave, but which Iraqis? I'm sure Iraqis are very divided on it. I know the
Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans that we're interviewing don't have one point of
view. So what would you propose doing to find out what the Iraqi opinion is?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, if you take a poll in Iraq, they would say leave. And if
you ask individual Iraqis, they would say leave, but not now. Even Muqtada
al-Sadr, probably the chief anti-American propagandist on the Shiite side in
that country, proposed a bill before parliament that would have America leave,
but not now.
GROSS: You've written a history of al-Qaeda leading up to September 11th.
You know, when it comes to Iraq, you hear arguments on both sides when it
comes to terrorism that if we get out, well, that's a victory for the
terrorists, but if we stay that's a great target for the terrorists and a
great recruiting ad for the terrorists, `The Americans are occupying Iraq,
they're still in Iraq, go get them.' So how do you weigh those two ways of
looking at leaving and staying?
Mr. WRIGHT: Both of those things are true, Terry. If we withdraw
precipitously, no doubt Iraq will become a haven for al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda
will trumpet it. Look what they did with Afghanistan. I mean, it became, you
know, they banner that they defeated one of the superpowers, and now the other
superpower is losing. Or if we stay, we continue to be a rallying point for
jihadis from all over the Muslim world. But the truth is that right now
al-Qaeda is losing in Iraq, and this is a real crisis of identity for that
organization. They thought that when the Democrats won in the congressional
elections that they would soon see the Americans withdrawing. And what
followed was a surge, which was very confusing.
GROSS: Why is al-Qaeda in Iraq losing? Is it because of the surge?
Mr. WRIGHT: I think the surge has made a real difference. I think the fact
that a number of the tribal chiefs in the Sunni areas of Iraq, who have
started giving their allegiance to the Americans, that's an indication they
know which way the wind is blowing. They wouldn't be doing it if they thought
al-Qaeda was going to win.
GROSS: Well, you know, you raise the part of the surge that is a program to
pay Sunni militia leaders to stop fighting the insurgency and fight al-Qaeda
in Iraq, basically join the team of the Americans. From your assessment,
looking at the history of al-Qaeda and the blowback from things that were done
wrong, what do you think of that program, and are there risks involved with
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, there are terrible risks. I mean, everything we've done
so far has been poorly calculated, starting with the invasion of Iraq, which,
you know, if you look at al-Qaeda's internal memoranda, their diaries and so
on, they admit that 80 percent of their membership was captured or killed
after Tora Bora battle in 2001. Al-Qaeda was essentially dead. The war on
terror was over. It was the invasion of Iraq that breathed life back into
that monster. And now it has a sanctuary there. Now it has a place to
And the danger in arming the Sunnis is that you're perhaps arming them for a
potential civil war with the Shiites once we withdraw, and that is a real
danger. It's one of the reasons the Shiites are so wary of this whole
GROSS: So getting back to something you were saying earlier, the United
States should withdraw from Iraq only when the Iraqi people are ready for us
to withdraw and when they say it's time. How do you propose finding out
monitoring what the opinion is on Iraq? Like, what should our benchmarks be?
Mr. WRIGHT: I think that whether the refugees return. Some are coming back
now--not in great numbers, but there is a trickle of refugees returning, and
that may in itself be destabilizing because they may be going to homes or
neighborhoods that have been occupied by other people now, and that could be a
very destabilizing element. But the return of the refugees I would put at the
top of the list as an indication that people feel like it's safe to go home
The oil law is a critical factor in resolving the political disputes that
would create the new Iraq, and until that law is passed, then I think we can't
assume that we're making any political progress in that country.
GROSS: And the oil law is?
Mr. WRIGHT: The oil law would decide how the national trust, this tremendous
reservoir of oil that the Iraqis are sitting upon, how that would be
appropriated among the people or the different provinces. Right now that's
very much up in the air.
GROSS: And what else? What other benchmarks?
Mr. WRIGHT: I think as a police force and an army that is ethnically
integrated and that will act in the interest of law. If we achieve that then
the Iraqis would be able to enforce stability themselves and without our help.
And that's our ultimate goal.
GROSS: Lawrence Wright, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. WRIGHT: Terry, thank you. It was a pleasure.
GROSS: Lawrence Wright is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The
Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" and is a staff writer for The
GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,
I'm Terry Gross.
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