RFE/RL: The top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has told Congress that the surge is largely meeting its military objectives and that by next summer the U.S. force can return to its pre-surge levels. Do you agree with this forecast? Isn't this a bit shorter than the original 18-month timeline for the surge that you advocated?
Frederick Kagan: The situation on the ground actually has improved more rapidly than I or anyone had anticipated when we laid out our proposal in December 2006, because we did not foresee the changes in [the western Al-]Anbar [Governorate] moving as rapidly as they did. And we did not see them spreading as rapidly and completely as they have into Baghdad, Diyala, Salah Al-Din, and Babil [governorates].
And so we've found ourselves in the slightly weird position of doing better than expected from a security standpoint. And now we're playing not just for the aim of securing Baghdad and Anbar but actually for securing all of central Iraq. And it's a much more ambitious goal. But I think that we actually are on track to accomplish it right now.
That having been said, I would prefer to err on the side of delaying the drawdown, or at least delaying the announcement of the drawdown. And I would have been slower than General Petraeus to make it clear what his expectations are along those lines, because it is a war, the enemy has a vote and situations can change.
But he and Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker have both emphasized that the withdrawal has to be based on conditions on the ground and the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. And I think that's going to have to be the key at the end of the day, whatever everyone's expectations might be.
RFE/RL: Did anything come up during General Petraeus's testimony that surprised you?
Kagan: I'm a little bit surprised by the complete unwillingness of some members of Congress to recognize changing facts on the ground and their insistence on painting Iraq as they -- for reasons that escape me -- would like it to be, that is to say as a hopeless failure, without recognizing very obvious differences that have occurred, which you can tell if you have been visiting the country regularly, as some of them have, and as I have. So I've been a little bit surprised at the degree to which this discussion does not seem to be based enough on what the reality actually is in Iraq.
RFE/RL: Speaking about the members of Congress, two moderate Republicans -- Senators Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel -- have both expressed some degree of skepticism at the assessments presented by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. Hagel asked Petraeus directly, "Where is this going?" How do you answer that question?
Kagan: I think General Petraeus has been very clear about where this is going. The overall effort is moving in the direction of creating the capability within Iraqi society to maintain order, to support the turn against Al-Qaeda, to support the growing disenchantment with Iranian-backed extremist militias in a way that will allow the United States to begin withdrawing combat forces in a conditions-based way, without compromising our successes.
I think senators keep hammering on Petraeus about the fact that he's not telling them where we're going. But he's been very explicit about that, and I think he's right. This is where we are headed. Again, it's impossible to make firm predictions in war and this is one of the problems with the discussions, with a series of congressmen and senators saying: "When are we going to be able to bring the troops home? When is the war going to end?"
The problem with wars is that you can only know the answer to that question if you're prepared to surrender. The only way that you can know for sure when a war will end is if you choose to stop fighting it.
RFE/RL: Writing in "The Washington Post" last March you said -- among other things -- that a national law on sharing oil revenue in Iraq seemed close to approval. But according to this month's report by the General Accounting Office, the Iraqi government has only met three of the 18 "benchmarks" for progress on political and security issues, set up by Congress. And passing a revenue-sharing law was one of the key benchmarks that the government missed. Do you think you were too optimistic about the Iraqi government's ability or willingness to act?
Kagan: One of the things I think Ambassador Crocker has emphasized in the testimony that's very important is that even without that law, the Iraqis have been sharing oil revenues among the Sunni, Shi'a, and Kurds de facto on the ground in large amounts, because the only revenue that the Iraqi government really gets is from oil. And they have recently sent, I think, $107 million to Anbar in reconstruction money and I think about $28 million to Diyala in reconstruction. And all of that is coming from oil revenue.
So the interesting thing is that I wasn't overly optimistic since they're actually doing this. But it turns out that getting the legislation passed is a very hard thing to do. This is true in a number of other areas as well: [such as] de-Ba'athification -- Ambassador Crocker has described how these things have been going on, on a day-to-day practical level where it matters most, even while it has proved very difficult to get them through the Council of Representatives.
RFE/RL: But are you disappointed in the lack of progress at the central government level? And what's your assessment of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's ability to bring people together and work toward common legislative benchmarks? After all, the surge, as it was explained, was implemented to give the government breathing room to reach these benchmarks.
Kagan: I think that we are trying to evaluate the effect of that "breathing room" before there's been very much of it at all. The major military operations of the surge began in mid-June. We're now in mid-September. We have violence coming down, but it's still at high levels.
When you're talking about this legislation, you're talking about the different groups in Iraq making compromises that would harm their ability to fight one another if the situation collapsed and fell into civil war. In order to get them to do that, you have to make it clear that there isn't going to be a civil war; they don't have to position themselves for that eventuality. And that's something that takes more than a couple of months' worth of working to get security under control.
But to me the most important issue is why did we establish these benchmarks, why do we care about this? We care because we thought it was a way to get the Iraqis to reconciliation. What we're seeing is that getting the legislation passed is very hard, but that the Iraqis are willing to do that work on a local level and also on a pragmatic level, with the central government reaching out and doing things instead of trying to pass laws. I don't think that we should sit here in Washington and say to the Iraqis, "You didn't do it the way we want you to do it, so it doesn't count."
RFE/RL: As you know, there will be U.S. elections in November 2008 and a lot of the people listening to the Petraeus and Crocker testimony in Congress this week are up for reelection. They're going to want to tell their constituents that they're asking for measurable progress in Iraq. What's a fair standard to ask the Iraqi government to meet? How much progress should we be seeking and by when?
Kagan: We need to be clear about something. American forces are fighting and dying in Iraq in pursuit of American interests. We are concerned about the stability and the functionality of the Iraqi government for a variety of reasons.
But the test of our success at the end of the day is: Are we achieving our vital interests, which include fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which include preventing Iran from establishing itself in control of all or part of Iraq, and which also includes establishing some degree of security or stability so that the country isn't actually falling apart and making it possible for it to become home to terrorism and so forth? Those are the American interests that we are pursuing and we are succeeding on all those grounds.
I do ultimately still believe that we will be able to accomplish the goal of establishing a stable, democratic state that respects the rights of minorities and so forth and is an ally in the war on terror. I do believe we will be able to do that. But I think we need to get away from this question of: Will we do that by next November, will we do that by next March, when will that happen? [I think we should] simply ask ourselves the questions: Why are we there, what are our interests, and are we accomplishing them or not? And that's the measure that we should be concerned about.
LOOKING BEYOND AL-MALIKI: RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo led an RFE/RL briefing about the changing political landscape in Iraq, focusing on efforts to gain the upper hand in the event that the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki falls.
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