Nation & World

Panel discusses Petraeus report, future of Iraq

5 min read

The issue of Iraq continues to draw a crowd as another full house attended the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Monday night (Sept. 17) to hear a panel of Kennedy School professors discuss the recently released report by General David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker concerning the military and political situation in the war-torn country.

The discussion followed what moderator Joseph S. Nye, University Distinguished Service Professor and Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations at the Kennedy School of Government, called “an extraordinary week of high political theater,” which included the testimony of Petraeus and Crocker before Congress, a national address from President Bush, and a report issued by the White House on Iraq.

The Petraeus report, cautiously optimistic about the progress made in the country, suggested the success of the recent troop surge would allow the United States to gradually reduce its military forces by 30,000 through the end of next summer. In his speech, the President endorsed the Petraeus plan, saying he was in favor of the troop pullback. But on Friday, a report from the White House stated Iraq had failed to meet several benchmarks for political progress established by the administration and the Iraqi government.

Nye said the aim of the evening was to have “a conversation about where we are in Iraq and where we will be in Iraq” and to obtain a perspective over what “we saw and heard over the last week.”

In an effort to determine whether panelists felt the week had changed views in the United States or facts on the ground in Iraq, he asked them “How many troops will the next president find on the ground in Iraq?”

Across the board, the panel agreed that likely 100,000 troops or more would still be in Iraq when the next administration takes over in Washington, and that whoever inherits the legacy will be faced with a difficult challenge strategically, politically, and economically.

“It’s almost like a poison chalice that is going to be inherited by whoever is the new president,” said Graham T. Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School.

Graham said the next administration’s policy would likely remain consistent with the current “clear, hold, and build” philosophy — the Bush administration’s political and military strategy of clearing areas of insurgent control, holding them securely, and building durable, national Iraqi institutions.

For Linda J. Bilmes, a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School, who has closely studied the costs of the war, the issue of how to address the conflict’s financial repercussions is paramount.

“The real question is how many troops in total before we finally come back from Iraq will have been deployed in the operation. Will it be 1.6 million? Will it be 1.8 million? Will it be 2 million? Because for each one of those troops there are several layers of costs. How do we plan for bringing these troops back and … for taking care of the veterans?”

When asked what troops might be doing in the future in terms of fighting a counterinsurgency, Sarah Sewall, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and a lecturer in public policy at The Kennedy School — who worked with Petraeus and the army to help shape their counterinsurgency doctrine — said the original doctrine was written for a different war than we are fighting now, and that the United States has chosen not to commit the resources to support the plan effectively. For any hope of success with a counterinsurgency, Sewall said close to 300,000 troops are called for as well as an integrated military effort instead of “a military hammer playing Whac-a-Mole across the country.”

In terms of the benchmarks for political progress, Nye questioned the panel about how Congress would respond in the absence of any future improvement.

Tad Oelstrom, director of the National Security Program at the Kennedy School and an adjunct lecturer in public policy, said that political gains had been made, especially in regard to the military’s ability to communicate at the local level, in particular in Anbar Province. But he was wary of a lack of further political success.

“You have to consider whether two or three years down the road, whether or not the zest of our military is going to be [as strong] … if indeed they don’t see success in a major way on the political side.”

When asked to give their assessment of the situation three or five years out, some on the panel gave grim projections while others were only slightly optimistic — hopeful that places like the northern part of the country might prosper, but wary of the difficult tasks ahead.

For current Institute of Politics fellow and former Rep. Clay Shaw (D-Fla.) the question for the future was, “If not the United States, who?”

“What we need to ask ourselves is what are the consequences of losing,” he said. “If we lose, who wins? And who is gong to come in to fill that vacuum?”