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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Brett McGurk
Director for Iraq, National Security Council

January 12, 2007

Brett McGurk
Good afternoon. The President’s address on Wednesday night marked the culmination of a comprehensive review of our Iraq strategy. I hope to offer some insight into why certain decisions were made, and certain options not pursued. There is a lot to talk about – so let’s get started.

Marcus writes:
New Mexico Rep Heather Wilson wrote to President Bush saying, "The American military should only be used to protect America's vital national interests." What is the President going to say to remind Americans that the operations in Iraq are of utmost importance to national interests?

Brett McGurk
Thanks, Marcus. We would agree with Ms. Wilson. I’ll use her statement to cut to the key question: how does our new strategy advance the fundamental national security interest of the United States? And what are the alternatives?

Everyone who has looked seriously at the Iraq situation reaches two conclusions: (1) failure would carry disastrous consequences for the United States; and (2) there is no magic formula for guaranteeing success; every option involves trade-offs and risks.

The consequences of failure are clear. As the President said: “Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region, and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions. Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Our enemies would have a safe haven to launch attacks on the American people.”

The Baker-Hamilton Commission said precisely the same thing: “If the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, the consequences could be severe for Iraq, the United States, the region, and the world.” Their report explained that failure in Iraq could radicalize the region -- with a strengthened and hegemonic Iran on a path to producing nuclear weapons – create terrorist sanctuaries and accelerate the global al Qaeda movement.

So America must succeed in Iraq. We can all agree on this point. The question is what to do. In the course of our own strategic review process, we sought to first diagnose the core problem and then analyze different solutions. It was clear that the present course was not succeeding and that fundamental assumptions underlying our strategy had to change. (You can see some of these changed assumptions on Page 7 of the summary materials we released on Wednesday.)

A key assumption until now has been that political progress would help decrease levels of violence, strengthen the Iraqi government, and bring follow on economic and security gains. The levels of violence in 2006, however, sparked by the bombing in Samarra in February, undermined that key assumption. Without a baseline level of security, political and economic progress will not take root. And Iraqi Security Forces, though improving, need our assistance to “hold” areas cleared of terrorists and insurgents.

The most urgent priority is Baghdad. Eighty percent of Iraq’s sectarian violence occurs within 30 miles of the capital. And the situation in Baghdad permeates outward, spurring recruitment of terrorists and extremists, and threatening the viability of Iraqi institutions, including the security institutions. Any sound strategy for success must account for the Baghdad situation – and offer a realistic plan to address it.

As the President explained on Wednesday night, our earlier efforts in Baghdad failed for two reasons: 1) there were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods, and 2) there were too many restrictions on the troops that were available. The new strategy specifically addresses these defects, and by gradually bringing more stability to the capital, Iraqi and American forces will provide breathing space for the political reconciliation process to advance – which is the key to long term success.

I noted that Senator Carl Levin during Secretary Gates’ testimony today said: “Increasing the number of U.S. forces in Iraq is a flawed strategy because it is based on a flawed premise that there is a military solution to the violence and instability in Iraq, when what is needed is a political solution among the Iraqi leaders and factions.”

We agree with Senator Levin on the bottom line point: there is no military solution in Iraq and long-term success demands political solutions. However, our experience in Iraq shows clearly that at the present levels of violence, particularly in Baghdad, Iraqi leaders naturally hedge their bets, and ordinary Iraqis look for protection from insurgents and militias. Security in Baghdad must be addressed to enable the success we all want.

Sam, from Cincinnati, OH writes:
What specifically is new about the President's plan of action, short of adding more troops? How do we know this new strategy is going to succeed?

Brett McGurk
Thanks, Sam. The strategy discussed by the President on Wednesday offers a fundamental restructuring of our engagement in Iraq. The additional resources -- military and civilian -- are needed to carry out the strategy effectively and maximize our chances for success. It is not true that "more troops" is the strategy, as some have suggested. And when one considers the strategy as a whole, as I think people will start to do, they will see how it all fits together. The changes are comprehensive, and focus primarily on changing our posture to become more flexible and decentralized with civilian and military efforts fully integrated.

On the civilian side alone, for example:

  • Civilian Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) will be included with every U.S. combat brigade.

  • Existing PRTs will be augmented and PRT leaders, together with their brigade commander counterpart, will have new resources and authorities to effect changes locally.

  • In total, we will nearly double the number of PRTs.

  • Whereas we now have 2 PRTs in Baghdad, we will soon have 6.

  • Whereas we now have 1 PRT in Anbar, we will soon have 3.

The expanded civilian and PRT initiative will serve as force multipliers to Iraqi and Coalition force – helping to improve the rule of law and provide targeted assistance to local communities. These efforts have proven to have the most success in providing space for moderates and ordinary Iraqis to make a stand, strengthening civil institutions, and growing local economies. So we are replicating them in a big way throughout the theater.

On the security side:

  • We are changing the primary security focus from transition to helping the Iraqis better secure their population (which will help facilitate an accelerated transfer of security responsibility to the Iraqis).

  • We are bolstering Iraqi forces with triple the number of Coalition embeds – and one U.S. brigade embedded with every Iraqi Army Division.

  • We and the Iraqis have agreed to significantly enhance the effectiveness and equipping of Iraqi forces, and increase the end strength of the Iraqi Army.

  • We are augmenting our efforts in Anbar to build on successes and support Iraqis willing to stand and fight al Qaeda.

  • The President has authorized an additional 4,000 U.S. Marines to Anbar; which together with Iraqi forces will provide a strategic presence from al Qaim near the Syrian border, through Ramadi, and into Baghdad - thereby closing the primary ratline for foreign fighters.

These are just some of the highlights, and I would urge you to read the summary of our strategic review (particularly pages 9-11). All of these changes build on successes and correct for failures of our past efforts– and reflect more classic counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, as encapsulated in the new COIN Manual developed by General Petraeus who has been nominated to take command of the Multi-National-Force-Iraq (MNF-I). You can access the COIN manual here:

Travis, from La Canada, CA writes:
Why does this new strategy have a better chance of succeeding than the previous one?

Brett McGurk
Thanks, Travis. As I noted just above, the new approach specifically adjusts for what has not worked in Iraq – and builds on what has. The integrated civilian-military efforts, for example, have had real successes in the areas of Mosul and Tal Afar, which you may have heard about. When I first flew into Iraq in January 2004, Mosul was described as one of the most unstable and most dangerous areas of the country. There is still a lot of work to do -- but Mosul and Tal Afar (which had been a terrorist sanctuary) are now stabilizing with civil society coming back to life and the al Qaeda networks decimated. The new strategy is designed to replicate some of these efforts in other areas. We also have new commitments from the Iraqi government to carry out necessary reforms and fulfill its promises to the Iraqi people on reconciliation initiatives. The President noted some of the key benchmarks: a new oil law so all Iraqis can share in Iraq’s natural wealth; de-Ba’athification reform, so more Iraqis can fully participate in civil society; local elections, so local leaders can be held more accountable to the people they serve; and constitutional review, so more Iraqis can feel vested in their fundamental charter. We will be looking for progress in these areas soon – particularly the oil law, which is near completion.

Some have noted that the Iraqis said they would do some of these things before, and failed to deliver. That is true. But one of the problems has been the security situation, and another has been Iraqi capacity to deliver on promises. The new strategy accounts for these issues – and focuses on building Iraqi capacity to deliver on areas that are central to success. Some say that our presence is self-defeating because it creates too much dependence and delays Iraqi self-reliance. This is partially true, although a willingness to assume responsibility means nothing in the area of capacity to carry out that responsibility (something we have seen up close in Baghdad in the past six months).

The new strategy is designed to strike the right balance between focused capacity assistance, and accelerated transition – giving the Iraqis all the tools they need to succeed. Do they need to start using those tools and deliver for their own people? Yes. The President was very clear on that the other night. It is time for decisive action in Baghdad.

john, from texas writes:
It's obvious that a military escalation will only bide time until we get our diplomatic efforts back on track. What are our traditional allies doing to help us diplomatically to resolve this situation? Is the Arab League helping us?

Brett McGurk
Thanks, John. This is a good question. Bolstering regional support for Iraq is a cornerstone of our effort -- and the new strategy includes intensified diplomatic efforts to improve the regional situation, counter Iran's and Syria's support for militant sub-state actors, including in Iraq, and to better integrate our efforts inside Iraq with a broader regional approach. Secretary Rice left today for an important visit to the region where many of these issues will be discussed. Our allies in the region overall have been helpful. Some have undertaken efforts to encourage Sunni Arabs in Iraq to abandon violence and join the political process, while the Arab League has launched a national reconciliation effort to help Iraqis of all sects and ethnicities resolve their differences. A number of our Gulf allies have participated in efforts to establish the International Compact with Iraq, and have provided important pledges of financial assistance. But there is much more work to be done. We are encouraging the Arab states who have not yet done so to send ambassadors to Baghdad and begin the work of developing full bilateral relations with Iraq. We are encouraging the wealthier Arab states to forgive Iraqi debt and support the International Compact both politically and financially. We are urging all Arab states to support Iraq moderates and help isolate extremists within Iraq and in the region. The regional dynamic has changed considerably in the past 18 months and it presents both new challenges and new opportunities for positive change.

I mentioned the International Compact, which is an important initiative that commentars often ignore. The Compact seeks to secure a new international consensus on support and engagement with Iraq over a benchmarked 5-year timeframe. Chaired by the Iraqi government and by the United Nations, it will serve a similar function as the many "contact group" proposals which have been floated for different ways forward in Iraq. The Compact recognizes that good governance and resolution of security and political challenges must be addressed at the same time as economic reforms. A priority of the Compact will be to secure additional debt relief from Iraq’s major creditors, including from the estimated $45 billion owed to Gulf Arab states. We expect the final Compact signing conference to be held in the early part of this year.

Victoria writes:
Can we review the Supplemental budget numbers for provincial reconstruction? I have 350 million for DoD provincial reconstruction teams, 114 million for State development teams and 400 million for quick response (is that State or Defense money?) any details on balancing oversight with "quick response" needs, and what will qualify for quick response funding? You've talked about increasing US embeds with Iraqi units to improve their performance--any thoughts on reverse embeds with Iraqis joining US units to accelerate training, and would that reverse structure be helpful for the provincial reconstruction teams?

Brett McGurk
Thanks, Victoria. Do you work for OMB? Some of the funds you cite are related to our PRT initaitives, and the shift to a more flexible, agile, posture throughout Iraq. The State Department will request around $400 million to support the creation of eight new PRTs, including five in Baghdad, two in Anbar and one in Salah ad Din, as well as augment personnel at existing PRTs. The expanded program will enable PRTs to provide a greater range of civilian capabilities in the provinces to support counterinsurgency operations.

State will also request funds to provide PRT leaders with authority to fund programs through targeted assistance projects that create jobs, provide services to meet community needs, and develop the capacity to govern in an effective, sustained way. These authoriteis would be similar to the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) in the Defense Department. Under CERP, brigade and battalion commanders can employ Iraqis in short-term jobs at the local level to improve education, health care, electricity, water and security. The CERP and its civilian equivalent will work in tandem to fund projects that quickly improve the quality of life of local Iraqis and provide the foundation for longer-term stability -- particularly in the most volatile areas of Baghdad, Anbar, Salah ad Din, and Diyala.

This all sounds like dry stuff. But the changes are significant and will greatly increase our ability to work with local Iraqis and effect change where it is most needed. The strategic review process enabled the State and Defense Departments to come together with new joint programs for synchronizing the civilian and military effort; this is what is needed to prevail in any counterinsurgency type operation, and the strategy announced by the President on Wednesday marks a real advance in this area. You will be able to see the line-item breakdown when our budget is submitted to Congress on February 5th.

Daniel, from Lakeville, CT writes:
Will our troops and the Iraqi government dismantle the militias? And, what are the metrics for success in our "New Way Forward"? Thanks.

Brett McGurk
Daniel, We saw the militia issue worsen over 2006 as the security situation worsened. Without adequate security, people look to self help, and militias operating outside the rule of law fill the void. So one thing we must do is support the Iraqi government in its efforts to provide population security to its people, particularly in Baghdad. At the same time, we must work with the Iraqi government to prepare a comprehensive Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration (DDR) program -- and we have a dedicated team in Baghdad working on this issue 24/7. The Prime Minister has also been working to set the political conditions for DDR although much of this work is done behind the scenes. In the view of many outside experts with whom we spoke in the course of our review, some diminution in violence needs to precede comprehensive DDR. I tend to agree with that assessment.

On metrics, there are many -- but your primarily focus is probably Baghdad. New operations to secure Baghdad will not yield an immediate end to suicide bombings, assassinations, or IED attacks. Our enemies will make every effort to ensure that American television screens are filled with images of death and suffering. Yet over time, we can expect to see fewer brazen acts of terror, with perpetrators brought to justice, and more trust and cooperation from Baghdad’s residents. General Odierno, the commander who will oversee implementation of the plan in Baghdad, has said he hopes to secure these positive trends and then pull U.S. forces to the periphery of Baghdad by the end of this summer.

Brett McGurk
I'm told time is up. Please read the documents available on the website to get a better sense of the holistic nature of the strategy announced by the President this week. We welcome a public debate on its many elements and, as the President said, it is fair to hold our views up to scrutiny. But all involved in this vital debate also have a responsibility to explain how the path they propose would be more likely to succeed. I hope to join you again soon.

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