Most top U.S. military officials—even members of George W. Bush’s administration such as national-security adviser Stephen Hadley—did not recommend a “surge” or escalation of U.S. troops into Iraq when they were interviewed by the Iraq Study Group last fall, says group member Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton. Instead of a surge—which the president plans to announce in a speech to the nation tomorrow—these officials recommended at the time that more U.S. advisers be embedded in Iraqi units, Panetta says. That later led the bipartisan commission co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton to come to the same conclusion, he says. Panetta also says that the officials interviewed knew that one of the Study Group’s central recommendations—that U.S. advisory teams in Iraq be quadrupled—was largely incompatible with a ramp-up of troops. The reason? In order to increase the number of U.S. advisory teams to that degree, American combat brigades must be withdrawn so the officers in those units can be turned into advisers. That is apparently not going to happen now, at least not quickly. Panetta spoke with Michael Hirsh, NEWSWEEK’s Washington Web editor. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Based on what you heard as a member of the Iraq Study Group, what do you think will be the impact of an increase of U.S. troops and resources into Iraq?
Leon Panetta: I think it’s sending the wrong message to the Iraqis. I think one of the things we did as a group was kind of look at the realities of what was happening there: the spiraling violence; the fact that the government was not implementing the reforms they said they would do; the unreliability of the Iraqi Army and police. When we tried to increase troop strength in Baghdad with Operation Forward Together [the failed attempt to secure Baghdad with more troops last year], the Iraqis only sent two of six promised battalions to help. Ultimately we did the clearing and nobody did the holding. It was clear to all of us that a very tough and unambiguous message had to be sent to the Iraqis that we would not give an open-ended commitment … What concerns me is the president’s message isn’t going to make that clear, and that if the Iraqis fail to unite, there will be no consequences.
The president is reportedly going to ask that the Iraqis meet “benchmarks” for reform and unification in order to get more U.S. aid. Can that work?
We spent almost $34 billion in reconstruction money and there’s very little to show for it. I think that while we agree benchmarks have to be set, there has to be a price if they fail to meet those benchmarks. And they’ve been making these promises over and over again … Few of these reforms, if any, have been adopted. I think they’re beginning to take us for granted.
When your bipartisan panel came to the conclusion that relying on Iraqi forces and embedding U.S. advisers was the right course of action, rather than a surge, did you think that you were reflecting the consensus of the U.S. military at the time?
Yes. We sat down with military commanders there and here, and none of them said that additional troops would solve the fundamental cause of violence, which was the absence of national reconciliation. We always asked if additional troops were needed. We asked the question of [Gen. George] Casey and others, we asked it of Marine commanders in Anbar. Do you need additional troops? They all said the same thing: we don’t need additional troops at this point; we need to get the Iraqis to assume the responsibility they’re supposed to assume.…
Did you interview Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who’s about to take over command of multinational forces in Iraq? What did he recommend? He is now said to be a supporter of the surge.
At that time he was talking about the need to train and embed U.S. forces in the Iraqi Army. [ Laughs. ]
What about the Joint Chiefs of Staff? What did they say?
Again, when the question was put to Gen. [Peter] Pace [chairman of the Joint Chiefs] about the need for additional forces, he basically repeated what [outgoing CENTCOM commander, Gen. John] Abizaid said, which is obviously you can achieve some temporary limits on violence, but past experience made clear it would just continue without a political solution.
What about national-security adviser Stephen Hadley and his team, who were conducting their own review of the administration’s Iraq strategy?
Again, I remember saying to Jim Baker that when you push all the rhetoric aside, I think everyone was saying the same thing. They were basically reinforcing a lot of the things we were talking about, giving us support on the embedding idea.
Did the surge idea take you by surprise? Where did it come from?
I think there was some talk in Operation Forward about whether they’ve needed more than 15,000 [U.S. and Iraqi troops] in Baghdad … But at the time the question was: where the hell are you going to get them? I have to tell you that politically we heard some comments, even within the Iraqi Study Group, that while it was questionable a surge could work, it could provide some political cover for withdrawal.
Are there any aspects of the Iraq Study Group report that are being adopted?
They’re taking some recommendations: greater training and some embedding of Americans in some Iraqi forces.
Can any number of U.S. troops stop small death squads from continuing sectarian killing in the middle of the night throughout Baghdad?
We had an American general tell us that if the Iraqi government doesn’t make political progress then all the troops in the world won’t make any difference.