Iraq: What the Generals Say

The release of the long-awaited Iraq Study Group report has renewed focus on the ongoing debate about the way forward in Iraq. The blue-ribbon panel urges an approach that focuses more on diplomacy and less on the military. NEWSWEEK spoke with three retired Army generals about their thoughts on the group's key recommendations—talks with Iran and Syria and the gradual pullback of American combat brigades from Iraq—and their own views about what should be done in Iraq. Excerpts:

PAUL D. EATON A retired Army major general, Eaton was in charge of training the Iraqi military from 2003 to 2004.

On the Iraq Study Group report:

"The report leads with an emphasis on diplomatic efforts. We've overrelied on military ground forces to the exclusion of economic incentives and we've certainly neglected things on the diplomatic front. You didn't see any real military guys or tacticians or guys schooled in the operational arts involved in this report, because that's not really what we needed. I hope we do get more involved with our embassies, let's get our ambassadors to Tehran, to Syria, let's engage these guys. They have interests, they have a vote, they're already involved. For this administration to not sit down with these guys is irresponsible."

Eaton's recommendations:

"We need to increase the size of our ground forces in Iraq to increase our flexibility in the region. If we're going to persist with the notion that Iraq is a country composed of Kurds and Arabs, Shia and Sunni, we've got to greatly increase the sense of urgency with respect to building Iraqi security forces. It's criminal to have these reports coming out about inadequate training and equipping of Iraqi forces. It's absolutely inappropriate that we have Iraqi security forces rattling around in the backs of Japanese pickup trucks—you'd never guess that this was a main effort of ours, looking at the situation on the ground. We need regional, diplomatic engagement and coercion in the form of carrot and stick. We need to start calling in our markers on Egypt. We need to engage and support Jordan—they've bent over backward to help us. We've got to leverage the Turks. They're a member of NATO, but they're not playing fairly up in the north [of Iraq]. Bring in the economic power of the U.S., and if we've got to apply the trillion-dollar economy we've got to help bring about the outcome we need in the Mideast, then let it be so—let's apply it directly to Iraq. We need to approach security forces in Iraq in a Manhattan [Project-type effort] to get these guys viable."

WILLIAM L. NASH A retired Army major general, Nash is a former military commander in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He is currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

On the report:

"It's a very thoughtful report. I think that the lead letter by the chair that talked about how a political tone of bipartisanship and skillful implementation of the recommendation are critical issues. I like very much that they started outside in, started with the external regional approach before they start talking about what to do inside of Iraq—that's crucial. To think that Iran and Syria and Lebanon and Palestine don't have anything to do with Iraq is to have your head in the sand. The outside players have great influence inside Iraq, and how they behave outside of Iraq has a great deal to do with perceptions that people inside and outside of the country have of American intentions."

Nash's recommendations:

"One of the keys to succeeding in my view is clarity of American objectives, and I'm not as completely pleased with the report on that front—I don't think it's as serious as it needs to be about that. The U.S. cannot achieve its goals in Iraq unless we deal with the Arab regional conflict. One of the fundamental issues in my view is to capture people's attention with a different agenda, and dramatic action is necessary to do that. People in the region have great suspicions about what we're up to. They believe the worst of us and of this administration, and to change anything you've got to first change that mindset. It does bring to mind the question of whether or not this administration can do that because people's preconceived views are so solidified and fixed that it's impossible to change their opinion. In order to change that perception of us, you have to have a regional approach and clarity of views … and dealing with the Arab-Israeli elephant in the room has got to be part of this. At least now we've got a plan. Absent a plan, which is how we've been working, you're always going to be in trouble."

JEAN BATISTE A retired major general, Batiste was commander of the Army's First Infantry Division in both Iraq and Kosovo.

On the Study Group Report:

"I don't see this report understanding that Iraq and Afghanistan are but the first two chapters in very long book. [The report] talks about withdrawing combat brigades by the first quarter of 2008. I think that's a mistake, because withdrawing troops by then may or may not be possible. We can't withdraw troops until the Iraqi security forces are capable, and in the meantime we need to increase Coalition troops in Iraq to establish the security and stability that's required. If we leave precipitously, that's not going to happen and the country's going to spiral into uncontrolled chaos that will pit Arab on Kurd, Sunni on Shia, and Arab on Persian. It will create enormous problems around Kurdistan, Syria and Iran."

Batiste's recommendations:

"The real threat here goes well beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, it's the worldwide Islamic extremist movement. We've got to focus on that. If we allow Iraq to spiral into uncontrolled chaos, we've given our real enemy sanctuary to arm, refit and recruit for decades to come, and for that reason we've got to be successful in Iraq. I think we ought to set some conditions before we leave, develop a new strategy and get all elements of national power engaged, political, economic and on the home front, as well as in the military. We need to reopen our embassy in Damascus and open up a diplomatic mission in Tehran. They are small steps, but let's reconnect with our friends and enemies alike. Once we set the conditions for a secure Iraq, we've got to deny the insurgents in their many forms. We've got to stand up the Coalition forces and get the nations in the region involved. I think standing up, equipping and training the Iraqi security forces ought to be America's main activity. We ought to pull out all the stops and get that under control. There are all kinds of things we should be doing, but we never had a strategy. We never did clearly define success four years ago, and we need to really focus on achieving a stable Iraq, secure enough to set the conditions for self-sufficiency. We were all focused on what form the new Iraqi government would take when we should have been focused from day one on how to establish stability and security so people would be able to walk to the market. We completely missed that. What's missing is the rule of law, and we lost that opportunity because we didn't plan for it."