Turning the Corner in Iraq

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Turning the Corner in Iraq  (2005) 
by Joe Biden

Today, I want to talk to you about Iraq. I want to start by addressing the question on the minds of most Americans: when will we bring our troops home?

Here is my conviction: in 2006, American troops will begin to leave Iraq in large numbers. By the end of the year, I believe we will have redeployed at least 50,000 troops. In 2007, a significant number of the remaining 100,000 American soldiers will follow.

But the real question is this: as Americans start to come home, will we leave Iraq with our fundamental security interests intact or will we have traded a dictator for chaos?

By misrepresenting the facts, misunderstanding Iraq, and misleading on the war, this Administration has brought us to the verge of a national security debacle.

As a result, many Americans have already concluded that we cannot salvage Iraq. We should bring all our forces home as soon as possible.

They include some of the most respected voices on military matters in this country, like Congressman Jack Murtha. They’re mindful of the terrible consequences from withdrawing. But even worse, in their judgment, would be to leave Americans to fight – and to die – in Iraq with no strategy for success.

I share their frustration. But I’m not there yet. I still believe we can preserve our fundamental security interests in Iraq as we begin to redeploy our forces.

That will require the Administration not to stay the course, but to change course and to do it now.

And though it may not seem like it, there is actually a broad consensus on what the Administration must do.

Last week, 79 Democrats and Republicans in the Senate came together and said to the President: we need a plan for Iraq.

Level with us. Give us specific goals and a timetable for achieving each one so we know exactly where we are and where we are going.

As I have been urging for some time, that will require as many changes at home as on the ground. The gap between the Administration’s rhetoric and the reality of Iraq has opened a huge credibility chasm with the American people.

The problem has been compounded by the President’s failure to explain in detail his strategy and to report regularly on both the progress and the problems.

As David Brooks reminded us in the New York Times yesterday, “Franklin Roosevelt asked Americans to spread out maps before them and he described, step by step, what was going on in World War II, where the U.S. was winning and where it was losing. Why can’t today’s president do that? Why can’t he show that he is aware that his biggest problem is not in Iraq, it’s on the home front?”

I want to see the President regain the American people’s trust. It is vital to our young men and women in Iraq today — and to our security — that we get this right. George Bush is our President – and he will be there for another three years. I want him to succeed.

Leveling with the American people is essential, but it is not enough.

The President has to be realistic about the mission and forget his grandiose goals. Iraq will not become a model democracy anytime soon.

Instead, we need to refocus our mission on preserving America’s fundamental interests in Iraq.

There are two of them: We must ensure Iraq does not become what it wasn’t before the war: a haven for terrorists. And we must do what we can to prevent a full-blown civil war that turns into a regional war.

To accomplish that more limited mission and to begin to redeploy our troops responsibly we must make significant, measurable progress toward three goals over the next six months:

One, we must help forge a political settlement that gives all of Iraq’s major groups a stake in keeping the country together.

Two, we must strengthen the capabilities of Iraq’s government and revamp the reconstruction program to deliver real benefits.

Three, we must accelerate the training of Iraqi security forces and transfer control to them.

Let me discuss each goal, one at a time.

First, we need to build a political consensus, starting with the Constitution, that gives the Kurds, Shi’a, and Sunnis a stake in keeping Iraq together. Iraq cannot be salvaged by military might alone.

Last month, the Constitution passed overwhelmingly. But the vast majority of Sunni Arabs voted “no.” Unless changes are made by next spring, it will become a document that divides rather than unites Iraq.

All sides must compromise. Sunnis must accept the fact that they no longer rule Iraq. But unless Shiites and Kurds give them a stake in the new order, they will continue to resist it.

If the situation devolves into a full-blown civil war, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t be able to put Iraq back together again.

Does anyone here support using American troops to fight a civil war against the Sunnis on behalf of the Kurds and Shiites? I don’t – and I doubt many Americans would. But if we fail to forge a political consensus soon, that is what our troops will be dragged into.

The Bush Administration was AWOL until the arrival of Ambassador Khalilzad this summer. We let the Iraqis fend for themselves in writing a Constitution. In our absence, no headway was made.

We can’t make those mistakes again. We need to be fully engaged. Next month, there is an election for the National Assembly, and I expect Sunnis to turn out in large numbers.

After the elections, we must turn our attention immediately to encouraging the Kurds and Shi’a to make genuine compromises.

Our Ambassador can’t be the only one in the room cajoling Iraqis. We need a regional strategy that persuades Iraq’s neighbors to wield their influence with the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds for political compromise. They will do it, because no one other than the terrorists has an interest in Iraq descending into civil war.

The major powers also have a stake. Europe has un-integrated Muslim populations that are vulnerable to Middle East extremism. India and China need stable oil supplies.

Our Allies must get over bruised feelings and help forge a political consensus. We must get over our reluctance to fully involve them.

We should form a Contact Group that becomes Iraq’s primary international interlocutor. That would take some of the burden off of us… and maximize the pressure on Iraq’s main groups to compromise.

I’ve called for a regional strategy and an international Contact Group repeatedly. So have three former Republican Secretaries of State – Shultz, Kissinger, and Powell. It’s what the Clinton Administration did in the Balkans. It’s what this Administration did in Afghanistan. Organized, sustained international engagement can make all the difference.

But it will only happen if America leads.

Second, we need government ministries that work and provide basic services, and we need to re-do the reconstruction program to deliver real benefits.

Right now, Iraq’s ministries are barely functional. They make FEMA look like the model of efficiency.

The Bush Administration belatedly has developed plans to build up the government’s capacity. But there aren’t enough civilian experts with the right skills to do the job.

We need a civilian commitment in Iraq equal to our military one. I recommend the President and Secretary of State consider ordering staff to Baghdad –- if there are shortages. Just as military personnel are required to go to Iraq, why shouldn’t the same apply to the foreign service? The dedication and courage of the foreign service officers I’ve met on my five trips to Iraq is extraordinary. They will take the toughest assignments if we ask them.

This should not be their burden alone. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Blair proposed individual countries be partnered with ministries. It’s a good idea. But it got a lukewarm reception. We should revive it.

Our military commanders tell me: we can’t defeat the insurgency unless we have a reconstruction program that makes a difference to ordinary Iraqis. Congress gave the Administration $20 billion for reconstruction. There is far too little to show for it.

Raw sewage is in too many streets. Lights are on less than half the day. The water isn’t safe to drink in too many homes.

Unemployment rates are around 40 percent. If 40 percent of Iraqis have no job and no hope, the insurgency will always find fresh recruits.

We were told before the war, oil would pay for reconstruction. Two-and-a-half years after Saddam’s statue fell, Iraq still is not exporting what it did before the war. They are 700,000 barrels per day below target. That is roughly $15 billion in lost revenues a year.

This President has the only oil company in the world losing money.

Projects have been delayed or never started. Now, the money is nearly gone, and the needs are still great. The President has yet to explain how he will fill the gap.

Of the $13.5 billion in non-American aid pledged at the Madrid conference two years ago, only $3 billion has been delivered, and even less spent.

The Administration is creating Provincial Reconstruction Teams, modeled on the civil-military effort in Afghanistan. They will focus on getting local governments to deliver services. It’s a good idea, but it’s long overdue – and it’s not enough.

We should step up our recruiting of Allied civilian experts for the reconstruction teams.

I would redirect our spending to Iraqi contractors and away from expensive multinationals. Iraqis don’t have to add a line item worth 40 percent of the value of a contract for security. I’m glad to save American taxpayers money.

And we need to get countries that have already pledged economic assistance to actually deliver it — and pledge more.

It’s time for another Jim Baker mission. The President should ask him to convene a conference with our Gulf allies. These countries have seen huge windfall oil profits, from our pocket books. We’ve gone to war twice in the past decade to protect them and preserve security. It is past time that they step up – and give back.

The third goal is to build Iraqi security forces that can provide law and order in neighborhoods, defeat insurgents, and isolate and eliminate foreign jihadists over time.

The Administration tread water on training for two years. Not until the arrival of General David Patreaus in June 2004, did we start a training program worthy of its name.

Back in Washington, all we have heard from this Administration is misleading number, after number.

In February 2004, Secretary Rumsfeld announced there were over 210,000 Iraqi security forces. He called it “an amazing accomplishment.” Seven months later he said there were 95,000. Now we’re supposedly back over 210,000 trained security forces.

When folks in Delaware hear numbers like that they ask me: why do we have 160,000 American troops in Iraq then?

What we need to know – and what the Administration has refused to tell us until recently – is how many Iraqis can operate without us, or in the lead with U.S. backing?

We’re finally starting to get answers. In September, General Casey said that, two and half years into the training program, one battalion — less than 1,000 troops — can operate independently. Another 40 or so can lead counter-insurgency operations with American support.

And there are real concerns that the security forces have more loyalty to political parties than to the Iraqi government that militia members dominate certain units and that others have been infiltrated by insurgent informants.

General Patreaus overhauled the training program. The result is much greater professionalism.

But training takes time. And just as it was getting on track, the Administration reassigned General Patreaus back home. That was a mistake.

The President must tell Congress the schedule for getting Army battalions, regular police, and special forces to the point they can act on their own or in the lead with American support.

We also need to accelerate our training efforts, but not at the expense of quality.

We should urge Iraq to accept offers from France, Egypt and other countries to train troops and police – especially at the officer level — including outside Iraq

If embedding more Americans with more Iraqi units would do the job, do it.

We should devote whatever resources are necessary to develop the capacity of Iraq’s security ministries. Even the most capable troops will not make a difference if they cannot be supplied, sustained and directed.

And we must focus our efforts on the police, who are lagging behind. Establishing law and order through a competent police force is as important for Iraqis, as defeating insurgents is for us.

That leads me to the final piece of the Iraq puzzle: forging an effective counter-insurgency strategy. Until recently, we have not had one.

Our forces would clean out a town. Then they would move to the next hornet’s nest, and the insurgents would return.

Why? Because we did not have enough U.S. troops… or any capable Iraqi troops… to hold what we had cleared.

Meanwhile, neither the Iraqi government nor our reconstruction efforts were capable of building a better future for those temporarily liberated from the violence.

The Administration finally seems to understand the need not only to clear territory, but to hold it, and then to build on it.

The critical question is this: who will do most of the clearing and the holding? We now have no choice but to gamble on the Iraqis.

In the past, I argued that we needed more American troops in Iraq for exactly that purpose. The failure to provide them… and the absence of capable Iraqis… made a “clear and hold” strategy impossible.

We also left huge ammunition depots unguarded, allowed unchecked looting, and created a security vacuum filled by Sunni insurgents, foreign jihadists and common criminals.

But the time for a large number of additional American troops is past.

What we need now is a different mix, with more embedded trainers, civil affairs units and special forces.

The hard truth is that our large military presence in Iraq is both necessary… and increasingly counter-productive.

Our presence remains necessary because, right now, our troops are the only guarantor against chaos. Pulling out prematurely would doom any chance of leaving Iraq with our core interests intact.

But our large presence is also, increasingly, part of the problem.

Two years ago, even one year ago, Iraqis were prepared to accept an even larger American presence if that’s what it took to bring security and real improvements to their lives.

Our failure to do just that has fueled growing Iraqi frustration. A liberation is increasingly felt as an occupation. And we risk creating a culture of dependency, especially among Iraqi security forces.

Even if more troops still made sense, we don’t have more to give. In fact, we cannot sustain what we have now beyond next spring unless we extend deployment times beyond 12 months, send soldiers back for third, fourth, and fifth tours or pull forces from other regions.

That is why it is virtually certain we will redeploy a significant number of forces from Iraq in 2006 and more will follow in 2007.

Assuming we succeed in preventing a civil war, perhaps 20,000 to 40,000 Americans will stay for some time after that to continue training and equipping the Iraqis to keep Iraq’s neighbors honest and to form a rapid reaction force to prevent jihadists from establishing a permanent base in Iraq.

If – if — that redeployment is accompanied by measurable progress in forging a political settlement, building real Iraqi governing capacity and transferring control to effective Iraqi security forces, we can start the journey home from Iraq with our fundamental interests intact.

But if we fail to implement the plan I’ve described, then Iraq is likely to become a Bush-fulfilling prophecy – a terrorist training ground – and we’ll see a full blown civil war that could become a regional war.

If that happens, nothing we can do will salvage Iraq. We’ll be reduced to trying to contain the problem from afar. Those who today are calling for us to leave will be proved tragically prescient. I still believe that, if the Administration follows the plan I’ve outlined today – and if the President brings it to the American people and asks for their support — we can start climbing out of the hole the Administration has dug and start to leave Iraq with our interests intact.

Iraqis of all sects want to live in a stable country. Iraq’s neighbors don’t want a civil war. The major powers don’t want a terrorist haven in the heart of the Middle East.

And the American people want us to succeed. They want it badly. If the Administration listens, if it levels, and if it leads, it can still redeem their faith.

Thanks for listening.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).