“US objectives weren’t always married with resources” – key Bush advisor

Former deputy national security adviser on Iraq and Afghanistan Meghan O’Sullivan, also known as the ‘Tsarina of Iraq’, joined RT to share her views on President Obama’s plans for Iraq and Afghanistan.

RT: I’d like to begin by asking you what your take on US policy towards Iraq and Afghanistan is.

MO’S: President Obama made a pledge coming into office that he would end the war in a responsible way. And he I think created a policy which gives him the opportunity to make good on that promise in his speech on February 27. He, as you know, made a pledge to have all American combat troops out in about 18 months. This could well work, but my concern is that it's a little bit predicated on the best case scenario. If all the current positive trajectories, and there are many in Iraq, hold true, I think that this timeline is a sensible one to meet. The problem will be if they don't hold true then there may be a conflict of keeping to the timeline and maintaining or helping Iraqis maintain stability. And that may create potential crisis and another opportunity to reflect on policy.

RT: What is the goal for the US in Afghanistan? What is the end result supposed to be?

MO’S: Right now we can only look at signals and some of them are a little bit conflicting in the sense that president has talked about the need to win in Afghanistan, but he's also talked about, more recently, defining our goals in a fairly narrow way. I don't think these two things have to be incompatible but it’s hard to know exactly where he’s going based on this rhetoric. I can, if you like, point out a few things that I would watch for, but really the first thing just to respond to is the 17,000 troop increase. These troops will be needed regardless of what the strategy is. As an analyst I'm a little concerned that we're sending troops before we know what our strategy is. Ideally you do the reverse.

You do the map of your strategy and then you figure out what you need to resource that strategy. And then if you can resource that strategy – great. And if you can't, then you go back to the drawing board and create a strategy that you think you can resource. That’s where I think the Bush administration failed in the past was not always marrying objectives with resources, having very ambitious goals, but not really having adequate resources to pursue them. That creates the strategic mismatch and you know has created some of the problems or has played into some of the difficulties that we've seen in Afghanistan over the last few years.

Meghan O’Sullivan

RT: You speak about resources, but how in this current economic crisis does the US have the resources to fund a war, to fund two wars? And actually increasing one war? I mean, this costs a lot of money. You know better than I do. And to get the additional troops… to get the additional funding…

MO’S: This is the question that most Americans are asking right now and of course the president has laid out very clearly that his expectations or his pledges that his strategy will have an exit. And that would be important to a lot of Americans But if he is as honest as he can be he will need to tell the American people – “yes there is an exit, but it's not going to come for a while if we are going to achieve the kind of goals that most people see as essential as interests in the region.” And there's the question of who is going to pay, and can America pay? Well, I think that if you look at the troops. Do we have the troops? We have to look at the financial cost, but there're also other costs that are not financial or in terms of lives.

You know there are political costs and how much of Obama’s political credibility he’s going to put on the line. My sense is that he’s willing to put quite a bit of this and if you can translate that into resources from others, from NATO, from other partners, then this will be a positive thing for the overall strategy. But really at the heart of it when this strategy comes out I urge people to look at not only the goals but also the resources put to them, and then also the quality of the dialogue about the timelines. If the administration is honest they need to, and I expect they will, explain to the American people that this is not a short-term endeavor. This is something which is much harder than Iraq. In fact, this is something that will easily take a decade, if not two. Perhaps not at the level that we are engaged today, but perhaps for a while the higher level of engagement that could come down over time. But I think a viable exit strategy is not going to be a rapid one.

RT: What is your take on counter insurgency, more specifically if for example US soldiers need to befriend enemies to stabilize a particular area?

MO’S: I would say there’s one main premise. There are lots of elements to it, but the main premise is the protection of a population, that you want to provide security for the average person. And the hope and expectation is if you provide security for the average person, they'll provide you with intelligence on the enemy and that you can develop a mutually dependable relationship between the security forces and the people that they are protecting.

A counter-insurgency effort is commonly perceived to be a military effort. And if you read the gurus of counter-insurgency over the decades – going back before Vietnam, going back to look at the British experience in Malaya – if you look at those, you find that counter-insurgency operation is maybe only 20% military effort, and 80% is civilian effort, a political effort and an economic effort. In that political effort you really do need to engage your enemy – not just militarily, but there needs to be the moment when you can recognize what part of your enemy is reconcilable and, in terms of timing, when is the right time to make an approach to that enemy, to those reconcilable people and to bring them into a political process in which they feel they have some vested interest.

This is basically what has been happening, albeit very slowly and painfully, in Iraq over the last couple of years.

Meghan O’Sullivan

RT: The US recently marked its sixth anniversary of the Iraq war. At this point, considering the current financial climate domestically and internationally, do you think that Americans right now basically have war fatigue? That whether it’s Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s not as much as a priority?

MO’S: I think Americans had war fatigue before the economy started to move in the direction it’s moving in, and there are a lot of reasons for this. I would say the most important reason is that our country was never fully mobilized for war. If you look at war in other contexts, it’s not just mobilizing your army or your marines, your air force, your military people. It’s also mobilizing the good will, the patience, the creativity and the resources of your civilians. There are tens of millions of Americans who won’t ever go to Iraq or Afghanistan, but might do something to support it. And that’s important, I think, in getting people invested in the effort. And I think that that never happened to the degree that would’ve been useful in reaching the point where we are.

Had people known this endeavor would last more than six years, maybe more thought would be have been put into how to sustain that. But then there is the reality – that of the economic situation – where people really want to see limited resources spent at home. I do think on Iraq, it's interesting, you definitely see Iraq much less on the headlines of the newspapers. When I worked on Iraq for those five years that I did, I used to say to people: “I fantasize about the day when Iraq is not on the front page of the newspaper.” I don't think it's a bad thing that it’s off the headlines. I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s an inevitable consequence of American casualties going way down in that country. And the overall violence is going way down. Maybe Americans aren’t aware how dramatic the changes have been, but at the same time, they don’t feel beleaguered by statistics from Iraq.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, is reaching the proportion – at least in terms of media coverage – that Iraq used to have. If I may go and make one more point, there is a difference in how Americans view the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. Most Americans see the war in Iraq as the ‘war of choice’ and therefore there is more limited in internal resolve, whereas most Americans see Afghanistan as an essential endeavor. And so, again, I think there is a greater American reserve for that war.

When I look at these decisions – and I actually teach a class at Harvard that is about decision-making and Iraq – looking at key decisions over the last six years, why were they made, what were their consequences – I think there is a big question. And that is – ok, this was always going to be hard, but did it have to be as hard as it turned out to be? And my answer to that question is no, that there were certain decisions that were made that made this overall effort harder than it had to be. When I really break them down, I find that they largely fall into the category of implementing decisions. And the biggest decision deficit I would point out is the one I mentioned earlier – and that is insufficient resources. That at many points it was clear that in order to achieve the things that we thought were essential to help the Iraqis to be successful – we did not have adequate resources, even from the first early days in Iraq, pretty much until the surge going into effect at the beginning of 2007.