Thursday, June 30, 2005

Iraq's President on Iraq

A few highlights from a Der Spiegel interview with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani:

SPIEGEL: But many Iraqis say that while Saddam was a gruesome dictator, the air-conditioning worked from morning to night during his dictatorship, and they were able to send their children to school without having to fear for their lives.

Talabani: You paint a misleading picture. By the time we lost the Kuwait war, there was no power in many parts of the country, and Baghdad's untreated sewage was flowing directly into the Tigris. Living conditions were catastrophic. A doctor earned $15 a month; today he makes several hundred. Police officers' salaries have also increased by more than tenfold. Iraq doesn't just consist of Ramadi and Fallujah. We have many successes to show for ourselves.

But Sean Penn said:
Last year I went to Iraq. Before Team America showed up, it was a happy place. They had flowering meadows and rainbow skies, and rivers made of chocolate, where the children danced and laughed and played with gumdrop smiles.
Moving on...

SPIEGEL: But not when it comes to security. There are about 70 attacks a day now. 900 people were killed in May alone. The situation is become more and more menacing.

Talabani: But that doesn't prove that the terrorists are successful. It's just evidence of their barbaric gruesomeness. We do in fact have a big problem with car bombs, but it's not a phenomenon that comes from Iraq. Last Wednesday, the terrorists were bragging that they had put together the first purely Iraqi unit of suicide bombers. This proves that this form of terrorism is being forced upon us.

SPIEGEL: Do you have any more specific information about where the foreign mujahedeen are coming from?

Talabani: It's difficult to give you numbers, but we have arrested people from various countries, including Pakistan and Egypt, Palestine and Algeria. Many come from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia's extreme Wahhabism is a major source of terrorism.

But the "surrender-now" crowd is telling us Iraq is in the middle of a civil war. How do you have a civil war when the attacks are being conducted by foreigners and there's no formal opposition trying to split away or take over? Civil war suggests much larger divisions and a much more formal structure opposing the current government. "Insurrection" or "insurgency" is clearly more appropriate.

SPIEGEL: There's also been a great deal of debate over how much longer US troops should remain in the country. General John Vines has said that 20,000 soldiers could be withdrawn after the election, while some politicians in Washington favor increasing troop strength.

Talabani: I'm in favor of reducing the number of American troops. In return, we should build up the Iraqi army. If the Americans want to stay longer, they could withdraw to individual bases -- the way it is in Germany. Security in the country is the Iraqis' business.

Hmmm. So who should we listen to? Some collection of professional politicians or the Commander-in-Chief, Secretary of Defense, and the President of Iraq? You have to balance the "footprint" with the task at hand and ultimately get Iraqis to be responsible for their own security (like Vietnamization, but backed-up).

On postwar plans:

SPIEGEL: Even US officials are now complaining that Washington never had a comprehensive plan for the time after Saddam.

Talabani: Yes, but we shouldn't be unfair. We Iraqis have also made mistakes. Immediately after the war, General Jay Garner said to us: Put together a government and we'll recognize it tomorrow. But we were unable to come to terms with one another. Or look at the Sunnis, who ruled this country for centuries: They boycotted the elections.

Besides the fact that any plan is no longer good once the battle has begun, most criticism has been of the form "you need a better plan" instead of actually suggesting reasonable alternatives. Maybe we should have taken the Yalta approach and just asked Iran to administer half the country for the next 50 years?

For the record, I supported a plan to divide Iraq, attaching part of it to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, part to Kuwait, and leaving an independent Kurdistan. This would have addressed the problem so common in the Middle East and Africa of arbitrary borders that only made sense to colonial powers. However, as I have discussed before, world leaders are far too reluctant to redraw even the most ridiculous borders.

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