COL Michael Everett Interview

I had a 20-minute conversation this morning with COL Michael Everett, Chief of the Political Division of the Multi-National Force – Iraq, who was calling from Baghdad. He was remarkably candid about the challenges faced while expressing optimism that things can be turned around given the time and commitment.

Multi-National Force-Iraq Shoulder Sleeve Insignia We first talked about this morning’s news that al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) destroyed the two minarets of the Askariya Shiite shrine in Samarra. He admits that the mood there is “pensive” and that they are very “concerned about the repercussions.” At the same time, he is “optimistic” about the quick action by the al-Maliki government, which has issued statements calling for “engagement” by the Shia leadership and “restraint” in their response to these attacks. He has reason to hope that these calls will be heeded and we will avoid the mass violence that came in response to last February’s bombing of the same shrine.

As to his primary job, strengthening the institution of the Iraqi parliament, he acknowledges that it is a “significant challenge.” The DoD is making full use of the “interagency process,” including State, USDA, and other elements of the American bureaucracy. They’re focusing their efforts on the “top eleven ministries.”

Thus far, the results have been bleak. In addition to the well-publicized squabbles at the cabinet level, with parties shuffling in and out of the Government and militias representing forces within the cabinet literally shooting at those representing other elements, there is the problem of sectarian cronyism which pervades not only the parliament but the entire government. Everything is staffed along sectarian lines, with tribal loyalty being placed ahead of technical competence.*They’re simply “not putting truly skilled people in positions.” Furthermore, these folks “don’t embrace our assistance” in changing that aspect of their culture.

Asked if there are any signs that this is going to change any time soon, he points to last month’s firing by PM al-Maliki of six cabinet members. Those people were replaced by “technocrats” with actual skills related to their posts.

Still, he acknowledges that fixing things will be “difficult.” He notes, for example, that there is “no electronic banking system in Iraq”! Obviously, that makes it a wee bit difficult to transfer money from one part of the country to another or from the national to local governments. Asked how this can possibly be the case four plus years into our presence there, he again cites “sectarian issues.” Making sure that the jobs go to people in the right tribes supercedes concerns about getting the job done.

Ultimately, for Iraq to develop institutions and become a successful state, they “need to develop a national identity” that gets beyond sectarian loyalties. We have to “get not only the legislature but the executive to think as Iraqis.”

Asked how we could possibly do that given that those groups are killing each other on a daily basis, he agreed that it would be difficult. “AQI is successfully stoking sectarian tensions” with their efforts. They’ve long moved past targeting American troops as their main focus and instead are killing Sunni and Shia alike to keep up the tensions.

Did he see any positive signs that this would change anytime soon? He noted the tremendous progress in al Anbar province. He notes that it was “written off a year ago” with daily terrorist attacks and incredible sectarian violence. “Twelve months later, the level of attacks has dropped to among the lowest in Iraq.” He cites “the dedication of American Marines, soldiers, airmen and sailors” and a major diplomatic push to persuade local leaders that AQI, not America, is their enemy.

Despite that success, however, he cautions that there is “not a template solution” and that “each province is somewhat different” in terms of the challenges and solutions.

When I noted that it seemed like any time we put a fire out in one place, two more started elsewhere, he agreed. He also acknowledged that we simply don’t have the forces and resources to make everywhere a top priority and that we have had a tendency to secure an area and then move the forces out, allowing the insurgents to simply walk back in.

He agreed that it would take substantially more time and troops to get the job done. He notes, though, that the Surge is not yet complete and that there will be substantially more troops operational in theater in just another two to three weeks.

Asked whether he thinks time is running out to get the job done, he observed that, “There are different clocks in every capital: Washington, London, and Baghdad.” I pointed out that the insurgents don’t even have a watch and have all the time in the world. He didn’t disagree.

He argues that the military and political leadership must make the American people “understand that this isn’t just about Iraq but about the whole region.” He’s realistic, though, about the level of progress being made on that front.

I asked him about the impact all the political maneuvering in Washington was having on troop morale. Were they frustrated with the sense that they may be making a lot of sacrifice without being given a chance to finish the job? Or were they just driving on?

He believes it is the latter. He thinks the public would be very proud of the troops if they saw them in action. “The average staff sergeant, even corporal, has to be a diplomat at 1 o’clock and then a soldier at 3 o’clock.” He doesn’t see any signs that they are fatigued or frustrated by the high OPSTEMPO, even though many of them are on their second and third tours in Iraq.

Further, despite all the news about recruiting difficulties and lowered standards, he’s not seeing that down in the rifle squads. He says almost every soldier he meets has an “impressive intellect” and has to demonstrate that daily given the nature of this mission.

His final message that he’d like people to take away is that he and our other military leaders fully “understand the frustration of the American people” about the slow progress in Iraq. He reiterated that the primary mission is to get the Iraqi government to stand up and take responsibility for running the country and that, the key to that, is a strong “sense of national identity.”

I was quite impressed with COL Everett’s candor and the sense that he was painfully aware of not only the strategic challenges MNF-I is facing but the world political environment as well. I’m no more confident than I was going in that we can turn things around soon enough to maintain political support but I’m heartened that at least our senior military leadership knows what they’re up against.

________
*Given his position in the chain of command, I thought better of asking for his assessment of how this compared to the Bush Administration. That would have been in the spirit of snark, of course. The cronyism and corruption in the American system is but a pale shadow of that in most developing countries, let alone fledgling democracies like Iraq.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mike says:

    This COL seems very impressive and it is nice that he is honest and candid; but i think that people are tired of waiting for the Iraqi gov’t (myself included) esp at a price of over 100 military personnel deaths a month, countless more injured, and a price tag of over $5 billion a month. maybe it is time to take the floaties off and drop the Iraqi gov’t/military in the deep end of the pool to see if they sink or swim. Right now they have no incentive to care about anyone except for themselves and their own little niche in the power struggle there.

  2. Triumph says:

    Jesus, this is pretty dismal.

    He noted the tremendous progress in al Anbar province. He notes that it was “written off a year ago” with daily terrorist attacks and incredible sectarian violence.

    It is important to point out that al Anbar is still seeing 100 attacks a month against US troops. This may be “progress,” but it certainly still is indicative of the persistence of “daily terrorist attacks.”

    He reiterated that the primary mission is to get the Iraqi government to stand up and take responsibility for running the country and that, the key to that, is a strong “sense of national identity.”

    Ok, so the mission of the US military is to get the Iraqi government to develop a “strong sense of national identity”?!?! How in the hell do they plan on doing this? At the barrel of a gun?

    Even if a foreign occupier could plausibly create a sense of national identity amongst government officials, it is important to remember that the Iraqi “government” is largely a fiction whose powers and authority barely cover the Green Zone, let alone the extent of a large and diverse country.

    I was quite impressed with COL Everett’s candor and the sense that he was painfully aware of not only the strategic challenges MNF-I is facing but the world political environment as well. I’m no more confident than I was going in that we can turn things around soon enough to maintain political support but I’m heartened that at least our senior military leadership knows what they’re up against.

    Well, you’re easily impressed, I guess. Nothing in your report suggests that you asked–or at least pressed–him about the efficacy of their implementation strategy.

    For instance, you may have asked the obvious follow-up to the “strong national identity” nonsense: How does the fact that the US is arming Sunni militias and training the Shiite-dominated security forces contribute to fomenting a “strong national identity?”

  3. legion says:

    James,
    Nice score on the interview!

    Ok, so the mission of the US military is to get the Iraqi government to develop a “strong sense of national identity”?!?! How in the hell do they plan on doing this? At the barrel of a gun?

    Short answer – they can’t. Triumph, you have hit upon the critical issue in Iraq – no amount of effort or blood, no quantity of outstanding, brave soldiers, can ever succeed when the CinC sets out a mission that is physically impossible, and fixing what’s wrong with Iraq via the military is impossible.

    Unfortunately, that’s the only solution Bush & Cheney are capable of grasping, and either the senior-most uniformed officers don’t have the ‘nads to tell the boss when he’s off the rails, or those that do get ignored or fired. As many people have noted before, there is absolutely zero chance the US will be able to leave Iraq before Bush leaves office. None.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Headscratcher.

    Iraq had plenty of national identity. You need only read what was being written by Iraqis from 2003 through 2005 to recognize that. The problem was that neither the national army nor the MNF were providing sufficient security and, consequently, Iraqis turned to the few remaining institutions, those of sect, tribe, and ethnic group, in the hope that they’d provide what neither the national government nor the MNF could. That’s what happened in the elections the results of which everyone was so much surprised by.

    Sectarian, tribal, and ethnic institutions have fared little better but, at least in my view, if anyone wants to foster national identity, they’re going to need to provide more security. That won’t be helped if, for example, the destruction of the minarets of the Golden Mosque was accomplished with the connivance of the forces that were supposed to be defending it.

    Chicken and the egg?

  5. ken says:

    He argues that the military and political leadership must make the American people “understand that this isn’t just about Iraq but about the whole region.” He’s realistic, though, about the level of progress being made on that front.

    The American people are way ahead of him.

    The American people know that a policy based upon lies is a policy doomed to fail. The American people know that we have no compelling reason to continue the war on Iraq any more than we had a compelling reason to begin the war on Iraq.

    The American people know the sooner we end our war effort the better the chances for our major regional interests (oil) remaining available. The American people are prepared to face the consequences of doing the right thing and we are prepared to deal with whoever controls the oil after we remove our military from the area.

    It is the military and the politicians who don’t understand and whose views must be changed, not the American people’s.

  6. cian says:

    I was quite impressed with COL Everett’s candor and the sense that he was painfully aware of not only the strategic challenges MNF-I is facing but the world political environment as well.

    James,

    You must, therefore, be deeply depressed by the present gaggle of Republican candidates for president, each one growing more and more disconnected from the realities faced by American troops in Iraq and from the advice of brave commanders like Col Everett.

    Giuliani’s 12 ingredients for a new national disaster does note bode well for those on the front line who have been forced for the last four years to talk up a war that is taking the country down.

    By the way, I see Giuliani added a 13th point to his list- Blame Clinton for everything.