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.
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.