to talk Bush out of war
By Sarah Baxter
--07/08/07 - Washington -- THE former American secretary
of state Colin Powell has revealed that he spent 2½ hours
vainly trying to persuade President George W Bush not to
invade Iraq and believes today’s conflict cannot be resolved
by US forces.
“I tried to avoid this war,” Powell said at the Aspen Ideas
Festival in Colorado. “I took him through the consequences
of going into an Arab country and becoming the occupiers.”
Powell has become increasingly outspoken about the level of
violence in Iraq, which he believes is in a state of civil
war. “The civil war will ultimately be resolved by a test of
arms,” he said. “It’s not going to be pretty to watch, but I
don’t know any way to avoid it. It is happening now.”
He added: “It is not a civil war that can be put down or
solved by the armed forces of the United States.” All the
military could do, Powell suggested, was put “a heavier lid
on this pot of boiling sectarian stew”.
The signs are that the views of Powell and other critics of
the war are finally being heard in the Pentagon, if not yet
in the White House. Robert Gates, the defence secretary, is
drawing up plans to reduce troop levels in Iraq in
anticipation that General David Petraeus, the commander in
Iraq, will not be able to deliver an upbeat progress report
in September on the American troop surge.
“It should come as no secret to anyone that there are
discussions about what is a postsurge strategy,” said Tony
Fratto, deputy White House press secretary, last week.
The surge’s lack of demonstrable success is creating
fissures in the Republican party as well as putting enormous
pressure on the Democratic presidential candidates to favour
a rapid pull-out, which Gates fears could leave Iraq in
New Mexico senator Pete Domenici became the third Republican
senator in recent weeks to break ranks openly with Bush on
the war. “We cannot continue asking our troops to sacrifice
indefinitely while the Iraqi government is not making
measurable progress,” he said. “I am calling for a new
strategy that will move our troops out of combat operations
and on the path home.”
Speculation is growing that Gates will demonstrate his
commitment to withdrawing US forces by moving a combat
brigade of up to 3,000 troops out of Iraq as early as
October and continuing to reduce their numbers month by
month from their current strength of 160,000 to presurge
levels of around 130,000 by the summer of 2008.
Gates believes American troop withdrawals are essential to
building a cross-party consensus for retaining a presence in
Iraq after Bush’s term in office expires. As a former
director of the CIA who saw out the cold war in the early
1990s, he hopes to win the same bipartisan support for Iraq
that President Harry Truman secured against the Soviet Union
after the second world war.
The policy is likely to appeal to Gordon Brown, the prime
minister, who hopes to begin withdrawing more British troops
from southern Iraq by the end of August.
A senior defence source said it would be possible to reduce
the number of American forces to roughly 50,000-70,000 by
election day in November 2008. “You are going to have to
have some people left behind to provide stability and
security for the country and take on the terrorists,” the
The figures are similar to those floated by aides to Hillary
Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential
nomination, although she has been upping the rhetoric
against remaining in Iraq in an effort to capture the
support of party activists.
According to Powell, the US cannot “blow a whistle one
morning” and have all American forces just leave. The former
secretary of state has twice met Barack Obama, the
Democratic candidate, to advise him on foreign policy.
Despite his antiwar stance, Obama supports a phased
withdrawal that could leave a “significantly reduced force”
in Iraq for “an extended period”.
Defence experts believe it will be impossible to maintain
the surge’s high troop levels beyond February at the latest,
given the need to rotate and refresh troops. Powell, who
served as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in the early
1990s, said in Aspen that America’s volunteer army was
already overstretched. He predicted that Bush would be
forced to “face the situation on the ground” and alter
course by the end of this year.
Supporters of the surge believe this could send a disastrous
signal to the Iraqis. “If we pull out, if we stop this
operation now, we will hand Al-Qaeda a terrific victory,”
said Frederick Kagan, a military historian at the American
Enterprise Institute and an early advocate of the policy.
“The Iraqi government, right now, is a terrific ally in the
war on terror. There have been more Iraqis killed fighting
Al-Qaeda than in any other nation of the world. The question
is, are we going to stand by them?”
The same political fault line runs through the White House
between Vice-President Dick Cheney’s office and the State
Department ? now run by Condoleezza Rice, Powell’s successor
? as it did at the start of the Iraq war. Bush has not yet
thrown his weight definitively behind one side or the other,
but the key difference this time is that the defence
secretary is one of the “realists”.
According to Powell: “We have to face the reality of the
situation that is on the ground and not what we would want
it to be.” He believes that, even if the military surge has
been a partial success in areas such as Anbar province,
where Sunni tribes have turned on Al-Qaeda, it has not been
accompanied by the vital political and economic “surge” and
reconciliation process promised by the Iraqi government.
Al-Qaeda, Powell asserted, was only 10% of the problem in
Iraq and Nouri al-Maliki, its prime minister, lacked the
political will to establish an effective government. After a
promising start to the surge at the beginning of the year,
453 unidentified corpses were found on the streets of
Baghdad last month, 41% more than the 321 bodies found in
January, according to unofficial Iraqi health ministry
The military gains could prove as fleeting in Anbar as
Baghdad. American officers in Iraq believe Al-Qaeda
strengthened its hold on the Sunni-dominated region in 2005,
when responsibility for security was shifted prematurely to
Iraqi forces that were led by Shi’ites and proved incapable
of providing protection.
Powell believes that a reduction in US forces will have to
be accompanied by talks with Syria and Iran. “You have to
talk to the people you dislike most in this dangerous
The general and former joint chiefs of staff added:
“Shi’ites will ultimately prevail because they are 60% of
the population and their militias can be pretty violent.
They will prevail also because they are determined not to be
ruled again by the Sunnis.
“The Sunnis are struggling for power and survival and it’s
going to be resolved by a test of arms. It’s going to be
© Copyright 2007 Times Newspapers Ltd.
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