Frederick W. Kagan Transcript

Taped August 29, 2014

Table of Contents

I: Planning the Surge 0:15 – 24:47
II: Soldiers and Civilians 24:47 – 39:37
III: David Petraeus in Command 39:37 – 58:45
IV: How the Army Learns 58:45 – 1:12:49
V: West Point Education 1:12:49 – 1:28:28
VI: How Great Was Napoleon? 1:28:28 – 1:34:26

I: Planning the Surge (0:15 – 24:47)

KRISTOL: Hi. I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m joined today by my friend, Fred Kagan, fellow scholar here at the American Enterprise Institute and director of the Critical Threats Project at AEI.

If you ask someone on the street in Washington, Fred Kagan, architect of the Iraq surge, and that was 2006. Things had gone very, very badly. We were all supporters of the Iraq War in 2003, things had really started to go badly, and by – in 2006, it was pretty disastrous looking. And you convened a group. Well, why don’t you tell the story? So.

KAGAN: So, you know, what happened is that Dany Pletka, my boss, our vice president here, came to me and said, “Hey, why don’t you, maybe we should do a war game about Iraq?” And this was probably in about September of 2006. And maybe we can try to raise the level of discourse in some way.

KRISTOL: And there had already been criticism that we didn’t have enough troops there. I think we had all written those pieces.

KAGAN: Many times. You published many of mine, for which I’m grateful.

KRISTOL: Yes, and worrying that President Bush wasn’t adjusting, and Secretary Rumsfeld in particular, weren’t adjusting strategy to the conditions on the ground. So we’re September ’06 and –

KAGAN: And it’s getting worse. And so there was a feeling that I think we all had that there was a lot of big-hand, little-map, you know, general discussions of Iraq but there weren’t a lot, there wasn’t a lot of specificity.

And, you know, so Dany said, “Maybe we should do a war game.” And I said, “Well, I don’t really want to do a red-on-blue war game because I don’t want to game the enemy, but I think maybe we should do a planning exercise.”

And the whole intention behind that was it never occurred to me or anybody that was involved in this that we were going to affect policy. It was simply “Maybe we can put some concrete numbers on the table, some concrete enemy on a map, some concrete units on a grid, and force other people who want to have this discussion to wrestle with the specifics of the problem and not do the, you know, well, ‘Iraq is a country of 32 million people, 1-to-20 counter-insurgency ratio means 600,000 soldiers, so we’re clearly not going to do that.’” You know, and I heard that a few times, and you did too. And, you know, our answers were, “Well, we don’t need to do it in the entire country, but then the question would be, ‘Well where do you think you need to do it?’” So we set out to answer that question.

KRISTOL: And it was strikingly unusual, I remember, just because, I mean, I had written pieces, published pieces but they did tend to have that level of generality. One has the sense there aren’t enough troops, so send more troops. But who are we as civilians to tell the military exactly where to send the troops?

Meanwhile, the military are busy fighting the war, and they have their own doctrines, which lead them, and their own institutional reasons, even, perhaps, for not being so eager to send more troops. And so the whole discussion was kind of deadlocked at that point, it seems to me.

KAGAN: I actually find that – I mean as a little sort of digression – I actually find it fascinating, you know, what was the doctrine that was actually driving the military in 2006? And, you know, what was the Casey strategy, and you know, was Casey just – General George Casey, he was the commander. Was he just dumb?

No, he’s not. He’s a very smart man, he’s a very experienced fighter. And he actually had a theory, and it wasn’t a dumb theory. The theory was that this is a problem that has to be solved fundamentally by political accommodation among the Iraqis and that the presence of foreign troops in any country create antibodies and generate resistance and generate a certain amount of violence. And so and that’s right.

KRISTOL: And General Abizaid who was his, I guess, superior –

KAGAN: He was, he was the CENTCOM –

KRISTOL: Was very much attached, I think, to this light footprint, I remember that. And yes, if you, if we have American troops going around kicking down doors, that will just create more of a problem. As you say, it’s not a crazy –

KAGAN: No. It’s absolutely accurate. It’s just that it’s two-thirds of the strategy, is the problem with it because, you know, as we were seeing, as we were arguing, when there is no security, when the local forces are not able to do this before you’ve had the political accommodation, somebody has to keep the level of violence down because otherwise you’re not going to get the political accommodation, you’re not going to get the security forces and so forth. And so it was a thoughtful and intelligent and articulate strategy.

And I also think it’s worth pointing out the Bush Administration strategy writ large wasn’t – and just stick with me here for a minute, audience, just stick with me. It wasn’t fully, fairly tested in a certain sense until Maliki became Prime Minister in May of 2006. Now, you and I both thought that it was failing long before that and both thought, rightly, as it turned out, that that would not be a significant event from the standpoint of turning the tide. But their theory, as I understand it, was that when you had a democratically elected leader under the new constitution, and Maliki was the first one, that that should have ended the conflict or begun the end of it.

So it wasn’t – now we, of course, we were criticizing this in 2004, it was apparent to us that this wasn’t working. But it’s all to say that it was a very, is very plausible, intelligent series of arguments, which can be made for why we did what we did as a nation and the decisions that were made. They just didn’t work.

KRISTOL: So September 2006, and you’re trying to now really flesh out what it would be to actually change strategy at a much greater level of specificity and granularity than people like me writing op-eds, on the one hand. But also to put it in a bigger context than maybe some colonel working in the Pentagon who was looking at whether they should move one brigade over or one battalion over or something like that.

KAGAN: Well, the problem, the colonel and Pentagon has to operate within the policy constraints that he’s given. We didn’t have to do that. We said, “Okay, what’s the situation, what should we do about it?”

I immediately recognized that I did not have the technical skills necessary to do this. And so I reached out to a number of friends including my closest friend in the Army, John McMaster, and a number of other West Point colleagues, and some of the people who had served with him in Iraq when he cleared the northern city of Tal Afar in Ninawa Province in 2005. Reached out to them. We had a first day session of bringing in all of the policy experts that we could to talk about the regional situation, the political situation. So it wasn’t just a military planning exercise. And then we had Jack Keane come in and we also had retired Lieutenant General Dave Barno, who played an important part in this, come in and advise us and talk to us about how to do an exercise like this, and be a good smell-tester for it.

And we sat down, we laid out as best we could what the critical terrain was, which was basically the sectarian fault lines largely within Baghdad. And then we actually got with our military experts. And this is something that I couldn’t do myself. You know, got them on Google Earth imagery and said, “Okay, how would you go about clearing and securing this area, and how much force do you think that it would take?” And these were guys, some of them had served in Baghdad, others had done it elsewhere. And we laid down, sort of, area by area about a battalion fight here, a company here, and so forth, added that all up. And that came out to about five brigade combat teams and two Marine regimental combat teams for Anbar, which is what we thought.

And I was very surprised by that outcome. I expected it to be a bigger force. And it was a coincidence – Petraeus gives me a hard time about this all the time because he accuses us of having backward planned from this but it’s actually not true – we were able to figure out how much additional force the military could generate by extending the tours of units from 12 to 15 months and accelerating some deployments. And it turned out to be five brigades.

KRISTOL: Which is about what, about –

KAGAN: It was about – organically, a brigade has about 3,500 guys in it.

KRISTOL: So 20,000 people-plus.

KAGAN: By the time you’re done with enablers, it’s more like 25,000 and then there are enablers behind that, of course. And we weren’t looking at numbers. We were just looking at units, which is the other thing, I think, that was different about what we did from what a lot of the discussion in town was about. But I was very suspicious of that result. It was too neat. And it did sort of match up too closely with what we could do.

And so I said, “Okay, let’s do this another way; let’s make the best estimates we can of what the populations are in each of these areas and apply the standard 1-to-20 counter-insurgency ratio on it and see what numbers that produces.” Produced about the same numbers. Okay, so I took yes for an answer. We published about a 55-slide PowerPoint deck, or we produced it, on Monday, December 11th, I think it was.

KRISTOL: After Thanksgiving, I remember, yeah.

KAGAN: And it was also right after the Iraq Study Group had released its much ballyhooed report.

KRISTOL: Right. As an example, the opposite of how not to think seriously about dealing with the real issues, in my opinion anyway.

KAGAN: And we had two opportunities that day and one was that Jack Keane was already –

KRISTOL: Retired Army Vice Chief of Staff, I think, four stars –

KAGAN: Yes, he’d been acting Chief of Staff.

KRISTOL: Four-star general, yeah.

KAGAN: He was already scheduled to go in with a bunch of other retired four stars on that Monday to talk to the President and so we were able to put the deck in his hand. And he and I also had the opportunity on that Monday to brief Vice President Cheney. And then we had a couple of other opportunities to brief the national security staff and –

KRISTOL: And you and I had some private lunch with the Chief of Staff. With Steve Hadley, but also with Josh Bolten, the Chief of Staff. Maybe that was before the thing was finished even.

KAGAN: That was that week. That was Thursday of that week after it was finished, yeah. Well, it was a very significant emotion for me.

KRISTOL: I was just there as a bump-along, what do I know? But it was nice to be. I guess what I was struck by coming up to some of those meetings that were mostly held here at AEI in the 12th floor in the conference. I kind of – I had never been to a planning exercise, and I expected it to be very formal and sort of impressive, you know, people with, of course, PowerPoint presentations, maps. And there was all of that.

But it really was mostly – I don’t know 15, 20 people sitting around a table – kicking ideas back and forth. Looking obviously at maps, looking at the charts of how many forces you could deploy, looking at documents to some degree. But I was struck how seminar-like it was and not what I would regard a military planning session as. I don’t know, maybe that was unusual in that way.

KAGAN: No, it wasn’t. It was –

KRISTOL: I was just struck how intellectual it was, how –

KAGAN: It was, no, it wasn’t unusual. What I came to realize is that what we did was the phase of developing the concept of the operation and an overall estimate of forces required.

What you’re talking about does happen. You do get to a point where you have a lot of people sitting around with a lot of thick binders and PowerPoints and stuff. And that – but that’s not what they do – because Kim and I have now had the opportunity to sit in on planning exercises in Kabul for two strategic plan redesigns and so forth. And it is like this seminar that we had, when you’re trying to figure out what should we do, and where should we do it, and how should we sequence it, and, you know, how do we go about thinking about what kinds of forces are going to be required.

When you’ve done all of that and the commander said, “Yeah, that’s what we want to do,” then the staff will go away. And this is the thing that only a military staff can do, and it will go through what’s called a formal troop-to-task analysis. And that’s where you really have to go through and say, “Okay, we’re going to occupy this forward operating base, it’s this large, it’s going to require a force of this size to protect it, they’re going to need these kinds of guns and these kinds of tanks.” And this, how many trucks and all of that stuff happens.

But what’s really good to see is that that process is divorced in our military – or it’s not divorced but it’s subordinated to, first, let’s figure out what we’re doing and then we can have that discussion and if it turns out in that discussion that it’s not logistically sustainable, you can’t do this or that or the other, then we can go back and revisit the concept. So it actually wasn’t unusual in that respect, which was even more surprising to me.

KRISTOL: Yeah, that’s good, though. And I remember being so impressed by the military people. General McMaster – I guess then-Colonel McMaster.

KAGAN: Well, he wasn’t actually at that, but his guy, Colonel Joe Armstrong, who had been his deputy, Major Dan Dwyer, retired, who had also been there.

KRISTOL: I met McMaster in that period socially.

KAGAN: When he was just a colonel.

KRISTOL: Being impressed by how thoughtful those guys were and interested in thinking things through, not just applying whatever they were given to –

KAGAN: To being creative.

KRISTOL: Yeah, yeah. It was interesting. So just to finish the surge story since that was an unusual moment, I think, where a think tank took something up on its own, not really being asked to do it by, in real part, by a couple of rogues in the White House and the Pentagon were friendly to it but it was not –

KAGAN: Not that I’m aware of.

KRISTOL: Not that they wanted really, and then amazingly it becomes policy. I think President Bush announced the surge more or less along the lines that your group recommended less than a month after that paper came out. And the Iraq Study came out at the same time, and that was the huge multitrillion, multizillion dollar group with big shots, former Secretary of State, and so forth. And it didn’t really affect policy much.

KAGAN: Look, I’ve never understood and I don’t think I ever really will understand how important our report was in all of that. I mean, General Odierno who was at that time the three-star commander in Iraq had already come to these conclusions, was already working on contingencies.

KRISTOL: Yeah, that turned out to be very important.

KAGAN: Well, it was critical because we didn’t give anybody anything that could be implemented. We described a concept. I think my best understanding of the role that we played was to help get something really concrete in front of President as an alternative to the things that he was being pitched.

And it made it possible for him, and I think for the Vice President, definitely for the Vice President, and for other members of the Cabinet to interrogate harder what they were being presented with by the military and ask questions about feasibility and whether this made sense or that made sense on the basis of a real – not a real but a much more detailed and specific set of propositions. So I think we enabled the discussion that allowed ideas that were percolating in the military but not making it all the way up to be discussed and then ultimately to be adopted by the President.

KRISTOL: And don’t you think General Keane who had real stature, his being onboard was really critical.

KAGAN: Well, it was critical for us that he thought it was a good plan to begin with because I’m just a civilian. I mean, we really were sensitive to that. And you know if General Keane and General Barno, for that matter, had – we outbriefed both of them on Sunday before we were finished with this thing. And you know, if they had not said, “This makes sense,” we would have backed off of it. And then, of course, Jack is such a well-respected, rightly, rightly so, as someone who’s not afraid to tell truth to power and really just interested in getting things right, it would have been meaningless without Jack.

KRISTOL: And General Petraeus is not at this point yet in Iraq or in charge of Iraq?

KAGAN: No. He’s still at Leavenworth where he is completed or has completed the rewriting of our counter-insurgency doctrine.

KRISTOL: And you were in touch with him or not much?

KAGAN: I wasn’t.

KRISTOL: Did you know him really?

KAGAN: I had met him once when he’d come here after completing his tour in Iraq as the head of the training command. I hadn’t interacted with him. The first time that I met him in meaningful way actually was in January of 2007. So now other people were reporting back to him on these discussions and I think probably also reporting back to General Odierno on what was going on. And I had – I didn’t know about any of that.

KRISTOL: And so General Petraeus takes over in January ’07 –

KAGAN: It’s February ’07, actually.

KRISTOL: Right. And Bob Gates has replaced Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, so clearly this issue is very much open to a new strategy and then he kind of announces it in January.

KAGAN: He does announce it. I mean, you know, it’s –

KRISTOL: It didn’t quite go as far as we wanted, as I recall.

KAGAN: No, it was frustrating. You know, I wanted two regiments, he gave us two battalions. There were timelines, there were various other things that we didn’t like about his speech. It was probably the least effective speech visually that he ever gave. It was remarkable. He was standing up and he looked very uncomfortable. But you know, and you and I –

KRISTOL: Not greeted well by the media.

KAGAN: Oh, it was hammered immediately. Oh my God, it was. And you and I, we’d been hammering the Administration pretty hard and hammered them subsequently on a lot of things and so – but I think it’s very important to give him credit for what was one of the most courageous decisions a president has ever made.

I mean, the war was polling, if I recall, about 19 percent support at the time. I think if you’d asked – no one thought, I don’t think anyone thought to ask Americans what do you think about sending another 50,000 troops to Iraq, I doubt you could have gotten more than 10 percent of the population onboard with that. He was getting hammered –

KRISTOL: He had lost the midterm election in part, the Republicans had in part, presumably because of Iraq.

KAGAN: No. Clearly because of Iraq. You know, it was this antiwar tide. You’d had this blue-ribbon commission that was supposed to be the adults coming in and they’d said, “Get out, get out, get out.” And he turns around and says, “No, I’m going to go all in and double down.”

It was an amazingly courageous decision. And it was critically important because if we had – you know, bad as things are now, avoidably bad in my opinion, but bad as they are, it would have been devastating had we allowed ourselves to get run out of Iraq in 2006 in the way that we were going to be run out. Basically, we were going to be driven out because it was going to be a contested withdrawal, and it was going to look like a rout of American forces. And that would have been a serious calamity.

KRISTOL: And so General Petraeus comes over and you’ve gotten some notoriety at this point as one of the authors of the surge and so forth. But I can’t recall – did he then have you come to Iraq pretty soon after that or you were in touch indirectly or –

KAGAN: So we met him in January and then I first went over, I think, in April perhaps. I actually, he invited me to tag along on a trip with Max Boot. And then Kim and I went over with Jack in – Jack Keane – in, it might have been April or May. And then he brought us, General Petraeus brought the three of us back basically every quarter and we would go for a week, two weeks.

KRISTOL: Yeah. I tagged along with you at the end of July just as the surge troops had – they had finished bringing the surge troops in and General Odierno famously said, “The surge of troops has been completed, the surge of operations is about to begin,” something like that –

KAGAN: Yep, exactly, exactly right. Exactly.

KRISTOL: It was an exciting time to be there.

KAGAN: It was. It was a fascinating time. I mean, we were there. If you look at violence, you know, the violence map, so the first time Kim and I went there, it was right at the peak of that. And then by the time we went there with you, it had come down somewhat but it was still very close to the peak. And the speed with which that violence curve dropped surprised everybody.

KRISTOL: Yeah, that’s what I recall. We didn’t expect it to work as well as it did, I guess.

KAGAN: I don’t think anyone did. I don’t think anyone did.

KRISTOL: Is there a lesson in that or just –

KAGAN: I guess the lesson is that sometimes you can really underestimate, you can become so fixated on the magnitude of the problem that you miss opportunities to achieve nonlinear positive change but I would never bank on it.

KRISTOL: That’s a good lesson, though, yeah. I guess it cuts the opposite way, too, to some degree, right?

KAGAN: Well, this is, I mean, I would say this is what the sort of problem with the Rumsfeld strategy before that had been, which is that we were so fixated through the success through a certain path that we missed the downside risk of really nonlinear bad stuff happening.

KRISTOL: I remember – maybe it was you or maybe our friend, Gary Schmitt, someone saying near the end of 2004 – President Bush would be reelected, Rumsfeld was staying Secretary of Defense – and someone said to me, I remember, you know, “We could really be losing this war in a year, a year and a half.”

And I said, “Oh, I mean, yeah, we don’t like the strategy, it’s certainly not great, and we could lose public support here.” That was already clear. “But we can’t lose a war, we’re the U.S., we have a 150,000 troops there.” I mean, what are we fighting really?

And I underestimated and I think – not publicly because I was happy to keep making the case for more troops and different strategy – but I sort of underestimated on the downside, too, how much things can – how fast things can get worse and how much one or two inflection points – the bombing of the mosque, I suppose, in February 2006 in Samarra. Things can really just things can start to snowball down.

KAGAN: Yeah and –

KRISTOL: It’s a good lesson about military things but, I think, about politics in general.

KAGAN: I agree. Yeah, things are nonlinear. I mean, this is a huge problem. Everybody tends to make linear projections and linear extrapolations. You know, if it was this way today, it will be this way plus something tomorrow. And that’s not the way the world works, not the way politics works, it’s not the way the world works.

And I think that we, I think we all underestimated that, and I think we need to learn those lessons today where things are very, very bad. But it doesn’t mean that they can’t get a lot worse very quickly. It also doesn’t mean as with the surge, that yeah, I mean, that they couldn’t get a lot better or stay the same.

I mean, these things are not predictable. You have to interact with them, and I think that’s sort of what I come away with from my study of military history, but also from this experience, too, that you really can’t know how a situation or a system is going to be affected by actions you take until you take them. And then you have to see what the effect is and it has to be iterative because you can’t predict these things.

You know, on the one hand, you never have enough information. But on the other hand, you know, sometimes the question is, “If we attack this position, is the enemy going to hold it?” A lot of the time, the enemy doesn’t know the answer to that question until the attack comes. So and it depends on the attack. So these things are actually unpredictable and that’s why you have to be prepared to interact with the changing situation and not just say, “Is this going to work: yes, no?”

KRISTOL: That seems to be so contrary to the spirit of think tanks in a way in general – not so much AEI – where people want a kind of certainty of prediction, you know, a sort of social science model of how the world might work. And I think that’s true of our public discourse of some degree too, don’t you think?

KAGAN: I think it’s become, I think it’s really, really bad that it’s become dominant in our public discourse, and this, you know, tell me are we going to win or not, is it going to work or not, how long is it going to take, when are you going to know, what are your metrics, you know, all of this kind of stuff. I’m not an economist, so I can’t tell whether that stuff works for the economy or not. But it does not work in war. And, you know, I mean, you know better than I, it doesn’t seem to me to work in politics, either.

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