From the Road: Speaking with American Troops in Iraq

January 9, 2006

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: Hello, this is Senator Barack Obama, and I am resuming my podcasts after a couple weeks Christmas Break. And I am calling from a cell phone at a hotel overlooking the hills of Amman, Jordan. It's actually a beautiful city, Jordan. The sun is setting and I am just come back from my first trip into Iraq.

You know, obviously Iraq has dominated our foreign policy for the last several years. Listeners to my regular podcasts or those who followed my campaign, I think, are aware of the fact that I have been deeply skeptical about the administration's policy towards Iraq and the initial invasion. I felt it was important for me to visit Iraq myself and get some sort of first hand report about what was happening there.

So, I started the trip actually from Kuwait, where the US maintains several bases that are used to provide logistical support for what's happening in Iraq. I met with troops as well as some of the generals who are in charge of logistical support. They talked about the enormous efforts that are required to maintain our presence in Iraq. There are about 20,000 troops in this base in Kuwait and they typically provide initial training for troops before they deploy into Iraq as well as providing water and fuel and are used as a launching site for operations in Iraq.

I had the opportunity to meet with a number of troops from Illinois as well as play a little basketball with some of the troops in the gymnasium there. And so I had a chance to talk to them about their feelings about what was happening. I think it's fair to say that morale among almost every US troop that I met was high. I think everybody is very proud of the work that they're doing and understandably so. Because regardless of how you feel about the war, what's astonishing is just the pride that our men and women in uniform take about accomplishing the tasks before them. The effort in Iraq is just an unbelievable logistical task.

We flew into Baghdad and then I was helicoptered into the Green Zone. And when you visit the Green Zone, which is several miles wide and long in the center of Baghdad, you really get a sense that US military operations have built an entire city within a city. There are thousands of US military personnel and coalition forces - everything from embassy personnel to logistical support to troops that are about to be deployed into other areas of the country.

It's an impressive achievement and in conversations with US personnel there all of them felt a genuine sense of progress after this most recent election. The feeling was that there was a great opportunity for the first time in sometime to create a national unity government that actually had some claim of legitimacy with the Iraqi people.

I had a meeting then with Ambassador Khalilzad, the US Ambassador to Iraq, who discussed the meaning of the most recent election. His belief is that there is an opportunity to create a government that unifies Shiite, Sunni and Kurd, but that it's not going to be easy. That the election in and of itself doesn't create that unity. In fact the election was largely along sectarian lines. But that hopefully there is a recognition on the part of the leadership in all these various factions that recognizes a unified Iraq is better than the alternative, regardless of how difficult it is. And overall I was impressed with the work that he was doing.

Later that evening I had dinner with the President or Iraq, President Talabani as well as a number of ministers in the current Iraqi government, representing various factions. And the general impression was that they recognized the need to arrive at accommodations; and that was a cause for some small optimism.

The next day we took Blackhawk helicopters and went out to Fallujah, which is the site of some of the worst violence in Iraq. I did not travel through the city proper but rather flew into the primary US military base out there, and had a briefing from both their general as well as the colonels who were in charge of troops out there. As we arrived we learned that just a day earlier five marines had been killed, and obviously people were pretty somber about that. It's still very dangerous work to be done.

And in discussions with our military, one message that came across repeatedly was that there is not going to be a military solution to the problem of Iraq; that only political accommodations can solve some of these problems. One of the colonels that we met in Fallujah, who is in charge of intelligence, pointed out that you've got 50% unemployment rates in many of the western portions of Iraq. And what that means is that the insurgency is going to continually grow unless the central government pays attention to the concrete needs of the people in that area. It also means that despite the work of the US military in apprehending the leaders of the insurgency in that area, there are always young men who are willing to fill the shoes of those who are apprehended. And as a consequence, the insurgency and the dangers posed by the explosive devices that they are setting throughout the country will continue, as well as the suicide bombings. This colonel really felt very strongly that the problem we faced was not a matter of foreign fighters, but rather a combination of foreign Jihadists and, more importantly, the homegrown support that continues to be generated.

We went to Kirkuk in northern Iraq where the situation is a little bit more stable, although there is significant tension there. Kirkuk is the site of a lot of oil wealth that the Kurdish want to incorporate into their regional government and is being resisted by Shiite and Sunni alike. And so a very complicated political process is taking place in that region.

You know, as you fly from Baghdad airport to the Green Zone and then out to places like Fallujah and you look down on the countryside and over the city, you realize how devastating this war has been for the country. It still looks shell-shocked. The land is muddy and fallow and strewn with skeletons of old trucks and cars and the imprints of buildings that are now reduced to rubble. There is very little traffic on the streets; a few people are on foot. It reminds you of how devastating war is.

The conversations that I had with troops who had lost friends and colleagues reminded me of how personally devastating war is to soldiers and their families.

And I think generally it emphasizes, in my mind at least, how our foreign policy has to be tough but it has to also be smart; and that we have to possess some element of humility about our capacity to remake other countries and other cultures.

I think there are several things that I at least learned from the trip, some of which reinforced some of my previous thoughts and some thoughts that are new:

Number one, we have probably a six-month window in which to create the sort of national unity government that can actually deliver a basic government to the Iraqi people and deliver the sort of political accommodations that are the necessary precursor for any solution to the violence in Iraq. Whether that's going to happen or not will depend on the degree to which the Shiite majority shows restraint and recognizes the need to bring Sunnis into all levels of government, particularly the security forces. It's also going to depend on the degree that the Sunnis are willing to recognize that they are never going to have the same degree of power given their numbers as they did under Saddam Hussein.

The second thing that's going to need to happen if there is going to be any modicum of success in Iraq is that the security forces themselves have to be representative of all portions of Iraqi society. Right now the security forces are dominated by Shiite. There have been some disturbing reports about the Ministry of the Interior and the police being used as a vendetta force against Sunnis. That obviously helps to fan the insurgency, which raises a broader point.

And that is that it's going to be important for whatever government that is elected to actually start building institutional capacity.

We met with some of the officials that are in charge of reconstruction over there; and it's clear that the basic structure of civil service - a non-corrupt, technocratic approach to solving problems and delivering services is not deeply imbedded there and has to be developed. And changing that culture is going to take time but it's going to have to start. And whatever else the national unity government accomplishes it's got to recognize that it needs a basic structure of service delivery to gain the confidence of the Iraqi people.

Finally, and I think most importantly, what's clear is that there is not going to be a military solution to this problem. I heard this repeatedly, not just from civilians or observers, but from the military - our military - the recognition that the insurgency cannot be defeated by armed might alone. And it is absolutely critical that our policies recognize that.

I remember having a conversation with one of the colonels out in the field, and although he did not believe that a rapid unilateral withdrawal would actually be helpful, there was no doubt that the US occupation in Iraq was becoming an increasing source of irritation. And that one of the things that we're going to need to do - and to do sooner rather than later - is to transition our troops out of the day-to-day operations in Iraq and to have a much lower profile and a smaller footprint in the country over the coming year.

On the other hand, I did also ask some people who were not particularly sympathetic to the initial war, but were now trying to make things work in Iraq - what they thought would be the result of a total withdrawal and I think the general view was that we were in such a delicate situation right now and that there was so little institutional capacity on the part of the Iraqi government, that a full military withdrawal at this point would probably result in significant civil war and potentially hundreds of thousands of deaths. This by the way was a message that was delivered also by the Foreign Minister of Jordan, who I've been meeting with while here in Amman, Jordan.

The sense, I think, throughout the entire region among those who opposed the US invasion, that now that we're there it's important that we don't act equally precipitously in our approach to withdrawal, but that we actually stabilize the situation and allow time for the new Iraqi government to develop some sort of capacity.

I guess the final point I just want to make is how proud I am of the US troops there. One of the things that I continually emphasized to them was that regardless of how any of us feel about the administration's decision to go into Iraq, all of us are extraordinarily proud of the work that they're doing. What the US military accomplishes on a day-to-day basis, in just setting up and rebuilding portions of the country that have been destroyed and in carrying out extraordinarily difficult tasks on a day-to-day basis is amazing.

And particularly when I was talking to the Illinois troops many of them are guardsmen and reservists - some of them on their second or third rotation - it was important for me to emphasize to them that the folks back home fully support them even as we have, I think, a very legitimate debate back in Washington about what we're doing there.

The fact is that our US military is probably the most capable institution on the planet in terms of carrying out extraordinarily difficult assignments. But it's incumbent on our civilian leadership in Washington to make sure that we don't provide them with assignments that are impossible to accomplish. And I continue to be concerned that we have set out for ourselves just an enormous task of rebuilding an extremely volatile and large country, and the military is not going to be able to do it alone so we're going to have to have some good policies from Washington to move it forward.

Anyway, I hope everybody had a wonderful holiday. I will be returning to Washington after several days in Israel and the Palestinian territories. It's obviously a difficult time there, given the grave illness that Ariel Sharon is suffering. It's thrown the entire Middle East into tumult and I may have some more to say about that when I get back. So hopefully I'll be able to deliver a podcast next week and look forward to being back home to see my wife and kids next week as well.

Take care everybody. Bye-bye.