July 8, 2007
Powell tried to talk Bush out of war
Sarah Baxter, 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 todays conflict cannot be resolved by US
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. Its not going
to be pretty to watch, but I dont 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
The surges 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 chaos.
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
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
Gates believes American troop withdrawals are
essential to building a cross-party consensus for
retaining a presence in Iraq after Bushs 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
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 source said.
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 surges 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
Americas 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
The same political fault line runs through the White
House between Vice-President Dick Cheneys office and
the State Department � now run by Condoleezza
Rice, Powells 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 statistics.
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 Shiites
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 world.
The general and former joint chiefs of staff added:
Shiites 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
its going to be resolved by a test of arms. Its
going to be very ugly.