Tuesday, October 09, 2007

An Interview With Col. Steven Boylan, MNF-I

A few days ago, we said that we hoped to be able to bring our readers an interview with Colonel Steven Boylan, who is press spokesman for General Petraeus. That interview is below and his responses have not been edited in any way, as we promised Col. Boylan. He writes, in his email enclosing his answers: "These are more my take on things than as the official spokesperson of MNF-I, so I would like to keep them in that venue as a discussion vice speaking on behalf of the command or General Petraeus. This is from my observations and time spent on the ground in Iraq, now just over 26 months between both of my tours here."

Even so, there's a lot of material which could form the basis of further discussion in the interview - and we'll be doing analysis in further posts.

Newshoggers: Firstly, Colonel, let me again thank you for the opportunity to put some questions to you. I'd like to take this opportunity to repeat my promise that this interview-by-email will be published in full and unedited by the Newshoggers blog. I would also repeat that we don't expect you to compromise operational security or classified material in answering - although I would appreciate it if, where possible, you note the fact if your answer is curtailled by such considerations. I think it's maybe best to dive right in with the big questions and then move on to more detailled matters -

Newshoggers:
How do you define the War on Terror, and how will we know when we've won?

Answer: For me personally, I define it as not allowing those extremists and in some cases state-sponsored entities from being able to carry out their goals of creating instability and attacks of their choosing against people and nations that they feel free to attack.

In the end, when there are nations that refuse to allow their lands and people to be used to foment terror and allow their lands to be used a launching platforms to conduct these attacks against people of other nations and walks of life. We have found that having the ocean as our natural barrier is no longer a barrier to those that wish us harm as it has been for a long time. There are so many different forms of terrorism now that we have to be prepared for many types of attacks that we would have thought impossible just years ago.

Newshoggers: What is the desired end state objective of the United States in Iraq ?

Answer: In simple terms it is to have a country free from external influences, having a representative government that respects and uphold human rights, able to provide for its own security, not being a safe haven for terrorism and a partner in the war on terror, and have the capacity to provide for its people.

Newshoggers: What is the one task that Nouri al-Maliki's government most needs to complete in order for Iraq to stabilize?

Answer: This is much more complex issue and there really is no “one” task that needs to be accomplished since most of the tasks are interlinked. There are many that need to be accomplished such as the increasing capability of the Iraqi Security Forces (includes Army, Air Force, Navy, and Police); the passing of key legislation, working with their neighbors, economic reforms, etc. The list is long and it will be difficult, but not insurmountable.

Newshoggers: How long do you believe that substantial numbers of American combat troops will have to be active in Iraq in order to achieve the goal of pacifying the country?

Answer: This is not a easy one to determine for several reasons. First is what you consider “substantial numbers?” Currently we have approximately 165,000 US troops in Iraq. Depending on your frame of reference, this in of itself is not many when compared to the US population. When you compare what that number represents, roughly just over 10% of our total force (believe we are at about 1.5 million) when you include all services, both active, Guard and Reserve forces, that is not much, again, just looking at raw numbers. Granted, you have to include Kuwait, Afghanistan and other locations, then it becomes more substantial. That is why we cannot look at things only in the perspectives of one area. We tend to do that since we are located in Iraq and it gains most of the headlines.

Second, come July 2008, we will be down to 15 Brigade Combat Teams from the 20 we currently have in Iraq. That is cutting our combat power by 25% which is a substantial cut in forces and capabilities. We are also planning further reductions beyond that, but have not determined as yet how fast and far that will go. A lot depends on the capacity and capability of the Iraqi Security Forces and the security situation at that time as well as what is happening with the Iraqi government and eventually with our own government’s policies.

What it will look like after July 2008, we will just have to wait and see what happens between now and March 2008 for the next assessment.

Newshoggers: You've written that "There has been some ethnic cleansing, but not near the amount that people think there are and they also fail to notice the amount of mixed families that are here." Do you have metrics to back that statement up and would you disagree with the figure of over 4 million Iraqis displaced? To what degree is so-called "internal displacement" a function of ethnic or sectarian conflict in Iraq? Do you believe that it will be possible over the next few years for internally displaced Iraqis to reclaim their homes and return to their neighborhoods?

Answer: I do not disagree that approximately 4 million have been displaced, but that is different than what we consider to be ethic cleansing. Some of those have departed to get out of the way of the major fighting and due to the issues of basic services, etc not being good enough to support. There are still mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad. There are a lot of ethnic fault lines in Baghdad and other areas that we watch very closely.

Based on our information, we believe there is approximately up to 2 million internally displaced persons with the remainder outside the country. There is a very good chance for those that want to come back can, again based on the areas that they want to go too. There are some already returning, but not to the levels that we would like to see. It will most likely be a slow process, but one that Iraq is dealing with.

Newshoggers: What concerns do you have about the Iraqi refugee situation, particularly as it relates to our ally Jordan and our enemy Syria? When do you anticipate that the estimated two million Iraqis who have relocated to Jordan and Syria will be safe to return if they wish?

Answer: First, I am not sure you can say for certain that Syria is our enemy. We have an embassy in Damascus, so I would be careful with characterizations. Second, that is an unknown on how long it will take. We do not have a crystal ball to allow us to have that good a prediction. There are a lot of issues involved in those events taking place.

Newshoggers: Do you believe that the life of the average Iraqi is better today than it was five years ago in terms of actual, everyday quality of life and access to amenities? Do you think the life of the average Iraqi will be better five years from now than it was five years ago?

Answer: This really depends on what area of the country you want to look at. In the Kurdish areas, yes. In Baghdad, you almost have to go by neighborhood to make that kind of determination. In many areas outside of Baghdad, it is much better since during Saddam’s regime, everything for the most part was focused on Baghdad and the Ba’ath party. Now it is more even so the standard of living in Baghdad may have reduced to a more even level with the rest of the country. I would fully expect that the quality of life will continue to improve over time and most definitely over the next five years. The Iraqi government is spending millions and millions on capital expenditures, reconstruction, infrastructure, etc.

Newshoggers: Joe Biden, as well as many others, is a proponent of the "soft partition" approach to Iraq. There are many benefits to such a scheme given the current balkanized state of Iraq, but the plan never seems to get much traction - particularly among non-Kurdish Iraqis. What is your take on the idea of a "soft partition" in Iraq, where a weak central government doles out oil revenues and the three member states conduct themselves fairly autonomously?

Answer: This fairly simple. This is a matter for the Iraqi government and her people to decide, not for us to decide. In fact, a majority of the Iraqi’s do not want partitions and in fact want a unified Iraq. On this one, we will have to wait and see what the Iraqi’s decide to do.

Newshoggers: Stephen Biddle, a scholar at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations and a former advisor to Gen. Petraeus has said that the general's testimony to Congress was "potentially misleading" because it didn't discuss all the reasons why the numbers might have improved and because Gen. Petraeus selected December 2006, when civilian casualties spiked, as the basis for comparison to this summer's numbers, thus inflating the alleged decline. Those seem like serious critiques. Others have noted that there are sometimes wide differences in casualty figures provided by the general's testimony and other sources. Why is there such variation in metrics between administration departments, and even between the DoD and MNF-I? Also, why is there a seeming unwillingness to be transparent in the metrics, especially as credibility is an important strategic asset in counter-insurgency fights?

Answer: While I respect Stephen Biddle, he has his views and we have ours and not always will the two meet. We focus on the civilian population deaths as a key indicator of population security. It is reasonable to start and focus on the spike as a starting point and in fact, since the Samara Mosque bombing of February 2006, the violence was increasing and then spiked in the Nov/Dec 2006 timeframe.

In the 9010 reports, they use daily averages for casualties which takes into account both wounded and killed. That is a different set of numbers vice the criteria that we focus on. All are important, but where you want to focus in the mission of population security is the death rate, as that will give you the best measure of security.

We take into account the host nation data where a great deal of others do not. We do that to ensure we are getting the best possible information and widest view. The Coalition forces are not in every province and location in Iraq and therefore, if we only use our (Coalition) viewed data, it would be missing some of the needed information.

Most have missed that if you compare the DoD 9010 report to what General Petraeus used, it is really trying to compare apples and oranges as the charts are looking at different aspects of the data base.

There is not one single point of reference as to why the decline as I noted in my original response to the web site. [In comments to this post - Ed]

Newshoggers: What is the role of communal militias in both creating localized pockets of security and legitimating/delegitimating the Maliki central government - particularly since that central government seems to object to using Sunni friendly local groups in areas where the populace is of mixed sectarian background and in Baghdad especially?

Answer: The key is to have local security for the local areas. When you go back and look at it, where do our local police come from (for the most part)? They come from the local communities. As such the same applies here. We want local people volunteering to support the local security needs. These are not militia’s as they are linked in and paid for by the Iraqi government and over time, they get the school slots needed to attend the Iraqi Police Academy just as all the others. They do not deligitimize the central government and in fact, help to support it by fostering the reconciliation efforts from the grass roots level.

It is the misreporting that you are referring to in the areas of objecting to Sunni groups. In fact, the central government continues to sign hiring orders for the volunteers to become part of the Iraqi Security Forces. In Abu Gharib, they hired approximately 1700 individuals. In Anbar, they continue to hire more. Same in Diyala, and other areas. Are there concerns shared by the government and us? Yes there are. Everyone is going into this endeavor with eyes wide open.

Newshoggers: What is the role of Iran's intelligence services compared to the intelligence services of Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait in Iraq?

Answer: This is an area that I am not familiar with and as well would involve getting into classified areas I would imagine. Each country relies on their intelligence services to provide them the needed information as it pertains to their own national interests…that is no secret.

Newshoggers: What is the level of Iranian activity in Iraq compared to US activity in Iraq (manpower, dollars spent, visibility)?

Answer: Well, it is much less than ours as we have a large force here that is out and about. Iran is using its Qods Force which are much like special forces and the like. They are involved in the training, equipping, financing and in some respects depending on the operation, directing some of the events. They are providing advance weaponry such as Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs), 240 mm rockets, RPG-29s and advanced shoulder fired surface to air missiles.

Newshoggers: Colonel, you wrote recently in comments at Newshoggers blog that ""Sadr is only one element of the issue. If he has in fact regained control of his militia, then all the better, but the numbers of events based soley on his militia was not the prime killer or reasons for the levels of attacks." Yet we are being told by the administration and by the White House military press officers dispatched to Iraq over the last year that Sadr's JAM are the major group "in league" with Iran. What you write suggests, then, that Iran is not a major motivator of attacks either. Would you agree that's the case? If Iran is meddling, but not in conjunction with Sadr but rather SCIRI and Dawa, then what does it say, that our allies in the Iraqi government are in league with Iran and attacking our forces?

Answer: [none given]

Newshoggers: Some independent experts have said that the U.S. military's claim that Iran is providing EFP's to Iraqi militias is entirely based on an assessment - that Iraqis cannot make EFP's themselves - that isn't warranted by the evidence. How does the United States military maintain its credibility in information operations when it has a public information warfare/public disinformation office --- notably the evolving EFP claims?

Answer: [none given]

The Newshoggers: There have been reports that U.S. forces have used members of the MeK terrorist group as translators, interrogators and even acted on intelligence provided by the MeK in arresting Iranian suspects. What is the relationship between MNF-I and the MeK ?

Answer: The MeK are currently in a protected status. Beyond that, I have not heard the reports that you are citing so I would not be able to comment on those.

The Newshoggers: Finally, Colonel - you were attacked and stabbed in South Korea. Has that experience changed your outlook on life in personal ways and has it given you a particular insight into the effects of incidents like the recent allegations of Blackwater security forces' being overzealous?

Answer: I was attacked and stabbed in S. Korea. However, it was I believe due to my being the spokesperson for Eighth US Army during the trial and the aftermath of the trial of two Soldiers accused of manslaughter when they accidentally crushed two girls during a convoy with a armored tracked vehicle.

I never held any contempt or changed my views of the Korean people due to three of its citizens doing something stupid. People do stupid things and people do illegal activities, but it should not be the norm to equate the actions of a few to the whole. I understand human nature is to do that, but we need to be better than the norm.

I do not know the specifics of what happened with the case of the recent Blackwater events, but I do know and have seen what the private security contractors do and they do in fact risk their lives. By having them here and the vast majority doing their jobs well without problems, allows Soldiers to do other jobs that are important out in the communities and in many cases, conducting combat roles that would otherwise be relegated to providing for the security of others. If that were to happen, we would not be near where we are now in the forward progress.

That's all. And again, Colonel Boylan, thank you for your time and attention to this interview.

Update I just received a second mail from Col. Boylan in which he apologises for missing a couple of responses. Here they are, in full and unedited:

Newshoggers: Colonel, you wrote recently in comments at Newshoggers
blog that ""Sadr is only one element of the issue. If he has in fact regained control of his militia, then all the better, but the numbers of events based soley on his militia was not the prime killer or reasons for the levels of attacks." Yet we are being told by the administration and by the White House military press officers dispatched to Iraq over the last year that Sadr's JAM are the major group "in league" with Iran. What you write suggests, then, that Iran is not a major motivator of attacks either. Would you agree that's the case? If Iran is meddling, but not in conjunction with Sadr but rather SCIRI and Dawa, then what does it say, that our allies in the Iraqi government are in league with Iran and attacking our forces?

Answer: We hope that he has regained control of the various elements of his organization. We are in the wait and see mode at this point. The issue of the special groups that have broken away from his organization are the ones that are receiving assistance of what we talk about from Iran. Just as you cannot generalize about Iraq, you cannot just point to one group. It depends upon where in Iraq you are and what operation you are conducting in a great degree of which enemy or group we are facing. In Anbar is was and still is to some degree (again, depending on where) Al Qaeda. In Baghdad, it will depend on what area/neighborhood you are operating in. In the northern areas, there is AQI and some other elements. We feel that AQI is in fact, the near term larger threat since they can and try to incite the sectarian violence more than anyone else since they conduct the more spectacular attacks. The special groups are more focused on US or Coalition forces by using the indirect fire, the EFPs, 240 mm rockets, and other advance weapons.

Newshoggers: Some independent experts have said that the U.S. military's claim that Iran is providing EFP's to Iraqi militias is entirely based on an assessment - that Iraqis cannot make EFP's themselves - that isn't warranted by the evidence. How does the United States military maintain its credibility in information operations when it has a public information warfare/public disinformation office --- notably the evolving EFP claims?

Answer: The EFPs come from Iran. We interdicted shipments of them from Iran, we have records that have been captured in targeted raids that inform us that they are from Iran, and we have taped interviews from those that have been captured as well. They have said that they could not do what they are doing without the help and assistance from Iran. We have physical evidence that we have shown over and over again to the media in Baghdad on how we know these weapons come from Iran. Now, Iran has pledged to the Iraqi government to stop the flow of arms into Iraq. We hope that they honor that pledge and we are looking for that to happen so now we have to wait to see if in fact that will happen.

Postscript We're going to link here for any analysis posts we do. I've a first one up on what Col. Boylan has to say about the "EFP's from Iran" issue.

Shamanic explores the hazy idea of "The War on Terror" here.

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