“The Future of Iraq and Afghanistan”

A Conversation with Meghan O’Sullivan

Photo by Brandon Semel | The Chronicle Meghan O’Sullivan, former deputy national security adviser, speaks about Iraq and Afghanistan in the Sanford School of Public Policy Thursday night.

Photo by Brandon Semel | The Chronicle
Meghan O’Sullivan, former deputy national security adviser, speaks about Iraq and Afghanistan in the Sanford School of Public Policy Thursday night.

Former deputy urges new war strategy

By Maggie Love | Friday, October 30 2009

Some of the hardest battles of Operation Iraqi Freedom were fought in Washington, D.C., Meghan O’Sullivan noted in her speech at the Sanford School of Public Policy Thursday night.

“I’m sitting in my little tin foil trailer getting shelled saying, ‘Thank God I’m not in Washington,’” the former deputy national security adviser on Iraq and Afghanistan said during her speech titled “The Future of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The quote was made in reference to the high pressure politicians and policymakers in Washington, D.C. faced during the period of increased violence that followed the institution of the surge in Iraq. The Harvard University professor of international affairs drew on her experiences both working on the frontlines in Iraq and conducting a strategic policy review of the conflict to explain the policymaking process and extend the lessons learned from Iraq to the current battles in Afghanistan.

The lecture, part of Duke’s American Grand Strategy Program series, was widely attended by undergraduates in Peter Feaver’s PolSci 93D: International Relations. As part of the National Security Council, Feaver, Alexander F. Hehmeyer professor of political science, helped conduct the 2006 policy review with O’Sullivan. Graduate students, former foreign policy workers and citizens of Durham were also present.

O’Sullivan explained that members of the 2006 review assessed politicians’ assumptions about the conflict in Iraq and then attempted to revise the viewpoints to be in line with the political realities. She credited Feaver with helping bring about the decision to take this approach.

O’Sullivan noted that many believed when the review was conducted that political advances in Iraq would lead to sectarian gains. But the review demonstrated that below a certain level of security, people were unable to focus their energy on their political future. While trying to form the al-Maliki government in the spring of 2006, O’Sullivan and her colleagues wanted to discuss Iraq’s political future, but they could not get residents to stay on this topic for long.

“Every time we would get to a political issue, we would be interrupted—someone would run in, someone had been assassinated, there had been a bomb that had gone off,” she said. “There was always something in the security environment that would derail the political conversation.”

Another false perception in 2006 was that resistance to foreign occupation was the main security problem in Iraq. The review board affirmed, however, that by 2006, the biggest issue was a sectarian war.

The final assumption O’Sullivan discussed was the idea that because it was their country, Iraqis would be able to institute new policies better than Americans. O’Sullivan said that because many Iraqi forces were involved in the sectarian violence, it was difficult for them to maintain the stability of their own country. The committee concluded that there was a need for a third, neutral force in Iraq.

“In giving [the Iraqis] responsibility, we were fueling the problem as well,” O’Sullivan said.

The 2006 policy review of Iraq culminated in the surge strategy. O’Sullivan added that many questioned the decision to implement the surge. An audience member asked O’Sullivan how she can be sure that the surge was the best choice given that it is impossible to know how effective other options would have been. O’Sullivan responded that she does not necessarily think a surge should be implemented in Afghanistan, but the practice of analyzing and reshaping assumptions should be upheld.

Applying lessons learned from Iraq to Afghanistan, O’Sullivan said the U.S. should consider strategy above resources and then revise strategy according to the resources available, rather than allowing resources to shape strategy. She also stressed patience.

It is important for Duke students to participate in discussions surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan, O’Sullivan said, because professors such as herself and Feaver who have foreign policy experience “can help share what [they] learned in that environment with [students] at this stage in their development [to] hopefully make them more successful and more effective in their careers.”

As for sophomore Philippe Clary, a public policy major, O’Sullivan sold him on her approach.

“Ultimately, her explanations of why the surge was necessary, how it worked and the results of the surge made me more in favor of the surge,” Clary said.

View the original article by The Duke Chronicle here.