Atlanta Journal-Constitution
May 28, 2006
Pg. 4B

Q&A: Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Ambassador To Iraq

Disarray Awaits If U.S. Leaves Iraq Too Soon

By Larry Kaplow

Baghdad, Iraq -- As he approaches the end of his first year as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad says that pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq too soon could destabilize the Gulf region.

When open sectarian fighting broke out in February and other officials were downplaying the dangers, Khalilzad stood out by stating publicly that the country had reached the brink of civil war. In an interview last week with Cox Newspapers, Khalilzad warned that, in the absence of U.S. troops, such fighting could spread across Iraq's borders and engulf a large part of the Middle East.

Khalilzad took up his current post after four years as ambassador to Afghanistan. Known as "Zal" to his friends, he was born in Afghanistan, attended universities in Beirut and Chicago, and became an American citizen in 1984 when he was a professor at Columbia University. A secular Muslim and political conservative, he served as an adviser to President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld before his posting to Afghanistan in 2003.

Khalilzad's office is inside Iraq's Republican Palace in the fortified Green Zone district, equipped with clocks for Washington and Baghdad time zones, a flat-screen television that splits between three channels, and a short, rough wooden stand that holds his helmet and a bulletproof vest. Khalilzad spoke with Cox correspondent Larry Kaplow; here is an edited transcript of their conversation:

Q: Why expect or think that the new Iraqi government will be more successful than other post-Saddam governments?

A: You have a government of national unity that brings the three major communities [Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish] together. So the transformative potential change is that you have now, every community or all communities are bought into the political process where Sunnis, until the last election or at least until they voted for the constitution, had been against the political process. This is the change. Now, how it will affect the situation we'll have to wait and see, but I think strategically Iraq has been put on the right trajectory in terms of the buy-in of all communities into the political process.

Q: What would be the price of [U.S. troops] leaving Iraq too quickly and, if you can, relate that to comments you've made about Iraq being important for the entire Middle East?

A: There is a challenge of staying too long, and there is a challenge of leaving too soon, and if one does leave too soon there are great dangers. Of course, your readers I'm sure differ on the wisdom of whether we should have come in here or not. But whatever one's position is or was on whether one should have come in here, I believe now if we leave prematurely it will have grave consequences for our interests. It will have obviously dramatic consequences and perhaps immediate dramatic consequences for Iraq and for Iraqis. But also for the region and the world.

For Iraq, I believe the sectarian conflict would intensify.

A vacuum would be created and a vacuum is extremely powerful in sucking people in, regional players on opposite sides. And, therefore, the sectarian conflict could spread to become a regional sectarian conflict or ethnic sectarian conflict affecting the security of the entire region for a long time, including the supply of oil to the world.

There is obviously also the danger that terrorists, the [Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi folks, could take over a region of Iraq, such as Anbar, and from there threaten the rest of Iraq and threaten the region and threaten the world. And given Iraq's location and its resources, it would make a Taliban Afghanistan look like child's play, in my judgment, compared to what could happen here.

The American people, I think with these changes that are taking place, should be strategically optimistic; I think there is grounds for that. But they need to be tactically, in the short term, patient. It takes time to do these important and difficult things. Patience is required; that would be my advice.

Q: Could you talk about Iran and Syria? How much are the Iranians infiltrating, meddling, setting up their networks?

A: Those who do not want this region to be transformed are concentrating on how they can make it as hard as possible for this to work with the goal, of course, to make it fail. But if they can't make it fail, if they can't achieve the goal of failure, [they intend] to make it as hard as possible -- to test the patience of the American people.

They're clever about their understanding of the United States, that we're a very impatient people; that we believe in instant results; and [they believe] that if the struggle continues too long, we'll give up.

Q: Your introduction here was difficult -- the constitution talks went on and on. What has surprised you -- been harder or easier than you expected?

A: What is important about Iraq and complicates things here is that the number of tendencies and players and centers of power are rather diffuse; and the numbers are large.

And, two, that there is a lot of disagreement. And there isn't that tradition of compromising.

There is also a tradition of being polite with each other when you are with each other and not dealing frankly and openly with the differences. Yet . . . when push comes to shove, those disagreements assert themselves.

Q: In an interview, you said Americans are worried that the U.S. doesn't know what it's doing here. Do you know now what you're doing here, and has there been a learning curve?

A: I believe that at times we have understated the complications, the difficulties, that there has not always been a good balance between ends and means. Succeeding here will take effort, of recalibrating and adjusting always tactically -- will take effort and time. But withdrawing and going home and abandoning the project, in my judgment, would cause even more complications.

Q: What do you do to stay sane or relax after five years under constant guard?

A: People tell me I should have my head checked for accepting this job -- and I did Afghanistan and now this. What keeps me going is that I genuinely believe this is very important and this is about the future of the world.

I work out. That's the only thing that my time allows.

I'd like to read things. I read books, but I don't have, unfortunately, enough time.

My day sort of starts out at 8, 8:30; if I work out it starts a little later, at 9 or so. Then I'm not back to my residence mostly before 11 or 11:30 or so, and so there isn't a lot of time. After that there are a lot of phone calls to do to Washington with the [eight-hour] time difference, and to attend to some personal e-mails -- to respond to my friends and others occasionally I do have to respond to, so it's a demanding task, a demanding job.

Q: How long will you be here?

A: I serve at the pleasure of the president. Of course, the other option is that I can quit. (He smiles.) Those are the two scenarios. And I still believe I have some things to do here -- you know, completion of the government, steps for reconciliation and unity that we talked about. So there is still a lot of work still to be done.