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Cordesman: U.S. Making ‘Major’ Security Gains in Iraq but Needs to Stay for Years to Come

Interviewee: Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for International and Strategic Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 20, 2008

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Anthony H. Cordesman, a leading expert on Iraq and Afghanistan security issues, just returned from the region and reports a discouraging situation in Afghanistan. He also saw military gains in Iraq, however, and says that in both countries patience will be needed to achieve stability. Officials in Iraq “freely admit that it’s going to take us five or six years or more to meet these goals,” he says. “It doesn’t mean, and I have to stress this, that we have to do what we’re doing now indefinitely into the future. But it does mean that we need effective, long-term plans and patience. It’s just an honest understanding that history takes time.”

You’ve just returned from a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan where you met with military and civilian leaders. Can you sum up your impressions? Can you start with Afghanistan?

I think you see two very different wars. Inside Afghanistan, the tactical situation is still one where NATO can win every clash. But you see an expanding Taliban influence on the ground where the Taliban dominate or have a major political or economic impact. The situation in the south is extremely troublesome. There have simply not been enough forces present in the south to really win and hold, to provide for any type of development or governance except for some limited or select areas.

What about in Iraq?

The tactical situation in Iraq is really very different. You’ll see that Al-Qaeda has been pushed out of Baghdad, out of areas in Anbar Province. Its influence in Diyallah Province has been greatly limited. It’s been concentrating in the Ninevah and Mosul areas but it has done so at the price of taking steadily greater losses. This doesn’t mean an end to violence. U.S. commanders use the term of seeking an “irreducible minimum” of violence until you can get better governance or economics. That means in effect you’re having serious security problems in Afghanistan, which is really an Afghan-Pakistan war, and major security gains in Iraq.

If you look at Afghanistan , NATO’s under-strength force is further weakened by having four key countries, Germany , France , Italy and Spain , refusing to send troops into harm’s way. There is almost no real coordination to the aid effort; it is far too small in terms of supporting governments.

Is there a similarity?

The wars are very similar in that you do not have effective central governance in either country that are able to provide services, to provide effective government security forces as of yet. You have very serious development problems and employment problems. Once again, this situation is significantly better in Iraq. In Iraq, weakness of the central government is, to some extent, overcome, or limited by negotiations, which go around the prime minister, between key factions at the center. The build up of provincial and local governments could, at some point this year, be followed up not only by much stronger provincial powers but provincial elections which could serve as a counterbalance to the weakness of the central government. That has helped and it has been affected by the strengthening of the PRTs, the provincial reconstruction teams, the expansion of the PRTs, and the role of the U.S. military. It is much stronger in the center part of the country than it is in the south, but there is real progress.

If you look at Afghanistan, NATO’s under-strength force is further weakened by having four key countries, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, refusing to send troops into harm’s way. There is almost no real coordination to the aid effort; it is far too small in terms of supporting governments. The efforts to build up local and provincial governments have had very, very mixed impact and are far more limited even though they began significantly earlier than in the case of Iraq.

In terms of aid, I think that one of the tragedies is what happened in Iraq—the inspector general of Iraqi reconstruction is correct. We’ve wasted a vast amount of some $37 billion in U.S. and Iraqi money. We do not have clear or credible plans for Iraq to absorb projects we did complete. The Iraq government is not ready to spend its own money effectively, or in some cases at all. But there is a lot more money and it is at least somewhat easier to deal with than the problems in Afghanistan.

Can you elaborate on Afghanistan?

In Afghanistan, there is no central or real coordination of effective planning. This has created a host of small, ineffective programs, which do some good but don’t solve the problem of bringing services, of bringing stability, or of meeting people’s expectations. They have been compounded by U.S. under-funding of the country team’s request, by congressional problems and barriers to effective spending. You’re dealing with near term aid in Afghanistan, which is a far less developed country than Iraq. At this point in time, another difficulty we have in both countries is that there’s no real U.S. plan for the future.

We’ve wasted a vast amount of some $37 billion in U.S. and Iraqi [reconstruction] money. We do not have clear or credible plans for Iraq to absorb projects we did complete. The Iraq government is not ready to spend its own money, effectively, or in some cases at all.

How would you define victory in Iraq?

It is to have a reasonably friendly, stable, secure state that does not operate through repression and with some elements of pluralism. But if we talk about Iraq or Afghanistan you cannot assume that either country will remotely resemble a Western European or American society within the foreseeable future.  As one aid worker put it: “You’re not going to get democracy, but you may get Iraqocracy.” That’s what we really have to define as “victory.” And ultimately, we need to also recognize that when you have societies capable of making their own choices, they are not going to be our choices in many ways, whether it is in the matter of how their government works, their security works, or how their civil society functions. This is something we are not only going to have to accept in Iraq and in Afghanistan, but frankly we’re going to have to accept around the world. The illusion that was once the sort of neo-liberal illusion in Vietnam, or the illusion of some neo-conservatives in going into war in Iraq and Afghanistan, that this is something that you can really change, suddenly and radically, to make other countries into the equivalent of clones. That is an illusion we can’t afford.

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