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U.S. 'Winning' Unpopular War in Iraq, but 'Losing' Popular War in Afghanistan

Interviewee: Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 8, 2008

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Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on military affairs in the Middle East, says that "substantial progress" has been achieved in the last eighteen months in Iraq. There are enough political questions remaining, however, to leave the future open to question. He says none of the comments on Iraq from the campaigns of Sen. Barack Obama (D_IL) or Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) can be taken seriously because the two candidates are operating in a "theatre of the absurd." Ironically, he notes that even as the security situation has improved in Iraq, it has worsened in Afghanistan.

As the United States heads toward its presidential election, both sides are talking about Iraq. What is your evaluation of the situation there now?

We have largely been able to defeat the activities of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the insurgent groups that supported it. It is important to note, however, that there is a still significant residual level of violence because it is almost impossible to stop suicide bombings, car bombings, and the occasional use of improvised explosive devices [IEDs]. There are still al-Qaeda support areas in the north around Mosul and in Diyala Province. This is not a force that is defeated as much as suppressed and sharply reduced.

The second threat that most people saw at least at the beginning of the surge was the faction led by Muqtada al-Sadr and his  Mahdi militia. The result of the fighting in Basra, the operations in Baghdad and in Sadr City, and Sadr's choice, really, to concentrate on political options, has meant that the Mahdi militia is far weaker than it has been. But it hasn’t turned its weapons over. The cadres are still there. Even though Sadr has claimed and probably has actively sought to create a political movement, the fact is that over the last two weeks, very large numbers of the Mahdi militia's leaders and members have taken a blood oath to continue the fighting and to continue to be part of an armed resistance.

Can you see a military victory? And has this translated into political progress?

When we look at this, we don't see victory. What we see is very substantial progress. But that progress has by itself created a climate in which Iraqi leaders and factions feel much more secure about advancing their own cause and simultaneously look around and see other factions as rivals who may gain power if they don’t act. So there is now tension in the north between Kurd and Arab and Turkmen. It extends not simply around Kirkuk. It goes all along the dividing line between Kurd and Arab and Turkmen and other minorities. And it has still to play out.

Almost all of the key political decisions that could affect whether there is violence or not—local elections, some decision on federation—simply have not been taken. If we look at what has happened with the Sons of Iraq—these are largely Sunni, but there are significant mixed elements—the Iraq government in theory is going to take responsibility for them on October 1, starting  in Baghdad and then gradually absorbing the entire force. But in fact almost none of the people who were supposed to transfer to the Iraqi Security Forces [ISF] actually have. Reports that twenty thousand Iraqis had done so turn out to be much closer to somewhere between three thousand and five thousand. There is still very deep tension in Baghdad between Sunni and Shiite. There is still distrust of the Iraqi army, the Iraqi police, and the Iraqi government in Sunni areas. Anbar Province [largely Sunni] was transferred to the Iraqi government last week. Its security is very, very uncertain because at least as yet the Iraqi government has not demonstrated that it will recognize local Sunni leaders, give tribal leaders status, or in very simple terms, move money into Anbar. Iraqis in general are far more interested in seeing resources, money, and jobs than the sort of paraphernalia of democracy.

If we look down to the south, we see less of a threat than most people expected from the Mahdi militia. What I said earlier is that you still have groups, some supported by Iran, which are there as a threat. More than that, you are watching the Shiite coalition basically dissolve. You have the Sadrists as the sort of populist force in the south; you have Dawa, the prime minister's party; you have the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which used to be the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq [SCIRI], in an open power struggle with a whole group of smaller parties. And none of these have ever taken part in a real national election where one had the ability to choose local candidates or local representation. This means that everybody basically, whether Sunni or Shiite, outside the Kurdish areas, has no idea of how much of a popular following they have, or what kind of power they are gong to have after local elections, particularly if they are fair and open.

Do you think the local elections will ever be held? There are supposed to be held this fall, aren't they?

We have to remember that Iraqi time is not going to be the kind of time that operates to meet fixed neat schedules, nor is it desirable. Perhaps one of the worst ideas we ever had, largely under pressure from the U.S. Congress, was not to set broad benchmarks or goals but to set fixed deadlines and have a very long list of specific political actions, many of which made no sense whatsoever, no matter how well-intentioned they may have been, and then judge the Iraqis by the result.

We don't know whether the elections will be held, when they will be held, and above all whether they will be fair enough to produce stability and security. In these cases where nation-building occurs in a climate of violence, elections, a vast majority of time, do not bring security, do not bring pluralism. All they do is to serve as a catalyst for a power struggle. We then go back to the famous model of "one man, one vote, one time."

Let's come back to the political debate here. You have been very consistent in saying that the United States should stay long enough so that when it does leave it is leaving a stable Iraq behind. What are your views now? There has been considerable political activity; the Iraqis seem to want a deadline of 2011 for the U.S. withdrawal. The candidates say different things. What do you make of all this?

We need to be extraordinarily cautious. First, I don't see how anybody who is not directly involved in these presidential campaigns can treat them with anything other than contempt. You have two very good candidates trapped in a theatre of the absurd where they have to constantly posture and attack each other politically and issue sound bites as if they were plans and policies. Any adult who can take that seriously is either mentally defective or emotionally disturbed. And this is particularly true in the case of Iraq. I would hope that everyone realizes that whoever becomes president next January is going to have to start coping with reality rather than slogans. None of us knows what is going to take place in the course of the next year.

But hasn't there been signficiant progress?

We have seen real progress, but the fact is that more and more the Iraqi government and Iraqi politics are taking over. It isn’t a matter of who the president is, it's to what extent does Iraq's political dynamics allow it to actually work with the United States in ways where we can make an orderly transition to effective Iraqi Security Forces, and we can hand over the aid process in ways that we are confident that the Iraq government is actually moving the money into the provinces and to the people in ways that do not create new ethnic and sectarian tensions. Whether that can produce total U.S. withdrawals by the end of 2011 or not is obviously, at this point, almost completely speculative.

But U.S  troop levels are only part of this issue. Security has to depend on real political accommodation. Iraq must have sustained economic development with jobs and economic security. There has to be enough progress in terms of local elections and local government so people can see government services, and something approaching the rule of law in their neighborhood, one in which they are confident they are not going to be persecuted because of their ethnic or religious background. To what extent has any U.S. presidential candidate addressed these complications? The answer is none. Has there been a credible statement from any adviser to a campaign that any adult can take seriously? The answer has to be none as well.

McCain talked last night of the United States being on the "cusp" of victory.

I'm not going to parse any candidate's words. Again, let me say you have two very good men, one with more military experience than the other, thrust into the political equivalent of the theatre of the absurd.

You are not affiliated with either candidate?

No.

What about the story of a U.S. brigade being pulled out of Iraq next year and the equivalent sent to Afghnistan?

Probably if plans go ahead, there will be a significantly larger presence added to Afghanistan. The fact is that we are winning the war that is unpopular in Iraq, and we are losing the war that is popular in Afghanistan. We simply can't wait for the next president to try to respond to what's happening in Afghanistan. We are almost going to have to have a winter campaign simply because the Taliban has built up its capabilities, particulary in eastern Afghanistan, in the course of this year.

You think that will be a continuing trend that as forces are reduced in Iraq, there will be increases in Afghanistan?

We need three or four more brigades inside of Afghanistan. It is going to take three or four years to build up anything approaching a convincing Afghanistan army and police force, much less a government presence. These are not matters of debate. There is no one working these issues who sees the threats and military requirements in any other terms.

Are we at this point losing the war in Afghanistan? The answer is clearly yes. There is no real debate about it.

This is really frustrating, isn't it?

One of the problems we have as Americans is that we are somehow terribly disappointed that we can't change whole cultures and peoples to become copies of us in a few years. Wars take a long time. Political change takes a long time. We may not like history, but history takes time and if we are going to have any success in Iraq or Afghnaistan, this phrase "long war" that has been used by Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs [Michael] Mullen is one that we are going to have to start taking very seriously and presidents and Congress have to take very seriously. You cannot be a superpower and act like a third grader who threatens to leave a baseball game and take his baseball home if the other people won't play his way.

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