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Cordesman: After Three Years of War, Results are Disastrous

Interviewee: Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 22, 2006

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Anthony H. Cordesman, a leading Middle East and intelligence expert, in a pessimistic three-year review of the U.S. effort in Iraq, finds the situation extremely unsettling. "If we look back on why went to war, and what our objectives are, a number of things are painfully obvious," says Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington. "We did not really prepare to liberate Iraq. Essentially we sent in a bull to liberate a china shop. As a result, the legacy in many ways is very destructive. Security for the average Iraqi is now worse than it was under Saddam Hussein, who focused really on political dissidents. The living standards of the average Iraqi are far worse. There's far more unemployment. The distribution of income is terrible. And though you can make a paper case that some macroeconomic measures have improved, in the real world, Iraqis are worse off, on average, as individuals, than they were before we invaded."

Cordesman called for more candor from the Bush administration. "I think that Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad has done an outstanding job of trying to bring the Iraqis together into an inclusive government. That may well fail. There is a very serious risk of intense civil war." Cordesman says it is important to have an inclusive Iraqi government that can remove popular support for the Sunni insurgents. He added: "The only way that can happen is if the Iraqis can come together. And what we are doing, I think, represents the limits of American influence."

It's been three years since the Iraq war started. What are your general impressions of the U.S. war effort?

Well, let me preface what I'm going to say by saying that I think we have many elements of a strategy that I think may work in Iraq. But if we look back on why we went to war, and what our objectives are, a number of things are painfully obvious. We didn't need to go to war for the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Effectively, the problem had been solved before we invaded. We did not really prepare to liberate Iraq. Essentially, we sent in a bull to liberate a china shop. As a result, the legacy in many ways is very destructive. Security for the average Iraqi is now worse than it was under Saddam Hussein, who focused really on political dissidents. The living standards of the average Iraqi are far worse. There's far more unemployment. The distribution of income is terrible. And though you can make a paper case that some macroeconomic measures have improved, in the real world, Iraqis are worse off, on average, as individuals, than they were before we invaded.

We didn't bring added security to the oil sector. We have less oil exports now than when we invaded. And what were projected to be major increases in Iraqi production not only haven't occurred, but can't occur for several years. We certainly haven't made Iraq an example that will transform the Middle East. Whatever happens, it's going to be at best a better Iraq, not one that influences the nations around it. We found that there was no real terrorist linkage between the Iraqi regime and the extremists we're fighting. We now have an insurgency that is dominated by three neo-Salafist extremist groups, of which the most visible is [Abu Musab al Zarqawi's] al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, but we've created a major new threat. We didn't bring regional stability. We've created far more problems with Turkey. We've given Iran a potential option in Iraq [to interfere], and considerable leverage. We have major problems in terms of Arab attitudes toward the United States as a result of the invasion—and that includes the peoples in virtually all of the Gulf states who allow us to base and support forces.

So as we look down that list, it's not one that's terribly reassuring in terms of how well we planned for war, or how well we executed the aftermath of the war. When we look at the fact that we're now virtually running out of some $22 billion in aid money, and we've virtually spent Iraq's inheritance in terms of oil-for-food money, there's an awful lot of investment in dollars as well as blood that probably could have been avoided with better planning and with real foresight into the fact that getting rid of Saddam was only the first stage in giving this war meaning.

What do you think the United States should do now? The president, as you know, is going around the country saying victory is possible, and we should hang in there, and even suggesting in his press conference yesterday that we should hang in there beyond his term in office. Do you call for an early withdrawal? Or do you think we have to stay there now?

Well, first, I think one thing we have to remember is that anybody, from the outside, can suggest all sorts of brilliant innovative strategies. But the fact is the strategy that we have is the strategy that we have to make work. We can't, at this point, go back and reinvent the war, avoid the invasion, or produce new kinds of new or innovative ideas. I think that when the president yesterday, for the first time, said what U.S. military commanders and advisers have been saying in Iraq, really since early 2005, it was the first step toward the kind of realism that might convince Americans we have a strategy that might work. I think that Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad has done an outstanding job of trying to bring the Iraqis together into an inclusive government. That may well fail. There is a very serious risk of intense civil war.

But the most important aspect is to have an inclusive Iraqi government, one that can remove the popular support for the Sunni insurgents. The only way that can happen is if the Iraqis can come together. And what we are doing, I think, frankly represents the limits of American influence. If we look at the development of Iraqi security forces, the president simply stated the obvious yesterday. It's something that, frankly, the advisory teams have been making clear for a long time. If you look at Iraqi forces, then yes, it's important. We have seen Iraqi army forces and some ministry of interior units really begin to play a very serious role. If this keeps up, if the country remains unified politically, they can easily displace a lot of the U.S. forces over time, allow U.S. reduction, remove the kind of political stress we have of having U.S. forces confronting Iraqis.

But again, we need to be much more honest with what we're doing. First, we're issuing numbers about the amount of space the Iraqi forces occupy, which I think everybody understands in the real world are little more than rubbish. We're not talking to the American people honestly about the problems with the Ministry of the Interior forces, and particularly the police. We talk about 240,000 or more trained and equipped Iraqi forces, but half of them are in the Ministry of Interior. They present serious problems in terms of quality, and they become associated, in some cases, with death squads and Shiite causes. We've exaggerated how quickly the Iraqi forces are coming on line in the army. There's progress there, but very large numbers of those units are not really units with significant capability. They depend on U.S. air power, mobility, support, armor, and artillery, and they will [continue to depend on that support] well into 2007 or 2008 at the earliest. There's going to be a painful problem, later this year at some point, when the Congress has to be asked for the money to give Iraqi forces what they need by way of equipment to be truly independent.

What's the most bothersome aspect of the situation?

The most disturbing element, and the warning to everyone in the foreign relations community, is the amount of nonsense that's being issued about what is happening economically. The truth is there's massive unemployment. Most of Iraqis' new businesses are hollow shells, or simply ideas. You've got anywhere from 30 [percent] to 60 percent unemployment in Iraq, in terms of real unemployment. It's particularly bad in terms of the Sunni areas. We haven't a clear plan to deal with oil or infrastructure. And we certainly have no plan to help the Iraqis with agricultural reform, or restructuring their state industries. This is a major issue. It really, I think, in some ways reflects the fact that we didn't have the capability to do this job in the first place. We don't have people who know how do deal with a command economy—particularly a command kleptocracy. We don't know how to reform a country at this level. Rather than giving Iraqis responsibility, we've gone through one set of American ideas after another, none of which fits Iraqis.

Again, let me point out, however, there's a note of hope here. Ambassador Khalilzad and people in Iraq are pushing hard to have the Iraqis take this over, giving them responsibility, getting the problems with U.S. contractors, USAID, and defense contracting out of the loop, to some extent. The problem is, most of the money has been spent, and it's unclear whether Congress is going to vote that much more.

Let me just ask a kind of personal question. You and I have been having these kinds of personal interviews since the war started. I detect now much more pessimism in this interview than I have in past ones. Did you have a kind of awakening, or is this a gradual development?

Well, first of all, I think a lot of it depends on the questions. Almost everything I've just said, I've said repeatedly. If you went back to the period before the war, I put out a paper called "Planning for a Self-Inflicted Wound", and I listed about twenty-five areas, including virtually all of the ones I've just listed. We've put out study after study on the problems in the aid effort. If you look at the reports we've put out on Iraqi forces, we've highlighted the problems in the police and security forces since the studies we put out in 2004.

My impression is that you had a little bit more hope about the Iraqi forces a year ago.

I think, when you look back a year, what we really have seen, and this perhaps is something that was hard to predict a year ago, people rushed forward a political process on the constitution and the elections without really addressing what was going to happen in terms of sectarian divisions. I think this is a broad warning. We keep talking about democracy. Well I think Athens, in its history as a pure democracy, had about thirty good years and about two hundred really bad ones. To have effective democracies, you have to have effective political parties. You have to have the economic and social conditions that bring stability. You have to make them inclusive rather than divide along sectarian, ideological, or ethnic lines. We have, I'm afraid, pushed for elections rather than effective governance. That, I don't think, was predictable. It certainly wasn't predictable that we would go on year after year mismanaging the aid process, wasting vast amounts of money and continuing to make claims about effectiveness that are little more than macroeconomic nonsense. I think this, in some ways, made the police and the other problems in Iraqi forces far worse than they should have been, and gave the insurgency more leverage. One issue you really have to look at in this war is there's now a great deal of focus on the mistakes we made in planning what we did, and in the immediate aftermath in the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority]. What we should have been able to avoid are the mistakes we continued to make in 2004 and 2005.

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