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Cordesman: Civil War Can Break Out Anytime In Iraq

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington
September 5, 2006

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Anthony H. Cordesman, a leading analyst of the Iraq war, says the next two years may be decisive in finding out whether a civil war breaks out in that country, which would necessitate a U.S. pullout, or whether the country can pull itself together.

Commenting on the latest Pentagon report to Congress on Iraq, Cordesman says “the reality is that if this is going to fall apart it’s likely to fall apart in the next two years. There will either be progress toward a political compromise and far better security forces at the end of the next two years, or essentially there will be very little reason to stay the course because the situation will have deteriorated so much.” Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

When the Pentagon issued its last report to Congress on the situation in Iraq, you were extremely critical, giving it a grade of “F.” What do you think of the latest report (PDF), which came out last Friday, on the eve of the Labor Day weekend?

I think, first, it is always awkward when you claim to be indicating the truth and then you deliberately delay the release of the report several days so it will occur just before a major holiday in the hope of reducing the kind of critical attention it is going to get. I think this illustrates one of the great problems we face. And that is: Are we really trying to analyze and debate our policies in Iraq on some kind of honest and objective basis? Are we going to have an administration that makes its case in detailed and honest terms or are we going to end up with an increasingly more partisan debate in which both sides tend to ignore the facts and simply take more and more extreme positions?

This report frankly makes some improvements, particularly in describing the seriousness, not so much of the insurgency, but the drift toward civil war. But like its predecessor you have to virtually ignore the executive summary. You have to get into the details and it requires a great deal of expertise to figure out what’s really going on.

So an average person, picking up the report, who reads the executive summary, would not get the essence of it?

The executive summary essentially is a Panglossian [baseless optimistic] statement that virtually everything is not necessarily all right, but far better than the rest of the report says. And there are many places in the report which gloss over real problems that are disclosed later in the text. It is not something that is transparent, and it is particularly weak in some critical areas like explaining the problems in the political process in Iraq. There are no improvements in the economic data, no discussion of the aid program and problems. Frankly, when it comes down to one of the three dimensions of the president’s strategy, which is the economic dimension, this is the kind of analysis that probably would get the average freshman in an international relations course, an “F” for failure. It simply doesn’t come close to providing meaningful figures. It isn’t a matter of whether it is right or wrong, it is simply analytical rubbish.

Do you think this is written purely for political reasons?

It is very hard to tell. The level of incompetence is so great in the economic section that you have the feeling that the people simply don’t know what they’re doing and are pulling figures that they don’t understand from outside sources. There’s a very heavy degree of politicization in the other parts of the analysis, but it at least has some purpose and some content that the reader can use.

Of the questions most acute here right now, one is, “How close are the Iraqis to civil war?” What does the report say on that?

What the report says is that you have a steady increase in the level of sectarian and ethnic violence. It does not downplay just how serious this is. It makes the valid point that this is not yet a major civil war, but that this is possible. It focuses to at least a reasonable degree on the problems with the militias. It looks at the tensions between Shiite and Sunni and Kurd and Arab with a great deal more realism than in the past. It understands that the issue is not terrorism and it is not insurgency, but it is whether Iraq holds together. If you look at the reporting, which covers what is called “the recent developments in the security environment,” some of the data are, to put it mildly, badly portrayed or suspect, but some are very useful and get into a level of detail which no amount of press reporting or outside reporting really reflects.

Such as?

If you look, there is a reasonable set of statistics on the increase in sectarian violence, both in terms of the number of incidents and casualties. If you look throughout the report, you can see fairly clearly which areas which are most troubled. There is a tendency to repeat something said in previous reports that the problems only exist in four provinces, with 37 percent of the population. Although that is repeated, other parts of the report make it clear there are serious problems in Mosul, in Basra, in Kirkuk, that stability is really a problem in fourteen of the eighteen provinces, and not in four. But you have to read between the lines.

Right now, of course, we are about to enter into the political season for congressional elections in November. All the polling shows that the people want change and that they are unhappy with the way the Iraq war is going. Is there anything in the situation in Iraq that would lend itself to dramatic change regardless of who wins the election?

The reality is that the only dramatic change is going to come if you have a civil war, a collapse of the political process in Iraq. That would be very dramatic. It would also mean that our current program and strategy would become totally ineffective. For obvious reasons, the administration has never announced “Plan B,” which is what it would do under these conditions, although in a speech to the American Legion, President Bush for the first time stated that U.S. support was contingent on continued Iraqi efforts to create a new national political compromise and establish effective governance. He didn’t say what would happen if Iraq failed, but he did make it clear that there wasn’t an open-ended commitment to staying the course. I think what is really important about one aspect of this report is that it does outline in considerable detail what the United States strategy is, and it does it in terms of politics, economics, and security.

Some sections are much better than others. The section on Iraqi security forces has far more depth and content than the sections dealing with economics and politics. There is no economic plan. Basically, U.S activity will fall off a cliff sometime this fall when further aid money runs out. There is no indication of what the United States is going to do and while the report for the first time flags just how serious unemployment and other problems are in Iraq, it also talks about macroeconomic data which imply everything’s all right. The political section, which outlines what the strategy is, is probably the only strategy we can pursue at this point.

Which is?

Essentially, it is to work with the Iraqi government to try to create a political compromise that will bring the Sunnis into a structure of government with the Kurds and Shiites that will preserve at least most elements of national unity. There is no mention what would happen in terms of federalism, and one of the weaknesses of the report is that it doesn’t discuss any aspect of what is an increasing Kurdish tilt toward federalism and separatism, which is having a major impact on the Shiites and is certainly stimulating the Sunnis.

It was reported in the press accounts of this report that people took into account that this report covered July where the number of killings was very, very high, but that in August there seemed to have been a drop off. 

That was something flagged by the people presenting the report. The truth of the matter is that a number of the graphs go into mid-August. And they don’t get better. What people were discussing was the situation in Baghdad, where we’ve concentrated very large numbers of U.S. troops—at the cost of abandoning a lot of our operations in the western provinces—in areas of high insurgencies, and where, at least until the last few days, there was a significant drop in activity. However, beginning in September, you suddenly saw a new rise in violence. Putting massive numbers of troops into Baghdad of course had an impact on the Baghdad area. Those troops did not, however, really deal with the Sadr militia, they didn’t disarm the militias, they didn’t really address many of the sectarian divisions. They simply established a little control and it helped for a while.

If you look at the broader, national trends shown in the report, it doesn’t matter if it is August, or September, or July. Things didn’t get better in August on a national basis.

You’ve been commenting on the war in Iraq since it started. Do you yourself feel more gloomy than before? In other words, what is your general feeling about the way the war is going now? Are we on the verge of a complete breakdown now?

I think everyone, including the people who wrote this report, understand you can have a very serious civil war beginning at virtually any time. On the other hand, when you look at what is happening, you do see an Iraqi government that is trying to create a process of reconciliation. For all the serious weaknesses that remain in the Iraqi security forces, there is very real progress. It’s deeply disturbing to see how badly the economic dimension is being treated in this report. Frankly, reports from the field simply reiterate the fact that we don’t have people in United States Agency for International Development, or the Corps of Engineers, or anywhere else in the policy structure who are capable of formulating and implementing an effective strategy or, I should say, an effective plan for implementing the strategy we have. If there is a change here, it is not that the situation is hopeless. Buried in the report is the fact that we are now beginning to talk very clearly about 2010 and beyond, suggesting a major U.S. role that isn’t going to be something that is ended in 2007, or 2008. That doesn’t mean that if things go well you are going to keep anything like the current troop presence. But I think you have on the one hand this constant risk of civil war and on the other hand, you are talking about essentially a long war, about a U.S. commitment that is going to extend probably through the term of the next president, and far beyond the remaining years of the Bush presidency.

Is it likely that a Democrat, if elected president, would “stay the course”?

I think the great problem for a Democratic president will be “where are we?” when he takes office, which after all is a long time from now. The reality is that if this is going to fall apart it’s likely to fall apart in the next two years. There will either be progress toward a political compromise and far better security forces at the end of the next two years, or essentially there will be very little reason to stay the course because the situation will have deteriorated so much. So I think we need to understand that if you look to 2008 or early 2009, whoever the new president is, Iraq will have evolved in one of two directions. Either the current strategy will have worked, or it will have failed so drastically that everyone will agree that a fundamentally different approach is needed and probably one that involves massive U.S. withdrawals from Iraq, efforts to contain it from the outside, and problems throughout the Gulf and the Middle East in trying to reestablish a U.S. policy after what everyone in the region is going to view as a major defeat.

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