"What I'm optimistic about is that the elections have taken place, and Iraqi leaders have emerged who are inclusive, who believe in the country, and who are willing to compromise," says Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington. "Iraqi security forces are becoming stronger and more effective and there is a process here which can work. But if you ask me if the odds are strongly in favor of success, I'd have to say no. Are they strongly in favor of failure? The answer has to be no as well.
"Even when we have all the election results, we have no way to predict how the process of forming the government [will go]; and then having the new government deal with the issues Iraq faces is going to come out," he says.
Cordesman was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on December 15, 2005.
What's the significance of the vote that has just occurred in Iraq?
One key point to make is that we don't know and we're not going to know the actual results probably for a week or two. But one key factor of some significance is that most of the Iraqi people in public opinion polls favored the election and most believed it really can help in terms of shaping the future of the country. In the places where you can poll—which exclude the worst areas of the insurgency—there is support for a united country and for the creation of a new government. That is the positive side.
The great uncertainty is that most Iraqis are voting ethnically or by sect or for vaguely defined goals of nationalism. None of the people are voting for candidates they know, or who have a proven track record. On the day the results are final, all of the various factions that have run in this election will have to form a government and make the nation work. Even when we have all the election results, we have no way to predict how the process of forming the government [will go]; and then having the new government deal with the issues Iraq faces is going to come out.
Is that why in your latest paper you called this election "a trigger and not a turning point," meaning this could start a process?
Well, it will start a process. Now a great deal will depend on whether any party gets a majority. But because the Shiites have splintered and the UIA [United Iraqi Alliance], the coalition party for the Shiites, has split, I'd say it's much more likely that you're going to have to form some kind of national unity government. The difficulty is that there is no national unity now. Once that government is formed, you then have a four-month period in which to complete the constitution, and [during] which you can amend it by a simple majority. That is going to force Iraq's political structure to deal with virtually every major issue in some form. Key issues are federation, control of money and revenues, the future of oil, the role of religion in the state, and how the legal code is really going to be interpreted and managed. You can go down the list and look at issues like who controls taxation, how does oil exploration progress, what do human rights really mean, and ask to what extent will you have secular versus Islamic interpretations. Because all of these are not only immediate issues, but issues involved in clarifying the constitution. It's going to be a very demanding period.
So we really won't know for several months what the outcome is going to be, right?
What you have is a reasonable opportunity to work out compromises that will include enough Sunnis to seriously undermine the insurgency, to move the country toward a national government, to reach some kind of solution where federalism protects the Kurds but doesn't divide the country between Arab Sunnis and Shiites.
To reassure people about where the money and the power will go, it is necessary to make it clear to both sides, Sunni and Shiite, that the new military, security, and police forces are going to be used to fight the insurgency. They're not going to be a means through which the Shiites basically attack the Sunnis or get revenge. These things can all happen, and I don't think there is reason to be discouraged, but there certainly is a great deal of opportunity for division, for more civil conflict, for things that could make worse things worse. The difficulty is if you get through six months, if all of this works well and the Iraqi forces come on line, you haven't solved things, you've just created a climate where things are better and there is a process that can go on over a matter of years, which may solve things. Looking for deadlines or making turning points is going to be just as unrealistic six months from now as it is today.
You're talking, I guess, indirectly here about the call for an early U.S. troop withdrawal.
I am not talking indirectly about that, I'm happy to address the issue. I think the real problem is we've ended up with a polarized debate between "better-enders" and the "bugger-outers," and what we really need to consider is, Can we find ways of reducing U.S. troops and then getting them out of the direct day-to-day interface with Iraqis and day-to-day combat? Part of the goal is certainly to reduce casualties and costs, but it also is to have Iraqi forces take over. Iraqi forces are seen as far more legitimate than we are. About 80 percent of Iraqis, at least in the areas you can poll, accept them. The goal here is not to get out. It is to phase down at a rate where the Iraqi forces can take over while there is still a stable structure in which the political evolution is backed by security.
One thing we have to bear in mind is that when we look at today's polls in this debate in the United States—if we were talking about 70,000 Americans at the end of 2006, most of whom aren't in day-to-day combat and with a strong Iraqi force in place, and an Iraqi political process—would any of today's debate really be relevant? On the other hand, if Iraq should devolve into civil war, or the Iraqi forces should fail in the next six months or so, would today's debate in any way reflect the polarization of the Congress and the American people? I think frankly what we have is a badly defined, highly polarized debate between extremes that really doesn't serve our interests or the Iraqi interests, or reflect either the pace of the calendar or the facts on the ground.
Is there any particular government that might evolve that you think has a better chance of putting all the pieces together than any other government? Obviously, you'd want a coalition government that has strong Sunni participation, I suppose.
You want Sunni participation, strong Kurdish participation, a mix of Shiite nationalists and Shiite religious figures. It's not a matter of given parties—it's obvious we'd have more problems with some than others. It's obvious we don't want Shiite leaders who believe in federation or would believe in the use of militias or security forces to repress the Sunnis. We don't want Sunnis who believe in paralyzing the government or the constitutional process. We don't want Kurds who believe in separatism. But the exact balance of who should be in the government, that's something we need to be very, very careful about. There are a lot of emerging leaders, but these are going to be Iraqi choices. Far too often Americans either condemn someone with limited information and experience or find "a new hope" with equally little understanding. Nobody today can really predict which coalition is the right one or be certain which coalition will be the wrong one.
How do you think the insurgency is going to develop now that Sunnis will be in the government?
First, let me just interrupt, there is a great illusion here that because Sunnis went out and voted to try to use the government to counter Shiite and Kurdish power, somehow Sunnis are not going to support the insurgency. You can both vote and hold a rifle. And there have been plenty of past insurgencies where this happened. We just don't know as yet how many of the Sunnis who voted or participated in this process are really committed to a peaceful political process. We don't know how many Shiites at this point are really willing to be inclusive or say they want a Shiite party at the expense of Sunnis, to an extent where no compromise is going to be stable. We need to give this process of forming the government and watching how it behaves some months before we know what we're really looking at. The deputy president of Iraq, Adel Abdul Mahdi, put it quite wisely in a conversation I had with him. He said, "How on earth do you Americans think you understand us and predict what's going to happen when we don't know?"
So all the talk about whether Ayad Allawi [a secular Shiite] would be a good leader is all too premature?
Well, no, I think it's fine to speculate as long as you don't take yourself seriously. These are Iraqi decisions, they're going to be made by Iraqis. Whatever happens, our role is going to be—and I think [U.S.] Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has done a brilliant job already of recognizing this—trying to influence the government as positively as we can. It is to accept the Iraqi decision and do everything possible we can to make it work. There is no way we can choose, there is no way we can alter what is going to go on, aside from influence through the embassy, and that influence is inevitably going to be limited. The Iraqis basically are worried about their future—not the specific quality of their ties to the United States on a given day.
How do you feel yourself? You've been struggling with this war since it started, and your analyses have been very helpful to everybody. Do you feel a bit more optimistic on this election day, with the heavy turnout, or not?
I'm not optimistic because of turnouts. I think turnouts are irrelevant until you find out what people have turned out for—and basically most of them are going to have to vote for an ethnic or sectarian ballot, where they may know the leader but they have very little idea of what he really will do, and they in general know very little about most of the candidates.
What I'm optimistic about is that the elections have taken place, and Iraqi leaders have emerged who are inclusive, who believe in the country, and who are willing to compromise. Iraqi security forces are becoming stronger and more effective and there is a process here that can work. But if you ask me if the odds are strongly in favor of success, I'd have to say no. Are they strongly in favor of failure? The answer has to be no as well.
I think, to paraphrase another military analyst, it's going to be a very close-run thing. And when I say I think the odds are even, it's simply because at this point in time I don't know what the odds are, and I don't think anybody will until the spring of this coming year. By that time, the military and security forces will either really have demonstrated their capability and what the trend is, or they won't, and we'll have a much bigger picture of what the political process really means. Now, Americans are used to voting for known quantities. When an election occurs in the United States, you don't have to ask, Who is the government? What does it really mean? How well will it govern, what is the security situation, and how will it shape the economy? You know all of these things. We can't answer one of those questions today as to the future of Iraq.