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Cordesman: Report to Congress on Iraq War Borders on 'Deception'

Interviewee: Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 7, 2006

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Anthony H. Cordesman, a leading military and intelligence analyst of the Iraq war, says that the Defense Department's latest report to Congress on the status of the Iraq war borders on "deception" by painting an overly upbeat picture. He has written that the report is worthy of an "F."

"You cannot have a climate where you lose this much time without seeing the situation deteriorate," says Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "We need to assess these risks, and we need to assess them honestly if we are going to organize the kind of U.S. effort that has the highest possibility of preventing civil conflict" and defeating the insurgency, Cordesman says.

You've been quite critical of the latest quarterly report by the Defense Department to Congress on the situation in Iraq. Why so?

We are seeing a pattern in which we have never had realistic reporting to Congress. But this quarterly report has really failed to address the issues in ways which border on deception.

Can you summarize your criticism?

I think everybody needs to understand we are talking about a sixty-page document. Parts of it deal with the president's strategy, and there is some useful material mixed in with problems that range from sloppy editing to massive omissions and conceptual failures.

But essentially, you can break down its failures into four parts. The first is political. The report argues that there is political success because there have been elections, and the Iraqis have finally been able to agree on a government. It does not address any of the political problems with any realism, it does not talk about the fact that the elections showed that Iraq was polarized along ethnic or sectarian lines, or seriously address the risk of a major civil war.

The second is economic. The report provides an analysis of the economy that does not track with other U.S. estimates. It makes no sense in basic econometric terms, provides a misleading picture of "success" in a country with 20 to 40 percent unemployment, and does not address any of the massive problems in the U.S. aid effort and the U.S. use of Iraqi funds. It essentially talks about an economy in Iraq which does not exist.

The third is analysis of the threat. There are some useful aspects of the analysis, dealing with trends in the insurgency. But the report so badly downplays the growing risk of sectarian and ethnic conflict that it produces a totally misleading picture of the threat, and this is compounded by a use of poll data which it does not explain or validate. It uses cherry-picked polling results, some of which contradict each other in terms of other tables or text.

Finally, there is the analysis of progress in developing Iraqi forces. The report does provide some useful data on Iraqi force development, and there has been progress. But the report exaggerates this progress. It does not provide any picture of the level of continued U.S. support necessary to bring this program to success. Finally, at a time when the militias, the police, and the various protection services have reached a crisis point, and where there is truly a major question of whether Iraq is moving toward civil war, the report dodges around all of the problems and simply does not give either Congress or the American people anything approaching a realistic picture.

You say this whole report gets an overall grade of "F." You and I have had several interviews over the last several years, and I have never heard you so negative about anything the government has done. What has gotten you so upset?

There is a lot of very good government reporting in terms of individual speeches, testimony, and reports, if you look at the statements of the ambassadors and senior U.S. commanders in the field. If you look at some of the reporting that comes out in detail from the commands, there often is a very clear picture of what is happening and a lot of insight, as well as critiques and reservations. But this is supposed to be the summary report to Congress. It is supposed to prepare Congress for what we need to do to implement the president's strategy.

It is not supposed to be an exercise in cheerleading. It is not supposed to be something that simply provides a status report without indicating how well the United States is doing or what it has to do in the future. What we are talking about is not the overall war in Iraq; we are talking about one report. You have referred to the summary comments I have made on it, and that is a perfectly accurate statement of the summary. But I think it is important to note that this is a fifteen-page critique. It is not a critique of our policy in the war. It is a fifteen-page critique, which says this reporting omits critical issues, is incompetent, makes basic errors in definition, and hides the nature of poll data, which is systematically misused. I think if you compare this paper against the critique on a line-by-line basis, the grade "F" is not something given casually.

How would you describe the situation if you were writing a report to Congress?

One thing we need to understand to put this into perspective is we have lost six months. No one who is looking at this situation would have predicted that the election would produce this level of paralysis. The insurgency has been able to attack for half a year while a newly elected government was not present and capable of action. What we have seen so far from Prime Minister Nouri [al-]Maliki is reassuring. President Jalal Talabani and other officials have taken a very constructive role. The U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been very proactive and, in general, his actions have worked well.

But you cannot have a climate where you lose this much time without seeing the situation deteriorate.

This is a situation so fragile that if any kind of civil conflict takes place, what little economy does exist could collapse in many areas. That brings us to the security situation, and even though Iraqi forces are making progress, we need to understand they are not going to replace U.S. forces quickly. At this point in time, they are indefinitely dependent on U.S. airpower, U.S. artillery and armor, backup from U.S. Special Forces, reports from U.S. intelligence, U.S. tactical transportation, and, in some cases, even contract service and logistic support.

They may or may not become substantially less dependent during the course of 2007, but everything depends now on the political situation and Iraqi unity. And probably we are talking [about] a deep American commitment, although perhaps with some small fraction of today's combat forces, well into 2010. That situation, however, is dependent on both the political process succeeding and the other dimension here, which is whether the insurgency can push Iraq into more and more intense civil conflict.

So you're saying the situation is deteriorating in Iraq?

One of the great problems here is that the police and the security services, the militias, crime, local security forces, and action forces all have divided along sectarian and ethnic lines. They are, in general, corrupt, and they lack the kind of leadership and training that is needed. There is nothing convincing to say things are getting better, and it is very possible that the political situation could become paralyzed or divided, and if so, then this deterioration along sectarian and ethic lines, coupled to problems with the police and militias, could confront us with something far worse than exists today. I do not want to be pessimistic about this. I think the fact is, however, we need to assess these risks, and we need to assess them honestly if we are going to organize the kind of U.S. effort that has the highest possibility of preventing civil conflict and that kind of victory for the insurgency.

Is there any progress being made in Iraq?

I think if we break this out into the key components involved, there has been progress in one area: the intelligence effort has been able to target the insurgency better. There have been important strikes against leaders in the insurgency. There have been some elements of victory in terms of seizing key insurgent leaders. But the minute we move beyond that, we come to different situations. In the political structure, the fact is, what the election really reflected is a division of the country along ethnic and sectarian lines.

There is not a national unity government; there is an extraordinarily awkward compromise, which still has not been able to produce a minister of defense or a minister of interior. There is still no leadership in the two most critical ministries. No one knows what is going to happen next because once this government finally begins to function it will face major budget problems. It suddenly will have to solve the problem of security in ways which will force major reorganizations of the police, the interior ministry, and much of the military effort.

It faces the problem of having to clarify the constitution, where there are fifty-five areas to be addressed in some four months [referring to the four-month window to amend the constitution], including questions of money, federation, control of the armed forces, and oil. Then we drag out the process if we are successful: there are sixty more days for a referendum [on the amendments]. Then people have to find out if there is a new system of government [that] comes out of this, what it means and whether it can work.

The fact is that this is ignored in this report. We will be well into December at a minimum if we are successful and probably well into 2007. In the economy, what we have is the end of the massive flood of aid. We have used up the money Iraq had when we invaded. We have the special inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction disclosing massive American corruption and failures in every aspect of the aid program—failures that are so embarrassing that there seems to be an effort on the part of [the] congressional leadership of the Republican party to basically find ways of avoiding any further criticism and putting the operation back into the bureaucracy where it will not become public.

This is truly a critical issue because we are talking about employment levels, particularly in the most threatened and high insurgency areas, which make it almost impossible to bring stability. We have to solve the economic issues. We really do not see progress in revitalizing the oil sector; we do not see the kind of progress in providing government services—medical, education, sewer and water services, electric power—that are really needed to bring a new dimension to help defeat the insurgency. What we do see is reporting that dodges around whether any of the aid and other efforts are meeting requirements. This is particularly critical because oil is so important as a source of revenue. Are things getting better? No. Are they getting demonstrably worse? Probably not.

An obvious conclusion would be that the Pentagon report was done for political reasons to try to make things look better than they are in Iraq with elections coming up in November for Congress.

One wonders. It certainly spins things in a very favorable way in many areas. But the truth of the matter is that it is simply incompetent. It shows a lack of concern for detail, for the facts, [for] addressing the issues that really need to be addressed. That is one of the most discouraging aspects of it. This is a highly partisan environment. There are really bitter and increasingly polarized debates in Congress, among the American people, and in the media over what is happening there. People really need to know the facts, they need to know the risks, and they need to know what level of commitment is needed. It simply is a failure in basic analytic integrity.

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