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Cordesman: 'Victory' in Iraq Possible But Not Probable

Interviewee: Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 18, 2007

Anthony H. Cordesman, a leading strategic analyst of the Iraqi war, says the Bush administration’s latest strategy on Iraq makes victory there “possible” but “the problem is it also isn’t probable.” He says that the pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to carry out commitments may be unrealistic.

“The truth is, we’ve pressured Maliki to do things which he may not be able to do and may not want to do,” says Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington. “We have undertaken a concerted effort to force him into a position that we want, and then we are setting expectations he may not be able to meet.”

Your latest analysis on Iraq has an intriguing title, “The New Bush Strategy in Iraq: Is Victory Still Possible?” In short, is it still possible?

I think it is certainly possible. The problem is it also isn’t probable. And a lot of this is beyond the control of the United States. One problem we also face is fully understanding what the new U.S. strategy is. The president’s speech was cut from an original length of forty minutes to twenty minutes and presidential speeches in general provide only vague, broad descriptions of strategy. The White House has not issued really detailed or comprehensive white papers. But we have seen a great deal more detail come out in testimony and speeches following the speech which provides a more balanced and perhaps more convincing picture of what the strategy is.

Could you sum that up?

Well, I think the strategy is an effort to combine military, political and economic efforts. It is to begin by securing the Baghdad area in a way which provides true security, taking over district by district, attacking both the Sunni and Shiite insurgents, doing so in a way where it is clear the Iraqi government, as well as U.S. forces, is participating. It calls for a new approach to economic aid which will provide immediate assistance, job creation and economic opportunities in the areas that are secured. The strategy also provides reinforcements in the west to Anbar province to deal with the more serious Sunni insurgent threat, and to bring in significant numbers of new U.S. trainers to be embedded in Iraqi units, virtually doubling the number of trainers per Iraqi combat unit. That would presumably mean that these units could become far more effective.

Some key aspects of the strategy have not been outlined or described. There’s been no specific detail on how much money the United States intends to bring to bear on the economic and military side. There are reports of a $5 billion total with a $1.4 billion funding for immediate assistance for military operations. But these aren’t broken down or confirmed. There is no discussion of the specifics of how the militias will be treated. Some of the background papers issued by the White House talked about disbanding the militias but there are no details and no indication as to what will happen. There is a remarkably vague treatment of the police issue in one of the background papers. But since there are more police than there are people in the army, and they’re absolutely critical to providing security in the areas the U.S.-Iraq forces liberate, this is a more than passing issue. There’s a reference to $10 billion in Iraqi economic aid for reconstruction, but the fact is, none of that money may be new, and it isn’t clear how any of it will be spent. It may just be the figure that was already programmed in the Iraq budget.

The big question for many people is how far Prime Minister Maliki will or can go in living up to his commitments.

Well I think that, unfortunately, we still see Iraq from a very ethnocentric and somewhat patronizing U.S. view. The fact is, the prime minister is a compromise candidate heading a very weak and divided government, who is under constant U.S. pressure to do things which his party and constituents do not support, who has very limited ability to actually take action and, like [President Hamid] Karzai in Afghanistan, we have the strange illusion that because someone is elected to office, in a country which doesn’t have functioning ministries, where the central government is extraordinarily weak, and where there is no ethnic, sectarian nor other form of unity, it is somehow the fault of the leader of the country that they can’t take decisive action. The truth is, we’ve pressured Maliki to do things which he may not be able to do and may not want to do. We have undertaken a concerted effort to force him into a position that we want, and then we are setting expectations he may not be able to meet.

Well, some people would say cynically that’s laying the groundwork so that if we just pull out we can blame it on Maliki.

I think that form of cynicism is a strange form of optimism. The reality is that nobody in this region, or in the region where we’re fighting, no one in Iraq and no one in the world is going to blame this on the Iraqi government. The fact is that the United States is seen as responsible for this war, and no amount of cosmetic political action is going to have any impact on that reality, in Iraq, in the region, in the world, or even domestically in the United States.

What would be a marker of success? How would we judge success?

If we can’t win the battle of Baghdad in three to six months, if we can’t secure the city, if we can’t drive out most of the Sunni insurgents, or destroy them, if we can’t bring the extreme Shiite militias under control, if we can’t bring not simple tactical victory, but the ability to both secure areas and actually bring aid and some kind of belief the government can work, then essentially the strategy has failed and so has the U.S. war effort. Whatever will happen, the country will then drift into sectarian and ethnic divisions. The only question will be how violent, how much chaos will occur, and how many countries around Iraq will become involved.

Do you think the U.S. is inevitably headed for some kind of military showdown with Iran in some way?

No, I don’t think it’s inevitable, I think the United States at this point is waiting to see just how serious Iran’s nuclear efforts are, how successful they are, whether its missile capabilities really develop into an effective deployed force. And the choice between containment and active military options is one which is being deferred to the future.

In your answer to the first question you said that victory was possible but not probable. Do you think we’ll really know in about six months one way or the other?

One of the problems we face here is, if we are successful militarily in Baghdad, the question then immediately arises is, what about the rest of the country? Defeating the Shiite militias, paralyzing them, disbanding them, or coopting them in Baghdad doesn’t mean that you’ve achieved political conciliation nationally between Sunnis and Shiites or Arabs and Kurds or in dealing with the other minorities. That is going to have to play out over time. Real questions exist about the future of the government and democracy in Iraq. One of the issues is when will you have local elections and what will happen? Another is how do you deal with all the massive uncertainties raised by the constitution, which is  almost a recipe for dividing the country, because there are fifty areas that at some point still have to be addressed. We still have to see whether the country can pass an oil law which only deals with current revenues. And one of the great problems is can we renovate the oil fields? Our short-term aid program buys us perhaps a year.

Most of the things we tried to do up till now in terms of long-term restructuring of the Iraqi economy still has to be accomplished. That means success depends not simply on the political dimensions, but the economic ones. And then finally, it’s important to know we are talking about expanding the Iraqi army yet again. But we don’t have a plan for the police, we don’t have a plan for dealing with the militias, we don’t have a clear restructuring of the security forces, to stop them from being aligned with the Shiite militias and death squads. We don’t have a plan to turn the Iraqi army into a truly independent force with a level of equipment giving it the capability to defend Iraq against its neighbors.

So when you ask, “How do you define victory?,” the answer is, over a period of probably five to ten years. You can certainly make major reductions in U.S. military presence and aid over that period, but the idea that we will have achieved victory in the next year is absurd. And the idea that the United States can achieve stability in Iraq without constant, at least mid-level, action to support the country for at least five more years, is almost hopelessly dangerous, because that can turn even victory into defeat.

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