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Cordesman: Bush Should 'Define' American Goals in Iraq, Laying Out Conditions for Withdrawal

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington
November 22, 2004


Anthony A. Cordesman, a national security and Middle East expert, says that with Iraq at a pivotal juncture, it is imperative for President Bush to lay out a comprehensive outline of what American goals are in Iraq, and under what conditions the United States would withdraw its troops.

Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says: “We still have no clear public goals. We’ve never said to the Iraqis that we won’t take their oil, that we won’t steal their economy, that we won’t establish military bases, that we’ll leave when an elected government asks us to. We’ve never said that any government that is elected is OK with us. In short, there has never been a clear presidential-level statement that deals with all the conspiracy theories [about America’s designs on Iraq]. You need to have the president speak to Iraqis and clearly define American goals.”

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of, on November 22, 2004.

With the elections set for January 30, 2005, and the Falluja operation in the mopping-up phase, how would you describe the situation in Iraq?

I think Falluja was a distinct military success; the civilian casualties were low, and the U.S. and Iraqi casualties were low. There seems to have been a significant number of insurgent casualties, and a number of detainees were captured. The problem, however, is when we talk about military success in terms of Falluja, it is reasonably clear that a number of insurgents either left before the fighting began or escaped and were able to fade back into the population outside of Falluja. It is certainly all too clear that the insurgents successfully prepared attacks outside of Falluja: in Baghdad, Mosul, most of the Sunni Triangle, and in many other areas. So, in military terms, the success in the city is somewhat overshadowed by the fact that there has been no matching success in the country as a whole, and indeed, the insurgents were able to step up their attacks.

The political dimension is far more uncertain. Even before the fighting began, the President of Iraq, Ghazi al-Yawer, who is a Sunni, opposed it. Many of the Sunnis inside the interim government, who support the government, opposed the offensive. The leading Sunni clerical group opposed it. Most of the media and the press opposed it. Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite [cleric] opposed it as well. Since that time, the impression being given in the Arab media is that of a devastated city to which the population cannot return; one in which heroic martyrs and insurgents are fighting to the last. A marine who kills an Iraqi prisoner and virtually every other kind of negative image that they can provide is aired. So not only do we face perhaps more problems with the Sunnis than we did before the fighting began, we face very negative images in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Do you think the Sunnis will participate in the elections?

I think it is very unclear. The organized Sunnis have so far said they won’t. But it is a long time, in terms of the dynamics of Iraq, between now and the end of January. The problem for any kind of boycott is that the boycott would mean, essentially, that Iraq’s first National Assembly is Shiite and Kurdish, with whatever Sunnis they choose to include. That is a dangerous problem for the Sunnis unless they are absolutely confident that the insurgents can block a [Shiite electoral] victory. It makes it very hard to negotiate over the constitution, over power-sharing, and the sharing of oil revenues and money. That is not exactly the ideal strategy for any person unless it is someone who believes that somehow he can make the current insurgency the springboard to some type of lasting political and military victory.

What does the insurgency see as a realistic goal for itself?

First, we need to understand that there is no insurgency; there are insurgencies. I don’t think that anybody has been able to count the number of groups that claim to exist. By one count, more than 35 different Sunni Arab movements claimed to be in existence. We’re watching, still, a group that is about 95 percent Iraqi. Many of the foreign insurgents are volunteers without any clear affiliation, training, or background, but within the Iraqi groups we see people who are primarily Islamist, or former Baathists, or people who have mixed the two. They might also have a nationalist, Sunni, anti-coalition agenda. There are some groups with a much more aggressive belief that Iraq should be an Islamist state on Sunni terms. There are groups that seem to be mostly loose, small cells of almost indeterminate affiliation.

When we talk about insurgent groups, one of the problems and one of the reasons why the counts are so confusing is that an awful lot of these insurgents are either part-timers or people who are recruited for a given operation. None of us really understand the size of the core insurgent force. The most recent assessment coming from the U.S. military forces in Iraq was 12,000-16,000 core insurgents. I don’t think that anyone who generated or issued those numbers really knew.

How strong or weak is U.S. intelligence?

I think you have to distinguish between weak intelligence and having an almost impossible task. These groups are mutating, increasing, or decreasing by the day. There are significant tactical victories, and insurgents are captured or killed. But there also is situation in which, in any given city, fighting breaks out, and young men become dragged into or volunteer for the insurgency. All of this is then compounded by the fact that unemployment among young Iraqi males is at least 40 percent and maybe 60 percent. That makes this an explosive situation, particularly for the Sunnis.

In your recent study, you state that the odds for U.S. success in Iraq are only about even, and may be even less. Can you explain?

It’s important to note that I define success as America being able to leave under conditions where the government is relatively friendly, where there is some structure that holds together Kurd, Sunni, and Shiite Arabs into something approaching a pluralistic and federalist government, when the Iraqi security and military forces have been able to take over almost the entire security mission, and there is some degree of economic progress. I am not talking about success in terms of any influence on the rest of the region, or in terms of lasting stability, or even that the United States could say that over the next five to ten years Iraq will not go through several convulsions and end up with another strong man. It is simply essentially being able for the United States to leave with a reasonable hope for the near future.

There are many people who would say that success has to be far more demanding and meet far more criteria. The problem we face here, however, is that we are dealing with so many unknowns. The Iraqi political process, at this point, is up to the Iraqis. [Prime Minister] Ayad Allawi has not been more inclusive over the last few months. He has been pushed harder into alignment with the United States in taking a decisive security stand, hoping to create security between now and the end of January. It is not clear that is going to happen. It is clear that Allawi is seen as more and more tied to the United States. Elections are not in limbo- about 60 parties have been approved and some 80 parties applied- but as yet there has been very little active campaigning and no effort to define the Iraqi political process. There has been no real decisive way in which the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites have had to work and show that they can really cooperate.

One of the unfortunate realities in Iraq is that much of the effort to train Iraqi army and security forces was wasted in the first year. It wasn’t until June 2004 that we really became committed to any kind of integrated and cohesive Iraqi military and security forces for the counterinsurgency mission. Not until September of this year did they really start to receive the kind of money, equipment, and training levels, together with some momentum. If that effort pays off, over time the security situation could change radically, and so could the ability of the United States to reduce its profile to a more politically acceptable level.

We still have no clear public goals. We’ve never said to the Iraqis that we won’t take their oil, that we won’t steal their economy, that we won’t establish military bases, that we’ll leave when an elected government asks us to. We’ve never said that any government that is elected is OK with us. In short, there has never been a clear presidential-level statement that deals with all the conspiracy theories [about America’s designs on Iraq]. You need to have the president speak to Iraqis and clearly define American goals in Iraq in ways that will make it clear that we will not carry out any of these conspiracies. This will be equally helpful throughout the region, and in Europe and Asia.

Why do you think we’ve been so laggard in this?

Part of it is that we entered with neither a military nor a political plan that called for any significant stabilizing effort. When we began the stabilizing effort, we treated the insurgency as a minor problem. So for the first year, our plans did not include training the police to fight active counterinsurgency campaigns, and only included training a small military force to have a token ability to defend the borders. We’ve had ideological plans to deal with the government and economy. Almost all of the plans to deal with the government were overtaken by Iraqi events, and one of the tragedies is that, in the process, local governments and elections were left very weak. In terms of the aid effort, no matter how noble our goals were, we went in with the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] group that believed that it could somehow convert the Iraqi economy from 35 years as a kleptocracy to a relatively modern form of capitalism.

I think the other, equally serious, issue is that we really didn’t know what to do in terms of monitoring an aid program. We ended up with this hideous contracting system where there weren’t any U.S. government officials capable of nation-building. We recruited U.S. contractors to go into a command economy they had no experience in dealing with. They in turn turned the projects over to contractors in the region who immediately began to profiteer. They were not prepared for what became an almost disastrous security problem. The end result, despite the vast amount of aid, has been that very little of it has ever gotten to the places where it is needed most. It really has not given the Iraqis economic or personal security that in any sense really meets their expectations.

What did you think about the war before it began? Did you predict this?

I wish I could say I had some special vision; I did write a paper back in the fall of 2002 called “Planning for a Self-Inflicted Wound” that raised all of these issues. The serious possibilities that I noted in the paper were that we would not be judged by how we fought this war, but that we would be judged by our success in forging a peace and by what we left behind. But an awful lot of that was merely advice and commentary that mirrored what many other experts on Iraq said, and indeed, [what was said by] many State Department, military, U.S. intelligence officials who were, at that time, working on preparation for the stability phase. The problem is that in January 2003, the mission was turned over to a Defense Department that really didn’t see it as important or demanding, and really did almost no preparation.

Your recent paper also emphasizes the Arab-Israeli peace process. Can you elaborate on your thinking in this paper?

The problem we face is that there is a strong interaction between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq conflict. If you look at the media coverage in the Arab and Islamic world, there is an almost deliberate mixing of images. We are defined as occupiers. They are using Israel as a model. Israel’s problems with the Palestinians are coupled directly with images like what happened with the marine appearing to shoot a prisoner in Iraq. This type of imagery is not merely a problem for the United States in Iraq. It is a problem throughout the Arab and Islamic world; it feeds the problems of terrorism, and of course it has a significant backlash for Israel.

Do you see parallels between the Iraq and other wars?

I don’t know how close these parallels are, but I think that Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was an optional war waged with the expectations of transforming Lebanon. The security situation, however, was clearly misjudged. The people did not understand what the equivalent of stability operations meant, what the costs would be, how difficult it would be to avoid making far greater problems and divisions in the country than those that existed before the invasion. There is a risk this might happen in Iraq. It is a risk, not a certainty, though. We have seen progress.

It’s a tragedy that we went into Iraq without clear goals to win Iraqi acceptance. But we wasted essentially a year, and billions of dollars, on efforts which didn’t meet the priorities on the ground. We are making progress, though, with Iraqi military and security forces. That still might work over time. We have re-programmed aid, or at least begun to, so some of it is meeting the most urgent needs for economic security and services throughout Iraq, and being used with the support of the government.

We have a political process in play. We still have the option- specifically the president has the option- of defining our goals in Iraq in ways that will be far more acceptable to the Iraqi people and people of the region. We have the option of coupling our policies in the Middle East in ways that will not threaten our friends and allies, but would certainly provide more bases for rapport. So the options still exist, but if we don’t play them out extraordinarily well, then the parallels between 1982 and what is happening in Iraq would be very grim- just as the parallels between many of the mistakes we made in Vietnam and those we made early on in Iraq are equally grim.