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Cordesman: Stable Iraq Remains 'Doable' Goal, But Odds for Success Shrinking

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington
September 16, 2004

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Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on military affairs and the Middle East, says that the Bush administration made a “massive miscalculation” about the insurgency in post-war Iraq, but it still has an outside chance of bringing about a stable government there if it sticks with its goals. He says President Bush could do a great service “if he were to clearly outline what it is the United States is trying to achieve, not the timing, but the conditions under which it would leave Iraq.”

Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that Democratic challenger John Kerry has leveled obvious criticisms at Bush’s Iraq policy but so far has failed to produce an alternative plan of his own.

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on September 16, 2004.


The United States and its coalition partners have now been in Iraq for some 18 months. Where do you think the United States stands now? What are the goals and are they attainable?

I think that first, one of the problems we have, and particularly the Iraqis have, is that we’ve never really announced specific goals. We have a background of neo-conservative-type discussions and hopes that call for Iraq somehow to be transformed rapidly into a democracy with a privatized economy that would be an example that would transform the Middle East.

It was clear by the middle of 2003 we weren’t going to make any of those goals. But a more practical goal has been to provide stability in Iraq, create something approaching a functioning democracy, one that is relatively stable, and to provide enough economic aid to jump start the economy and begin reconstruction.

The problem with those goals is that so far they have proved to be equally impractical. If you look back to what the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) tried to achieve in terms of economics, none of the goals for privatization or major restructuring of the Iraqi economy have been met, except for some important reforms in the financial sector.

Out of the aid money that was programmed, most of it for long-term projects, for a total of around $18.4 billion, only about $1.2 billion has been obligated, which is not really the same thing as spending. And out of that, around $580 million has been spent outside the country.

If you look at the military side, the massive miscalculation immediately after the war was that the United States would either not face a serious insurgency, or [the insurgency] would be one it could quickly defeat. All it had to do in terms of creating Iraqi security forces was to create a token military force to defend the borders, and the kind of police force that could provide security in terms of criminal activity, rather than counter-insurgency.

Those goals also failed. We’ve now had to reprogram about $3.46 billion. The reprogramming request which went up to Congress this month basically is putting nearly $2 billion into trying to rush forward police and security forces which can take over the insurgency mission from the United States. The balance is to rush forward in trying to support elections, which everyone knows are going to be anything but perfect, and provide aid money which can be rushed into Iraqi hands, and not really restructure the economy or reform it, but simply provide for some degree of stability in terms of Iraqi attitudes.

Is this reprogramming a good thing, or is it a sign of weakness, miscalculation, or both?

Well, it is both a good thing and a sign of miscalculation, and I think the people who have worked on this reprogramming fully understand that. It was clear the administration recognized by April of this year that virtually all of its programs for training police and security forces were failures. They brought in [Army Major] General [David] Petraeus to reorganize the effort. They began to rush money forward. It has become clear that this effort itself isn’t moving quickly enough.

Why is that, do you think?

Part of it is that there is no instant way to take nearly 200,000 men and give them facilities, training, and equipment, particularly when you wasted a year, as we did, between the fall of Saddam Hussein and the spring of this year. It is also clear that many of the people who volunteer for these jobs do so only because there are no other jobs. Many of them are not adequate. For example, out of some 400 people just sent to Jordan for police training in the latest class, 200 had to be sent home.

We have on paper more than 100,000 active Iraqi troops, but only two or three battalions of Iraqis that we can trust to work with United States forces.

That’s how many people?

It’s somewhere between 1,200 and 2,500 people, depending on how many support people you count.

Regarding the mistakes you describe in the post-war military planning, were they honest mistakes or should the United States have anticipated the insurgency’s resiliency?

I don’t think people could predict firmly what level of insurgency was going to be created. But some of this insurgency could have been avoided in the first place. People did not predict that when the United States went in, it wouldn’t secure the country, would leave large areas of the country open, wouldn’t secure the arms depots, would allow the government offices to be looted and the economy crippled during the early days after the liberation.

Nobody predicted that we would not attempt to use the better elements of the Iraqi armed forces and police force and essentially try to recreate everything from scratch. But they could predict that the economic aid would be so ideological and so tailored to restructuring the entire Iraqi economy that most of the money would not flow to the Iraqis, and the services they got would be considerably worse today than they were under Saddam Hussein. So, in a way, this has been an interactive process. We’ve failed at many levels.

One of the levels I think should also be added here is that we never explicitly said we would not take over the Iraqi oil industry, that we had no interest in retaining Iraq’s oil, that we would not attempt to retain military bases in Iraq, or that we would accept an election which might well bring people to power who were not particularly friendly to the United States.

I thought we did say we did not want Iraq’s oil.

One of the problems is that we confuse what gets said in a press conference with an official statement that is clearly communicated to the Iraqis. A statement by Secretary of State Colin Powell at a press conference, for instance, saying that we had no interest in permanent bases doesn’t really count. People don’t really believe in press conferences.

Do you think President Bush owes the people a major policy speech on what our goals in Iraq are?

I think he may not owe the American people a speech on our goals but he certainly would do a great service to the United States if he were to clearly outline: what it is the United States is trying to achieve, not the timing, but the conditions under which it would leave Iraq; its commitment to having Iraqi democracy, even if it brings to power a government we don’t like; its commitment to having Iraqi security forces replace as many of the coalition forces as possible and [eventually] replace them entirely with a full coalition withdrawal.

It would be useful if he would describe American support for the elections. All of these things in some ways are being communicated. But poll after poll shows they are being communicated in vague ways Americans may understand, but that don’t reach Iraqis, which breeds a climate of conspiracy theories and distrust. The only person who convincingly can make these statements is President Bush.

The president is caught up in his own election campaign and he is under heavy attack from Senator Kerry for his handling of the war. What do you think of Kerry’s comments?

Well, I think the problem with Senator Kerry is that virtually everyone can see that we have very serious problems with the major insurgency, that we do not yet have an Iraqi government that Iraqis see as legitimate, and that our aid program, if it hasn’t exactly collapsed, is almost totally ineffective in meeting either its short-term or longer-term goals. These are very real problems. The difficulty is that Senator Kerry’s criticisms have not as yet been translated into one meaningful suggestion as to how to solve the problem.

Instead, you have vague references to the international community, bringing people in from the outside, a whole host of measures which at best provide token or symbolic progress, but wouldn’t solve the problem. And I think there has been at least one mention of a “plan,” which is being kept secret if it exists. There is an old axiom in American politics: “You can’t beat something with nothing.”

Do we need more American troops in Iraq, or do we have enough?

I think one of the most striking aspects of every public opinion poll that has been conducted— and the two best are the ones conducted by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and by the Oxford Analytica— is how hostile the Iraqi people are as a whole to the U.S. occupation. That view has been voiced consistently by over 80 percent of the Iraqis polled. Putting more U.S. troops there would simply strengthen the image of the occupation, particularly because we don’t have reserves of troops trained in area studies, language, and dealing with the political side of this, or even in terms of most kinds of counter-insurgency operations.

Taking the other side, should the United States reduce its military actions sharply in Iraq? It has been involved in a number of publicized air strikes— against targets in Falluja, for instance— that seem to have alienated Iraqis.

I think one needs to be very careful. We judge the kind of media coverage we often get within the Arab world. You practically cannot drive out of the compound without being criticized and, for that matter, blamed for collateral damage. The United States has already rolled back much of its operations. It has moved its forces out of the most difficult cities. It has changed its patrol patterns. Wherever possible it is bringing Iraqi police and security forces into the mission, either on a joint basis or to replace the United States. It has certainly not forced the issue in terms of conclusive battles in areas like Falluja or Najaf. The difficulty here is that the United States can reduce its level of activity. But if it eliminates it, then it basically gives up the country to the insurgents. If you want to wait until Iraqi forces are trained, there really won’t be enough Iraqi forces until the spring of 2005 at the earliest.

The United States has to carry out military operations. Each of these is, in many ways, a judgment call made by commanders on the scene. And in a lot of cases, like precision air strikes, they understand the trade-offs. These aren’t being made by people who don’t understand the political costs of their action. But there are military and security costs in not acting at all.

Do you think the United States public has the political stamina to stick it out in Iraq? How long do you think realistically the United States will have to keep a military force in Iraq?

I think it is interesting you ask that question, because quite a number of people said at the start of this year that senior U.S. military officers believed the insurgency would be over by the time our schedule called for a fully-elected Iraqi government, which would be in early 2006. No one has concealed the fact that there is a serious insurgency problem. But this is a long-term mission in terms of several years. Even once Iraqi forces are fully trained, in the numbers required, they will still require U.S. support in some areas, certainly in terms of operating heavy equipment and helicopter and air support to reduce casualties.

The U.S. aid mission can’t be terminated quickly. The international community has made pledges, but by and large has not delivered on them. The fact that we have not been able to provide an effective aid program to date doesn’t mean that the new Iraqi government won’t need the aid for stability and growth. And that aid is going to have to continue for at least three to five years, even if U.S. troops have departed.

Do you think the public will stick with it?

I think American public opinion polls show there still is the belief that this can be won and that there is an effort on the military and political level to adapt to the realities on the ground. It’s not sophisticated public opinion, in part because there hasn’t been a lot of detailed information on many aspects of the operation. I suspect if public opinion is to be sustained, it is going to take more leadership than we have seen to date, specifically a lot more convincing explanations of the changes in the military mission. It’s going to take confidence that our efforts to create legitimate government are moving forward, if not in the terms of our precise original schedule. It is certainly going to take a lot more effort to reorganize the aid program.

When you have respected figures like Senator Richard Lugar [R-Ind.] and Senator Joseph Biden [D-Del.] essentially looking at the latest report on progress on aid and treating it with open disgust in a [Senate Foreign Relations Committee] hearing, you have a problem on the part of the executive branch which requires massive and urgent action that goes far beyond the military level. Americans, when they are asked to spend $18.4 billion, and between $4 to $7 billion a month on combined military and aid operations, are going to start questioning those numbers very severely unless the Congress, the press, and public opinion can be convinced that we’ve adopted a course of action that shows what we are doing.

If I’m in Congress and watching a system which can’t spend the money, can’t defend the projects, which can’t even explain what most of the projects are, and now nearly a year into the fiscal year, asks for reprogramming on the basis that says the original plan was unworkable— if I were the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I’d be pretty deeply concerned too.

Summing up, do you think it is a doable task for the United States to get a democratic government in place in Iraq and help put down the insurgency? Or is this going to be an impossible task?

I think it is doable and not impossible. But I think we need to understand that the odds for success were 50-50 at best if we had adopted the right course of action after the fall of Saddam. Now the odds are probably one in four. We’ve wasted a year; we’ve wasted billions and billions of dollars. We’ve made serious military, political, and economic mistakes.

What do you make of the report in The New York Times which talks about an intelligence estimate from July which set forth a progression of worst possible and best possible scenarios for the coming months?

I think to the extent we understand what the estimate is—and I am always very, very leery of press reports on intelligence estimates—it certainly represented a realistic picture of the fact that the problem is growing, we are not winning, that the election has a very uncertain outcome. To the extent I understand its content, it did not fully address the economic issues or the more popular reaction to what the United States is doing. And here it is important to note that our latest polls date back to June. While they reflect continuing Iraqi optimism in the long run, they also raise very serious questions about how much more Iraqis are critical of the United States today than they were several months ago.

We may get elections in Iraq, and [if so, that] government will be far more legitimate if we do than Saddam Hussein was. We have an extremely awkward voting system that the United Nations developed in Iraq. Many Iraqis will never see it as legitimate. The way it is structured it excludes significant numbers of Iraqis from having elected representatives. It is very clear that if we do not delay that election there will be significant parts of the country under insurgent control and which may not vote at all.