He says a successful end to the Iraq war is still “doable,” but he urges patience. “Insurgencies take a long time to resolve. You don’t score quick victories. Nation-building takes a lot of time. The internal dynamics are almost always far more important than what outside countries really do,” he says. “Achieving stability in an ethnic and sectarian country like Iraq that’s deeply divided, where many of these issues have never been resolved, where there are not experienced political parties and often no experienced political leaders, takes time. It doesn’t mean people can’t move toward compromise, it doesn’t mean that everything degenerates into truly violent civil war. This is going to be complex, it isn’t going to be quick, and it had better be right.”
Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on October 4, 2005.
The insurgency has been going on almost since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. What do we know about the insurgents? How many are there? How many foreigners are there?
Much of the problem we face is simply a definitional one. When we talk about insurgents, we’re talking about the core groups that are full-time, fully dedicated. We’re also talking about people who are really almost at the margins of these movements, a kind of foot soldier, who are brought in and recruited to act part-time, people who may be collecting intelligence who are not active in terms of the threat, and people who sympathize with violence and act as hosts or provide sanctuary.
Obviously, you get radically different numbers. That’s why when people guess at these things you often get estimates anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 insurgents, but no one in the intelligence community has ever defined what those figures actually include. They’ve always been very careful to say, “We really don’t know.” And in any case, its really not clear that the number matters very much, because insurgencies are driven not by total end-strength, but by the political context or structure in which they operate, and by the skill and leadership qualities of these cadres that drive them and give them purpose and planning.
Do we know what percentage of these are foreigners like al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born head of at least part of the insurgency?
Well, what we have is a rough estimate, based largely on detentions and on the ability to identify some of the people who are killed. There is a steadily improving sophisticated mix of national intelligence and human intelligence. People put the figure at somewhere between 10 percent and 12 percent. There are a few analysts who put those figures higher, but I don’t know of any intelligence experts who have spoken on background and talked significantly about different figures. The percentage of foreign volunteers may be rising, but that is really not something that’s terribly clear. It may really reflect the fact that it is the foreign infiltrators who are often responsible for the most visible, the most damaging attacks in terms of suicide bombings and other lethal attacks on civilians.
What are the goals of this insurgency? This insurgency is unusual since there is no clear Iraqi insurgent leader, is there?
That’s certainly the case, and there is no unity in the insurgency. When I talked to some senior officials in Iraq, they said, “You Americans constantly want to have one person in charge and one insurgent movement, and we look at this as if there were something like 250, because even when these movements are coordinating different cells, the cells in different areas may have different goals, different leaders. They may be more tribal than national, and you constantly want to simplify this. We can’t afford to do that; if we did, we would almost certainly lose.”
I think you’d find there many American military planners and intelligence analysts who would say something similar, that these are divided groups, that there’s not a hierarchy in any rigid sense, that even in movements like Zarqawi’s it would seem that a number of the cells in regions operate with a high degree of autonomy and independence. When you look even at the sort of hard-line Islamist groups, the largely neo-Salafi [extremists] do have foreign leadership cadres. These are not unified, although they all pay some kind of lip service to al-Qaeda. They don’t really have one leader, but what they do have in common is a belief that their idea of puritanical Sunni Islam is the only just interpretation of Islam, that it should form the basis of the state, that anyone who does not support that belief is either a legitimate target or someone who could be sacrificed in the process of attacks.
But in addition, there are certainly people who are more supporters of the Baath Party [Saddam Hussein’s ruling party], and are more secular. There are Sunni Iraqi nationalists who have a more religious orientation. There are people operating out of revenge, people operating out of anger against the United States and the coalition. I think what is really clear, is that many of these people know far more about what they are against than what they would want if they succeeded.
Now, Zarqawi said a few months ago they should really have a war against all Shiites and declare a sort of religious war. The Shiites, to my knowledge, haven’t joined the fray; they’ve held back a bit.
Zarqawi said that actually within the last month. So we need to understand that neo-Salafi Sunni movements not only do not share Islam’s tolerance for people of the book, which is one of the key features of mainstream Islam, but that they see Shiites and people of any other sect other than the one that they support as people who have misused Islam—if not as apostates, they see them as people who have introduced polytheism into Islam. So, it depends on which group and what they are saying. That’s part of the problem, that these groups have no natural limits on the level of violence they can use because they not only see the coalition, the secular Iraqi government, as an opponent, they see a majority of Iraq’s people as opponents.
And so the only answer, then, is to try to destroy this movement?
I think that when you talk about [extremist movements] that you have to remember you almost unquestionably cannot negotiate with cadres. You certainly can’t negotiate with true believers or fanatics. If there is some magic way to change their belief structure, we certainly don’t know what it is. And even if we did, it would almost be a matter of trying to persuade individuals one at a time, something that may be theoretically possible once they’re detained, but frankly even then it is impractical.
You do have to hunt out and either capture or kill the leaders of these movements. But I think that’s very different from many of their members. The followers can often be young men who really don’t have any of these convictions, who are caught up in the image of striking out against the occupiers, the crusaders, the supporters of Israel, the enemy of Islam, and don’t think beyond that, and certainly don’t share this commitment to violence.
They’re not people who have that kind of developed, almost fanatic belief structure. And looking at many of the people who have been interviewed after they’ve been captured and detained, it’s quite clear they were sort of young men who were caught up in a system that was designed to quickly indoctrinate them, throw them forward, and make them almost the tools of the cadres that are really dedicated. These people can and have been persuaded, not all of them, but a significant number. And similarly, it’s quite clear that many Iraqis, even if they are people who are strongly pro-Sunni and have deep religious convictions, do not share this belief that somehow people who are not Arabs, and particularly people who are not Sunni puritans, are somehow not Iraqis.
Those people, if they are offered an inclusive government, if they are offered a power structure and economic incentives that gives them real hope and a real future, are probably people who can, over time, be persuaded to end their participation in the insurgency.
That gets to the question about the political structure and the constitution. What is your feeling? I see that the American embassy is continuing to try to soften the constitution and make it more palatable to Sunnis. On the other hand, there are stories today suggesting the Shiites and the Kurds were trying to make it impossible for the Sunnis to be able to have a meaningful vote.
Well, there is no question that whatever was going to happen, regardless of how the process of government was approached, there was going to be a power struggle. Sunnis were not going to easily give up the control they have had over Iraq since the days of the Ottoman Empire. Kurds were always not only going to seek autonomy bordering on independence, but would want [the oil-rich city of] Kirkuk and at least a significant part of the oil.
The Shiites were going to unquestionably want the kind of power that their numbers really justify in democratic terms. Plus, in all frankness, talking to them, they have a sense of revenge and the feeling that this is their time and they have decades to make up for. The constitution is just one way of forcing all of these issues out on the table. And the way the constitution is drafted, it does leave many of them, on the one hand open, and on the other hand it requires the new government to act very quickly.
You’ve gone from the option of having a general constitution that didn’t outline these issues; to having a constitution that was actually very specific and largely eliminated political debate; to one where the future role of religion is open, the nature of human rights is open, the role of secular versus religious law is open, the definition of federation and what is a federation is open, control over national money and things like oil income is open. And when you look at it, while people often focus on federalism, the relative power of the national government, provincial governments, and the local governments is also left open.
If this vote occurs and the constitution is recorded, it will probably be largely on ethnic and religious grounds, with relatively little actual debate over the provisions. And that immediately will make the election that follows two months later essentially a struggle between ethnic and sectarian groups at the political level. It is difficult to see how they compromise mid-campaign. They don’t then have to define all of these aspects of how the constitution will actually be applied until a new government takes place, and that would be at the end of December and in early January. During all of that time, unfortunately, this won’t just be a political debate, it will be an ongoing battle in terms of an insurgency, and nationalists are going to struggle over all of the issues that I’ve outlined while the religious extremists are going to struggle on a completely different level.
I think that we need to understand this is not going to be pretty, it isn’t going to be quick, it may take months to really create the structure of governance once the new government comes, and probably things are going to be severely unsettled through at least mid-2006.
Are you satisfied with the U.S. strategy right now?
I think the problem we have is that you could outline many different strategies. Anyone could write a new strategy in an op-ed piece, or write one in a short study, or form yet another foreign policy committee, but that doesn’t mean that you can do anything to implement it. The fact is the political process now is essentially an Iraqi process. I think the U.S. embassy has done a good job trying to influence—as much as anyone can—what is actually taking place in this political process. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is focused on all of the issues that are most divisive and has tried constantly to find compromises that are workable.
The practical problem is he can’t force this; all he can do is influence it. And to try to influence something that is this deep and this basic in the middle of an ongoing insurgency is very difficult. Similarly, the U.S. military, I think, now has gotten its act together in providing good training to bring the Iraqi military forces online. It now has to, however, deal with the reality that many of these have an ethnic or sectarian prominence by Shiites or Kurds. It can’t alter the elite security forces all that much, although I think that it’s doing what it can do. The people in Iraqi, I think, have done a good job with the resources they have, of reaching out to the police, but the problem is that the police are really still without the training and the equipment they need. Probably, there are as many police that we don’t train and equip that have tribal, religious, or ethnic backgrounds actually in the field as one’s we’ve trained and equipped.
And there are limits to what we can do there. If we have, I think, a major flaw in our strategy, it is a longstanding flaw in the U.S. foreign policy structure. The fact is that virtually anybody who has served in the State Department or overseas knows that USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] has been broken without ever being fixed. And in Iraq, that is compounded by the U.S. defense contracting procedure, by the use of U.S. prime contractors with almost no real area of expertise, particularly in dealing with a command economy, who are not themselves dedicated or involved in war fighting, that have to seek security and profit, who have turned much of what they are doing to actual contractors in the field who are not Iraqi and who often are either corrupt or simply go through the motions. We really need an effective aid structure; we need an effective use of money. In the emergency aid areas, that’s worked out reasonably well, but often even when we move into hostile areas, when we score a victory in a place like Fallujah or Tal Afar, we can’t establish a working aid presence that is efficient. There isn’t an Iraqi police force or Iraqi governance, and we can’t really use aid funds with anything like the effectiveness we need. That part of the strategy is flawed to the point of being broken.
So, generally, how do you describe your feeling at this juncture? Is the war against the insurgents doable?
It’s certainly doable. There is the old cliché that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. I don’t know if we repeat the past, but we certainly as policymakers tend to forget it. Insurgencies take a long time to resolve. You don’t score quick victories. Nation-building takes a lot of time. The internal dynamics are almost always far more important than what outside countries really do. Achieving stability in an ethnic and sectarian country like Iraq that’s deeply divided, where many of these issues have never been resolved, where there are not experienced political parties and often no experienced political leaders, takes time. It doesn’t mean that people can’t move toward compromise, it doesn’t mean that everything degenerates into truly violent civil war. This is going to be complex, it isn’t going to be quick, and it had better be right.
Some insurgencies have taken ten years or so to resolve; I’m thinking of the Philippines at the turn of the last century. The idea that we could have troops out by the end of next year seems rather far-fetched to me if we really want to get this thing done, right?
Well, that’s certainly true. The question is not should we be out, but how many troops are we going to need over what time period? If you could reduce troop levels by the end of next year to a level somewhere around 70,000, you’d take a tremendous amount of strain off the U.S. force structure. You’ve already put Iraqi forces into the field. They are not capable of taking the most demanding missions, but about 30 percent of them are capable of performing significant security missions now. Those figures should get steadily better with time. We can shift our role more and more to that of advisers providing heavy fire support, of ensuring there aren’t insurgent concentrations. We can provide intelligence that is at a technical level that Iraqis can’t provide. Then slowly and steadily we should be able to reduce our presence. And if the insurgency lingers at some level that does not mean the United States has to be actively involved in the field indefinitely. But it isn’t going to be something where you can have this kind of exit strategy that is all or nothing. That kind of thinking, whether you are in favor of staying or of immediately leaving, really almost ensures something is going to go badly wrong.