Military and Iraq expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies was interviewed by the Council on Foreign Relations on September 8. While he agrees that there has been tremendous military success in Iraq, the war is far from over. He argues that means the U.S. needs to continue to be involved in Iraq for years to come. More importantly, he doesn’t believe the two presidential candidates Barak Obama and John McCain are dealing with anything that’s actually happening in Iraq. Cordesman says that Iraq needs political reconciliation before it can become a stable country, something that’s not assured to happen anytime soon.
Cordesman started off his interview talking about what has changed in Iraq. First, the three major causes of violence in the country, Al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgency, and Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army have been largely tamed. The Islamists and insurgents have been relegated to Mosul and Diyala, and are incapable of carrying out large-scale offensive operations anymore. The Mahdi Army has been disrupted after the government’s crackdowns beginning in Basra. Sadr is also trying to transform his movement into a political one, although he did just ask his followers to take a blood oath to continue their resistance to the U.S. occupation. Even with these gains, there is still violence in Iraq, something that can’t be stopped, because there are no effective means to counter all suicide bombings, IEDs, car bombs, etc. Still, Cordesman is reluctant to claim that America is near victory in Iraq because there are too many difficulties that lie ahead. General David Piraeus expressed a similar sentiment in an interview with the BBC recently.
Most of Iraq’s problems have now moved from the battlefield to politics, which might be just as difficult to solve. The ruling parties of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa, the Shiite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), and the Kurds want to hold onto power without sharing. Major reconciliation acts like provincial elections, a decision on federalism, integrating the Sons of Iraq (SOI), and resolving Kirkuk have not been dealt with. Cordesman holds up the government’s dealings with the Sons of Iraq as an example of how little progress has been made on this front. The U.S. military claims 20,000 SOI have been integrated into the security forces, but the real number turns out to be around 3,000-5,000 because of the intransigence of the Iraqi government.
When Iraq will address these issues, and if they will be dealt with fairly are unknown. Cordesman points out that none of the ruling parties have ever run in an open election where people could pick individuals for office. In the two votes in 2005 there were closed list ballots where people chose parties and coalitions, who then selected the people to serve in the government. That means none of the parties actually know how much support they have and how they will do in any future elections. That’s one reason why Cordesman doesn’t have an estimate for when provincial elections will occur or whether they will be fair, because the ruling parties are afraid of what might happen. At the same time, he doesn’t believe that any of these important moves should be set to any kind of deadlines because that might lead to hasty decisions and power struggles. Just as important is the fact that many common Iraqis are not interested in politics, as much as gaining access to government services, jobs, etc., which lessons pressure on Baghdad to carry out any of these reconciliation acts.
Cordesman finishes off with his ideas on U.S. policy and the presidential candidates. He joins many other Iraq experts that now believe the U.S. needs patience in Iraq. Cordesman actually wrote apiece about this for his Center for Strategic and International Studies over a year ago in August 2007 called “The Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq.” He believes the U.S. needs to stay involved in Iraq until it can solve its major problems, which include political compromises that will make the security situation sustainable, jobs, a functioning economy, and a government that the people believe in. At the same time, Baghdad is growing in strength, which means that America can’t act unilaterally anymore when dealing with the country. He doesn’t believe this is being addressed in the presidential campaign however. He criticized both Obama and McCain for living in a “theater of the absurd” with their pronouncements on the war. An added problem is the fact that the U.S. public has a short attention span, and wants either a quick win or to get out. He warns that Iraq is going to be a “long war” that the American people may not have the patience for.
Cordesman’s views closely follow other analysts in the U.S., many of whom were critics of the war. For example, Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a growing list of Iraq watchers now argue that the U.S. needs to stay in Iraq as long as it takes to leave behind a country that the U.S. can live with. What these experts usually leave out, and Cordesman addresses, is the fact that the Iraqis and American public may not share their views. Maliki for example, is demanding ever more concessions from the United States and a withdrawal of combat troops, while the public debate here barely exists, with a majority still believing in an eventual exit. Colin Kahl, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, member of the Center for a New American Security, and advisor to Obama, agrees with Cordesman that the U.S.’s power in Iraq is declining, but has argued for “strategic conditionality.” That is, to base continued U.S. support for the government on their moves towards political accommodation, something the Bush administration has never done. The question is, what if the Iraqis never reconcile? Would the U.S. take its toys and go home? It appears that the U.S. has spent too much blood and treasure in Iraq to pack up and leave. Combat troops may be pulled out, but the way Cordesman and others are talking, it seems like the U.S. would maintain close ties to Iraq even in the face of dwindling influence.
BBC News, “No victory in Iraq says Petraeus,” 9/11/08
Cordesman, Anthony, “The Evolving Security Situation in Iraq: The Continuing Need for Strategic Patience,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1/21/08
Gwertzman, Bernard, “U.S. ‘Winning’ Unpopular War in Iraq, but ‘Losing’ Popular War in Afghanistan,” Council on Foreign Relations, 9/8/08
Kahl, Colin, “Bridge On The River Euphrates,” National Interest, 9/2/08
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