Despite Gains, Future in Iraq, Afghanistan Remains ‘Uncertain’

Council on Foreign Relations

January 14, 2008

Interviewee:  Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for International and Strategic Studies

Interviewer:  Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor

Anthony H. Cordesman, a leading expert on military and security developments in Iraq and Afghanistan, says that despite some gains, the situation in both countries remains tenuous. He says the majority of statements from presidential candidates for both parties have been “essentially pointless posturing for the Republican or Democratic bases.” 

You’ve been watching and commenting on the situations in both Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars began. I was hoping to get your general outlook first on the situation in Iraq, and secondly in Afghanistan. We could start with Iraq. Do you think the surge is now working militarily to the point it can be counted as a success, or is the situation still up in the air?

The most important thing is not what I think, but what General [David H.] Petraeus and people there think. There has been a tendency to claim a level of success that it is quite clear the command is not claiming. There’s no question that we have seen a very significant cut in the number of attacks, major incidents, and casualties. Basically things are down to the level that they were in early 2006. But that obviously doesn’t mean that violence is over; it just means that you’re dealing with a relatively low level of conflict by comparison with the peaks in casualties and incidents in the spring and summer of 2007. There are also almost continuous warnings within the military planning groups and the intelligence community in Iraq about what’s really happening.

What are these about?

We have not resolved the problems between the Arabs, Kurds, and other minorities in the north. Ethnic cleansing continues. There is still a buildup of militias and forces on various sides. The kind of very low level of violence and extortion that takes place when you have these ethnic tensions has not diminished. It sits there and is not necessarily a time bomb, but unless it is resolved, one of the major sources of civil violence has not yet been addressed.

In the south essentially what you have are rival Shiite factions, with only limited ties to the central government Shiites. It’s been a struggle for power, which has not resulted in large-scale violence against civilians, although, for many Sunnis, Christians, and more secular Shiites, there has been violence. They have been driven out of the south. But what you see is a building of militias that seem to be getting ready for a possible power struggle between the Hakim [led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, chairman of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)] and Sadr [led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a popular Shiite cleric] factions.

What about the situation in Baghdad?

It’s an astounding achievement to see what U.S commanders have been able to achieve. It is also a city segmented now into security zones, which are Shiite, Sunni, and mixed. You’ve not been able to halt all elements of ethnic cleansing. You’ve not been able to create a climate for people to be able to return to their homes if they are of the wrong sectarian group. The stability of the north, such that it is, is dependent on how long and how well these tribal militias are integrated into the overall power structure. At present, the government has been extremely slow in coopting them. It is obviously afraid of them. It has not really moved forward at anything like the pace necessary to win their loyalty.

Describe whether al-Qaeda has been defeated in Iraq.

Al-Qaeda is not defeated; its basic supply routes and lines of communication are weaker, but they remain. It continues to fight in Diyala [province, in northeast Iraq], it continues to expand its influence in Nineveh province and operate in Salahuddin [province in the north]. What we have is really major progress over the course of the last year. But to describe this as stable or victory or not realize that it could explode in the north or explode in the south or explode in Anbar and possibly do so with little warning is simply dangerous.

You’re saying that General Petraeus is rather sober about this?

He is somebody who always has a very positive attitude but he has warned continuously about going from real progress to the assumption that it’s stable. He has said again and again you need to deal with the militia issue, you need to deal with the problem of political accommodation, and that there can’t be a military solution. This is certainly borne out when you talk to people in intelligence or in the military whether they are in Iraq or the Pentagon. The problem we have, I’m afraid, is the tendency to see Iraq in blacks and whites. It’s a much lighter shade of gray.

How does this translate into American politics right now?

It really doesn’t. You can occasionally find useful statements on the websites of candidates. You see that for Senator [Hillary] Clinton and Senator [John] McCain. The debates have never raised any substantive issues. Most of the talk is essentially pointless posturing for the Republican or Democratic bases. Most of the candidates have frankly been vacuous. Statements have been made about getting out of Iraq which are not practical or meaningful. You have that on the Democratic side and on the Republican side. You’ve had candidates seriously talk about Iraq as if it was the center of terrorist and al-Qaeda activity. What you’re watching is a contest as to who can get a D- or an F+.

But then whoever becomes the next president, that’s a year from now, will have some tough decisions, right?

It’s not a year from now because it takes months to get your team on board. So we’re really talking about a year and a half. It’s not by any means clear for Iraq and Afghanistan that what is today a lull can continue, that you can take these two wars off the political board or deal with them in the level of clichés. In the case of Afghanistan you can’t even define it in terms of clichés. You have very serious problems in Pakistan. You do not have the resources either in terms of aid, or troops, that you need in Afghanistan. The sheer mindlessness of the American political campaign can come back to haunt everyone if we have a serious set of military offenses and problems in Afghanistanin the spring. This can happen much quicker if the Pakistan election next month is either suspended or triggers a much more serious crisis and essentially leaves the Taliban and al-Qaeda without an active military challenge. It is perhaps understandable that the candidates are dodging these issues, but in some ways so is Congress and the administration. This can frankly blow up in our faces with relatively little warning at any time between the Pakistan election and our election.

Has the situation deteriorated in Afghanistan?

We have seen in Afghanistan more success for the Taliban in 2007 than we saw in 2006. If you look at intelligence maps of the area of Taliban influence in Afghanistan, it has increased by about four times in 2006. It increased arguably, according to UN maps, by somewhere between 50 [percent] and 70 percent in 2007. If you look at the area in Pakistan, the same types of intelligence assessments indicate that areas under Taliban and Islamist influence in the northwest and the south more than doubled. If you look at areas under al-Qaeda and Taliban influence, al-Qaeda’s influence is more indirect but certainly it is much stronger in Pakistan than it was a year ago.

The Taliban has its own organization in Pakistan. These are not things you can map in terms of combat. NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] has decisively defeated the Taliban in virtually ever tactical encounter it has had in the last year. But what you can see if you map something different, which is the area under the Taliban under political and economic influence when NATO is not actively present, these are the areas where the influence has increased.

Let’s assume the Pakistan elections go ahead and there will be a coalition government that more or less supports President Musharraf. That’s probably the best possibility from the U.S. perspective. Do you expect they can get their act together militarily or is the Pakistan army really not up to fighting insurgents?

It is very hard to tell because very often people are reporting that the Pakistan army is engaged and it is actually a mixture of the Frontier Corps [federal paramilitary force stationed in North West Frontier Province and Balochistan] and the police. So far the Pakistani army has scored victories on the periphery on the areas dominated by the Taliban, but the Swat Valley [in North West Frontier Province] is not typical of the problems it faces. It has not done well, according to U.S. observers, on counterinsurgency yet it also has not been heavily committed. There is a lot of Musharraf rhetoric about using the army, but when it comes down to systematic efforts to secure the areas they simply haven’t taken place. Most observers, including many Pakistanis, feel the army does need help in counterinsurgency training and counterinsurgency equipment. But many of the same people question whether the real issue is political guidance and motive rather than military competence. Probably the answer is both.

The majority of statements from presidential candidates for both parties have been “essentially pointless posturing for the Republican or Democratic bases.”

Virtually any army that has focused its history on dealing with one enemy, which in this case is India, or internal security operations where it faces no serious challenges, which is true in most of Pakistan outside the Pashtun areas, is not going to be well equipped and trained for counterinsurgency. There is also, as yet, no clear political strategy on the part of Musharraf as to how to deal with the area, how to win militarily, what level of forces to engage, what kind of government presence and services to leave behind. While “win, hold, and build” tends to be a simplistic solution, historically we know that even if you win, it almost never really matters unless you can hold and build, at least to the point of providing aid and government presence and services.

On the whole, there is a rather tenuous future in both places?

I don’t know if we can describe it as tenuous; that it remains very uncertain. When you talk to people who work this, one of the great problems they face is that it’s going to take years of patient effort. It isn’t something that you can win via political schedule. You can’t be decisive for President Bush in 2008. You can’t tell Congress that it will be all over in 2009 and 2010. Just within the last week, one of Iraq’s most senior security officials said basically the Iraqi army would really be ready, along with the police, to deal with the counterinsurgency threat in 2012, and that working with the United States it could be equipped to act independently to defend its borders against foreign threats by 2015.

When you go to Afghanistan, occasionally people start putting out charts which are not the charts that people want to see but that are the charts that really we need to see. You see dates like 2011 and 2012. That doesn’t mean we’re losing or that we’re not making progress. That doesn’t mean we’re not adapting; if you look at the aid planning in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is far better, far more sophisticated than it used to be. If you look at our military tactics in Iraq, they are far more developed. The scope is much more on the hold and build. If you look at what’s happening in Afghanistan you see a great deal of realism from senior U.S. and NATO commanders. They understand the current rules don’t allow you to use the forces you have and even if they did you haven’t enough forces.

They’ve requested what’s required. The requirement is relatively limited. It’s essentially something like three to four more battalions and to have the stand-aside countries that don’t fight—France, Germany, Italy and Spain—actually commit their troops. These types of problems have got to get resolved. Both in Iraq and Afghanistan we can’t simply sit on our hands and hope that things go well in 2008, or by the time it will take to get a new team in place in 2009.

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