Anthony Cordesman on Iraq — Part 1: The Stakes and the Odds

June 26, 2005

Gentle reader, have you been wondering what an assessment of Iraq would sound like if it were done by someone who combined the following oh-so-hard-to-find trio of traits:

a) Believes, on balance, the US must continue in Iraq for the indefinite future, and…

b) Believes in being blunt about the possibility of failure, and…

c) Is actually an experienced professional with field experience in the Middle East stretching back decades?

If so, then I doubt you can do better than check out the speech Dr. Anthony Cordesman—longtime scholar/analyst on Middle East military matters and sometime foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain—gave on Thursday, June 24 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies based on his two-week tour of Iraq in early June at the behest of the Departments of State and of Defense.    The CSIS site has archived audio of the speech and CSPAN has archived video of the speech as well.

This will be the first of three posts on Dr. Cordesman’s speech and Q&A.   It transcribes his opening statement laying out the stakes and the odds of the conflict in Iraq.   (As I could not find any transcript of the event, I transcribed this opening statement myself.)  Part 2 will summarize Dr. Cordesman’s sense of the progress made to date and the problems currently prevailing in Iraq.   Part 3 will summarize his recommendations for the future.

And for those short on time, let me give here the key quotes from the opening statement before transcribing it in full:

I did not meet any American, any other member of the Coalition, or any member of the Iraqi government who did not see this insurgency as going on for at least 2 to 3 more years, and probably in some form lasting much longer.  …Iraq is 5 to 10 years of instability, regardless of the military outcome.    It is a country which will require some 5 to 7 billion dollars in US expenditures per month for at least several more years.  In the best possible case, thousands more of Americans and Coalition partners will be killed and wounded, and tens of thousands of Iraqis.  And if you ask me to assign odds, I would say 50-50 under the best circumstances, simply because none of us have a basis on which to assign odds.

And now for Dr. Cordesman’s full opening statement:


The real issue is, in a war where there are very high risks of failure, is: Is it worth going on?  Is it worth staying the course, and paying the cost of what it will take to at least have a reasonable chance of success?  And I have been going to Iraq since 1971 and going to the Middle East since the late 1960’s and my personal answer would be, ‘Yes.’  In human terms, we are talking about some 27 million people, and they have suffered under one repressive regime after another since at least the fall of the monarchy.  They are a people who saw Saddam Hussein basically bankrupt investment in the civil side of Iraqi society in 1983, long before the Gulf War and long before sanctions, and have suffered from repression and an economic crisis ever since.

The fact is, whatever we might or might not have done, we did it, and in the course, we unleashed forces in Iraq that have been suppressed since the Ottoman Empire.  There were ethnic and sectarian differences in the country that could tear it apart since I first visited Iraq in 1971.  I know there are many Iraqis who sincerely believe that these differences were minor, but frankly to an outside observer they were apparent within a matter of days of visiting the country.  And throughout the Iran-Iraq war, a war that tended to push Iraqis together, no one could go into the field without seeing the discrimination against Kurds and Shiites in Iraqi military units, even at a time when the government was seeking to preserve unity.  And that discrimination was far, far more apparent in the field, in Shiite areas and certainly in Kurdish areas.  Once we broke the system, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia, we created a structure that could lead to civil war, and that civil war would be bloody, costly and prevent progress.   

We imposed the war without planning stability operations, and we were slow to make them work, and even slower to make them effective.  Many of Iraq’s failures are the result of our strategic failure to go from effective war planning to having any meaningful plan for nation building once Saddam fell, and with that comes moral and ethical responsibility.  And if you visit Iraq today, while there are many areas, many provinces in which there are considerable stability—at least 10—and four more in which the insurgency is limited, the fact is there is crime and insecurity, on both a personal and economic level, throughout all of Iraq, and much of that is the result of our actions.

And if you can ignore these factors, let me also remind you that Iraq is centered in an area with 60% of the world’s proven oil reserves and 40% of its gas.  And in very narrow, selfish strategic terms, what happens in Iraq will affect the global economy, our economy, and every job in this country for years to come.  More than that, there is the real issue of what is going to happen in the region if we see this devolve into a conflict between Sunni and Shiite, if we see effectively Islamist extremists appear to have defeated the United States in Iraq.  And any sudden withdrawal could—in fact, must—have that impact.  It will be seen as a major victory for precisely the kind of extremism that has a caused a clash within a civilization, and one which is probably far more dangerous than fantasies of a clash between civilizations.

Having said that, I do not want to minimize the risks.  People in Iraq, whether they are Americans or Iraqis, do not talk about the certainty of victory.  No one talks about the insurgency being over, being defeated, or being in some period of crisis.  I did not meet any American, any other member of the Coalition, or any member of the Iraqi government who did not see this insurgency as going on for at least 2 to 3 more years, and probably in some form lasting much longer.

The fact is that this is a country with no proven political experience, whose leaders are learning on the job to be politicians, to govern, to deal with the divisions in their society.  Iraq is 5 to 10 years of instability, regardless of the military outcome.    It is a country which will require some 5 to 7 billion dollars in US expenditures per month for at least several more years.  In the best possible case, thousands more of Americans and Coalition partners will be killed and wounded, and tens of thousands of Iraqis.  And if you ask me to assign odds, I would say 50-50 under the best circumstances, simply because none of us have a basis on which to assign odds.


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2 Responses to “Anthony Cordesman on Iraq — Part 1: The Stakes and the Odds”

  1. James Ritchie Says:

    Firstly, Thank you for recording the views of an honest and practical man and congratulations to Dr Cordesman.

    Second, the western democracies in Iraq MUST demonstrate that they are possessed of :

    a workable counter-insurgency model,
    a workable re-construction model,
    a workable, democractic civil governance model
    a non-doctrinaire and workable economic model.

    Without demonstrable skills in these areas what do our freedoms and values actually mean ? Iraq poses a challenge to the efficacy of the sum total of our moral and intellectual and problem solving capablilities.

    Thirdly, a plan – truthful and practical and capable of being implemented needs to be developed. I do not presently think the administration is capable of that. But I think there are sufficient well-informed people, in which category I hope I can include myself, who are capable of drawing up such a plan. Not to do so will have th most dire consequences for the democracies. If we do not get it right in Iraq we will have the opportunity of getting it right somewhere else.

    So can we begin a dialogue along the lines above and those poffered by Dr Cordesman ? And if we won’t who will ?

    Regards James Ritchie (an Australian and a former counter-intelligence and counter-terrorist planner)

  2. Brian Says:

    Hey Bill,
    Have you seen Barneys blog?

    http://rationaldisturbance.blogspot.com/


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