Anthony Cordesman on Iraq — Part 2: The Progress and the Problems to Date

June 28, 2005

[Part 1: The Stakes and the Odds, which introduces this 3-part series and transcribes in full Dr. Cordesman’s opening statement can be found here.]

[Part 3: Where We Should Go from Here can be found here.]

Continuing our discussion of Dr. Anthony Cordesman’s speech on June 24 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (audio here, video here) regarding his recent two week tour of Iraq in early June at the behest of the Departments of State and of Defense, we now arrive at the "there’s good news, and there’s bad news" portion.

First, a (relatively) brief overview:

The Military Situation (Overview):

Dr. Cordesman saw the most progress here, though he was firm that current military operations can only contain, not destroy, the insurgency.  Indeed, his scathing opinion was as follows:

So anyone talking about breaking the back of the insurgency is fundamentally misreading the situation or misportraying it deliberately. It is not happening, and it is not the goal of military operations to date.

However, I had the sense he thought the presently prevailing limitation to containment is par for an admittedly very bloody course.  He was highly heartened by the fact that the infrastructure for training new Iraqi military and security forces is in place, and the first officers having gone through it began to take commands in February.   He thought it is quite possible for there to be a gradual withdrawal over the course of 2006 of US forces down to the level of tens of thousands of personnel.  (In comparison, current US forces in Iraq stand at roughly 150,000 personnel, see the OIF-3 listing on the Iraq – Order of Battle Page at for more details.) On the other hand, since the parliamentary elections of five months ago in January, the Sunni insurgency (especially its small foreign jihadist contingent) has sought to provoke civil war through attacks on Shiite and Kurdish civilians.  With caustic understatement, he called civil war "an exit strategy, and also a failure."  That is, he saw no way the US forces could stay for any length of time in the middle of an all-out civil war and thus no way they can stop the bloodbath that will ensue.   

The Political Situation (Overview):

Dr. Cordesman was by and large heartened with the dedication and effort of the civil servants he met in the new Iraqi government, especially the Ministries of Defense and of Interior.  (Note that Interior does have the police portfolio, so I am not sure if he has disproportionately seen only the domestic security side of the civil service.)  However, by and large, he felt managerial experience in the new government is in short supply, and he emphasized that experience in tending to the demands of different ethnic/tribal and religious groups outside of the context of authoritarian kleptocracy is necessarily lacking.

As for electoral politics, he thought the legislative elections in January and the declared plan for ratification of a constitution by this legislature by October followed by a set of new elections for a government in accord with this new constitution by December do mark definite progress.   However, he cautioned that political parties thus far are overwhelmingly formed along ethnic and sectarian lines, and thus "elections and constitutions are not going to play out as solutions but rather as forums in which all of the divisions and problems in Iraq. And this will take years to change."

The Aid & Economic Situation (Overview):

Dr. Cordesman thought the aid & economic situation was equally as important as the military & political situation for the eventual success or failure of the project of a new Iraq.   Thus, it is especially unfortunate that not only no systematic cross-the-board progress in civilian infrastructure and standards of living has been made, but also no systematic plan to achieve progress has been formulated.   He put it bluntly, "There is too much corruption, too much inefficiency, and too much waste in the process.”

And now, for those so inclined to keep reading what’s already a long post, allow me to relate many of the more unique and nuanced points Dr. Cordesman made.  In emphasizing these specific points, he seemed, to this listener at least, to tower above the teeming legions of Iraq experts that appear on TV.

The Military Arena (Nuances):

1) Dr. Cordesman explicitly mentioned that one of the most encouraging facts about the progress in the military and police training infrastructure is that Iraqi officers have begun to take major roles as instructors at all levels.   This is vital to build the esprit de corps that is the first prerequisite for effectiveness in any organization that involves some men ordering other men into combat.

2)  However, he emphasized how early in the process of training the new military and police forces are.  Therefore, it is crucial to realize overall manpower numbers are misleading.  In Cordesman’s estimation, "only a handful" of Iraqi units currently are able to perform independent counterinsurgency sweeps, and only "30%" of the military units and "40%" of the police units are able to perform ancillary support functions.  Moreover, basic police functions (i.e., those other aimed at ordinary criminals rather than paramilitary insurgents) are going to need to receive more attention.   

3) On the contentious issue that a (if not the) critical mistake of US post-conflict operations thus far was the disbanding of the Iraqi army, he put forth the following view I had never heard before now.  Namely, the disbanding was fundamentally irrelevant in regard to the formation of the core of the insurgency:

You have to understand this is a country which was involved in an arms race from the early 70’s to the fall of Saddam Hussein, and where the only restraints are what happened after 1991. There were some 900 or more arms depots in Iraq after Saddam fell. Unless you have actually visited a place like Taji(?), you cannot imagine the immense inventories of weapons. Unless you have seen how many of these depots were scattered throughout the country, flown over them in a helicopter, you have no idea of how many they were, and above all, of how thorough the looting was in the days immediately following the fall of Saddam Hussein. I see again and again the statement that we should have not disbanded the army. And the fact is, it was irrelevant. It was gone 2 weeks before that disbandment occurred. More than that, all you have to do is look at those sites from a helicopter or visit them on the ground to see. They were looted once, looted again, and then looted further. And those arms are scattered throughout the country.

At the risk of adding an obvious point, I don’t think Dr. Cordesman was endorsing leaving utterly unemployed and unpaid that bulk of the old Iraqi army which, once disbanded, did not join the insurgency.  Rather, I just think he was making the point that the old-Iraqi-army component of the insurgency made their preparations very early after the fall of Saddam and the promise of continued collection of an army paycheck would not have changed their calculations.

4) Directly after the above quote, he shared the following take on the issue of foreign smuggling supporting the insurgency:

That’s why most of the smuggling coming into Iraq is not weapons or arms, though a few systems that have come in from places like Syria, like advanced sniper rifles, night vision goggles, and other devices. But the basic threat—car bombs and IEDs, suicide bombs—literally there are countless tons of those munitions scattered throughout the country.

5) On the hot-button issue of how much Iraq is now serving as a magnet and training ground for the next generation of jihadists, Dr. Cordesman reminded everyone of the rather cold comfort that the number of foreign jihadists in Iraq is a rather small fraction of the foreign jihadists taking part in insurgencies in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Chechnya, and elsewhere in Central and South Asia.   He also added the point I had not heard previously that the Gulf countries (notably Saudi Arabia) are rather small contributors to the foreign jihadist component of the Iraqi insurgency, at least in terms of footsoldiers.   Recruitment of footsoldiers is coming more and more from North Africa and the Sudan.  He confessed some confusion as to the ultimate significance of this trend.

The Political Arena (Nuances):

I may as well just transcribe Dr. Cordesman’s words verbatim, as it is so refreshing to see an analyst who (1) knows some Iraqi history and (2) knows that widespread yearning for democracy does not automatically dispel the many conflicts among said peoples yearning for democracy.

Now let me make two points that are far too easy to forget:

  • Iraq has already had good constitutions. The idea that a constitution somehow is going to solve major problems is one that is going to require a great deal more thought in the United States because the real issues here are two-fold. They are how to share power, not simply between ethnic factions, but between those who have a secular approach to Iraq and those who have a religious approach, and they are how to divide up money, because ultimately and in the near term, it is oil revenues and oil revenues that will be the stimulus for development and which will keep this country going. That is a constitutional set of issues which go beyond rhetoric, but they are extraordinarily difficult to solve.
  • The other is what we mean by democracy. Let me remind you of your high school civics lessons. There is no one here who lives in a democracy. There is no functioning democracy in the world. We all live in a republic, bound by rule of law and human rights. And that is a critical issue in Iraq because, good as many of the new leaders are, they have no political experience. They have, in general, never governed or administered a large scale structure. People are being pushed into roles they have very little practical ability to perform. There are no real political parties, and as a result there is a tendency to move to service politics, or special interests, or ethnic, or sectarian parties. Only a few as yet understand the need to have national political parties. So elections and constitutions are not going to play out as solutions but rather as forums in which all of the divisions and problems in Iraq surface. And this will take years to change.

The Aid & Economic Arena (Nuances):

1) The US aid programs have to stop using "Russian standards of performance", to use Dr. Cordesman’s colorful metaphor.   By this he meant the following.  It doesn’t necesarily matter what your total expeditures are.   The goal is not to spend money but to make definite, cross-the-board improvements in infrastructure and the standard of living.   And, no, saying how much was spent on specific projects to that end doesn’t count as a legitimate performance standard.   Honest, timely evaluation of how well specific projects meet their specific goals is needed.   On that note, the local success stories trumpeted in the weekly US aid reports, no matter how inspiring they are (and indeed they are given the danger in which many of those people work), do not constitute necessarily a good measure of performance either.   All too often they are blips that do not fit into any systematic plan, or worse, occur in localities chosen for reasons of (often corrupt) service politics.   

2) The underlying notion of the US reconstruction efforts, namely that private companies have a special insight into reforming a kleptocratic command economy that has lacked civilian infrastructure investment for 20 years, insight beyond the international organizations that have dealt with similar problems in say, the former Yugoslavia and Cambodia, was always worrisome.  It has now definitely proved to be a fallacy.


2 Responses to “Anthony Cordesman on Iraq — Part 2: The Progress and the Problems to Date”

  1. Eric Martin Says:

    Fine work on this. I second Swopa’s thanks for the effort.

  2. Lounsbury Says:

    Some thoughts on Aid

    Well, all well and nice. However, I have a hard time thinking of a successful way to create real benchmarks. This strikes me as unrealistic wishful thinking. Who controls the performance data, are the benchmarks going to be on a reasonable time scale? …

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