No one can return from the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, as I recently did, without believing that these are wars that can still be won. They are also clearly wars that can still be lost, but visits to the battlefield show that these conflicts are very different from the wars being described in American political campaigns and most of the debates outside the United States.
Of the critics of nation building in Iraq, Anthony Cordesman of CSIS [Center for Strategic and International Studies] is arguably the most objective and well-informed. I’ve been reading Cordesman’s studies since 9/11, finding them a good source of insights, generally objective and frank. In this op-ed for the Washington Post he reports on his most recent tour of the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq.
…The military situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are very different. The United States and its allies are winning virtually every tactical clash in both countries. In Iraq, however, al-Qaeda is clearly losing in every province. It is being reduced to a losing struggle for control of Nineveh and Mosul. There is a very real prospect of coalition forces bringing a reasonable degree of security if decisions such as Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s announcement Friday to extend his militia’s cease-fire six months continue over a period of years.
The piece closes with:
…What the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan have in common is that it will take a major and consistent U.S. effort throughout the next administration at least to win either war. Any American political debate that ignores or denies the fact that these are long wars is dishonest and will ensure defeat. There are good reasons that the briefing slides in U.S. military and aid presentations for both battlefields don’t end in 2008 or with some aid compact that expires in 2009. They go well beyond 2012 and often to 2020.
If the next president, Congress and the American people cannot face this reality, we will lose. Years of false promises about the speed with which we can create effective army, police and criminal justice capabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot disguise the fact that mature, effective local forces and structures will not be available until 2012 and probably well beyond. This does not mean that U.S. and allied force levels cannot be cut over time, but a serious military and advisory presence will probably be needed for at least that long, and rushed reductions in forces or providing inadequate forces will lead to a collapse at the military level.
The most serious problems, however, are governance and development. Both countries face critical internal divisions and levels of poverty and unemployment that will require patience. These troubles can be worked out, but only over a period of years. Both central governments are corrupt and ineffective, and they cannot bring development and services without years of additional aid at far higher levels than the Bush administration now budgets. Blaming weak governments or trying to rush them into effective action by threatening to leave will undercut them long before they are strong enough to act.
Any American political leader who cannot face these realities, now or in the future, will ensure defeat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Any Congress that insists on instant victory or success will do the same. We either need long-term commitments, effective long-term resources and strategic patience — or we do not need enemies. We will defeat ourselves.
That sounds much like John McCain — and very definitely not what I hear Obama and Clinton saying. I highly recommend the associated 9-page PDF report VICTORY AND VIOLENCE IN IRAQ: Reducing the “Irreducible Minimum”, which supplies important detail absent in the op-ed. In particular, the report notes that:
(1) the “surge” troop levels were still too small, but were able to achieve the level of success we have observed due to the unexpected Sunni Awakening and Moqtada al Sadr’s ceasefire.
(2) the civilian aid/development teams supposed to be supplied by the Department of State never showed up — so DOS continues its near perfect record of non-performance.
(3) disappointment is due those expecting complete elimination of the shocking suicide bombings much-loved by media. Personally I find it hard to imagine a future time when motivated suicide bombers can be completely suppressed [unless Iraq adopts a Saddam, Soviet-style police state approach].
The US needs to accept the fact it will probably have to deal with significant levels of AQI violence for at least several years to come, and quite possibly through the life of the next Administration. We need to be patient enough not to have our policies and position in Iraq driven by residual, low-level attacks. In practice, this means timing further US reductions to match proven increases in Iraqi security force capabilities; using a US presence to help ensure political stability in areas where AQI and other extremists have been defeated; keeping large numbers of embedded trainers in the army and police; and providing continuing support in the form of air strikes, artillery, armor, and sustainability.
…The present successes of the US “win and hold” strategy will be difficult to sustain in the greater Baghdad area and western and central Iraq after the coming reduction to 15 brigades. They will be even more difficult to sustain if US forces are reduced beyond this level before Iraqi forces and political accommodation create the conditions to make such reductions less risk-prone.
(4) the present central government is “corrupt, incompetent, and ineffective in moving money even to Shi’ite areas”.
The associated PDF The Situation in Iraq/ A Briefing from the Battlefield provides more visuals — maps and slides.
Lastly, Cordesman’s recommendations on Afghanistan are summarized in this letter to Gen. Rodriquez.