I'm going to predict right now that Anthony Cordesman's report on "The Tenuous Case For Strategic Patience In Iraq" (PDF), which I noted yesterday, is going to be providing fodder to pundits and bloggers for months. It is fact rich, the analysis is easy to read and compellingly argued and he doesn't pull stylistic punches. Given that cordesman is probably the single most respected independent military analyst out there - and that his report was written after being on the same trip that O'Hanlon and Pollack returned from to write so glowingly about surge success - it's a must read.
Cordesman's report is going to be cast by the mainstream media as cautiously optimistic. However, anyone reading the entire thing will, I think, come away with the impression that he's simply trying to put a brave face on what amounts to "unless the highly improbable happens, we're f**ked".
Time and again, Cordesman is scathing in his criticism of the Bush administration's efforts in Iraq, calling them the F-Troop instead of the A-Team. He also pours cold water on Anbar Awakening triumphalism, noting that while events in Anbar provide a meagre window of opportunity, that window will close in four to six months maximum if the Iraqi and D.C. F-Troops don't get off their arses and do something competent to encourage its continuation. Cordesman warns that, without "reasonably rapid central government action to give the Sunnis what they want", the Sunnis who have Awakened will go back to shooting at US troops in short order. But Maliki doesn't seem the least inclined to make those moves and in fact is actually stirring considerable and potentially violent Shiite factionism too.
There is no point in pursuing failed strategies or failed policies. Iraq is a gamble, and one where even the best-managed future US policies may still fail. It is a grim reality that the mistakes and blunders that have dominated US policy in Iraq throughout the US intervention have interacted with Iraqi failures to make any continued US effort one filled with serious risks.
There are reasons, however, for carefully considering the cost of precipitous US withdrawal, for examining the full range of alternatives, and for demanding that any plan for US action in Iraq go far beyond the issue of US presence and troop levels and set policy goals both for future US action in Iraq and the region.
Maliki’s real or reported weakness – and ties to a narrow coterie of party supporters within Al Dawa – has led to an increasing degree of isolation, fears of US efforts to work with the Sunnis and Sunni tribes, and reliance on inexperienced party members who have little political experience and cannot govern. It is pushing other Shi'ites – such as those in the Fadhile Party (the main party in Basra) and those in SCIRI, as well as the Kurds, to try to find ways to counter a threat that they now see as being as serious as Al Qa’ida. Such efforts are faltering and have not yet taken active military form except for a few Iraqi Army units, but they seem real.His pessimism is well disguised - after all "serious" thinkers aren't defeatists according to the beltway wisdom and Cordesman is a serious thinker - but it is there nevertheless.
He identifies a long list of "key risks and problems" including:
- Prime Minister Maliki may sometimes tell us what we want to hear, but he is at best weak and ineffective and may well be far more committed to sectarian Shi'ite positions than he has publicly stated.
- The Kurds are hanging together, but have scarcely solved their problems with the Turcomans, the Arabs, Turkey, Iran, and Syria.
- Sunni political leaders inside and outside the central government have limited popular credibility, and sometimes almost none with the same Sunni tribes that have turned on Al Qa’ida.
- Shi'ites increasingly are turning on each other at the national, provincial, and local level.
- The Iraqi government at all levels has failed to venture outside their protected areas.
- Both ministries of defense and interior are years away from becoming efficient and effective, and the advisory effort is seriously understaffed and increasingly marginalized.
- Logistics and maintenance also remain problematic at best. The Iraqi Army is slowly developing a skeletal logistics capability. The Iraqi police forces are not.
- There are Army units that work well in supporting US forces, as well as some police units. They are not, however, really ready to assume full responsibility for operations and no clear plans or time lines exist to give them this responsibility.
- Reform of the national police has failed.
- The regular police remain a mess at the national level, and there are no prospects of creating a truly national police force --except for some specialized elements -- or one that can both perform regular police duties and deal effectively with militias and insurgents. US advisors made it clear that the year of the police never happened, and won't happen.
- The lack of local courts and a criminal justice system adds to the problem created by an ineffective police and increasingly effective organized crime with clear ties to local political leaders in many areas
- The US has made major improvements in its detainee efforts, but detainees have risen to over 18,000 and are projected to hit 30,000 (by the US command) by the end of the year, and 50,000 by the end of 2008. The process of review and release is still ineffective. Shi'ite detainees are often freed while Sunnis are warehoused. Camps are still de facto training centers for hardliners.
- The aid process is still a mess, with no effective leadership in Washington.
- --Far too many Americans and Iraqis still talk about Iraq as a wealthy nation when its oil revenues provide only limited per capita income or surplus above the current operating needs of governments and fall far short of near and mid term needs for reconstruction and development...Given the fact that Iraq’s population has risen some 63% since 1980, and current oil revenues are only 41% of their 1980 level in constant 2005 dollars, prattling on about Iraq as a wealthy country borders on the absurd even if one could somehow ignore Iraq’s remaining debt and reparations problems, failed state industry sector, and unemployment and underemployment exceeding 50% in much of the country.
That's one hell of a list - and it leads to an inescapable conclusion for Cordesman:
The bad news – and the key factor that makes the case for strategic patience so tenuous – is that the list of problems is now so long and so critical that some key steps are already badly overdue. Any major Iraqi failure to move forward over the next six months, to come to grips with the realities described above, and to solidly co-opt the Sunni tribes and put a real end to JAM and other Shi'ite sectarian cleansing will make strategic patience of limited value or pointless.For Cordesman, this clearly is the very last Friedman Unit. He doesn't say it outright but he obviously holds little hope of all the key problems being addressed successfully in such a short time. Thus he writes that:
These are unpleasant realities for a nation that prefers all of its solutions to be simple and short. The reality is, however, that even if the US does withdraw from Iraq, it cannot disengage from it. The US will have to be deeply involved in trying to influence events in Iraq indefinitely into the future, regardless of whether it does so from the inside or the outside. It will face major risks and military problems regardless of the approach it takes, and it will face continuing strategic, political, and moral challenges.Planning a withdrawal that does not become a rout which would destroy any last vestiges of US prestige should now be a priority.
...It seems likely that the US will ultimately be judged far more by how it leaves Iraq, and what it leaves behind, than how it entered Iraq. The global political image of the US – and its ability to use both “hard” and “soft” power in other areas in the future, depends on what the US does now even more than on what it has done in the past.
The US has some 160,000 military personnel in Iraq and a matching or greater number of civilians and contractors. It has between 140,000 and 200,000 metric tons of valuable equipment and supplies, and some 15,000-20,000 military vehicles and major weapons. It is dispersed in many of Iraqi's cities and now in many forward operating bases.
This does not mean that the US cannot leave quickly. It can rush out quickly by destroying or abandoning much of its supplies and equipment, and simply removing its personnel and contractors (and some unknown amount of Iraqis who bet their lives and families on a continued US effort). The more equipment and facilities (and Iraqis) it destroys or abandons, the quicker it can move. Under these conditions, the US could rush out in as little as a few weeks and no more than a few months.
A secure withdrawal that removed all US stocks and equipment and phased out US bases, however, would take some 9-12 months or longer [estimates of this vary but if it was 10,000 military plus 10,000 civilians and all equipment each month in Kuwait, that would likely take 16 months minimum; 2 years is what many military experts think would be a rapid, but deliberate pace]. It would involve transferring or destroying facilities and stocks that could fuel a civil war, and reaching some decision about the fate of over $20 billion dollars in aid projects. (It also would involve some decision about the immense new US embassy being constructed in Baghdad, which would become the most expensive white elephant in the history of diplomacy and an extraordinary monument to human folly even by the demanding standards of the Middle East.)
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