Cordesman is a strategic analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy research center in Washington.
But in a recent report, based on a personal visit to Iraq, Cordesman urged Congress to show "strategic patience" with the current "surge" strategy. He acknowledged, though, that it is a gamble to expect the Iraqi government to succeed in reconciling the tensions between the country's ethnic groups.
RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully asked Cordesman for his views on how well the surge is going, ahead of key testimony being delivered to the U.S. Congress today by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
RFE/RL: General Petraeus has suggested that a modest reduction in the U.S. troop presence in Iraq would probably be needed by next spring to avoid further strain on the American military. But isn't that the earliest any withdrawals could begin just from a logistical point of view, given the size of the U.S. presence there?
Anthony Cordesman: There is a limit as to how quickly you can bring people back and give them the career paths, locations, and assignments they really need. And the rate that the military are comfortable with for the Army and Marine Corps is about 10,000 a month. It's not that you can't physically bring people out much more quickly. Of course, you can.
The difficulty you have is, until you have political conciliation [among Iraqis], you find it very difficult to reduce troops because you've committed them forward; they're in local areas. We have a strategy now of not simply winning, which we had in the past, but winning and holding so we can secure the area and create a political and economic climate in which people can have a normal life and establish some kind of links to the central government.
RFE/RL: There's been a lot of talk about the strain being put on the U.S. military. Just how great is that strain?
Cordesman: There's no clear way to know. A lot of the strain is on [the soldiers'] families. People who are in combat or in active assignments often have very high morale. They have a clear mission. While they're in the field, they basically tie their loyalties to the people around them. This is just a fact of life in military units. You have to be loyal to the people you fight with.
RFE/RL: But does this strain on the military exhibit itself in other ways?
Cordesman: If you extend deployments and make them too often, people aren't going to volunteer for the National Guard. They're going to get out of the Army Reserve as quickly as possible.
"We have a strategy now of not simply winning, which we had in the past, but winning and holding so we can secure the area and create a political and economic climate in which people can have a normal life and establish some kind of links to the central government."
One great problem is that the people who may be motivated now could leave the service in very large numbers when they return [to the United States]. People very much fear that we could lose cadres of key technicians and noncommissioned officers and midgrade officers, even though their morale in Iraq could be relatively high.
RFE/RL: According to polls, a significant majority of the American people oppose the Iraq war. If General Petraeus began a modest withdrawal next spring, would that reflect positively on the Bush administration's war strategy?
Cordesman: We are talking about a time frame where we are far too focused on troop reductions. If you don't have Iraqi political conciliation by next spring, it's not clear that the central government, with its present structure, can hold together, with or without the present prime minister.
If you do have political conciliation, even if it's only a serious beginning, then the pressure on U.S. troops is going to go way down and the critics of the war are going to lose, really, the fundamental issue, which is not U.S. troop levels but the fact that we're fighting without watching an Iraqi government create the kind of national unity and conciliation that offers a clear reason to sustain our presence in Iraq.
RFE/RL: So when Americans judge the war in Iraq, what will be their criteria?
Cordesman: Here the issue is, frankly, not U.S. troop levels as the key factor in U.S. politics. It's a factor. No one can deny that. It's also true that if we are reducing [troop levels from] 130,000 to 100,000, if casualties are going down, if costs are going down, if equipment losses are going down, that will send a very positive message.
It isn't a matter of any given magic number, whether it is casualties, troop levels, or costs. But if all of these things are being seen to improve, that will have a political impact.
RFE/RL: Then is there a possibility that if Americans see these improvements, support for the president's war policy will grow?
Cordesman: I think we need to be very, very careful here. Americans -- and I think politicians and strategic analysts and journalists -- aren't going to judge a war in that sense. They're going to look at the political structure in Iraq. They're going to look at the outside pressures and threats from countries like Iran. They're going to look at the development of Iraqi forces, the quality of Iraqi governance, the role of U.S. forces, whether or not there is still a clear Al-Qaeda threat. They're going to look at the pattern of civil conflict inside Iraq.
All of these factors are going to shape political judgments. It is a long time in terms of war, politics, and uncertainty between now and next spring. But I think Americans, like Iraqis, are going to judge the overall course of the war, and not on the basis of one or two key factors.