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'We've Underestimated The Threat, We've Reacted Far Too Slowly'

Anthony Cordesman
Anthony Cordesman
U.S. General David Petraeus will end 19 months as commanding general of the multinational force in Iraq on September 16, having overseen a dramatic reduction in violence there. In October, Petraeus will assume command of the U.S. military's Central Command, which covers the Middle East and Central Asia, including Afghanistan. Will he be able to draw resources from a quieter Iraq to an increasingly violent Afghanistan?

RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully posed this and other questions to Anthony Cordesman, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who specializes in global affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private public-policy institute in Washington.

RFE/RL: From a security standpoint, how much has General David Petraeus accomplished through the so-called "surge" in Iraq since he took over in January 2007?

Anthony Cordesman: I think that General Petraeus -- who led not simply the surge but a whole set of tactical innovations, and who did a great deal to adapt to the spontaneous uprising [against Al-Qaeda] of the Sunni tribes in Anbar [Province, west of Baghdad], to encourage it and to turn it into a broader effort -- has been extremely cautious. He's said he will not use the word "victory." He's talked about a delicate balance. He's made it clear that Al-Qaeda is not fully defeated, that the [Shi'a] Sadr Mahdi Army presents a problem that is not resolved, that there are a host of areas of political accommodation that are going to take time to work out and that the Iraqi security forces, in spite of the progress they're making, are not yet ready.

RFE/RL: Do Petraeus's colleagues see the U.S. progress in Iraq the same way? And how about his bosses, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates? And, for that matter, President George W. Bush?

Cordesman: [Petraeus's] replacement, General [Raymond] Odierno, has made exactly the same points. On the [September] 10th [during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee], the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Defense Secretary [Robert] Gates were equally cautious, and pointed out the need for time, for patience to make withdrawals on a conditions-based level or risk losing the gains that have been made and which are not yet cemented by political accommodation in Iraq.

So, when you look at this situation in a [presidential] campaign season, it's almost inevitable that the president and the Republican candidate are going to take success and cite the cases that are the best step forward. But basically all of the senior commanders and the nation's secretary of defense have taken a very different stand.

'Great Caution'

And how do you assess the progress in political reconciliation between Iraq's Shi'ite and Sunni populations, which was the point of the surge in the first place?

For the first time, we're no longer talking about an Afghan war, but a much broader-based conflict.
Secretary of State [Condoleezza Rice] has expressed great caution on this; the ambassador to Iraq [Ryan Crocker] has expressed it. General Petraeus, General Odierno, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs have all noted that problems still remain. That doesn't mean that success isn't possible. But when you look at this, it isn't a matter of passing laws, and many of the critical laws have not been passed. The laws have to be enforced. People have to see that they're enforced fairly.

Two critical elections are coming up in a country where we talk about democracy, but people have never really had the opportunity to vote for open local and provincial elections. The government hasn't shown it can spend vast oil revenues effectively and fairly, which is equally important in a country so divided. So to talk about a process, which is probably going to last through the next administration, as if this was done is A, misleading, and B, none of the key officials and [military] officers concerned with the war have for a moment suggested that we've made that level of progress.

RFE/RL: In his congressional testimony on September 10, Gates said he expects there will be some sort of U.S. military involvement in Iraq for "years to come," to use his phrase. How do you see that evaluation?

Cordesman: One almost has to hope that's true. One has to be careful, because what [Gates] and Chairman Mullen are talking about is phasing down U.S. forces as soon as possible -- getting U.S. forces out of the combat role, putting forces into a support and what's called a "strategic overwatch role" where the Iraqis take over but where they can count on U.S. support until they are fully ready to both defend the country and deal with the counterinsurgency mission. When we talk about a more extended troop presence, we're talking about advisers and trainers, not men and women in combat.

But what has also been made clear by General Petraeus -- again by Chairman Mullen and by the secretary of defense -- is this has to be conditions-based. The timing isn't something you can sit in Washington or Baghdad at this moment in time and predict according to some fixed calendar. If things go well, the reductions can come more quickly. If things don't go well, then the reductions may be complete in, say, 2013 rather than the 2011, which seems to be the current goal of the Iraqi government.

'Affordable Effort'

But given the enormous sums of money the United States already has spent on the Iraq war, can it afford a long-term military presence there?

Cordesman: Delaying reductions or the total elimination of the U.S. combat presence by two years is not something which involves vast expenditure and would not involve anything like the kind of combat presence we've had in the past. It's an affordable effort, given if things go truly bad, then there's no point in sustaining U.S. forces. And open civil war, the total collapse of Iraq, is not something we can solve with a troop presence.

RFE/RL: During their testimony, Gates and Mullen were asked whether U.S. military priorities were shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan. Gates said he preferred not to think in terms of priorities, but rather commitments. He said the United States is merely reducing its commitments in Iraq and increasing its commitments in Afghanistan. Once Petraeus takes over the Central Command, will he find himself making that same shift?

Cordesman: The tension that exists between being the commander in Iraq and having to look at the broader picture is one which is going to diminish unless things become drastically worse in Iraq. General Petraeus also faces a different set of problems. The security of petroleum is largely a naval and air mission. If the United States has to strike against Iran or contain Iran's nuclear efforts by missile defense and deterrence, that isn't a matter of ground forces. The competition there isn't as serious. General Petraeus really will not have responsibility for Afghanistan. There's a confusion here. CENTCOM [Central Command] supports the mission in Afghanistan, but the U.S. chain of command goes through Brussels [NATO headquarters] and through NATO.

RFE/RL: Doesn't the U.S. Central Command's relationship with the NATO leadership in Afghanistan, then, create its own complications?

Cordesman: That will be a problem not because of General Petraeus, but because you have a deeply divided command [of NATO forces in Afghanistan] -- a U.S. mission, on the one hand, which is a war-fighting mission; a group of allies which face a similar but different set of threats and priorities in southern Afghanistan, and another group of allies which have largely stood aside from the fighting. And that is something that General Petraeus will play a critical role in, simply because the supply mission and other aspects of CENTCOM move through there.

But the problem of Afghanistan is a challenge which goes far beyond General Petraeus. And as Chairman Mullen pointed out, this is not an Afghan war, it's an Afghan-Pakistan struggle. And one of the most striking aspects of the testimony that he and Secretary Gates gave is: For the first time, we're no longer talking about an Afghan war, but a much broader-based conflict.

'We've Reacted Far Too Slowly'

Do you expect Petraeus -- and his superiors at the Pentagon -- will commit more resources to Afghanistan?

Cordesman: The commander in Afghanistan has asked for a minimum of three brigades [between 12,000 and 15,000 soldiers]. He almost certainly wants more. The fact is that we can't get more forces out of our allies, and this war is steadily intensifying. One problem we've had is that for the entire course of the Afghan war, we've underestimated the threat, we've reacted far too slowly, we've never had the forces or resources to take the initiative. What both Secretary Gates and Chairman Mullen talked about [before Congress last week] was 8,000 troops. There's a lot of confusion here because that's not two to three brigades. One of the key points that both Secretary Gates and Chairman Mullen raised, too, was: The priority here is not really for troops alone, it's for civilian aid workers that can operate in a high-risk environment.

RFE/RL: Yes, Mullen called for workers well-versed in business, agriculture, law, education, that sort of thing. But does the United States have the resources to provide such aid?

Cordesman: No, we don't. The truth of the matter is that when you visit Afghanistan and Iraq, you discover: "Do we need them? Yes." But some very senior U.S. officials -- out-in-the-country teams -- have made the point to me they don't want any more people who don't have country background or don't have aid experience. They don't want unqualified foreign service officers, and they don't want people coming in whose background may be relevant in a different country and society, but are there on short tours and don't have the expertise to really work with the local population, or the time to become experts and develop proper contacts.

So what Chairman Mullen is calling for is something we desperately need. But can we provide it quickly? No. We simply don't have the pool of talent to draw on.

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