A General Call for 'Strategic Patience' in Iraq, Plus Discomforting Specifics

By Walter Pincus
Monday, August 13, 2007

Here are some cold facts for those contemplating the future in Iraq:

The U.S. military has not only 160,000 troops and at least 100,000 contractors in that country, but also about 140,000 to 200,000 metric tons of valuable equipment and supplies, as well as 15,000 to 20,000 military vehicles and major weapons. These are spread through many cities and more than 100 forward operating bases.

A secure withdrawal that includes all U.S. supplies and equipment and that phases out U.S. bases would take at least nine to 12 months and probably much longer. Two years is what many military experts think would be a rapid, but deliberate, pace. Such an effort should include transferring or destroying facilities and stocks that could fuel a civil war, as well as deciding the fate of more than $20 billion in aid projects and of the gigantic U.S. Embassy -- which may end up as the most expensive white elephant in the history of American diplomacy.

This is information contained in Anthony H. Cordesman's absorbing 25-page trip report, "The Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq," based on eight days he spent in that country last month. It was made public last week.

A specialist on the Middle East, intelligence and military affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a Pentagon official in the Reagan administration, Cordesman has been an acute observer of the Bush administration's Iraq venture. Initial stories about the report focused mainly on Cordesman's view that the United States "will have to be deeply involved in trying to influence events in Iraq indefinitely into the future," but some of the specifics he delivers are just as interesting.

Cordesman reports that U.S. intelligence in Iraq regards al-Qaeda and its Sunni affiliates as making up about 15 percent of the overall insurgency in Iraq and that, despite setbacks, they "continue to show considerable resilience in rebuilding [their] leadership and key cadres."

Detainees held by U.S. forces, primarily Sunnis, now total more than 18,000, Cordesman writes, and the U.S. command projects that there will be 30,000 by the end of this year. Although there have been major improvements in handling detainees, the result has been that Sunnis in effect are warehoused and Shiites are often freed, with prisons still serving as "de facto training centers for hardliners."

On the economic side, Cordesman highlights a huge problem: unemployment or underemployment affects almost 50 percent of the population. In addition, he points to U.S. Department of Energy statistics showing that Iraq is far from being oil-wealthy. In 1980, Iraqi oil exports earned the equivalent of $55.3 billion in constant U.S. 2006 dollars, but only $24.5 billion last year and a projected $22.9 billion this year -- a decline of more than 50 percent. Over the same period, Iraq's population has grown by 63 percent.

Cordesman also made a key philosophical point at a news conference when he released his report. In describing what is underway in Iraq, he said: "It isn't some exercise in democracy. It isn't a fascination with the rule of law. It isn't a mad desire to complete a constitution. This is a real-world effort to actually make a deal people can live with in very basic terms. And that may be one of the most important things for Americans in general to understand. You got more than 27 million people at risk. This is not an exercise in political theory."

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them tofineprint@washpost.com.

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