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Two Winnable Wars

By Anthony H. Cordesman
Sunday, February 24, 2008

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.

These conflicts involve far more than combat between the United States and its allies against insurgent movements such as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban. Meaningful victory can come only if tactical military victories end in ideological and political victories and in successful governance and development. Dollars are as important as bullets, and so are political accommodation, effective government services and clear demonstrations that there is a future that does not need to be built on Islamist extremism.

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.

Military victory is far more marginal in Afghanistan. NATO and international troops can still win tactically, but the Taliban is sharply expanding its support areas as well as its political and economic influence and control in Afghanistan. It has scored major gains in Pakistan, which is clearly the more important prize for al-Qaeda and has more Pashtuns than Afghanistan. U.S. commanders privately warn that victory cannot be attained without more troops, without all members of NATO and the International Security Assistance Force fully committing their troops to combat, and without a much stronger and consistent effort by the Pakistani army in both the federally administered tribal areas in western Pakistan and the Baluchi area in the south.

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.

The writer holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He recently returned from the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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