The War Over the War

Anthony H. Cordesman
Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Tuesday, March 4, 2008; 2:00 PM

Readers joined Center for Strategic and International Studies chair in strategy Anthony H. Cordesman on Tuesday, March 4 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq. Cordesman's regular reports on the Iraq war can be found here.

The transcript follows.

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Cordesman also is a national security analyst for ABC News. Prior to joining CSIS -- where he has led studies on has led studies on the Iraq War, Afghan conflict, armed nation building and counterinsurgency, asymmetric warfare and weapons of mass destruction and other topics -- he served as national security assistant to Sen. John McCain of the Senate Armed Services Committee and as director of intelligence assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.


Anthony H. Cordesman: The Iraq War has entered a new phase, in which political accommodation, governance and development are becoming as important as security. Major security challenges do, however, remain. Al-Qaeda has been hit hard but scarcely is defeated, and has a growing presence in Nineveh in the north. Intra-Shiite tensions remain high, particularly between the Sadr and Hakim (ISCI) factions. The loyalty of the new Sunni tribal militias (the Sons of Iraq) is anything but certain, and Kurdish-Arab tensions remain high in the north. In short, the economy may have reduced public attention to the war, but it remains a major issue.


Madison, Wis.: Thanks very much for taking questions today. I've read most of your article " The Evolving Security Situation in Iraq: The Continuing Need for Strategic Patience," and I'm seeing that both you and Tom Ricks have the same analytic failing: You see progress at the ground level, and therefore call for more progress at the ground level. Nowhere in your analysis is the "big picture," which involves considerations such as the lack of a coherent foreign policy objective that justifies the continued occupation of Iraq relative to its costs in money and lives. In other words, what good is it to hold al-Qaeda at bay if our treasury is depleted, our troops weakened and exhausted, and more thousands of American lives spent? When is enough enough?

Anthony H. Cordesman: You seem to have read one paper, but not the ones examining the broader range of challenges the U.S. faces in security, political accommodation, governance, and development. These are all on the CSIS web site.

The grand strategic calculus is anything but certain, as is the outcome of the war. The Gulf remains, however, critical to global energy exports, the world economy, and a U.S. dependent upon that economy.

Leaving a power vacuum in the Gulf, and one likely to be exploited by Iran, presents major strategic risks. There is also the moral calculus that our actions shattered and helped impoverish a nation of some 28 million people.


Peaks Island, Maine: In stating in your Feb. 24 Washington Post commentary that the war in Iraq is "winnable," what criteria would you apply to determine that it had been "won"? Do you believe that if the war is won (as you define victory) that it will have been worth the costs in terms of lives lost, destruction and degradation of American's image? Two Winnable Wars (Post, Feb. 24)

Anthony H. Cordesman: Winning doesn't mean creating our Iraq, but rather a relatively secure and stable state that can function largely on its own. If we can succeed in moving Iraq forward in reach political accommodation, relying on its own security forces, having effective governance, and moving back toward development, we will achieve those goals.

At this point, this seems possible -- although scarcely certain -- at a reasonable additional cost in casualties and dollars. It does not, however, mean simply staying the course indefinitely.

As for the degradation of American's reputation, the failure to plan for stability operations and nation-building and develop an effective course of action between 2003 and 2006 are key factors in that degradation. Abandoning some 28 million people before we make a sustained effort to repair the damage scarcely is going to restore America's reputation.


Chicago: Based on your military background, can you give some perspective on another current conflict: the situation in and around Gaza? I read the other day that Hamas has been launching dozens of rockets a day into Israel. Israel on the other hand is launching fewer rockets, but they are more accurate and have more firepower. I don't mean to oversimplify things to the point where I am trivializing them, but I want to know whether this was accurate. Israel Pulls Ground Troops Out of Gaza (Post, March 4)

Anthony H. Cordesman: No, it is not accurate. As The Post and other papers report, Israel's responses have been a major land invasion and targeted precision air strikes on Hamas's leaders. Whether this will have any lasting impact is very uncertain. It is more likely to build support for Hamas in Gaza than reduce it -- the Israeli Defense Forces cannot do Hamas lasting harm with these types of attack -- and it may well have shattered any remaining hopes for progress in the peace process.


Plainville, Conn.: Hi Anthony. How do you think history will view Gen. Tommy Franks. It seemed he got out at the right moment and didn't have to deal with the occupation. Also, did he ever voice opposition to the whole effort? My thoughts are that history is not be kind to him.

Anthony H. Cordesman: The full historical record is not clear, but Gen. Franks does seem to have failed to push for effective stability operations and nation-building. The key decisions, however, were taken by the president, secretary of Defense and National Security Council. History may be kinder to Gen. Franks for that reason.


Chicago: A very basic question: From a military (or, military and diplomatic) standpoint, which lessons from the First Gulf War were learned and applied to the current war in Iraq? What lessons were learned, but forgotten or ignored?

Anthony H. Cordesman: Many of the successes in shattering Saddam's armed forces in the first weeks of the war were the result of lessons learned during the fighting in 1991. Unfortunately, the first Gulf War taught the U.S. nothing about stability operations or nation-building, and we learned nothing from our mistake in conflict termination. No one in charge seems to have learned from these aspects of Vietnam, and we were simply unprepared for the "war after the war."


Minneapolis: Two questions. I'm unclear on what John McCain's actual plan for Iraq is, beyond maxing out on troops for some unclear but extended, duration. Could you explain what his actual plan is? Secondly, last year Secretary of Defense Gates pointed out that pressure from Democrats in Congress was a useful reminder and incentive to the Iraqis to produce results, because it indicated that we weren't going to be there forever. Don't we need to persuade the Iraqis both that we are not leaving precipitously (which none of the candidates is suggesting doing) and that we are not willing to be there forever -- which seems to be the message the Iraqis have gotten from Bush (and maybe from McCain, depending on the answer to the first question)?

Anthony H. Cordesman: No one can speak for a candidate, and it is unrealistic to expect a candidate to get into too much detail before he or she takes office. I do not believe, however, that Sen. McCain fails to see the need to keep up constant pressure on the Iraqis to move toward accommodation, anymore than the Bush administration does. Certainly, this was a main thrust of U.S. action during my recent visit to Iraq.


Tampa, Fla.: Given what is known now about Iraq's civil and economic infrastructure, how long do you estimate it will take for improved security to "trickle down" and produce increased economic growth in Iraq?

Anthony H. Cordesman: Increased growth is taking place, simply because Iraq's economy came so close to collapse after 2003, and because of massive aid, war spending and $100-per-barrel oil.

Serious, sustained economic growth, suitable levels of sustained employment,and broad improvements in income distribution and per capita income are more likely to take until 2010-2012.


Arlington, Va.: What is your take on how long the Army can withstand the current cycle of deployments? I have soldier friends going back for fourth deployments now; they are tired to say the least (and families are getting stressed to the breaking point). Thanks for your response.

Anthony H. Cordesman: The Army is not "broken," but already is having very serious problems in recruiting and retention. We badly need to get our forces in Iraq down to 15 brigade equivalents, and further "conditions-based" force reductions will be extremely desirable before the end of 2008.


Salinas, Calif.: What makes you an expert on the current Iraq conflict? Most of your analysis is based on the news wire reports coming from the region, and most ordinary people can come to the same conclusions as you. What is it that you are bringing to the table as an "expert"?

Anthony H. Cordesman: Aside from the fact that my first visit to Iraq was in 1971, I was there many addition al times before Saddam invaded Kuwait, I've written several books on the country, I've been involved in field research on some seven wars, and I've repeatedly been out the field in Iraq since 2003, I have no qualifications at all.


Peaks Island, Maine: To what extent do you believe the approximately 4 million displaced Iraqis will need to return to their homes in order for victory to be declared?

Anthony H. Cordesman: Unfortunately, many will not return to their previous homes. The real issue is going to be to helping them resettle in new areas. This is going to be a major issue for the Iraqi government -- which will have the oil money to help them, but still acts out of serious sectarian and ethnic bias.


Freising, Germany: In your article " The Strategic Impact of the Turkish Invasion of Iraq's Kurdish Region," you suggest that Turkey should warn Syria and Iran that support of either the PKK or Turkish Kurdish Islamist movements is dangerous, and that Turkey will not be passive. I understand that the PKK, or branches of it, are active in Turkey, Iraq and Iran (not sure about Syria), and that the Iranian branch is fighting in Iran for an independent Kurdish state in Iran. Hence, if Iran wanted to destabilize Turkey by supporting the PKK, wouldn't they be shooting themselves in the foot, supporting an armed group that's active against their own country? Aren't the borders usually pretty porous between northern Iraq, Turkey and Iran?

Anthony H. Cordesman: Iran has not openly supported the PKK; it has aided Islamist Kurds. While the border are porous, Iran's Kurds live in mixed areas, are a much smaller part of the population,and Iran has been ruthless in repressing any signs of dissent since the early years of the Iran-Iraq War.


Anonymous: You wrote:"At this point, this seems possible -- although scarcely certain -- at a reasonable addition cost in casualties and dollars. It does not, however, mean simply staying the course indefinitely." What is your upper limit for "reasonable cost in casualties" or for "dollars"? What is your time limit that avoids "indefinitely" occupying Iraq? Put another way, whichever yields the longer stay -- progress or lack thereof -- how long is your time limit for that scenario?

Anthony H. Cordesman: We have to make steady progress in reducing the cost and force levels during 2008, 2009 and 2010. There is no way to predict precise costs and benchmarks, but Iraq either moves forward decisively during these years, and our role is largely reduced to strategic overwatch, or we will be dealing with a state where further large-scale effort probably will be fruitless.

Do understand, however, that the historical norm for such operations is 5-10 years. One of the great problems we face is that the Bush administration kept denying that history takes time, and emphasized impossible levels of short-term success.


Portland, Ore.: Shifting to the "other" war in Afghanistan, it seems not to be going well -- the death tolls this past year are the highest since the invasion. There seems to be a reluctance on the part of some NATO countries to put more of their soldiers into direct combat roles. The U.S. recently sent more troops in to shore up the deteriorating situation. What is your assessment? Thanks.

Anthony H. Cordesman: I was there in January, and a detailed brief with maps and charts is available at

In brief, the war is not going well. We do not have enough troops, aid personnel or aid money. The Afghan government and forces are developing slowly at best, key NATO allies are not in the fight, and the rise of Taliban and al-Qaeda influence in Pakistan is a very serious problem.


State College, Pa.: Do you have any information or insight into the equipping and training of the Iraqi police force at this time? While the military boasts about the hundreds of thousands of military troops they have recruited and trained, real long-term security won't be achieved without the typical "beat cops" on street corners in each and every city. It is these law enforcement-style positions that the "Sunni Awakening" filled in Anbar and throughout Western Iraq. This is also an area that has received little attention and has had repeated setbacks. What is the status of these officials at this time?

Anthony H. Cordesman: The police remain a major problem, and training efforts have limited value and success. The emphasis is shifting to locally recruited forces that have ethnic and sectarian ties, and the police only have limited counterinsurgency capability.

Real progress may take political accommodation before the police become fully effective, as well as more aid in developing a criminal justice system and local governance. Hopefully, substantial progress towards this goal will take place before the end of the year, particularly if the provincial power act is passed and provincial elections take place.


New York: Did you serve in the armed forces (it is unclear from your bio above)?

Anthony H. Cordesman: No, my background was in the State Department, in intelligence work, and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.


Peaks Island, Maine: Re: "Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno told reporters at a Pentagon news conference that Iran must be more helpful to its neighbor and stop supporting surrogate militias that are attempting to destabilize the central government." How does Iranian aid to those attempting to destabilize Maliki's government jibe with the red-carpet welcome this same government gave to Ahmadinejad?

Anthony H. Cordesman: Politics in this region often imply far more cooperation than exists. The Shiite parties also have a long history of ties to Iran, and see it as a counterbalance to the Sunnis and insurance against a U.S. departure.


New York: Your CSIS bio suggests you claim expertise in energy issues, so please explain to me how it was in the best interests of the United States population at large to return Iraq to OPEC immediately after our occupation was successful?

Anthony H. Cordesman: Iraq never left OPEC, and the laws of war and the precedents for occupation do not allow us to make such decisions except as a temporary expedient. Whether you feel we liberated Iraq or invaded it, we never never had any such level of control.


Harrisburg, Pa.: How much does our military presence in Iraq serve as an inducement for terrorist groups to organize and rally their forces in Iraq? Would it be possible for us to diminish our military support while keeping a secondary presence that does not attract and mobilize the enemy as much? By that I mean fewer brick-and-mortar targets being built by us, but more training, basic services, etc. Would a less-physical American military presence and fewer physical terrorist targets deflate the enemy?

Anthony H. Cordesman: These are the goals and the currently U.S. joint strategic plan for Iraq.

It is far from clear, however, that Iraq really has had a decisive impact on global terrorism. The number of outsiders never has been more than 10 percent of al-Qaeda in Iraq, if that; the flow of foreign volunteers has been in tens of men per week; and most insurgents have been Iraqi.


Champaign, Ill.: Good afternoon. You speak of abandoning a nation of 28 million. Does this moral obligation require the U.S. to wreck its fiscal health and seriously damage the readiness of the armed forces?

Anthony H. Cordesman: Take a look at the national budget, and the independent estimates of war costs by the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office. Even with all the supplementals, we are spending around 4 percent or less of our GNP on all defense spending. This is far lower than during the entire Cold War, and isn't "wrecking" anything.


Herndon, Va.: Mr. Cordesman: "Progress" in the Iraq war seems almost totally a factor of what "starting point" is used. Last week, when Charles Krauthammer flayed all those who wouldn't admit the surge was working; at the same time, David Ignatius was saying things may have improved compared to what was expected when the war started, but the war still is a disaster. My view is that success is when a large amount of our troops out leave without Iraq collapsing -- if such a thing is a possibility.

Anthony H. Cordesman: You are right, we can hope for some degree of pluralism security and stability. The idea that Iraq would transform the region by becoming the ideal democracy was always absurd.


Arlington, Va.: Thanks for taking the time to answer questions; I am a journalist who long has admired your honest assessment and analyses of military matters, and your willingness to talk with journalists, even those not from major media outlets. Why is it not possible to bring in Iran, Syria, Turkey and other surrounding countries and demand that they become part of the solution? Won't they be sorry if we leave? And if Iran tries to fill the power vacuum, can't we bleed Iran dry, like it's doing to us now?

Anthony H. Cordesman: We can demand all we want. Why would they comply as long as they do not feel it serves their interests?

Also, Iran scarcely is doing well internally at the moment, and I'm unaware that it is the major cause of our problems in Iraq and Afghanistan -- although it certainly is a problem at some level.


Rockville, Md.: Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz has recently released a study estimating the total cost of the Iraq war as being in the range of $3 trillion dollars, if we continue the present course. What, in your opinion, merits such an expenditure, added to which is the $3 trillion cost of foregone opportunities in other areas, both foreign and domestic, not to mention the toll in lives lost and damaged? You mention the criticality of the Middle East. Are you willing to pronounce it to be worth more than $3 trillion dollars, plus the added burdens cited above? To make clear my bias, I doubt that you can make the case.

Anthony H. Cordesman: It is a very good "worst-case" political book. Fair enough, but it includes so many indirect factors in war costs that I can't begin to agree with its conclusions.


San Francisco: In his November 2005 National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, President Bush defined victory as an Iraq that's "peaceful, united, stable, and secure." The surge may have reduced violence to 2005 levels, but it hasn't accomplished its goal of buying time for political reconciliation, and a peaceful, united, stable and secure Iraq still seems a long way off. Has the national strategy failed?

Anthony H. Cordesman: We really never resourced the military and aid levels necessary until after the new "surge" strategy was announced in 2007. We wasted much of the period between 2003 and 2007 on ideological hopes, unrealistic plans and resources, and we only now have the tactics and country team to really more forward.

I don't like it any more than you do, but the success we have had in 2007 is not victory, and real security and stability is going to take U.S. support at some level though the life of the next administration.


Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Cordesman, you've been one of the few sane, sensible folks on Iraq. You've given us a definition of victory; what about defeat? When will we know that we've lost the damned thing? And what do we do then?

Anthony H. Cordesman: If we are asked to leave before there is accommodation, we lost. If major sectarian and ethnic fighting takes place, we lost. If the Iraqi government doesn't move towards serious political accommodation in 2008-2009, we lost. I doubt that a clear signal of defeat is going to be all that subtle.


Mililani, Hawaii: While "the surge" appears to be working well in the short term with only the addition of approximately 120,000 soldiers, will the surge eventually falter because of a lack of troop strength? Won't additional brigades that aren't going to be forthcoming be needed for the surge to lead to what we can call a victory in Iraq?

Anthony H. Cordesman: Our troop cuts do create serious risks. On the other hand, the Iraqi Army slowly is becoming effective, much of the Sunni population has turned against al-Qaeda, and political accommodation is moving forward and easing the threat. If we are slow to make further force reductions, and tie them to political and security conditions in Iraq, the risks may well prove to be acceptable.


Peaks Island, Maine: Re: A report by Amit R. Paley and Zaid Sabah in today's Washington Post, where in the big picture fits the apparent dropping of the prosecution of "two former high-ranking Shiite government officials charged with kidnapping and killing scores of Sunnis"? Case Is Dropped Against Shiites In Sunni Deaths (Post, March 4)

Anthony H. Cordesman: As I said in my introduction, sectarian struggles remain a serious risk. This is a good example, and it takes a lot of U.S. effort to move things forward.


Seattle: So, now that the surge is over (and a year long operation is never called a "surge") and the excess troops are coming home, will the bribes to Sunni and Shiite armed units also end? If so, won't that cause violence levels to go back up again?

Anthony H. Cordesman: You are referring to the militias. About 20 percent will go into the Iraqi Security Forces if the Maliki government agrees. Others will go into civilian jobs in a government-funded program, and the Maliki government is examining a $1 billion "jobs program."


Anthony H. Cordesman: My apologies to the many questioners I could not get to in an hour. Many of your questions were excellent and insightful, but I've simply run out of time.


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