Iraq and Afghanistan Winnable Wars
Anthony Cordesman, a longtime Iraq War skeptic and administration critic, argued in yesterday’s Washington Post that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are “winnable.” It’s a tightly written piece that defies excerpting but here is the crux of it:
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.
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.
Donald Douglas praises Cordesman as “scrupulous in his even-handedness” and Dave Schuler judges him “consistently a purveyor of sound advice on Iraq and Afghanistan,” assessments which I share. But Kevin Hayden says Cordesman is part of the “false promises” gang, noting that Cordesman called for just “one more year in Iraq” a mere four months ago.
Perhaps that’s because Cordesman reflects the sober judgment of the foreign policy community. Here’s his conclusion in that piece from last October:
The odds of success are less than even. But it’s worth a try because the stakes are immense. America’s reputation and credibility are at risk; it “broke” Iraq, put 28 million lives at risk and is morally responsible for the consequences. Global energy security — the continued flow of the oil exports that fuel the world’s economy — are also in play. We shouldn’t stay in a losing game indefinitely. I believe we should give ourselves until October 2008; if there’s no Iraqi political accommodation by then, we should get out.
Meanwhile, we must play out the hand we have dealt ourselves.
Is he already hedging his bits on the goalposts for withdrawal? So it would seem. But the underlying calculus remains the same: The odds of success aren’t as one would like but the cost of failure is high. So long as the casualties are low and there are hopeful signs, then, we may well continue to muddle through with calls for “another year” or, as anti-war wags would have it, two more Friedmans.
There’s not much question that Congress will continue to insist on instant victory and administrations will continue to blame weak governments. The question is whether we’ll continue muddling through, extending the operations a few months at a time, long enough to succeed.
I don’t have the answer to that. It’s slightly more likely to happen under a McCain administration than an Obama or Clinton administration — but only slightly. McCain would be a more reliable champion of the wars, especially the one in Iraq, but Obama and Clinton would have an easier time persuading what is almost certain to be a Democratic Congress.