Three years later: an Iraq scorecard

March 23, 2006|By ANTHONY H. CORDESMAN

WASHINGTON -- I do not oppose the war we are now fighting against insurgents in Iraq, and I believe we have an obligation to the Iraqi people to pursue our current strategy, to try to end the insurrection and prevent civil war and to help them create an inclusive and stable government.

I believe that we have made major advances in creating effective Iraqi forces and that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is pursuing the best political approach it can in trying to create the government that Iraq needs. We are making slow progress toward taking the aid process out of disastrously incompetent U.S. hands in Washington and making Iraqis responsible for their economic progress.

But this should not blind us to the strategic consequences of the war to date. We may well fail in all of our efforts because we have been slow to act, have wasted years on inept execution of those efforts and development of Iraqi forces, and face a scale of problems that we still tend to deny. There is a real risk that Iraq will degenerate into full-scale civil war or a level of divisiveness that will paralyze or limit Iraq's progress for years.

It is also clear that creating a unity government with a small Sunni minority isn't going to stop the insurrection or the risk of a major civil war this year, and perhaps for years to come. At best, it will take years to create a fully stable and functioning new political structure and defeat the insurgency.

As a result, it is time to look frankly at the war in terms of how it has achieved its original objectives after three years and consider what this means to the need to avoid rushing into wars we do not really understand or prepare for:

Objective No. 1: Get rid of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. That happened before the war. Thus the main stated objective of the war was pointless.

Objective No. 2: Liberate Iraq. Security for the average Iraqi is now worse, and the new political freedom is essentially freedom to vote for sectarian and ethnic divisions. Some progress has been made, but it is much more limited than the Bush administration claims. It will be 2007 or 2008 at the earliest before stability can be established, if it can be established. We essentially used a bull to liberate a China shop without any meaningful plan to deal with the consequences. We have tried to fix the resulting problems, but we still don't know whether we can salvage our early mistakes.

Objective No. 3: End the terrorist threat in Iraq. There was no meaningful threat in the first place. Neo-Salafi terrorism - the most fanatic strain of Sunni terrorism - now dominates the insurgency and is a far worse threat. Al-Qaida now is seriously involved in Iraq. The impact on the region has alienated many Arabs and Muslims and aided extremists. It has given Iran leverage that has added a new risk of Shiite extremism.

Objective No. 4: Stabilize the Persian Gulf region and the Middle East. The war has been extremely divisive. It has created a major new source of anger against the United States and new tensions over the U.S. presence. Iran, Turkey and neighboring Arab states have all become involved in destabilizing ways.

Objective No. 5: Ensure secure energy exports. There have been consistently lower Iraqi oil exports than under Saddam Hussein. The predicted increases in Iraqi production haven't occurred and will not for years to come. There has been no meaningful renovation of oil fields and export facilities, and there has been serious further wartime disruption. The previous problems have spilled over into the other exporting states.

Objective No. 6: Make Iraq a democratic example that transforms the Middle East. Iraq is not a model of anything. Public opinion polls in the region show that our reform efforts so far have created new Arab fears of the United States and distrust of U.S. efforts at reform in other countries.

Objective No. 7: Help Iraq become a modern economy. The flood of wartime, oil-for-food and aid money has put tens of billions of dollars into the Iraqi economy and raised its gross domestic product and per capita income on paper. So have record oil revenues. Even the latest U.S. quarterly report, however, has oil not only dominating the GDP but also rising as a percentage in the future. Most new businesses are shells, starts-ups or war-related enterprises. Youth unemployment easily averages more than 30 percent nationwide and is 40 percent to 60 percent in the troubled Sunni areas. As yet there has been no meaningful reform in agriculture, state-run industries or the energy sector. A shift to focused short-term aid and letting the Iraqis manage more of the money may help, but economic reform largely has been a wasteful, highly ideological and bureaucratic failure.

In short, being a superpower is not enough. Fighting wars requires both a realistic grand strategy and the ability to implement it. We may salvage the Iraq war on a national level, but there is little or no chance of salvaging the war in terms of our broader strategic objectives.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His e-mail is

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