Four Years in Iraq: What Comes Next?
LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen. Tomorrow marks the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq. The capture of Saddam Hussein, the establishment of an interim government, and open elections were all successes in the American effort, but the violence continues. Coalitions forces are still attacked, suicide bombings and sectarian bloodshed occur almost every day.
During the past four years, as the situation on the ground has changed, so have the goals for this war. To examine the war's evolution, we are joined by Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Welcome to the program, sir.
Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Thank you.
HANSEN: Would you remind us please what the Bush administration's original goals for the war were?
Mr. CORDESMAN: Well, that's a good question, and it never was precisely clear. The main rationale for the war was that Iraq was acquiring weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles, and it was to destroy those. At the same time, people talked about removing Saddam Hussein's tyranny. Those were the stated goals.
There were many neoconservatives in the administration who went further. They saw transforming Iraq into a modern democracy, reconstructing its economy, creating an example which would transform the region and serve as a source of stability and modernization for the entire Middle East.
HANSEN: What are the administration's goals in Iraq now?
Mr. CORDESMAN: Well, the problem is at this point, the goals tend to be very vague and very general. We're still talking about achieving conciliation. We're still talking about having stability, about national unity, but the fact is, we no longer have any articulated goals for the economic aid effort, for developing governance, for improving the political system.
We've had to back away from many of our goals for national unity, and the benchmarks we have announced are things like a new oil law, local elections and some form of improved absorption of Sunnis back into the government.
In military terms, really the only goal we have at this point is to secure Baghdad and to do that at some point in the course of this year.
HANSEN: And the recent troop increase, you know, what the president has called the surge, is supposed to make Baghdad more secure. So is the war effort headed in a right direction?
Mr. CORDESMAN: Well, it's going to take at least several months to fully implement the plan, and of course then we have to determine how well the insurgents are going to be able to challenge it, not only in Baghdad but by dispersing and moving it into other areas, which in some cases they've already done.
The pivotal problem in this is that for it to work, the Iraqi government has to make real progress on conciliation. The Shiites have to be able to continue to get along with the Kurds. They have to be able to bring more Sunnis into the government, reduce Sunni support for the insurgency, and above all they have to prevent the Shiite militias from becoming a major military threat to both the U.S. forces and the Iraqi forces.
HANSEN: I want to ask you about a recent development. Fallujah was hit by bombs that released chlorine gas. This is a relatively new tactic. Do you think the United States should be concerned that perhaps the insurgent fighters are adapting new tactics faster than the United States can come up with solutions?
Mr. CORDESMAN: Well, it is always a duel. No one has ever said we're going to have successful or stable countermeasures. Every U.S. commander, every U.S. officer, has warned that we can always count on innovative, adaptive enemies.
I think that people are more concerned, frankly, about the threat to U.S. helicopters, which is a critical aspect of our tactical operations. They're more concerned about large-scale bombings being spread throughout the country in various sensitive areas to provoke a civil war.
Chlorine gas sort of pushes all the emotional buttons that fill your fear of poison gas, but it was never an effective gas, so we need to see this as what it is, a symbolic terror weapon, not a meaningful new tactic.
HANSEN: What would you consider a reasonable definition of victory at this point?
Mr. CORDESMAN: I think in all honesty, one of the tragedies here is, again, for Americans, victory has almost become getting out without being seen as having been horribly defeated.
The reality is, if you look at public opinion polls in the region, in the world outside the United States and in Iraq, we're already perceived as having decisively lost, as having fought an illegitimate war, having produced immense suffering for the Iraqis, as having tried to impose our political and cultural values on another country as crusaders and occupiers, and I think as Americans we need to understand that, because it's going to take us years to correct that impression.
I think what we could hope for is if that we can bring a combination of security and conciliation, if we can follow that up with effective aid, then we may be able to change those opinions over time, but we have to be able to leave a reasonably stable state behind us; it has to be one in which Sunni, Kurd and Shiite can at least coexist with hope and development, and we have to have the patience to persist in moving Iraq forward to the point where much of the harm that has been done, if not forgotten, will at least be partially forgiven.
HANSEN: Anthony Cordesman is Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Thank you for your time, sir.
Mr. CORDESMAN: Thank you.
HANSEN: An interactive timeline charting the Iraq War and its human toll is at npr.org.