Sunday, February 24, 2008

Afghanistan and Iraq: The Long-Term Commitments

Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, can hardly be considered a neoconservative war-booster. His analyses of the Iraq war have more often been of the glass-half-empty variety than not.

This makes it all the more important that his recent strategic assessments have been increasingly upbeat (for example, see his new report, "The Situation From Iraq: A Briefing From the Battlefield").

Over at the Washington Post, Cordesman makes the case that both Afghanistan and Iraq are "winnable wars," with the U.S. military in a commanding position in every province in Iraq, while at the same time facing the increasing possibility of a Taliban victory in Afghanistan.

Both wars remain winnable, argues Cordesman, although much depends on American public support, and especially the strategic dispositions of U.S. political leaders:

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.

Of all the strategic analysts I study, I place tremendous trust in Cordesman assessments. He's just scrupulous in his even-handedness - a quality that's hard to deny, even when I disagee with his conclusions.

In this case, for example, I'm obviously more bullish on Iraq (having at least once declared victory in the war), and on Afghanistan I see the picture one more of resources and will than of any long-term military disadvantage.

But I have no disagreement on Cordesman's main point here: We need historic, long-term commitments on Afghanistan and Iraq, no less important than those we made after World War II. The price of peace in this sense appears staggering - especially for those blinded by antiwar derangement - but such costs are not unusual in the history of American foreign policy. We can and should pay the bills.

Photo Credit: New York Times, "Choosing Which War to Fight."