Mother Jones: Assuming that the U.S. does withdraw from Iraq in anywhere from a year to two years from now, what do you do you think the best- and worst-case scenarios are?
Anthony Cordesman: The worst-case scenario is everybody’s dead. The best-case scenario is everybody’s rich and happy. The most likely scenario is somewhere in between. The truth is that efforts to shape this two years in the future, given the inherent volatility in Iraq, don’t really serve as a useful basis for planning. The worst case is very unlikely to occur, and so is the best case. What we face is a whole range of uncertainties to which we are going to have to evolve and adapt. We’re going to have to adapt to Iraq as Iraqis evolve, and not to some sort of strategy or preconceived notion and try to predict the level of ethnic and sectarian conflict, the strength of the national government, how much economic progress is going to be made. Scenario analysis doesn’t help you very much unless it leads you to be extremely flexible and adaptable and to understand that when you talk about withdrawing, the issue is what your overall presence is going to be in the region, how you deal with Iraq’s neighbors as well as maintain some kind of continuity.
MJ: Which of Iraq’s neighbors do you think will try to fill the power vacuum?
AC: Everybody. One problem is that this is going to be a situation in which everybody tries to use everybody, and we’ve already seen that people don’t simply back one faction or follow their own ideological or religious convictions, so one of the difficulties here is knowing what the limits of that involvement are, and it is going to be determined in many ways by both how Iraq’s neighbors see the opportunities if they evolve, and whether they see them as serious threats. How serious will the Kurdish problem be, there’s no way to predict it. We don’t even have a policy, and if you look at the candidates none of them parse out, for example, how committed we are to providing the Kurds with any degree of security. What are the conditions for that guarantee? How are we going to deal with Turkey?
MJ: So you would say it is almost impossible to predict if we are going to leave troops in Kurdistan.
AC: We can’t predict it from the outside. It is going to be a choice for either this administration or the next one. At this point in time the administration is so conspicuously avoiding stating what its plan B, if it has one, is. And in a case like this any public statement can easily do more harm than good.
MJ: Let me ask you about Plan B. You write in “The Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq” that “if the U.S. does withdraw from Iraq, it cannot disengage from it. The U.S. will have to be deeply involved in trying to influence events in Iraq indefinitely into the future.” If we withdraw troops, how do we continue to influence events in Iraq?
AC: Well, first the question is to what extent are you withdrawing all troops. Are you really talking about ending all advisory efforts? If you are, then you need to be very clear about the difference between limited troop withdrawals, total troop withdrawals, and removing the U.S. advisory effort. If you do remove that you are certainly going to have to try to influence whatever replaces it, if you can. When we talk about other tools, we have economic aid; we have diplomacy; we have political aid. All of these areas for aid and advice provide certain kinds of leverage. If you begin to see a truly hostile Iraq emerge, then you start using those tools with Iraq’s neighbors. If you are trying to contain or deter some of these scenarios, you are going to do both. We are very intolerant of having to evolve and deal with complexity. That is not part of our national character. But that, not these withdrawal scenarios, is what we are going to have to live with.
MJ: You write in the paper that I referenced that 9 to 12 months seems like a reasonable time frame for withdrawal if and when the decision to withdraw has been made. The military often cites two years.
AC: This truth is that all of this assumes that the driving force is going to be a U.S. political decision. What you are talking about are time limits on bringing U.S. troops out with supplies. One difficulty here is the military is going to phase this out very slowly in part because it doesn’t wish to abandon the mission totally and leave chaos behind, and also because it wants to phase this out in as orderly a manner as possible. In the figures I quoted you’re assuming basically that you are going to get most of the equipment out and most of the supplies out and you are going to do it without transferring very large amounts to the Iraqis. Getting contractors and getting U.S. troops out in terms of just the physical problem is fairly small.
MJ: You assume we are going to take most of our equipment with us?
AC: Who knows? Suppose that we end up with a hostile Iraqi government that’s Shiite dominated and sovereign and asks us to leave immediately. All of those time figures are going to be turned around on a dime, so one of your basic problems here is assuming that it is somehow the United States that dictates the pace. Similarly, if you really had the terrible civil war that many people see as a worst case, you would almost have to either stand aside or get out just as quickly as you can. One of your problems and uncertainties here is you’ve seen a steady growth of Shiite power to the south. Effectively, the country is breaking up in terms of sectarian divisions. How much does that effect the security situation? Nobody knows. Are we going out through Kuwait, or out through Jordan? Are we going to have to ask for help from the Turks? Who knows?
MJ: You mentioned the Shiite-dominated government could ask us to leave. If that were to happen, would we just head out to Kuwait with our hair on fire?
AC: A lot would depend on the political context. What is the government asking us to do? Get out in three months, just leave in the face of a negotiated plan? Has [Grand Ayatollah Ali] al-Sistani just been assassinated and has al-Sadr mysteriously taken over?
MJ: The military bases that we’ve built, the reconstruction projects that are ongoing, the U.S.-run detention centers—what happens if we leave?
AC: We would have to make a decision based on what the Iraqi government was like at the time. Obviously, you don’t want to leave the most modern facilities around if you believe that the government is going to be dominated by or heavily influenced by Iran. If we have a slow, phased withdrawal, then we’ll transfer them, because we will have effectively a friendly government. If we are forced to go out for any reason without being able to plan or control the variables ourselves, then what we do is going to have to be tailored to whatever has happened at the time. You have a decision tree that looks like a forest.