The Presidential Campaign, the Iraq and Afghan-Pakistan Wars, and the Coming Year of Uncertainty
May 21, 2008
Use this link to download the report: http://www.csis.org/files/media/csis/pubs/080521_iraq_afghan_uncert.pdf
It may not be polite to say so, but the US, the world, and the next Presidency will be far better off if none of the Presidential candidates take what they are now saying about Iraq, or failing to say about Afghanistan, all that seriously. The fact is that it will be nearly a year before the next President is elected, sworn in, and has his or her team fully in place. The end result will be that the next President will inherit new facts on the ground in two wars a full campaign season from now, and have only limited initial impact on the forces in play as the next campaign season begins in 2009.
A new report by the Burke Chair at CSIS focuses on the range of uncertainties that will shape events before the new President takes office. It is not enough, however, for a President to take the oath of office, It takes time to put a new team in place and to take effective action. In the real world, the next President will not be able to fully shape a policy for either war, and gather real momentum in implementing it, until the fall of 2009. That is two military campaign seasons and a host of political developments from now.
This means pragmatic, realistic policy has to be based on how events have changed between this spring and mid to late 2009. If things get steadily better in Iraq in the interim, it would be irresponsible to withdraw without recognizing that fact and seeking some form of victory. If things fall apart in ways that make Iraq security and stability impossible to achieve, it would be equally mindless to irresponsible until 2013.
As the new report shows, the next President will face a wide range of facts on the ground that campaign rhetoric cannot change. Equally important, George W. Bush should be the last President who decouples America's strategy and actions in Iraq from any clear position on the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US cannot win the Afghan-Pakistan conflict by neglecting it, providing far too few resources, dividing it into Afghan and Pakistani elements, and only reacting to Taliban and Al Qa'ida initiatives after they gain momentum. So far, however, all three candidates have have treated the Afghan-Pakistan war largely through slogans and neglect.
There are limits on how fast the new President can act. He or she will face the fact that it takes roughly 60-90 days to withdraw a brigade from Iraq in an orderly and well-structured fashion, and at least that long to prepare and deploy one to Afghanistan. He or she will also have to deal with new political realities in both countries, and in the actions of our allies and regional powers. The lead times in Iraq and Afghanistan are long at best, and the ability to implement new programs is severely restricted by a lack of qualified US personnel, major transport and infrastructure problems, a host of US legal and Congressional barriers, a lack of host country competence, and host county corruption.
Money and the new Congress will be critical issues. A new president inherits the last President's budget, and even if the new President can quickly obtain the supplementals or budget legislation he or she needs, any new programs take time to initiate or terminate in an orderly fashion. The new President will also be limited by the fact that the US will have great leverage and influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but will not have control, and Iraqi and Afghan political and military developments will be very much in play. This means the next President will need to adopt pragmatic, reality-based policies based on the course of events over the next the coming year.
No candidate has a yet begun to address this future, or the complex mix of issues involved, with the depth and credibility that will be needed by a new President, and this analysis has ignored the fact the new President will also have to must try to create a workable form of Arab-Israeli peace process. At the same time, it is probably unfair to ask that any candidate try to deal with these issues in real depth before taking office. US political campaigns almost demand polarization, partisanship, and mindless oversimplification. Accordingly, Americans (and the world) should pray that none of the candidates ever comes to deal with any major issue in the region primarily on the basis of what they say before they are elected.