WASHINGTON, July 7, 2013 – A new study released by the Center for Strategic & International Studies shows the United States made significant mistakes in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, giving rise to insurgency and civil violence.
The highly detailed 110-page report reviews U.S. foreign policy since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and also warns the Arab Spring may become “an Arab Decade, if not an Arab Quarter Century.” In an exclusive interview, the CSIS Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy Anthony Cordesman discussed the implications of the report.
Danny de Gracia: The new CSIS report warns that the United States has not actually been fighting a war on terror since Osama bin Laden was driven into Pakistan in 2001 and adds that “instability, insurgency and civil violence are now the key threat.” How was it possible that for the last twelve years the U.S. security apparatus essentially missed the mark on terrorism and the evolving conflict?
Anthony Cordesman: The U.S. security apparatus did not miss the mark. It actually devoted a relatively limited amount of highly focused effort to counterterrrorism after Al Qa’ida and the Taliban were driven into Pakistan in December 2012.
The problem was that terrorism, along with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’s case, was used as the rationale for a massive effort in armed nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq which was mismanaged in ways that both created a major insurgency and allowed it to grow and fester.
The U.S. never developed effective civil-military efforts in either war, failed to create a meaningful outcome for the Iraq War and now risks failure in Afghanistan. Equally importantly, U.S. politics continued to treat violent extremism the Middle East and North Africa as terrorism rather than what were really insurgent movements that were result of massive internal forces that threaten the stability of the entire region.
As Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen make clear, these are the force U.S. security policy needs to deal with rather than the real, but limited threat of terrorism.
DDG: With the U.S. facing fiscal challenges, it seems like counterinsurgency and counterterrorism may be difficult to continue to fund on a global level. Is there a way to hold the line against security threats in spite of budget cuts?
Cordesman: The U.S. will spend at least two trillion dollars on the Afghan and Iraq wars by 2015, over 6,700 U.S. forces have died, and there have been over 51,000 U.S. wounded, as well as major losses of Afghan Iraq, and allied troops. These costs are far too high to sustain, but they were never necessary.
The U.S. made mistakes that led to a massive over-commitment of money and forces in two optional wars by failing to set realistic goals for nation building [and] react immediately as insurgencies – not terrorism – became major threats.
Focus on U.S. strategy priorities, adopting cost-effective policies to deal with regional instability, and using force selectively can serve U.S. and allied interests far better at acceptable cost.
DDG: Is there a battlefield solution to terrorism?
Cordesman: By its very nature, terrorism operates outside the battlefield. As we have seen over the last decade, a mix of intelligence operations, partnership with our allies, the use of covert action, and carefully focused use of tools like special forces and drones can contain and defeat most terrorist movements over time.
A focus on effective counterterrorism in homeland defense has also made major gains. What has been missing is a realistic and integrated civil-military effort to limit the causes of instability and extremism and deal with both terrorism and insurgency.
DDG: Last but not least, what would you say should be the number one, top priority in pursuing an effective U.S. security strategy for the next decade?
Cordesman: The key problem lies in the question. The U.S. cannot choose one top priority. It needs to keep NATO strong to provide stability in Europe. It needs effective nuclear forces to deal with the remaining threat from Russia and China, and proliferation in nations like North Korea.
It needs strong forces in the Pacific to deal with the emergence of China, and the conventional threat in North Korea. It needs strong forces in the Middle East and the Gulf to contain Iran, deal with its potential nuclear threat, and the risk of a war in the Gulf that could affect the flow of some 20 percent of the world petroleum consumption, the global economy and every job in America.
And, it now needs to strengthen its embassies and other capabilities to deal with violent instability in much of the Middle East and Islamic world and the reality that this sometimes involves insurgencies and terrorist threats to the U.S. We have to deal with all of our critical strategic priorities, not just one.
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