Monday, July 09, 2007

Post-Surge Iraq: Politics Threatens U.S. Mission

Policy developments in Washington are moving rapidly toward a "post-surge" phase of the U.S. mission in Iraq. Today' s Christian Science Monitor has the details:

With little fanfare, at least so far, the stage is being set for a post-"surge" Iraq strategy that reduces US ambitions for the Iraq project, even while keeping some US forces there for years to come.

No decisions have yet been made, and administration officials insist the current strategy that has pumped an additional 30,000 troops into Iraq still must be given time to work. But the contours of a new approach floating around Washington suggest a drawing down of the 160,000 US forces there beginning as early as the end of this year. The thousands that remain would be refocused on training Iraqi security forces and on a long fight against Al Qaeda.

Just how much momentum the new Iraq-strategy snowball has behind it will start to become clearer this week as Congress is to receive an interim report on the performance of the force buildup and as Democrats try to use another funding vote on Iraq to press for faster change.

The new strategy is still in its formative stages in White House discussions, on Pentagon drawing boards, and on congressional desks. It is a source of division in the White House, although President Bush continues to warn against the dangers of any US withdrawal. But it is reflective of political realities in both the US and Iraq.

Time is running short for achieving political consensus in the US on Iraq policy before the 2008 campaign kicks off in earnest, political leaders and experts say. On the other hand, more time is needed to achieve political consensus in Iraq. That leaves an ironic situation where the political clocks of the two countries are not just running at different speeds, as has been said for months, but in different directions.
It's not just an ironic situation, but could be a tragic one as well. The antiwar drumbeat is kicking up just as the surge units have fully deployed, and initial battlefield successes are being reported. (See Amy Proctor's post on the positive reports from the field.) We may yet, indeed, have to implement the drawdown option -- just not now!

It's not only Democrats who are itching for a drawdown: Top Republican Senators have also called for a quick Iraq pullout, hoping to convince the administration to cut-and-run (
more on this here).

The Wall Street Journal's lead editorial today provides a nice analysis of the shifting political debate, and the consequences of a premature withdrawal from Iraq. The editors suggest that the recent calls for withdrawal by some top GOP Senators are politically-driven; they have concluded that the domestic political timetable won't allow the continued, sustained deployment of U.S. forces:

So let's see. Mr. Bush and al Qaeda's Ayman al Zawahiri agree that Iraq--not Afghanistan--is the central front in the war between them. But GOP Senators looking ahead to the 2008 elections have decided that the real front in the war lies not in Baghdad or Baquba but in the Beltway, and that a "bipartisan" redeployment is a worthier goal than backing the current battle plan.

The irony is that this political retreat is taking place even as General David Petraeus's military offensive is showing signs of progress. "These Anbar [province] sheikhs who are cooperating with the United States have made an enormous difference in what was the most dangerous province in Iraq," said New York Times reporter John Burns in a recent interview on PBS's "NewsHour." "I was out there today at the capital, Ramadi . . . and it's gone from being the most dangerous place in Iraq . . . to being one of the least dangerous places."

Mr. Burns was talking about the trend among Sunni tribal chieftains to ally themselves with the U.S. and the Shiite government of Iraq against what they see as their gravest enemy: al Qaeda interlopers bent on making themselves the leaders of the Sunni community in Iraq. Al Qaeda has taken note of this shift by trying to murder the sheikhs, only increasing the rift between them.

That's a battle al Qaeda is likely to lose, provided U.S. forces are available in sufficient numbers to help Iraqi forces defeat them. It's also a battle that could bring moderate Sunnis on the same side as the predominantly Shiite government--just the sort of "reconciliation" our foreign policy mandarins have demanded of Iraqi leaders as the price of continued U.S. support.

Or as retired General Jack Keane told the New York Sun: "The tragedy of these efforts is we are on the cusp of potentially being successful in the next year in a way that we have failed in the three-plus preceding years, but because of this political pressure it looks like we intend to pull out the rug from underneath that potential success."

Proving his point, Republicans are focusing on what Mr. Lugar describes as the unwillingness of most Iraqi leaders "to make sacrifices or expose themselves to risks on behalf of the type of unified Iraq that the Bush Administration had envisioned." He should tell that to Sunni parliamentarian Mithal al-Alusi, whose two sons were murdered by Sunni terrorists, or to every other Iraqi government member who has survived assassination attempts in order to keep the prospect of a democratic, unified Iraq alive. No one in Iraq is failing to "compromise" because he thinks he can count on an endless American presence. Iraqis are debating core questions of power-sharing and federalism that are the hardest issues for any democracy to settle.

Everyone wants to see the day when U.S. forces can draw down, leaving the main job of security to Iraqis while staying available to pursue al Qaeda. But the timing of that decision should take place only when U.S. commanders on the ground believe that Iraqis can hold the gains so painfully won. The sheikhs who are now cautiously moving our way in Anbar province will not continue to do so if they can count the days to America's withdrawal.

It's a shame that some antsy Republicans have joined the Democrats in pushing a retreatist agenda in the Congress. The surge can work, but we need to give it time. Otherwise we'd be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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