The Way Forward In Iraq

In Iraq, the violence has continued, militias have been steadily gaining power, and the fledgling government still seems unsteady. Moreover, the political will to continue the conflict in Washington, outside of the White House at least, seems to be starting to ebb. Resolute though George Bush may be, with the Democrats gaining more power, cracks starting to develop in the pro-war coalition, and polls showing that the American people are losing confidence in the war effort, time seems to be running out.

So, what’s to be done?

Well, what does Washington always do in situations like this? Why, form a blue ribbon committee to use as cover, of course! In this case, the James Baker/Lee Hamilton-led Iraq Study Group is playing that role and there have been several ideas that they’ve discussed that have slipped out to the public already. Unfortunately, most of those ideas aren’t very palatable.

For example, should we essentially split Iraq into a Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni nation? Aside from the fact that many areas in Iraq aren’t tidily split up into easily separable demographic groups, what you would end up with would be a Shia satellite state in Iran’s orbit, a Kurdish state that would constantly be threatened with attack by Turkey, and an oil-less Sunni state that would have the potential to turn into a terrorist enclave. That’s not a very promising outcome.

Well, what about installing a “strongman” to run the country? Not only does that run absolutely counter to everything we’ve been trying to do in Iraq since the war started, it’s not practical. If we were going to install a kinder, gentler Sunni thug in Iraq, the time to do it would have been right after the invasion. It’s too late for that now. If we tried to put a new “El Presidente” in there now, it would almost have to be someone like Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani or Muqtada al-Sadr and the last thing the world needs is another Middle-Eastern state run by mullahs.

Another suggestion is that we bring Syria and Iran into ongoing discussions of how to solve the problems in Iraq. On the one hand, they should certainly have some insight into the problems in Iraq, since they’re causing some of them. On the other hand, Syria is heavily influenced by Iran and it’s in Iran’s interest to have Iraq weak, undemocratic, and Shia dominated. That’s not something that’s going to be changed by silver-tongued diplomats over a few cups of tea either. The only message Iran or Syria will really respond to is, “Stop causing problems in Iraq or we’re going to send in the bombers.” However, that is not a strategy without risk and if the Bush administration were willing to go that far, they probably would have already done it.

However, there is one idea with merit that has come out of the study group and that’s benchmarks. What are benchmarks? Think of it as a private timeline that’s shared between the U.S. and Iraq and it’s going to be the way forward for us in Iraq.

Why? Well, here’s the situation President Bush has to deal with.

Although George Bush may be our commander in chief, Congress also has a big say over what we do in Iraq and after the elections, the pressure from Democrats and Republicans on Bush to get our troops out of Iraq is going to start ramping up significantly. Does that mean Bush will be forced to cut and run? No, but it probably means that he essentially has a window that will last through 2007 to do what he needs to do in Iraq before, at a minimum, our troops will have to fill a role more similar to the one they play in Afghanistan than the one they play in Iraq. That means our special forces may be active and we may be helping with training, logistics, and air power, but we’re not going to have our troops policing Iraq on a day-to-day basis. And let’s be completely honest here. We invaded Iraq in March of 2003, so by the end of 2007, we’ll have been there for more than four and one-half years. Quite frankly, by that point, the Iraqis should be policing their own streets, fighting their own battles, and dealing with their own internal bad actors.

Unfortunately, what we’re starting to see in some cases is that the Iraqi government is starting to shy away from confronting these militias because of sectarian and political reasons. Shias and Sunnis are reluctant to crack down on “their side.” Worse yet, because thugs like Muqtada al-Sadr have acquired political power to go along with their street gangs/militias, they’re using their political influence to help keep the U.S. and Iraqi forces off their backs.

But, if the effort in Iraq is going to be a success, the Iraqi government is going to need a large, effective military and the militias need to be weakened significantly before we start sending large numbers of troops back home. The training of the Iraqi military? There have been some setbacks and everything hasn’t gone perfectly, but theoretically, there should be enough trained and equipped Iraqi troops to hold the country together by the end of 2007. But, the militias? We’re not getting the job done in that area right now — and that has to change. The Iraqi military needs to be strong enough to crush any threat to the public order after we leave and if these large militias are allowed to run wild and gain strength, we could see a terrorist “state within a state” develop or even a full scale civil war if the militias believe they can take on the Iraqi government and win.

That leads us to a catch-22. The militias need to be significantly weakened and the only way to do that is via force or the credible threat of force, but the Iraqi government seems hesitant to act. So, what are we going to do about that?

Well, the reality is that the Iraqis are a democratic people that get to choose their own leaders and we’ve agreed to respect the wishes of their government. However, we’ve also clearly said that we went to Iraq to be liberators, not occupiers.

So, basically what we need to do is reaffirm to the government of Iraq that if they want to start cleaning out these militias now, we’re going to be right there beside of them. But, they also need to understand that whether they want to deal with the problem or not, we’re starting to get close to the time when the training wheels are going to come off the bike. In other words, they can deal with the militias now, when we’ve got 140,000 troops in the country, fighting beside them or they can deal with the situation at the end of 2007, when 70,000 or 80,000 of those troops will have probably already headed back to the US. The only thing they can’t do is keep us hanging around forever while they try to make up their minds.

Does that mean we set an artificial deadline based on political concerns? No. But, as George Bush has said many times, “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” — and quite frankly, by the end of 2007, they should have had enough time to stand up. Granted, it would be tempting for us to hover over them like a mother hen over her eggs, but there comes a time when, for good or ill, you’ve got to cut the apron strings. We’re getting to that point in Iraq.

Long story short, we’ve spent so much of our blood and treasure in Iraq since 2003 not just because it’s a noble undertaking, but because the success of democracy in that country is vitally important to the United States, the Iraqi people, and the whole Middle East. However, in the end, we can give them advice, we can wish them success, and we can even give them a helping hand here or there, but, whether democracy succeeds in Iraq over the long haul is going to be up to the Iraqi people, not the United States.

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