"Time is the condition to be won to defeat the enemy," wrote Ho Chi Minh, the man whose insurgency drove U.S. forces from Vietnam 30 years ago. "To protract the war is the key to victory," agreed his revolutionary colleague Dang Xuan Khu. "We shall weary and discourage them in such a way that, strong as they are, they will become weak and meet defeat."
Time is now the crucial variable in the war in Iraq. President Bush maintains a resolute public stance, and talks about staying the course. But over the past few weeks, prominent military and political experts in Washington have become increasingly worried that the United States is running out of time. There is growing discussion, among impatient Republicans on Capitol Hill and senior military officers, about whether America needs to look for a quicker exit strategy from a war that is going badly.
U.S. commanders in Iraq reckon that, based on historical evidence, it takes about nine years to defeat the average insurgency. The United States may be encountering difficulties today, but commanders caution that we are less than two years into the process. If the United States wants to maintain the same goals it started with -- a single Iraqi state, ruled by national security forces rather than sectarian militias, with democratic government and rule of law -- there is no choice but to press on.
Are those noble goals achievable, even over a decade? That's an impossible question to answer, but there's certainly some reason for skepticism. The American presence, which was meant to stabilize Iraq, has also become a force for destabilization. The more troops we add, the more unhappy Iraqis become at U.S. occupation. Even the Shiites, who stand to benefit most from America's presence, are worried about the prospect of a semi-permanent U.S. occupation. And the Jan. 30 elections, which were intended to install a stable Iraqi government, now seem as likely to exacerbate sectarian tensions -- with Shiites voting in large numbers and Sunnis staying home.
Is there an alternative strategy that would serve the interests of the United States, Iraq and regional allies? Here are some thoughts, gathered from recent discussions with coalition military and intelligence officers:
Reduce the U.S. target. Iraq's best hope for avoiding a civil war may be the fact that nearly all Iraqis are united in wanting the U.S. occupation to end -- and are reaching out to find some common ground. A source close to Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani told the Arabic daily Al Hayat last weekend: "The representation of our Sunni brethren in the coming government must be effective, regardless of the results of the elections." He added that a new government "might demand that the occupying powers leave Iraq." Similarly, the leading Sunni clerical organization, the Association of Muslim Scholars, told Al Hayat that it would accept a Shiite government as long as it negotiated a firm deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Even if such a Shiite-Sunni alliance had an anti-American tone, it would be a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape.
Live with de facto partition. For all of the difficulties in the war, much of northern and southern Iraq is stable today. Right now, the United States can be pumping billions of dollars in unspent reconstruction money into any part of the country that's able make good use of it. It may take years to end the chaos in central Iraq, but that shouldn't stop progress elsewhere.
Make it deadly to be an insurgent. If a fledging agreement can be reached between Shiite and Sunni religious leaders on a formula for self-government, the Iraqi authorities must be ruthless in destroying opposition to that accord. Insurgents must wake up each morning afraid that they will die. This sort of dirty war isn't one I would like to see American forces fighting; it's one for Iraqi special forces. It will be a brutal fight, but it's the same one authorities in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria must fight every day against jihadists there. Somehow, the psychology of intimidation in Iraq has to be reversed, so that it's the insurgents who fear for their lives.
This is a moment for searching questions about the Iraq mission -- but not yet for final answers. The worst outcome would be a panicky rush to decision. What's needed is clear analysis -- without the false optimism too often heard from the Bush administration or the false pessimism of its critics. Keeping faith with the Iraqi people is a moral obligation for the United States. How best to do that should be a subject of national debate -- and America should take the time to get it right.