By David Ignatius
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
"Every war must end," says Zalmay Khalilzad, America's ambassador to Baghdad. And while termination of the brutal conflict in Iraq is hard to imagine right now, top U.S. officials are sketching a road map to begin stabilizing the conflict and withdrawing American troops.
Khalilzad outlined the Bush administration's current thinking about Iraq in a telephone interview from Baghdad on Monday. The items on his agenda include a joint U.S.-Iraqi committee to discuss the details for a gradual withdrawal of American troops over the next several years, a conditional amnesty for Iraqi insurgents as part of a broader reconciliation effort, and negotiations with insurgent groups about terms and conditions for ending the fighting.
What was clear in Khalilzad's comments (but is rarely so in the partisan Washington debate about Iraq) is how badly the Bush administration wants to find a way out of the Iraq morass. Last week was an example of this disconnect, with Republican legislators blasting Democrats for advocating phased troop withdrawals, even as Gen. George Casey, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, was quietly discussing just such a withdrawal timetable at the Pentagon. As is usually the case with Iraq, the Baghdad version of what's going on is far more useful than the Washington version, so it's worth paying careful attention to Khalilzad's account.
Reconciliation sounds fine in principle, but in practice it can be agonizing. I asked Khalilzad how he would answer members of Congress who are indignant that insurgents who opposed the U.S. occupation might be pardoned by the Iraqi government. "They need to understand that we want this conflict to end," he said, and stressed that Iraqi and American hopes of reducing U.S. forces can be achieved only if the insurgents agree to stop fighting and recognize the Iraqi government's authority. "The biggest thing we can do to honor those who sacrificed here is to achieve the cause they fought for" by creating a peaceful and democratic Iraq, he said.
"Ending a war is as difficult as fighting a war," Khalilzad went on. He noted that many conflicts in American history have ended with a general or partial amnesty -- from the Whiskey Rebellion to the Civil War to the U.S. Army's battle against insurgents in the Philippines. "To end a war, you must balance the requirements of reconciliation with the requirements of justice," he explained. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seemed to be trying to strike such a balance yesterday when he said any amnesty shouldn't apply to insurgents who had actually killed Americans or Iraqis.
A key part of the Bush administration's strategy is to involve Maliki's government in discussions about withdrawal of U.S. troops. Gen. Casey briefed the Pentagon last week on his hopes to cut the number of U.S. combat brigades in Iraq by more than half by the end of 2007, according to a story in Sunday's New York Times. Casey will soon meet with Maliki to form the joint U.S.-Iraqi committee that can oversee the buildup of Iraqi security forces and the corresponding drawdown of U.S. troops.
"When we establish that committee," Khalilzad explained, "the subject will be the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and the conditions related to a road map for an ultimate withdrawal of U.S. troops." He stressed, however, that there was no automatic timetable for withdrawal and that he expected Maliki "will be on the cautious side."
The political-military strategy embraced by Khalilzad and Casey over the past year has combined aggressive military operations against die-hard insurgent groups with outreach to elements of the Sunni insurgency that (in theory) can be co-opted. After killing the worst of the worst, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, U.S. and Iraqi forces have pushed hard on both fronts -- taking down Zarqawi's networks and simultaneously talking with Sunni groups. Khalilzad said Monday that this outreach effort had made significant progress in the past few days.
"Contacts have been made with the Iraqi government and the coalition, by people who say they are associated with the insurgency, about reaching an agreement," he said. Among the issues under discussion, he said, is whether some of the Sunni insurgent groups can be melded into the Iraqi security forces, as is being done with Shiite and Kurdish militias. "I would not rule it out," Khalilzad said.
Listening to America's ultra-realist ambassador, it's obvious that the buzzwords of the Washington political debate -- "cut and run," "troops out now" -- don't have much relevance for what the generals and diplomats are trying to achieve. This messy war won't end with a victory parade but with a process that is messy itself -- slow, precarious, ambiguous. But the alternative is an open-ended U.S. military occupation of Iraq that nobody wants. As Khalilzad put it: "If you don't want reconciliation, it means you must fight on."