Plumb Out of Mission

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The meaning of the election was clear for all to see: The people plainly believed that the unified, pluralistic Iraq that the Bush administration insisted was growing stronger with each passing day actually had no future at all.

There's no other way to interpret the vote for the first Iraqi National Assembly, held one year ago, in December 2005. Overwhelmingly, Iraqis voted their sect rather than their nation. The Shiites, who constitute roughly 60 percent of Iraq's population, voted for Shiite parties, which now control roughly 60 percent of the National Assembly. The Sunnis and the Kurds voted for their own parties, too.

There was, to be sure, a national unity slate, a coalition of nonsectarian parties headed by former prime minister Ayad Allawi. It pulled down 8 percent of the vote.

For a moment, the U.S. government seemed to understand what the election meant. "It looks as if people have preferred to vote for their ethnic or sectarian identities," said Zalmay Khalilzad, our harried proconsul (okay, ambassador) in Baghdad. "But for Iraq to succeed there has to be cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian cooperation."

But if Iraqis had wanted Iraq to succeed, they would have voted for Allawi. Iraq, it turns out, was not the name of their desire, or their fear. And the civil war that has been growing relentlessly more horrifying since the election is ultimately just the continuation of their politics by other means.

Which is why the parallels to Vietnam are way too optimistic. In Vietnam, at least the United States could identify a government and some genuinely anti-communist constituencies with which it was plainly allied. But with whom do we stand, and who stands with us, in Iraq? Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki heads a Shiite-dominated government that grows closer to Iran and that is propped up by Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia is the most powerful force in the country other than the U.S. Army, which Sadr has called on to leave Iraq forthwith.

As for the Sunni minority, it's among that group that the insurgency against both the U.S. occupation and the string of post-Hussein governments took root. At first the number of insurgents was relatively small, but as the Shiite-controlled police force joined the Shiite militias in anti-Sunni pogroms, the number of Sunnis taking up arms ballooned.

So -- which side are we on?

In the face of escalating civil war, of an increasingly Hobbesian conflict of each against all, the calls still coming from the U.S. military, the administration and Capitol Hill to step up our training of Iraqi forces seem light-years off the mark. The problem with Iraqi security isn't that Iraqi forces are poorly trained. It's that, like the rest of their countrymen, like the very government whose uniform they wear, they're not really invested in fighting for a unified, nonsectarian Iraq. Why do we expect them to defend an ideal that their countrymen either never believed in or were compelled to abandon under pressure of civil war?

But on matters Iraqi, much of the Beltway -- and not just the administration -- remains impervious to fact. "We've got to get the Iraqi army and police better equipped, better trained and into the fight," retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey declared recently. "And I think we've got 24 months." The police, of course, are already into the fight, many of them working with Shiite militias to execute Sunnis. They are, from any dispassionate perspective, proficient enough. Train them for 24 months and they will be the terror of the Earth.

We have plumb run out of mission in Iraq. We have enemies galore, but, other than the Kurds, precious few friends. We defend the idea of Iraq in the absence of Iraqis willing to do the same. We are at best a buffer -- unable to deter the daily atrocities but ensuring by our presence that they won't grow cataclysmically worse. Since we cannot deter the sectarian polarization, however, the cataclysm will follow our leave-taking whether it comes sooner or later.

Those who argue that we should send more troops (as if we had them) to Iraq, or train more Iraqis, or stay until the situation stabilizes should at least explain how the situation will stabilize, how nation-building will work in a nation that doesn't want to be built. We should, as George Packer has argued, rescue as many individual Iraqis as we possibly can on our way out. But rescuing Iraq from the forces we unleashed is plainly beyond us.

Or we could, I suppose, wait it out. About 100,000 Iraqis now flee the country every month for Syria or Jordan. At that rate, if we just hang on for 20 years, Iraq will be completely depopulated. The insurgency will be vanquished; sectarian strife will subside. Victory will be ours, and we can go home.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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