After the Surge

Marine Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Vasquez trains Iraqi security force recruits near Fallujah.
Marine Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Vasquez trains Iraqi security force recruits near Fallujah. (By Joe Raedle -- Getty Images)
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

President Bush and his senior military and foreign policy advisers are beginning to discuss a "post-surge" strategy for Iraq that they hope could gain bipartisan political support. The new policy would focus on training and advising Iraqi troops rather than the broader goal of achieving a political reconciliation in Iraq, which senior officials recognize may be unachievable within the time available.

The revamped policy, as outlined by senior administration officials, would be premised on the idea that, as the current surge of U.S. troops succeeds in reducing sectarian violence, America's role will be increasingly to help prepare the Iraqi military to take greater responsibility for securing the country.

"Sectarian violence is not a problem we can fix," said one senior official. "The Iraqi government needs to show that it can take control of the capital." U.S. officials offer a somber evaluation of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: His Shiite-dominated government is weak and sectarian, but they have concluded that, going forward, there is no practical alternative.

The new policy would seek to anchor future Iraqi security in a regional structure that would be a continuation of the "neighbors" talks begun this month at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. To make that structure work, the administration is talking with Iran and Syria in what officials hope will become a serious dialogue about how to stabilize Iraq.

The post-surge policy would, in many ways, track the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report, which senior administration officials say the president now supports. It also reflects the administration's recognition that, given political realities in Washington, some policy adjustments must be made. The goal is an approach that would have sufficient bipartisan support so it could be sustained even after the Bush administration leaves office in early 2009.

Senior officials discussed the outlines of a "post-surge" policy late last week in what they said was an effort to build bipartisan support from Congress and the American public. Their comments appeared to be a trial balloon aimed at testing whether a Baker-Hamilton approach could gain traction in Washington. The description of a post-surge policy focused on elements that Democrats say they would continue to support, such as training the Iraqi military and hunting al-Qaeda, even as they set a timetable for withdrawing combat forces.

Here's a summary of the policy ideas the officials said are under discussion:

· Train Iraqi security forces and support them as they gain sufficient intelligence, logistics and transport capability to operate independently.

· Provide "force protection" for U.S. troops who remain in Iraq.

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