Accepting Iraqi Reality

Sunday, September 9, 2007

MULTIPLE reports on the "surge" of U.S. forces in Iraq -- including that due tomorrow from Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker -- ought to compel both the Bush administration and congressional Democrats to rethink their strategies. First and foremost, President Bush must accept the fact that what he defined as the principal objective of the military offensive, the stimulation of an Iraqi political settlement, has not been achieved. As we and many others anticipated, the idea that Iraqi leaders would take advantage of greater security in the country to strike deals was unrealistic; few of the political benchmarks Mr. Bush agreed on with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have been met.

But Democrats who have spent the past few months proclaiming that "this war is lost," as Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) put it, also have an adjustment to make. That's because the military results of the past few months have been in some respects undeniably positive. The surge appears to have modestly improved security in and around Baghdad and reversed the previous momentum toward all-out civil war. According to the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, a group of retired U.S. military officers and police commissioned by Congress, there has been improvement in the Iraqi army and security forces, and more progress can be expected if U.S. training programs continue.

Most significant is that both the commission and other outside experts agree with the administration's assessment that a major change has taken place in Sunni-populated areas of Iraq -- one that offers the prospect of a military victory over the forces that have been the principal enemies of U.S. troops since 2003. Dozens of Sunni tribes and tens of thousands of their fighters, many of them former insurgents, have allied themselves with American troops and are now helping to combat al-Qaeda in Iraq. The commission, chaired by former Gen. James L. Jones, described a "dramatically improved . . . security situation in Anbar" province, once the epicenter of the war, and added that "there are positive indications that popular support for al-Qaeda in Iraq is decreasing dramatically in other provinces as well."

These conclusions raise important questions for Mr. Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and others in Congress who have been pressing for a withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces in a matter of months. Should American fighting units remain in Iraq to continue the offensive against al-Qaeda and other remaining insurgents in Sunni areas? Should the U.S. partnership with Iraqi forces continue, given the commission's judgment that those forces will not be able to secure Iraq on their own in the next 12 to 18 months but could see "increasing improvement" with U.S. backing? Is the greater security in Baghdad worth sustaining with a continuing, if declining, commitment of troops?

The most important question, however, must be faced by Mr. Bush: If Iraqis are not moving toward political reconciliation, what justifies a continuing commitment of U.S. troops, with the painful sacrifices in lives that entails? U.S. generals have said repeatedly that tactical military successes will be unsustainable without political breakthroughs. The Jones commission said that the "sustained progress" it believes is possible within the Iraqi Security Forces "depends on such a political agreement." If there is to be no political accord in the near future -- and such an accord seems as distant today as it did in January -- what will be the goals of the U.S. mission in Iraq? The president needs to spell out concrete and realistic aims for American forces -- and limit troop levels to those necessary to accomplish them.

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