Iraq's Narrow Window

Sunday, November 18, 2007

THE EVIDENCE is now overwhelming that the "surge" of U.S. military forces in Iraq this year has been, in purely military terms, a remarkable success. By every metric used to measure the war -- total attacks, U.S. casualties, Iraqi casualties, suicide bombings, roadside bombs -- there has been an enormous improvement since January. U.S. commanders report that al-Qaeda has been cleared from large areas it once controlled and that its remaining forces in Iraq are reeling. Markets in Baghdad are reopening, and the curfew is being eased; the huge refugee flow out of the country has begun to reverse itself. Credit for these achievements belongs in large part to U.S. soldiers in Iraq, who took on a tremendously challenging new counterterrorism strategy and made it work; to Gen. David H. Petraeus, the architect of that strategy; and to President Bush, for making the decision to launch the surge against the advice of most of Congress and the country's foreign policy elite.

It is, however, too early to celebrate -- as Gen. Petraeus and his commanders in Iraq are the first to point out. The principal objective of the surge was not military, but political. It aimed to create conditions that would encourage Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians to compromise over such issues as the terms for a federal system of government and the distribution of oil revenue. By that measure, there has been no progress since January. Iraq's national government seems all but paralyzed, its leaders unable to set aside sectarian agendas despite the ebb of sectarian warfare. Though U.S. officials point to local progress and talk of reforms "from the ground up," these can advance only to a limited degree without breakthroughs at the national level. Laws spelling out the authority of provincial governments and authorizing local elections, for example, are among those caught in the gridlock.

Though casualties in Iraq are still falling this month, U.S. forces may be approaching the limits of what can be achieved. The American troop level will begin to decline next month and will probably return to pre-surge levels by next summer. No wonder a number of U.S. officers recently told The Post's Thomas E. Ricks that the Iraqi government is in danger of missing the opportunity bought with the sacrifices of U.S. troops. "It's unclear how long that window is going to be open," said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations.

Iraq's politicians aren't the only ones suffering from inertia. On Wednesday, House Democrats passed an Iraq spending bill that would have required Gen. Petraeus to abort his successful strategy, limit operations to counterterrorism and training, and withdraw all troops by the end of next year. Democratic leaders acted as if nothing has changed in Iraq since January. Perhaps the most charitable interpretation of their initiative is that they knew it would never survive scrutiny by the Senate, which promptly killed it.

But the Bush administration's passivity is even more disturbing. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has immersed herself in the details of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and senior U.S. envoys were dispatched last week to troubleshoot in Pakistan and even Georgia. But there has been no visible effort by the administration to help Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker prod the recalcitrant politicians of Baghdad to act. The only high-profile diplomacy by the administration recently was aimed at heading off a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq. The White House and State Department seem to be turning their attention from Iraq at the very moment when they should be mounting a diplomatic offensive to secure concrete steps toward a political settlement. Such negligence would be another fateful mistake in the conduct of this war.

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