Patience in Iraq

U.S. Army soldiers after searching a house in Diyala province Jan. 10.
U.S. Army soldiers after searching a house in Diyala province Jan. 10. (By Marko Drobnjakovic -- Associated Press)

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By Jack Keane, Frederick W. Kagan and Michael O'Hanlon
Sunday, January 20, 2008

Iraq's new de-Baathification bill, which awaits only expected approval by the presidency council before becoming law, is good news. During Saddam Hussein's day, if you wanted a professional job in Iraq, you basically had to join the Baath Party. For most of the 1 million-plus who did so, this hardly implied involvement or even complicity in crimes of the state. Hussein was so paranoid that only his very inner circles were entrusted with information or influence. The Shiite-led government now seems willing to recognize as much. Coupled with the pension law passed in late fall, this legislation means that many former Baathists will have a real stake in post-Hussein Iraq.

The legislation is one of half a dozen key political "benchmarks" we have expected Iraqi leaders to address. Others are hydrocarbon legislation; a provincial powers act; a law to facilitate the next round of local elections; a process for holding a referendum on the political future of Kirkuk, the disputed northern oil city; and a better process for purging sectarian extremists from positions of government authority. Apart from de-Baathification reform, major steps have been taken only on the last of these. But there has been real progress on other important matters, including Baghdad's sharing of oil revenue with the provinces, even without a hydrocarbon law; the hiring of Sunni volunteers into the security forces and the civilian arms of government; and improvements in the legal system, such as more trained judges and fewer indefinite detentions of prisoners. Iraq's political glass remains more empty than full, but trends are clearly in the right direction.

This progress resulted from a year's worth of substantial effort to reduce violence in Iraq. Proponents of the "surge" always said that getting violence under control was an essential prerequisite to reconciliation, not the other way around. The full surge has been in place and operating for just over six months, and already violence has fallen dramatically across the country. The achievement in such a short time of significant legislation requiring all sides to accept risk and compromise with people they had recently been fighting is remarkable.

The progress of the past year also required American political pressure. The ongoing engagement of Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Gen. David Petraeus and others in cajoling Iraqi political leaders into making make compromises across sectarian lines has been crucial. American politicians of both parties have sometimes applied useful pressure. But they have acted counterproductively when threatening to withdraw U.S. forces rapidly, without regard to conditions or to whether Iraqi leaders are trying to make compromises across sectarian lines.

As Crocker said last spring, "The longer and louder the debate gets, the more danger there is that Iraqis will conclude that we are going," leading to "a hardening of attitudes" among sectarian factions. Iraq's institutions are too weak, and its sectarian wounds still too raw, for us to expect the gains of the past year to endure in the face of a quick and nearly complete American withdrawal.

We should plan to stay heavily engaged in Iraq for several more years. To be sure, the addition of five Army combat brigades and three Marine battalions was not the only reason for our successes in 2007. But added American troops were needed, in conjunction with improved Iraqi forces (and Sunni volunteers), to provide the population security that is at the heart of our new strategy. Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno know the strains the surge has placed on the military and believe that we can reduce our forces to pre-surge levels by this summer without compromising our gains. This belief is probably justified. But we cannot be sure.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq is working hard to regroup, and our soldiers are fighting hard to prevent that. Activities of Iranian-backed special groups continue to be worrisome. And much remains to be done politically at the local and national levels to secure the gains we have made.

Some in Washington are already calling for a commitment to additional reductions, resulting in force levels below pre-surge levels, even before we have finished the current drawdown. Such calls are unwise. America has made this mistake in Iraq before. It is inappropriate to try to evaluate the possibility of reductions beyond pre-surge levels before we have had time to examine the situation after the completion of that drawdown.

The strain on the U.S. military is great. But sustaining 15 brigades in Iraq for six to 12 more months will not break the military. Reducing forces in Iraq too rapidly, however, even by one or two brigades, might seriously jeopardize the tenuous success we are seeing. We should not take that risk.

Retired Gen. Jack Keane was vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army from 1999 to 2003. Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Michael O'Hanlon is a senior scholar at the Brookings Institution. A longer version of this column appears onhttp://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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