The 'Forgotten War'

Monday, September 14, 2009

FIVE YEARS AGO, Sen. John F. Kerry argued during his presidential campaign that the United States had dangerously neglected the war in Afghanistan. On Thursday, when he convened a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hear a status report on Iraq from U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill, only five of the panel's 19 members showed up long enough to ask a question. "Iraq today . . . has become the now-forgotten war," Mr. Kerry rather ruefully concluded.

The senator has good reason for concern. While Afghanistan has properly become a focus in Washington, the U.S. mission in Iraq is far from finished. Monthly U.S. fatalities declined into the single digits this summer after American troops withdrew from Iraqi cities -- but Iraqi civilian casualties in August were the highest in a year. Iraq remains at the strategic center of the Middle East: As Mr. Hill noted, it could be "an engine for regional stability and economic growth" or "a source of regional tension and dispute."

Iraq also is entering a crucial year. National elections in January could determine whether Iraq moves away from the sectarian divisions that triggered a virtual civil war in 2006 and whether its fledgling democratic system survives or gives way to a new authoritarianism. In the seven months after the election, the United States is due to reduce its forces by more than 60 percent. If the country is not stable, al-Qaeda and Iraq's neighbors will be quick to exploit the vacuum.

The question is whether the Obama administration is paying more attention than the rest of the country. Some of its own supporters are worried: Kenneth Pollack, an expert at the Brookings Institution, says that the administration is not using its leverage with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on matters crucial to the success of the elections. One is whether Iraq will allow voting for its parliament by district; many of its parties favor a system of national slates that could reinforce sectarian divisions. Another is whether Mr. Maliki will promote the staging of a referendum on the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. Such a vote could help the prime minister win reelection -- and force a precipitous American withdrawal.

Mr. Hill offered a relatively upbeat view in his testimony. He said that he does not expect the referendum on U.S. forces to go forward. He played down the increasing violence, saying that al-Qaeda's attacks have not succeeded in provoking Iraqis into returning to sectarian conflict.

The larger question remains, as Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said Thursday, "Are we at risk of taking our eyes off the other ball as the attention and resources shift from Iraq?" President Obama delegated management of Iraq to Vice President Biden in June; since then Mr. Obama has appeared to spare it little of his attention. Officials say that Mr. Biden has been energetic, taking time for Iraq every day and quietly intervening on key issues. We hope that reflects an understanding that, even if many in Congress and the nation have moved on, the administration cannot afford to remain detached from the momentous political process in Baghdad.

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