Ask the generals and colonels who are running the war in Iraq what really worries them, and it's rarely a military problem. "We haven't lost a platoon in combat! We haven't lost a skirmish!" explodes one general when describing a recent poll that reported a majority of Americans think we are losing the war.
The problems that vex the military here are political -- above all, the difficulty of shaping an effective Iraqi government that can unite Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. That has been the real challenge since U.S. troops reached Baghdad in April 2003, and it's one that all of America's military and economic power hasn't yet been able to crack. Our vast resources haven't subdued the molten passions of what Winston Churchill in 1922 called the "ungrateful volcano" of Iraq.
Because the decisive battles here are political, not military, many officers feel the recurring debate in Washington over the proper troop levels in Iraq misses the point. "We've been pounding this with a military hammer, but we all agree that the solution will be political," says one infantry colonel on the front lines.
So what is the way forward in Iraq? I come to the question with a good deal of baggage. I thought the war made sense three years ago, not because of the putative weapons of mass destruction or the al Qaeda threat but because I hoped that toppling the Arab world's most repressive regime could open the door to positive change in the region. I still believe that, but I shudder at the administration's postwar mistakes and at the human cost of the war. And I sense that both Americans and Iraqis are running out of patience. We are at a crucial decision point, so here is what I think:
The right way forward now is exactly what it was in April 2003. The United States must foster a modern, secular Iraqi government that can bring together Sunnis and Shiites and, under that umbrella of national reconciliation, stabilize the country. Above all, that means finding a way to engage the people who feel most left out of the new Iraq -- the Sunni minority that held power under Saddam Hussein and now feels disenfranchised.
Here's how Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, who oversees the war, puts it, expressing what he says is a "personal" opinion: "You must have a viable Sunni engagement plan that distinguishes between people who participated in the old regime because they had no choice and those who committed crimes against their people." That means the current "de-Baathification" rules must be eased so that they aren't a score-settling mechanism for the newly ascendant Shiite majority.
Unfortunately, Iraq's first elected government, under Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, has reinforced the sectarian tensions rather than the spirit of reconciliation. Most Sunnis boycotted the Jan. 30 election that brought this government to power; the decisive political figure was Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who told Shiites it would be sinful not to vote for Najaf's cleric-dominated list. Jafari's government has been weak and inefficient -- and it produced a draft constitution that reassured Shiite mullahs and Kurdish warlords but left Sunnis out in the cold.
Some analysts argue that the constitution is so flawed that this month's referendum to approve it should be delayed. I disagree; like most military officers I talked to here, I see the constitution as a work in progress. The current version is far from perfect, but it can be amended and adapted by a future government. As Abizaid says, "It's a workable document from which good things can flow."
Actually, I don't think it matters all that much whether the constitution is ratified. What's crucial is that Sunnis turn out to vote Oct. 15 and that they come back to the polls at year's end, when a new government will be elected. There are encouraging signs that's going to happen, with Sunni clerics now urging people to register. Every commander I talked with said Sunni registration is up. That signals a recognition that Iraq's future will be shaped by ballots, not suicide bombers.
The real political milestone is the December balloting to elect a new, permanent government. The good news for people who want to see a secular Iraq is that the Sistani-backed clerical list is almost certain to get fewer votes than it did in the Jan. 30 balloting. And possibly, just possibly, enough Sunnis, Kurds and secular Shiites will vote for alternative lists to allow a new ruling coalition of secular parties, perhaps allied with religious ones, which might link arms across the Shiite-Sunni divide. Such a coalition might be headed by a secular Shiite politician, such as the wily Ahmed Chalabi or former prime minister Ayad Allawi.
Maybe I'm dreaming in imagining that a stable, secular government can still emerge. But the point is that we're finally approaching crunchtime. If the next six months don't produce something like the outcome I have described, there is every likelihood that Iraq will descend into the civil war that has been looming for two years.
What I cannot understand is the call for a quick exit from Iraq, before we've given the December elections and a permanent government a chance. Make no mistake, we are looking over the lip of Churchill's volcano, and there is a chance that -- if domestic political pressure for withdrawal carries the day -- the United States could suffer a major defeat in Iraq that would reverberate for a generation. We may fail in Iraq, but let's not rush it.