Monday, September 15, 2008
The Surge: The Epic Battle For A Free Iraq
Sunday, Aug. 06, 2006
Life In Hell: A Baghdad Diary
By Bobby Ghosh
A knot begins to form in my stomach exactly at 8 a.m., when I step into the small Fokker F-28 jet that will take me and 50 other passengers from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad. I know what lies ahead: an hour's uneventful flying over unchanging desert, followed by the world's scariest landing--a steep, corkscrewing plunge into what used to be Saddam Hussein International Airport. Then an eight-mile drive into the city along what's known as the Highway of Death. I've made this trip more than 20 times since Royal Jordanian's civilian flights started three years ago, and you'd expect it would get easier. But the knot takes hold in my stomach every time.
I scan the cabin for familiar faces. The 50-odd passengers include the usual suspects--Western "security consultants" in faux fatigues, Iraqi officials in dark suits. And some surprises, like the three women in white Indian saris with blue borders. The nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa's order, are a comforting sight. One of them, Sister Benedetta, kindly gives me a laminated picture of the soon-to-be saint and a genuine relic--a microchip-size piece of Teresa's sari. A lapsed Hindu, I'm nonetheless grateful for any and all gifts that purport to holiness; somewhere in my bags are a tiny sandalwood Ganesha, pages of the New Testament and a string of Islamic prayer beads. In Iraq, you want to have God--anybody's God--within easy reach.
Sister Benedetta smiles politely when I joke that many of our fellow passengers will be calling to their maker when the plane begins its hellish descent. To avoid being shot down by Iraqi insurgents, the pilot must stay at 30,000 ft. until the plane is directly over Baghdad airport, then bank into a spiraling dive, straightening up just yards from the runway. If you're looking out the window, it can feel as if the plane is in a free fall from which it can't possibly pull out. I've learned from experience to ask for an aisle seat.
The only thing worse than the view from the window is being seated next to someone who hasn't taken the flight before. During one especially difficult landing in 2004, a retired American cop wouldn't stop screaming "Oh, God! Oh, God!" I finally had to slap him on the face--on instructions from the flight attendant. Another time the man in the window seat was a muscular, heavily tattooed Polynesian ex-commando who spent an hour telling me of his life as a mercenary in a succession of South Pacific island nations--stories that often ended with his punching, stabbing or shooting somebody. When the Fokker began its steep descent, he began whimpering to Jesus and grabbing my forearm so tight, I felt my palm go cold from lack of circulation.
On this occasion, to my relief, the guy next to me is a fellow journalist and veteran of the nightmare landings. Even so, as we begin the descent, I move my hand away from the armrest. Looking over my shoulder, I see a familiar expression on the faces of my co-passengers: a mixture of fear and resignation. Sister Benedetta is staring up at the ceiling, her lips moving in prayer. I reach into my shirt pocket and surreptitiously rub my fingers over that laminated picture. When the Fokker's wheels hit the tarmac, 50 people sigh in unison, 50 stomachs unclench. But the relief is temporary; most of us still have to negotiate the Highway of Death. There have been hundreds of insurgent and terrorist attacks along its length since the U.S. military established its largest Iraqi base, Camp Victory, next to the airport three years ago. Many of the attacks are directed at U.S. patrols, but they have also killed scores of Iraqi noncombatants. Last summer two of my Iraqi colleagues were badly wounded when a roadside bomb went off next to their car on the Highway of Death; twice I've been caught in cross fire between insurgents and U.S. soldiers.
Recently the highway has become less deadly--perhaps the only place in Baghdad that can make such a claim. The once daily attacks along the road have given way to occasional strikes, like the twin suicide bombings in May that killed 14 Iraqis near Checkpoint 1, where arriving travelers meet transport waiting to take them into the city. U.S. officials claim the decline in attacks as a victory for military strategy, attributing it to the greatly increased visibility of Iraqi soldiers along the road. My contacts in the insurgency offer an alternative, equally plausible explanation: there are fewer U.S. patrols and convoys on the road than before, fewer targets to attack.
Although a ride on the Highway of Death once exaggerated the dangers lurking in Baghdad, it now does the opposite, lulling newcomers into a false sense of security. Even as the airport route has got somewhat safer, huge portions of the Iraqi capital have become far more dangerous. I pass one of those on the drive into the city: Amariyah, the mainly Sunni suburb adjacent to Camp Victory and home to Mahmud, one of my Iraqi colleagues. (The names of most of TIME's Iraqi employees have been changed in this article for their protection; working for a foreign company makes them targets for insurgents, and many lie, even to their closest neighbors, about what they do for a living.) A couple of years ago, it was easy to visit with Mahmud's family in their sand-colored two-story home; last year it became too perilous for foreigners after insurgent groups began operating in the area. Now, even Iraqis feel unsafe in Amariyah. Mahmud began to move out his extended family earlier this year when the neighborhood was taken over by a jihadi gang that imposed an extreme interpretation of Islamic law. Women were forbidden to drive, men were ordered not to wear shorts, and shops selling Western goods were firebombed.
As we drive past, I can hear a gun battle somewhere--the deep rumble of U.S. military M-16s and the higher-pitch clatter of AK-47s. The gunfire is a momentary distraction for Wisam, my driver, who is telling me about yesterday's atrocity--66 people killed when a suicide bomber detonated himself in a crowded market in the Shi'ite neighborhood of Sadr City. Last year that giant slum was the safest district in Baghdad. Now I mentally add it to the list of neighborhoods I can enter only at great risk.
Like many Iraqis, Wisam likes to drive pedal to the metal, and while it's a good idea to get away from Amariyah as fast as possible, I am acutely conscious that I'm not wearing my seat belt. Iraqis never wear one, and for me to buckle up would be like sticking a FOREIGNER ON BOARD sign on the windshield, a bad idea in a city where kidnapping gangs are known to cruise for lucrative targets. As an Indian, I can often pass for a local if I keep my mouth shut--my Arabic is rudimentary--but in public places I have to be careful to avoid other obvious signs of foreignness: seat belts, chewing gum, headphones.
To bring me up to date with the news, Wisam rattles off a long list of recent atrocities: a high-profile kidnapping here, a massacre there, a car bombing someplace else. Long before we reach the city, I've heard so many ghastly things that the harrowing flight is already a fading memory. Sensing my sinking spirits, Wisam apologizes for the overdose of grim tidings. "You know how it is in Iraq," he says with a grin. "All news is bad news." Then he tells me about the 10 bodies that were discovered in his neighborhood in the past few days, all of them his fellow Shi'ites. The bodies were decapitated, the heads never found. He tells me how, since a suicide bombing in a nearby neighborhood, his wife has been suffering anxiety attacks when she goes shopping. I feel ashamed that a mere hour's worth of Baghdad's reality has brought me down; Wisam and his family live it all the time.
For Iraqis, reality is not just a suicide bomber in a crowded marketplace or militias running amuck in the streets. It is an accumulation of daily dangers and dilemmas--and the growing certainty that things are about to get worse. American officials and Iraqi politicians who live and work in the fortified bubble of the Green Zone are still reluctant to use the words civil war. At the start of this year, they were dismissing an all-out battle between sects as impossible. In March they were saying it was improbable. Now they cautiously suggest it is not inevitable. And that's the optimistic perspective. A more despairing assessment was on display last week in departing British Ambassador William Patey's final diplomatic memo to London. "The prospect of a low intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy," Patey wrote in his message, which was leaked to the British media. For ordinary Iraqis who live on the other side of the Green Zone's tall walls, the time to debate if and when civil war will start is past: it is already under way. It's a view that I share. After three years of dwindling optimism over Iraq's future, I now feel a mounting pessimism.
In the Red Zone (the name given to the rest of Baghdad by Green Zoners too nervous to venture outside the walls), the sporadic spurts of violence between Shi'ites and Sunnis have given way to a steady stream of blood. Partisans on both sides are arming themselves for battle, and ordinary folks are looking for ways to defend themselves. Owing to soaring demand, the price of a Chinese-made AK-47 has quadrupled, to $200, since the start of the year; the Russian-made version has doubled, to $600. The U.N. reports that nearly 6,000 Iraqis were killed in May and June, more than in any comparable period since the fall of Saddam. These days, almost all the killing is Iraqi on Iraqi. Many people are abandoning neighborhoods that were harmoniously mixed for centuries, instead seeking the safety of all-Shi'ite or Sunni-only districts. The government says more than 180,000 people have become refugees in their own country; tens of thousands of others are fleeing Iraq altogether. The political leadership, from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on down, lacks both the stature and the will to bridge the chasm between the two communities. Caught in the middle, the U.S. military is unable to halt the bloodshed. Wisam is right: Iraq's news these days is all bad.
As a result, Iraqis have little time for other people's tragedies. The news from Lebanon has dominated Arab channels like al-Jazeera in recent weeks, but it hasn't resonated much with Iraqis. Politicians, especially Shi'ite leaders with ties to Iran, have issued predictable broadsides against Israel; some, like the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have blamed the U.S. too. He orchestrated a large pro-Hizballah demonstration in his Sadr City stronghold last week--a protest against the bombing in Lebanon but also a piece of political theater designed to showcase the strength of his support (and a response to a muscle-flexing rally organized earlier by a rival Shi'ite leader). For the most part, ordinary Iraqis, although sympathetic to their coreligionists in Lebanon, have shown little interest in a conflict that seems both far away and from another era--a leftover war from the 20th century. Not only are the protagonists familiar, but so too are their tactics and weapons: Israeli artillery, Hizballah rockets.
Those looking for parallels in Iraq will find few. The war in Iraq is about 21st century issues, like terrorism and extremist Islam. The very survival of a nation hangs in the balance. It is a murky battlefield, where combatants are hard to identify and alliances shift constantly, so nothing and nobody are predictable. Even the weapons are postmodern: improvised explosive devices, car bombs, suicide bombers. And the Iraq war is far deadlier; on almost any given day, casualty figures in Baghdad alone dwarf those in Lebanon and Israel combined. At the house TIME uses as its base in Baghdad, our staff of 25 Iraqis snort disdainfully as news broadcasters announce the daily death toll in the Levant. "They count their dead in dozens. We count ours in hundreds," says Ali al-Shaheen, our bureau manager. Only when Israeli bombs killed 28 people in the Lebanese village of Qana did it register on al-Shaheen's radar. Watching the images of the carnage, he declares, "Now they know how Iraqis live."
Every so often, something happens that causes the Iraqi government and the Bush Administration to announce that a turning point has arrived for the beleaguered country. In the month that I was away from Baghdad, there were two such events: the killing of terrorist Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi and the appointment, after weeks of political haggling, of new ministers of Defense and the Interior. The ministers, a Sunni and Shi'ite, respectively, had been touted as independent and nonsectarian--new brooms to brush away the rampant corruption in the two crucial security ministries. Interior, in particular, would be cleansed of the Shi'ite militias that had infiltrated all levels of the police and other security forces and turned them into instruments of Shi'ite vengeance against their former Sunni oppressors.
The ministers were the last bricks on the façade that is the all-party national-unity government of Prime Minister al-Maliki. Earlier in the year I had watched from close quarters as U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad worked tirelessly to make that government possible, pleading, cajoling until all the political factions--Shi'ite, Sunni, Kurdish and secular--agreed to get in the big tent together. Relieved, the Bush Administration announced that the participation of all groups, especially the recalcitrant Sunnis, would allow al-Maliki's government to succeed where the U.S. military had failed, in bringing to heel both the Sunni insurgency and the rising might of the Shi'ite militias. Never mind that the Prime Minister was himself a Shi'ite partisan until his nomination--whereupon he sought to reinvent himself as a nonsectarian leader--and that his party had stronger ties to Tehran than to Washington. An ornery figure, al-Maliki is a backroom politician plainly ill at ease in public; few Iraqis had even heard of him, and few are convinced that his rancorous all-party government can last the year, much less its full four-year term.
Already, U.S. officials are finding it hard to keep up the optimistic spin. Shi'ite and Sunni politicians may now sit together, but their mutual hostility is undiminished, undermining the government--and al-Maliki can only look on helplessly. A political lightweight and compromise candidate, the Prime Minister doesn't have the clout to bash heads, much less deliver on his promises to pursue insurgents with "no mercy" and crush the militias "with an iron fist." As the politicians continue to bicker, the big tent is looking shaky; there were calls last week for several ministers--including the Interior chief--to be replaced.
The failure of new political nostrums is driving Iraqi and U.S. officials to retry military remedies that have been thoroughly discredited: massive security rings around Baghdad, high-visibility troop presence in the streets and sweeping house-to-house searches. If Iraq has taught us anything in the past three years--and Lebanon in the past three weeks--it is that conventional military tactics don't work in an asymmetrical conflict. Sheer numbers and firepower count for very little. Despite an ongoing 50,000-man, joint U.S.-Iraqi military operation dubbed Operation Forward Together to flush Baghdad clean of nationalist insurgents, jihadist terrorists and sectarian militias, the capital is as dangerous as ever. If anything, the Shi'ite militias are getting more brazen; a few days after my return, they entered the largely Sunni neighborhood of al-Jihad and slaughtered at least 50 people, including several women and children. Eight days later, Sunni fighters attacked a market in Mahmoudiya, just south of the capital, and mowed down more than 50 Shi'ites. Increasingly, attacks are taking place in broad daylight, leaving Iraqis to wonder how their security forces can overlook large numbers of armed men moving through the streets.
The failure of Forward Together is a blow to the Bush Administration's hopes of quickly scaling down the U.S. military presence. With some 7,200 American and coalition soldiers joining 42,500 Iraqis, the operation was meant to showcase the growing ability of Iraqi security forces to protect their citizens. The experiment was effectively declared a failure two weeks ago when Bush and al-Maliki announced in Washington that more U.S. troops would be sent to protect Baghdad. But will that work? Probably not. When the full might of the U.S. military has been brought to bear in an Iraqi city--think Fallujah, Tall 'Afar, Samarra, al-Qaim--the enemy has simply melted away, taking its terrorist tactics to places that are inadequately defended. And when U.S. forces have eventually stood down, leaving the policing to Iraqis, the enemy has returned to the very places that had supposedly been cleaned up--at the cost of American blood. There is no reason to believe that a re-tinkered Operation Forward Together will be any more successful, especially since insurgents, terrorists and militias have had ample warning that more Americans are coming, giving them time to pack their rocket-propelled grenades and leave.
Nor has there been much progress on other security matters. The government's claims that several Sunni insurgent groups have responded to offers of amnesty have yet to be proved; some Sunni leaders say those who have opened negotiations are fringe figures with little sway over the insurgency. As for the jihadis, they seem unhindered by Forward Together. The Sadr City market explosion proved that the lull following al-Zarqawi's death was temporary. Suicide bombings have again become a daily headline. Many fit into a deadly new pattern: as crowds are drawn to the scene of the first explosion, a second device is detonated, doubling the toll. There was even a double bombing 100 yards from the main entrance of the Green Zone, the highly fortified enclave that houses the seat of the Iraqi government and the headquarters of the U.S. military. The twin blasts--one a car bomb, the other a suicide bomber--killed 16 people near some small shops where journalists emerging from the Green Zone on hot afternoons stop to buy cold sodas. Although the Green Zone is one of the most protected places in Iraq, the entrance known as Checkpoint 3 is one of the most dangerous. Last summer I and several other TIME staff members were fortunate to be just out of harm's way when a suicide bomber struck a kebab stand near the shops. The blast took the bomber's head clear off his body and sent it rolling down the road to Wisam's feet. He kicked it away dismissively.
Powerless to stop the killing, al-Maliki's government has also failed to improve the lot of the living. Crime continues to soar, especially the booming business of kidnapping for ransom. U.S. officials say as many as 40 Iraqis are kidnapped every day. Ransom demands range from thousands of dollars to millions; many victims are never heard from again. Services are a cruel joke. As summer temperatures climb to 120˚, there has been no perceptible improvement in electricity or the water supply. And at a time when people desperately need their gasoline-powered generators to operate ceiling fans and air conditioners, fuel has become scarce. The wait in a gas-station line can last all day. Last month the black-market rate for a liter of gas briefly reached $1--exactly 100 times the official price just before the war. My Iraqi colleagues are amused when I read them stories about Americans complaining of high gas prices.
High fuel prices have yielded one bonus: with more and more people keeping their cars at home, the roads are relatively free of traffic snarl-ups. It's typical of Baghdad that when something seems to get better--whether traffic or the ride from the airport--it's usually because something else has got much worse.
Amid this unremitting misery, Iraqis struggle for some semblance of normality. In Baghdad, the 9 p.m. curfew means that the traditional family outings of summer--an evening picnic on the banks of the Tigris, dinner at a kebab restaurant or a late-night drive to an ice cream parlor--are all out of the question. Visiting with friends and family is impossible unless you're prepared to go early and stay overnight. It's an especially frustrating time for children; although it's the summer break, parents are reluctant to let kids out of the house. Danger hides everywhere. Last week several teenagers were among 11 people killed and 14 hurt when two bombs went off at a soccer field in the Shi'ite district of Amil. Al-Shaheen, our bureau manager, has three children going stir-crazy at home. "They feel imprisoned," he says. "For entertainment, they get on my wife's nerves during the day and on mine at night."
The only available escapism is via TV. The one post-Saddam freedom Iraqis can unreservedly enjoy is access to satellite television--Lebanese music videos, Egyptian soaps, the Oprah Winfrey Show (with Arabic subtitles), sports. The soccer World Cup was a welcome distraction. Since Iraq didn't qualify, people invested their emotions in foreign teams, like Brazil and Italy. When the Italians won the tournament, it was our driver Wisam--not our Milanese photographer, Franco Pagetti--who had to be restrained from shooting an AK-47 into the air, the traditional Arab celebration. But even the enjoyment of a faraway sporting event can be poisoned by sectarian suspicions: a Sunni neighbor asked me, with a knowing smirk, whether our Shi'ite staff members had supported the Iranian team. When I said no, he was surprised. Many Sunnis believe that Shi'ite sympathies--and not just in sporting matters--lie with Iraq's ancient enemy to the east. "In Najaf and Basra, the Shi'ites were praying for Iran to win," he said disdainfully. "What do you expect from these people?" When I asked him if he had supported the two teams from Sunni-majority countries in the tournament, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, he changed the subject.
Fear of kidnapping is pervasive. To hide their wealth, many Iraqis choose to live well below their means. While on R. and R. in London, I met Hassan, a Baghdad businessman (he asked that his full name be concealed for his protection) who said he had "made millions" since the fall of Saddam, importing consumer electronics like refrigerators, washing machines and air conditioners. But his modest single-story home in the middle-class Yarmuk neighborhood still looks as it did when he inherited it from his father, an army captain. "I won't even put on a fresh coat of paint because that would arouse suspicions," he said. He drives around Baghdad in a beat-up Japanese car "even though I can afford a top-of-the-line Mercedes." Only when he's abroad does he live large, booking suites in the best hotels, buying expensive suits that he leaves with business associates and renting--yes--a top-of-the-line Mercedes. "If I live like this in Baghdad, there will be a competition among the kidnappers to take me."
Hassan's business interests keep him coming back. Yet for many Baghdad residents, the only hope for a decent life is to escape altogether. Since the school year ended in June, thousands of families have been heading to safer parts of the country, like the Kurdish north, where an economic boom carries the promise of jobs. Those who can afford it are going abroad, mainly to Syria and Jordan. "The middle class is evaporating," says Iyad Allawi, who served as Iraq's interim Prime Minister in 2004 and part of '05. "Every Middle Eastern country I go to, they tell me immigration from Iraq is rising fast."
Mahmud, my Iraqi colleague who fled Amariyah, has sent his wife and four kids to Amman. Whether they will return when schools reopen will depend on the security situation. Mahmud is not optimistic. "I should have made them pack winter clothes," he says.
Sunnis like Mahmud now feel vulnerable in Baghdad, which for centuries was the citadel from which they lorded it over Iraq's Shi'ite majority. For the first three years after Saddam's fall, much of the violence in and around the capital was committed against Shi'ites by Sunni insurgents and jihadis. But since the beginning of this year, Shi'ite death squads--widely believed to emanate from militias like the Mahdi Army and the Iran-trained Badr Organization--have become the main practitioners of terrorist violence. Each side has its signature style of murder. When Iraqis hear news of car bombings or suicide bombers, they don't need to be told that Sunni jihadis were involved; when bodies bearing signs of gruesome torture (like the use of electric drills) turn up in a garbage dump or in the sewers, it's assumed Shi'ite militias were responsible.
What makes the militias especially dangerous is the impunity with which they act. Since many policemen and soldiers are their former comrades-in-arms, militiamen are often allowed to roam unchecked. They are routinely accused of conducting "joint operations"--a euphemism for murderous rampages that police watch or even join. Sometimes police are accused of moonlighting as militiamen, using official vehicles and weapons. A three-car convoy belonging to Sunni M.P. Tayseer al-Mashhadani was stopped last month by 30 gunmen in a Shi'ite suburb. Al-Mashhadani and seven bodyguards were bundled into unmarked cars and driven away. An eighth bodyguard escaped and reported that the abductors had police-issue weapons. Al-Mashhadani hasn't been released. An even more audacious snatch came soon after: men in uniforms grabbed the chief of Iraq's Olympic Committee and 30 other sports officials. (Ten have been released, but the chief remains in captivity.) Men in uniform snatched 26 men last week from two offices less than a mile from TIME's house.
The government's standard response to each new outrage is to deny that police were involved and instead finger "criminal gangs" wearing knockoff uniforms and using stolen weapons and vehicles. Occasionally, blame is directed at the militias but never by name. After all, the political groups that control the militias are key components of the Shi'ite coalition that has the most seats in parliament and that includes al-Maliki's party. The only militia to feel the Prime Minister's "iron fist" was the toothless Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a small, unarmed band of Iranian rebels dedicated to toppling the regime in Tehran; it had been confined to a single base outside Baghdad and was monitored by the U.S. Nobody had accused the Mujahedin-e-Khalq of any atrocities on Iraqi soil, and al-Maliki's decision to evict the group smacked of tokenism. Sunni politicians seized on the eviction as proof that al-Maliki was doing Tehran's bidding.
For Sunnis in Baghdad, the sight of policemen is cause for concern rather than reassurance. Traffic checkpoints are especially perilous. Recently three TIME staff members--brothers, all Sunni--were detained at a police checkpoint for five hours. They began to worry when a Shi'ite friend who had been riding with them was allowed to leave. When the men showed their media badges, issued by the U.S. military, the cops accused them of being American spies. "We'll send you to the Interior Ministry," a cop said, obviously enjoying their discomfort as he bundled them into the back of a pickup truck. "You may be released or jailed, or maybe somebody will use an electric drill on you." In the end, the TIME men were able to talk their way out of captivity after the owner of a shop near the checkpoint vouched for them. "The police realized that if we disappeared, the shopkeeper might be able to identify them as the ones who captured us," says one of the brothers. A few days later, one of the brothers had another close shave when he stopped in a busy neighborhood to buy black-market gas. A car bomb went off 50 yards away, destroying his car. Luckily, he had stepped out of the vehicle to negotiate with the seller; he got away with minor shrapnel wounds. One tiny shard ripped into his shirt pocket in a direct line to his heart. The shrapnel arrowed through a thick wad of Iraqi currency and some loose paper and was finally stopped by his plastic ID card. "At last, I can say money saved my life," he jokes.
Almost every Sunni family I meet seems to have a horror story that starts with a policeman at a checkpoint asking for identification. It's profiling, Iraqi style. The harassment ranges from getting insulting, sniggering comments ("Nice car. Where did you steal it?") to being handcuffed, blindfolded and hauled off to prison or, worse, a torture chamber. The most vulnerable are those who have obviously Sunni names, such as Omar. I have interviewed more than a dozen Omars, including two of Mahmud's nephews, who have endured varying degrees of persecution from police or militias. As a precaution, many Sunnis are buying fake ID cards with safe Shi'ite names.
Feeling the heat from the militias and security forces, Baghdad's Sunnis know their best hope for protection lies in the Americans, the very occupying forces they have despised for toppling them from power. My meeting with a high-level commander of a Sunni insurgent group takes an unexpected turn when he angrily demands, "Where are the Americans? Why aren't they protecting our people?" For two years, the man has boasted to me about his fighters' operations against U.S. soldiers. Now he wants them as a shield from the marauding militias. It's clear from his indignation that the irony escapes him.
The Bush Administration seems to be finally coming out of its state of denial about the danger of sectarianism. For months, officials and military brass have doggedly maintained that the Shi'ite-on-Sunni sectarian killings were one-offs, unlikely to spread across the community. That posture began to change when Shi'ite mobs went on a murderous spree in Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Shi'ite shrine in Samarra. By the time U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made his latest visit to Baghdad last month, the assessment was more realistic. General George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, told Rumsfeld that Shi'ite death squads were catalyzing a surge in sectarian violence. And General John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told a Senate committee in Washington last week that if the sectarian violence continued to spiral, Iraq "could move toward civil war."
But recognizing the problem isn't the same as having a solution. The current military strategy isn't succeeding, as evidenced by the continuing tit-for-tat sectarian killings. U.S. and Iraqi forces last month stormed some buildings in the Mahdi Army's stronghold of Sadr City, killing several fighters and arresting a top commander. But the anticipated knockout punch was never delivered. Al-Maliki, says a senior Iraqi government official, "doesn't want a war against Muqtada al-Sadr because it would open him up to charges of killing his fellow Shi'ites--like what Allawi faced." After Allawi gave the green light for U.S. forces to attack the Mahdi Army in 2004, he became a political pariah to Shi'ites. And al-Maliki is loath to antagonize al-Sadr after working hard to win his endorsement of the national-unity government.
For Sunnis, the failure to smash the Mahdi Army is not so much an indictment of al-Maliki as proof of a U.S. double standard. Salam al-Zaubai, a Sunni and one of al-Maliki's two Deputy Prime Ministers, complains that U.S. forces treat the militias with kid gloves. "When they attacked the Sunni resistance, they flattened entire cities, like Fallujah," he says. "But when it comes to Sadr City, their approach is different. Why?" For their part, residents of Sadr City ask why the U.S. is attacking the militias--seen as Robin Hood figures--when they should be looking for the Sunni terrorists who bombed the market.
Amid all the cursing and complaining, there's an unexpected benefit for the U.S. military: the proliferating investigations into the killing of civilians by American troops are being forgotten. In our previous meeting two months ago, the insurgent leader had been cursing the Marines accused in the massacre of innocent civilians in Haditha. Since then, the accumulation of atrocities by Iraq's militias has altered his perspective. "Haditha was nothing compared to what the militias are doing," he says.
It's hard not to sympathize with Al-Maliki. The Prime Minister has the near impossible task of repairing the damage wrought by three years' worth of poorly considered policies and half-measures, most of them instituted by U.S. officials and generals who have long since gone home. "I'm tempted to get him a coffee mug with the slogan WORLD'S WORST JOB," a Western diplomat told me in May, when al-Maliki was sworn in. "They've just handed him a toothbrush and told him to clean up the mountain of a mess left by [former U.S. administrator] Paul Bremer, Allawi and [former Prime Minister Ibrahim] al-Jaafari."
Al-Maliki is getting very little help from other Iraqi leaders. The national-unity government is anything but unified. Shi'ite and Sunni ministers routinely contradict one another. It's hard to get consensus even among his fellow Shi'ites. His offer of amnesty for Sunni insurgents was compromised when a powerful Shi'ite leader publicly disagreed about who should be pardoned. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim said insurgents who had killed U.S. service personnel should be pardoned, directly contradicting al-Maliki's promise that those with American blood on their hands would not qualify for amnesty. Al-Maliki's plan was also criticized by al-Sadr. It's probably no coincidence that al-Hakim and al-Sadr control the two largest armed Shi'ite militias, the Badr Organization and Mahdi Army, respectively.
While al-Maliki at least tries to present himself as a unifying figure, railing against Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias, many of his partners in the government are blatantly sectarian. Political leaders express outrage over the atrocities committed against their own sect but won't acknowledge that the other side, too, is bleeding. They often dismiss those wounds as self-inflicted. After the bombing of the Samarra shrine, many Sunni leaders told me the blast was the work of Shi'ite agents provocateurs working in concert with Iranian intelligence operatives. Likewise, Mahdi Army commanders routinely accuse Sunni insurgents of committing atrocities against their own kind and then blaming the Shi'ites.
A typical encounter was my interview with Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the seniormost Sunni in the Iraqi government. We met in his chintz-laden Green Zone office on the day of the al-Jihad murders. Many of the victims had been dragged out of their homes and shot dead in the street. As usual, the finger of blame pointed to the Mahdi Army. After al-Hashimi had fulminated about the slaughter of his fellow Sunnis, I asked whether the murdering militiamen might have been seeking revenge for the previous week's bombing of the market in Sadr City. Al-Hashimi's response was to claim that militiamen had planted the bomb, deliberately killing their fellow Shi'ites in order to justify revenge killings of Sunnis. "They were able to attack Sunni mosques within an hour of the market bomb," he said. "This has to have been premeditated."
Such bizarre logic quickly becomes received wisdom in a society in which even the highest officials in the land propagate outlandish conspiracy theories. The speaker of Iraq's parliament, Mahmud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni, announced at a press conference in Bahrain that "an entire Israeli brigade has entered Iraq ... trying to infiltrate various parties." That phantom force, he continued, is "camped at Babylon, whose destruction signifies the survival of the state of Israel in their holy books."
The few secular politicians with any name recognition, like Allawi, have become marginalized, their voices drowned by the sectarian din. In two general elections, Allawi has failed to get more than 14% of the vote, and the flight of middle-class Iraqis is eroding his natural constituency. He bemoans the growing power of sectarian forces but can only watch in despair. In private conversations even politicians with no pretensions of secularism occasionally wish for a unifying leader. Some months ago, Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlak and I chatted about the kind of leadership it would take to pull Iraq back from the brink. We agreed that there were no giants on the political landscape, and he shook his head dolefully. "Not only that," he said, sighing, "but the political system we have created makes it impossible for such a figure to emerge." Politicians, he said, have discovered that the easiest way to win votes is to appeal to sectarian chauvinism; they have little incentive to take the higher, more difficult road. Al-Mutlak returned to that theme in a recent interview with a local paper, saying the country needed "an Iraqi Mandela."
Alas, statesmen can't be wished into existence. In 31/2 years of covering Iraq, I have not come across a single leader who has seemed able to rise above petty political or sectarian interests. Never mind a Mandela; there's not even an Iraqi Hamid Karzai. The beleaguered Afghan President has more credibility with his people than any Iraqi politician can honestly claim. In the absence of statesmen, I fear the sectarian furies that have been unleashed in Iraq will hack away at the last vestiges of sense and decency and drag the country into a final fight to the death.
Green Zoners are still hoping against hope it doesn't come to that. Pairing familiar words in odd new ways, Ambassador Khalilzad recently told a Washington audience that Americans need to be "tactically patient" and "strategically optimistic" about Iraq's future. On his first official visit to Britain and the U.S. two weeks ago, al-Maliki also told the Blair and Bush administrations what they wanted to hear: that a civil war could be averted.
But at least the Prime Minister has stopped trying to spin his own people. A few days before he left for Britain and the U.S., a desperate al-Maliki gave a televised speech to his parliament, pleading with his fellow politicians to set aside their differences. Looking like a man at his wit's end, he warned that national reconciliation was one "last chance" to avert a civil war: "If it fails, I don't know what the destiny of Iraq will be." For a second, I thought I recognized the expression on his face. It's the one I had seen on the faces of my fellow passengers on the flight into Baghdad--that mixture of fear and resignation, just before the descent into hell.
To submit questions to Aparisim Ghosh about life in Baghdad, visit time.com
With reporting by Charles Crain/Baghdad, Mark Thompson/Washington, DOUGLAS WALLER/WASHINGTON
August 31, 2008
Troop ‘Surge’ Took Place Amid Doubt and Debate
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
WASHINGTON — The White House has long touted the “surge” of forces in Iraq as one of President Bush’s proudest achievements. But that decision, one of Mr. Bush’s most consequential as commander in chief, was made only after months of tumultuous debate within the administration, according to still-secret memorandums and interviews with a broad range of current and former officials.
In January 2007, at a time when the situation in Iraq appeared the bleakest, Mr. Bush chose a bold option that was at odds with what many of his civilian and military advisers, including his field commander, initially recommended. Mr. Bush’s plan to send more than 20,000 troops to carry out a new counterinsurgency strategy has helped to reverse the spiral of sectarian killings in Iraq.
But Mr. Bush’s penchant to defer to commanders in the field and to a powerful defense secretary delayed the development of a new approach until conditions in Iraq, in the words of a November 2006 analysis by the Central Intelligence Agency, resembled anarchy and “civil war.”
When the White House began its formal review of Iraq strategy that month, the Pentagon favored a stepped-up effort to transfer responsibility to Iraqi forces that would have facilitated American troop cuts.
The State Department promoted an alternative that would have focused on fighting terrorists belonging to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, containing the violence in Baghdad and intervening to quell sectarian violence only when it reached the proportions of “mass killing.”
The American ambassador to Baghdad argued that he should be given broad authority to negotiate a political compact among the Iraqis.
“The proposals to send more U.S. forces to Iraq would not produce a long-term solution and would make our policy less, not more, sustainable,” the ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, wrote in a classified cable.
Members of the National Security Council staff made an initial effort to explore a possible troop increase by October, drafting a paper that raised the prospect that the United States might “double down” in Iraq by sending more troops there.
Because some aides to the Joint Chiefs of Staff were suggesting at the time that the military was stretched too thin to send many more troops, another security council staff member, William J. Luti, a retired Navy captain, was asked to quietly determine whether forces were available. Mr. Luti reported that five brigades’ worth of additional combat forces could be sent and recommended that they be deployed. The idea later won additional support among some officials as a result of a detailed study by Gen. Jack Keane, the former vice chief of staff at the Army, and Frederick W. Kagan, a military specialist, that was published by the American Enterprise Institute.
In the end, the troop reinforcement proposal split the military. Even after the president had made the basic decision to send additional troops, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, never sought more than two brigades, about 8,000 troops in all, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reported to Mr. Bush in late December. But General Casey’s approach substantially differed from those of two officers who wanted a much bigger effort: the No. 2 commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, who helped oversee the military’s new counterinsurgency manual and whose views were known by the White House before he was publicly named to replace General Casey, administration officials said.
Current and former officials from the Bush administration and the military agreed to disclose new details about the debate over the troop increase in response to repeated requests. Most insisted on anonymity because the documents were still classified, but said they believed the historical record should reflect the considerations that were being weighed at the time.
Troop Reduction Strategy
On Aug. 17, 2006, Mr. Bush conferred in a videoconference with his top military commanders and senior advisers.
General Casey’s strategy was to gradually transfer authority to the Iraqi forces and progressively reduce American troops. He had told officials in Washington during a June visit that he hoped to reduce the number of American combat brigades to five or six by the end of 2007 from the 14 that were deployed at the time.
By August, the sectarian killings had led General Casey to modestly increase his forces. The hope was that American forces would help clear insurgent and militia-infested neighborhoods in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, while Iraqi troops would be brought in to secure them. After that, the push to make a transition to Iraqi control would continue.
During the videoconference with the president, General Casey said he had enough troops but said he was not sure the Iraqis could “deliver” on securing the neighborhoods. Mr. Bush underscored that more American troops were available if the commander needed them. “We must succeed,” Mr. Bush told General Casey, according to notes taken by a participant. “We will commit the resources. If they can’t, we will. If the bicycle teeters, put our hand back on it.”
“I support you guys 100 percent, but I need to ask you tough questions,” Mr. Bush added. “Different times call for different kinds of questions.”
It was hardly the first time that officials had raised questions about the American approach in Iraq. In March 2006, Philip D. Zelikow, a senior aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, called in a memorandum for a “massive effort to improve security in Baghdad and surrounding areas, and a reckoning with the most violent Shia/Sadrist militias.”
He elaborated on that theme in a paper he drafted in June with James F. Jeffrey, now Mr. Bush’s deputy national security adviser, that recommended “selective counterinsurgency” that might involve additional American forces.
Some aides had also hoped that a meeting that Mr. Bush held at Camp David in June would signal the start of a major review. That did not happen, but over the summer, the security council staff members began a critique of the strategy.
By October, the aides, Meghan O’Sullivan, Brett McGurk and Peter D. Feaver, had collaborated on the paper that raised the prospect of a troop increase. J. D. Crouch, the deputy national security adviser, called in Mr. Luti to ask for a separate look.
After contacting the Army staff, Mr. Luti submitted a confidential briefing in October titled, “Changing the Dynamics: Surge and Fight, Create Breathing Space and Then Accelerate the Transition.”
The briefing called for a substantial troop increase, which Mr. Luti later defined as sending 20,000 additional troops — about five brigades — to Baghdad and other hot spots in Iraq. The National Security Council staff was trying to walk a fine line under a Bush White House that cast staff members as coordinators, not advocates. Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, later gave a copy to Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and asked for his assessment.
Public Support ‘in Jeopardy’
Three days after the 2006 midterm Congressional elections, the White House finally convened a formal governmentwide review. The Republicans had taken a beating at the polls and the Iraq Study Group, a nonpartisan panel led by Lee H. Hamilton, the former Democratic representative, and James A. Baker III, the secretary of state to the first President Bush, was preparing to publish its recommendations — to step up efforts to train Iraqi troops and withdraw virtually all American combat brigades by spring 2008.
At a Nov. 22 White House meeting, top aides outlined an “emerging consensus” on the way ahead. There was wide agreement that a successful outcome in Iraq was vital for the Bush administration’s “war on terror” and a candid assessment of the difficulties.
A document prepared for the review stated: “Our center of gravity — public support — is in jeopardy because of doubts that our Iraq efforts are on a trajectory leading to success.”
Each agency outlined its position in a series of classified papers. Civilian Pentagon officials endorsed General Casey’s strategy making transition a top priority.
“General Casey has a good plan. He has identified ways to do things faster and accelerate the timeline to Iraqi self-reliance,” said a Nov. 22 memorandum by policy officials in the office of the secretary of defense. “There may be some opportunities outside of Baghdad — Anbar; border control — for a relatively small surge force to have a noticeable impact. (The uniformed military remains against the surge force without a clearly defined objective.)”
A classified paper by the Joint Chiefs of Staff also argued for “accelerating Iraqis into ‘operational lead.’ ” It proposed a number of measures, including assigning one American brigade to each Iraqi division, to improve the performance of Iraqi troops.
Ms. Rice and her top deputies prepared a paper on “Advancing America’s Interests, Preserving Iraq’s Independence” that recommended that the United States focus on “core” interests like fighting terrorism and countering Iranian aggression. Moving to the periphery of the capital, American forces would contain the violence and intervene in the sectarian fighting in Baghdad only if there were “mass killings or mass expulsions.” State Department aides were not aware of the Luti paper raising the prospect that substantial American reinforcements might be available, despite Pentagon complaints that troops were overstretched.
On the political front, the United States would no longer count on efforts to encourage the Iraqi leadership in the Green Zone to reconcile their differences. Instead, the United States would emphasize efforts on the local level and double the number of civilian “provincial reconstruction teams” to help the Iraqis rebuild their infrastructure and improve governance.
John P. Hannah, a senior aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, urged a new effort to strengthen ties with Shiites, a majority of Iraq’s population. Many Shiites, he said, believed the United States was more concerned with countering Shiite militias than fighting Sunni insurgents. On Nov. 30, Mr. Bush met in Amman, Jordan, with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who advanced his own proposal that American forces pull back to the outskirts of Baghdad to fight Sunni insurgents while Iraqi forces took control of the capital. With violence escalating out of control, few American officials thought that was feasible. Mr. Bush told the Iraqi prime minister that General Casey would study the plan and said that the United States could send more troops if the Iraqis removed political impediments to the Americans’ ability to confront Shiite factions involved in sectarian attacks and took other steps to rise above sectarianism.
Still, the debate continued to swirl. In an early December meeting of top officials, Mr. Cheney argued for sending forces to address the sectarian violence in Baghdad, while Ms. Rice reiterated her argument that there was little the military could do to stop sectarian violence there, according to notes taken by a participant.
A ‘Slow-Motion Lateral’
Mr. Bush signaled his decision to pursue some kind of troop increase in Iraq when his National Security Council met Dec. 8 and Dec. 9. The idea was to make protection of the Iraqi population an important goal and reduce violence before resuming efforts to transfer responsibilities to the Iraqis. Invoking a sports metaphor, he described the surge as a “slow-motion lateral” to Iraqi control.
Still, the size of the deployment and exactly how it would be used were not settled. Would the “surge” be a slightly expanded version of General Casey’s approach toward securing Baghdad with limited American forces? Or would it represent a radical break with the current strategy?
By now, there was a split in the military community. General Odierno had taken over in early December as the second-ranking officer in Iraq. He conducted a review that called for a minimum of five additional brigades in and around Baghdad and two more battalions in Anbar Province to reinforce efforts to work with Sunni tribes there.
As a subordinate to General Casey, General Odierno had no role in the security council review. But his views were known to General Keane, the retired four-star general who had helped oversee the study for the American Enterprise Institute that advocated adding five Army brigades and two Marine regiments. In separate meetings with Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney on Dec. 11, General Keane relayed General Odierno’ assessment, which was forwarded by General Pace as well.
Along with Mr. Kagan, General Keane also described in detail to Mr. Cheney and his staff his own plan calling for American forces to be deployed in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad to demonstrate that the United States would be even-handed in protecting civilians.
Donald H. Rumsfeld’s resignation on Nov. 6, and Mr. Gates’s swearing-in to replace him as defense secretary in mid-December, removed some of the institutional resistance at the Pentagon to the “surge.” Ms. Rice also became more supportive after it was made clear that demands would be made of the Iraqis.
Mr. Gates flew to Baghdad in late December to confer with General Casey and Mr. Maliki. On the flight, Eric S. Edelman, the undersecretary of defense for policy, gave Mr. Gates a copy of the enterprise institute study.
During his Baghdad meetings, General Casey stuck to his approach, and said that he only needed one or two additional brigades, which might only be used for several months to hold cleared neighborhoods in Baghdad until Iraqi troops were ready to take over. On the flight home, Mr. Gates and his aides discussed what to say in his report to Mr. Bush. Mr. Hannah, Mr. Cheney’s aide, who was also on the trip, questioned whether two brigades would be just enough to fail. He asked whether the Pentagon should be proposing more.
Mr. Gates said it was difficult to get Mr. Maliki to accept that much. The defense secretary later reported to Mr. Bush that the commander wanted no more than two brigades, which would be stationed on each side of the Tigris River in Baghdad.
A Dec. 28 National Security Council meeting had been arranged at Mr. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Tex. General Keane was concerned that General Pace might ask only for the two brigades recommended by General Casey, with three more held in reserve. General Keane called Mr. Hannah and said that General Pace should be asked if he thought such a small deployment would be decisive. That meeting confirmed the need to send more troops to Anbar Province and all but affirmed the plan to send five more brigades to Baghdad.
General Petraeus’s views were also influential. He was being considered to replace General Casey and wanted as many forces as he could get, to pursue a strategy that, like General Odierno’s, would give priority to protecting Iraqi civilians and move American forces out of large bases. The tussle over the number of forces to be sent went down to the wire. As White House officials began to work on Mr. Bush’s Jan. 10 speech announcing the increase, one draft had Mr. Bush saying he would send “up to five” combat brigades. Aides at the National Security Council took the issue to Mr. Bush, who made the commitment explicit. “I’ve committed more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq,” Mr. Bush said in his televised address. “The vast majority of them — five brigades — will be deployed to Baghdad.”
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How to Leave a Stable Iraq
Building on Progress
By Stephen Biddle, Michael E. O'Hanlon, and Kenneth M. Pollack
From Foreign Affairs , September/October 2008
Summary: The situation in Iraq is improving. With the right strategy, the United States will eventually be able to draw down troops without sacrificing stability.
Stephen Biddle is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Michael E. O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack are Senior Fellows at the Brookings Institution. This article is based in part on a research trip made to Iraq in May-June 2008 and written as part of the joint Saban Center at Brookings-Council on Foreign Relations project on U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
Listen to this essay on CFR.org
The Iraq war has become one of the most polarizing issues in American politics. Most Democrats, including Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.), want large, early troop cuts; most Republicans, including Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), want U.S. troops to stay until Iraq's stability is guaranteed. Years of bad news from the front have hardened these divisions along partisan lines and embittered many on both sides. Today, however, there is reason to believe that the debate over Iraq can change. A series of positive developments in the past year and a half offers hope that the desire of so many Americans to bring the troops home can be fulfilled without leaving Iraq in chaos. The right approach, in other words, can partly square Obama's goal of redeploying large numbers of U.S. forces sooner rather than later with McCain's goal of ensuring stability in Iraq.
If the prognosis in Iraq were hopelessly grim, it might make sense for the United States to threaten withdrawal, hold its breath, and hope for the best. But the prognosis is now much more promising than it has been in years, making a threat of withdrawal far from necessary. With a degree of patience, the United States can build on a pattern of positive change in Iraq that offers it a chance to draw down troops soon without giving up hope for sustained stability.
The last 18 months have brought major changes in the underlying strategic calculus facing Iraq's main combatants -- undermining the Sunni insurgency, weakening the Shiite militias, severely degrading al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), strengthening the Iraqi security forces (ISF), and creating new, more positive political dynamics and incentives. But these developments have also brought new, if less acute, challenges to the fore -- demanding corresponding changes in U.S. and Iraqi strategy. Simply staying the course will not work under the new conditions in Iraq.
Both to deal with the new problems and to guard against any revival of the old ones, any further troop drawdowns, now that the "surge" is over, should be modest until after Iraq gets through two big rounds of elections -- in late 2008 at the provincial level and in late 2009 at the national level -- which have the potential either to reinforce important gains or to reopen old wounds. But starting in 2010, if current trends continue, the United States may be able to start cutting back its troop presence substantially, possibly even halving the total U.S. commitment by sometime in 2011, without running excessive risks with the stability of Iraq and the wider Persian Gulf region.
HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
Most Americans have a mental image of Iraq that is defined by the chaos of 2006. But Iraq today is a very different place than it was two years ago. Overall violence is down at least 80 percent since the surge began, and ethno-sectarian violence -- the kind that seemed to be sucking Iraq into all-out civil war in 2006 -- is down by over 90 percent. Through June, the number of violent civilian deaths has averaged about 700 a month in 2008, a lower rate than in any previous year of the war (with the possible exception of 2003). U.S. military deaths in Iraq have dropped from about 70 a month in early 2007 to about 25 a month now, and the death rate for the ISF has fallen by half, from 200 a month to about 100. Although refugees and internally displaced people are not yet returning home in large numbers, so few Iraqis are now being evicted that the net displacement rate is about zero.
Meanwhile, the three main culprits in the ethno-sectarian violence of 2006 have stood down and agreed to cease-fires or been crippled by military defeat. Sunni insurgents overwhelmingly switched sides over the course of 2007, signing on to cease-fires with the Iraqi state mostly through the Sons of Iraq program, which now includes over 100,000 participants, who provide local security in exchange for legitimacy and financial support. The Shiite militias, especially Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army (also know as Jaish al-Mahdi, or JAM), have seen their position undermined by a combination of Sunni realignment, U.S. and Iraqi military pressure, the increasing independence of splinter and rogue groups, and a backlash against their own parasitic exploitation of the civilians they were ostensibly defending. And the most violent actors -- Iraq's extreme chauvinist Sunni groups and AQI -- have been driven from most of western and central Iraq and are losing their remaining urban havens in the provinces of Diyala, Nineveh, and Salah ad Din thanks to a series of offensives by U.S. and Iraqi forces. AQI will surely continue to be able to precipitate occasional incidents of terrorist violence from these hideouts, but its ability to foment large-scale low-intensity warfare is now hugely diminished.
This remarkable change in Iraq's security situation results from the interaction of AQI's errors, the surge in U.S. troop levels, the growing capacities of the ISF, and the downstream consequences of all of this for the Shiite militias. AQI's first big mistake was bombing the Shiite Askariya shrine in Samarra in February 2006. The attack drew the Shiite militias (many of which had been merely defensive) into the civil war in force and on the offensive, and so began the battle of Baghdad -- a yearlong wave of sectarian violence pitting Sunni insurgents and their AQI allies against JAM and its allies. At the time, Americans saw this wave of bloodshed as a disaster, and in terms of human life it clearly was. But it enabled a later wave of cease-fires by fundamentally changing the Sunnis' strategic calculus. The battle of Baghdad gave the Sunnis a clear view of what an all-out war would really mean, and they did not like what they saw. With U.S. forces playing no decisive role, the Shiite militias overwhelmed the Sunni combatants in neighborhood after neighborhood. By goading the Shiite militias into open warfare, AQI had triggered a head-to-head fight in which the Sunnis were decisively beaten by the Shiite forces they had assumed they could dominate.
AQI's second mistake was alienating its Sunni allies. AQI treated Sunnis it judged insufficiently devout or committed with unspeakable brutality and appropriated Sunni smuggling networks in Anbar Province for its own use, leaving tribal sheiks impoverished. Once the battle of Baghdad had demonstrated to the Sunnis that AQI could offer no real protection against the Shiites, these costs no longer seemed worth it. By late 2006, the Sunnis had realized that they faced defeat unless they found new allies -- and they turned to the United States while they still could.
The surge, and especially its new emphasis on the provision of direct population security by U.S. forces, enabled the Sunnis to survive this realignment in the face of AQI's inevitable counterattacks. In Anbar, U.S. firepower, combined with a persistent troop presence and Sunni knowledge of whom and where to strike, essentially expelled AQI from the province. News of this "Anbar model" spread rapidly among disaffected Sunnis elsewhere. In just a few months, the result was a large-scale stand-down of the Sunni insurgency and the decimation of AQI throughout western and central Iraq.
Cease-fires with Sunnis in turn facilitated cease-fires with key Shiite militias. Sadr's JAM had originally arisen to defend Shiite civilians from Sunni violence. But as that violence waned and resentment of JAM militia thugs (many of whom seemed mostly concerned with extorting personal profit) grew, Shiite support for JAM plummeted -- especially since the U.S. military buildup in Baghdad and the cease-fires with the Sunnis gave the United States enough troop strength to offer the Shiites security without gangsterism. Sadr, his popularity declining and his control over his own fighters increasingly tenuous, chose to stand down rather than confront the strengthened U.S. force.
The net result of all this was a profound change in the underlying strategic calculus in Iraq -- setting off a virtuous cycle in which decreasing sectarian violence weakens the hand of prospective sectarian warriors, which helps further reduce violence. From 2003 to 2006, the self-interest of the key internal actors lay in warfare. By the middle of 2007, the key players saw their interests as best served by peace.
It is worth noting that separation resulting from sectarian cleansing was not the chief cause of the reduction in violence, as some have claimed. Much of Iraq remains intermingled but increasingly peaceful. And whereas a cleansing argument implies that casualties should have gone down in Baghdad, for example, as mixed neighborhoods were cleansed, casualties actually went up consistently during the sectarian warfare of 2006. Cleansing may have reduced the violence somewhat in some places, but it was not the main cause.
AN ARMY OF ITS OWN
As the violence declined, two big changes in the Iraqi state took place -- one military, one political. On the military side, the ISF have grown much more capable than they were in 2006. There are now some 559,000 security personnel, with about 230,000 in the Iraqi army alone, and those ranks are growing by at least 100,000 new soldiers and police a year. Some 55 percent of the units rank in the top two tiers of readiness, according to U.S. assessment methods, which have been improved to include evaluations of actual battlefield performance. (Even these units, however, still need significant coalition help in some areas, particularly for more complex operations.)
The size and competence of these Iraqi forces have allowed U.S. commanders to maintain population security even as U.S. troop strength has declined significantly since the surge. With more troops to cover the battlefield, whole Iraqi battalions can be pulled off the battlefield temporarily for training, further increasing their capabilities. At the same time, the United States has greatly expanded its advisory effort. The typical Iraqi division now has over 100 U.S. Army and Marine advisers, who stay with it even in battle, and Iraqi units are often teamed up with U.S. units of comparable or smaller size. The greater availability of troops enables many of these teams to begin deployments in quiet sectors, building both skills and working relationships before being sent to high-threat areas.
Just as important as the ISF's size and technical proficiency are the major changes that have taken place in the ISF's politics and leadership. Sectarian, corrupt, incompetent, and turncoat officers have been removed. Aggressive recruitment and new amnesty and de-Baathification ordinances have led to increases in both the number of Sunnis, especially in the officer corps, and the number of people with prior military experience in the forces. Now, about 80 percent of the Iraqi army's officers and 50 percent of its rank and file are veterans of Saddam Hussein's military, and one of the most capable units in the Iraqi army, the First Brigade of the First Infantry Division, is 60 percent Sunni.
The cooling of Iraq's underlying sectarian tensions has interacted synergistically with these efforts. In an ongoing ethno-sectarian war, sectarian officers can be purged, but their replacements will face the same pressures, making real change difficult. With ethno-sectarian violence in remission, the replacements for purged sectarians are now much better able to resist militia pressure or political interference. There are still problematic elements in the ISF, and a renewal of ethno-sectarian violence would severely test allegiances. But declining ethno-sectarian violence enables sectarianism to be policed more quickly, consistently, and harshly than in the past. (A U.S. Special Forces officer who served as an advisory-team commander in 2007 and 2008 noted that collaboration with one of the militant sectarian groups was one of the few offenses that typically resulted in an officer's dismissal or imprisonment.) The net result has been important progress, which has been reflected in improved public perception of the ISF: the percentage of Iraqis who did not believe that the Iraqi army was sectarian, according to polling conducted by the U.S.-led coalition, jumped from 39 percent in June 2007 to 54 percent in June 2008.
The Iraqi National Police provides another critical example of this progress. As recently as the fall of 2006, the national police force was a disaster; a commission led by retired Marine General James Jones went so far as to recommend its dissolution. It was infested with Shiite militias as well as every variety of coward and criminal, and police units often acted as anti-Sunni hit squads. But a new commander, Major General Hussein al-Wadi, has turned the force around. He fired both division commanders, all eight brigade commanders, and 18 of 27 battalion commanders. He instituted new vetting and screening measures, enrolled every member of his forces in the massive biometric data system, recruited Sunnis and Kurds into the force, and retrained every police formation. Today, the national police officer corps has roughly equal numbers of Sunnis and Shiites, and its rank and file is 25 percent Sunni -- higher than the Sunnis' share of the overall population. Police units are now capable of supporting army units in combat zones, and popular trust in the police is growing. According to coalition polling, the percentage of Iraqis who believed that the Iraqi police were sectarian fell from 64 percent in June 2007 to 52 percent a year later, and the percentage who believed they were corrupt fell from 63 percent to 50 percent.
Despite such steps, the Iraqis are not yet able to stand on their own. They remain dependent on U.S. and British troops to assist with planning and provide logistical and fire support. (The "tooth-to-tail ratio" for the Iraqi army -- the ratio of combat to support troops -- is 75-25, the reverse of what it is for the U.S. Army.) Properly advised and partnered Iraqi formations perform far better than units without such support. In the offensive against JAM in Basra this past spring, for instance, the First Brigade and the 26th Brigade, which had long fought with U.S. marines and were deployed with Marine advisers, performed well, whereas the brigades without U.S. advisers and partners did poorly, with one, the new 52nd Brigade, effectively collapsing in combat. The Basra campaign would have ended in disaster if not for support from coalition firepower and the arrival of ISF units with U.S. military- and police-training teams. In short, the ISF have improved to the point where they have become a powerful partner to U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, but they will require outside support for at least some time to come.
THE EMERGING POLITICS OF IRAQ
Iraqi politics are changing as well. Tensions, mistrust, and competitive pressures remain severe. But thanks to reduced violence, diminished sectarian warfare, weakened militias, and the prospect of upcoming elections for which Sunnis and others who boycotted the last round are expected to turn out in force, the old patterns of Iraqi political life are giving way to new ones. This moment of change brings risk and uncertainty, but those old patterns were so clearly dysfunctional that this transition offers an important opportunity.
During the years of severe ethno-sectarian violence, the three most influential political entities in Iraq -- the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Sadrist movement, and the Fadhila Party, all three of which are Shiite -- owed their influence to their powerful militias, which could provide protection to those who needed it and intimidate those who did not. But over the past 18 months, these militias have been significantly weakened. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq's Badr Corps and Fadhila's militia have been integrating into the ISF for years. Today, they have largely vanished as independent militias using violence to advance their own political agendas and undermine central government rule. Meanwhile, JAM cadres, increasingly rejected by the Shiite population, which has come to see them more and more as members of predatory criminal gangs rather than as a necessary defense against Sunni attacks, have been routed on the battlefield or driven underground or into Iran. Communities once dependent on JAM now welcome ISF units as sources of law and order.
Sadr himself remains a popular figure among Iraq's downtrodden Shiite communities, if only because of his family ties and perceived nationalism. But he appears increasingly out of step with his erstwhile constituents. His long sojourn in Iran has removed him from day-to-day management of his movement and weakened his nationalist credentials. Sadr's calls for protests against the government now draw only a few thousand people out onto the streets, in contrast to the massive crowds he could bring out in the past. JAM cadres are increasingly frustrated with Sadr's lack of leadership. And U.S. officials report that more and more Sadrist officials have begun meeting with them in defiance of Sadr's orders. The Sadrist movement may be able to regroup -- especially if the government fails to provide services and jobs, which JAM has sought to offer its supporters -- but it is much weaker than it once was.
For their part, the Sunnis seem not only willing but also determined to participate in the government of Iraq, in ways they have not up to now. Most Sunni leaders have concluded that boycotting the 2005 elections was a mistake, which ended up ceding to the worst of the Shiite militias complete control of the central government and many provincial governments. Now, they are determined to participate: in the 2008 provincial elections in order to regain control over the governments of their provinces, and in the 2009 parliamentary elections in the hope of either taking part in a new government or at least preventing their rivals from depriving them of their fair share of Iraq's riches (now flowing from Baghdad to the provinces much more than before but still not enough). In many places, Sunni tribal leaders will try to supplant incumbents from existing Sunni political movements, many of whom are not particularly popular.
Now that the Iraqi people are rejecting the militias, the parties that had long served as façades for them are scrambling to be seen as helping to improve the government's capacity to deliver security and essential services, in the hope that voters will forget how badly the parties hindered that process before 2007. (Most of the established political parties are afraid of losing big in the coming elections, as voters turn to different leaders in an attempt to spur change.) The result has been a series of important political compromises among Iraq's senior leaders: in December 2007 and February 2008, they passed a budget law, a new de-Baathification law, an amnesty for former insurgents, a pensions law, and a provincial powers act that is an important part of an ongoing decentralization process.
Together, all of these developments raise the potential of creating a new and better political order in Iraq. For now, there is still more potential than realization. Legislative progress on reconciliation continues to be slow, factional and sectarian differences remain divisive, and there is still no new political alignment or movement with the power to bridge these divides. Moreover, elections have had a very mixed track record in Iraq: as in many emerging democracies, electoral incentives can lead to instability as well as progress. But recent changes in Iraq's underlying military and political dynamics have at least broken the pattern of dysfunctional politics that has paralyzed Iraq in recent years. And this creates an opening that, if the Iraqis and the Americans can exploit it, could lead to a very different pattern -- one of positive political development and compromise.
Some argue that to do this, the United States must withdraw, or threaten to withdraw, its troops. They believe this would force Iraqi leaders to put their differences aside and reach a grand compromise on reconciliation, because Iraqis would need to solve their own problems either without a U.S. military crutch or in order to preserve a U.S. presence as a reward for reconciliation. There is some merit to this logic. It is true that the presence of U.S. forces reduces the stakes for Iraqi politicians, since it limits violence. And if Iraq faced chaos otherwise, a threat of withdrawal would certainly be worth trying. But withdrawal is a risky gambit. And progress is now being made without it: violence is down dramatically, and political change, although slow, is under way. Threatening withdrawal might speed this progress, but today it seems more likely to derail it instead.
Reconciliation will require all the major Iraqi factions to accept painful compromises simultaneously. If any major party holds out and decides to fight rather than accept risky sacrifices for the larger good, then its rivals will find it very hard to hold their own followers to the terms of a cease-fire -- likely plunging Iraq back into open warfare. If reconciliation can be done slowly, via small steps, then each stage of compromise is likely to be tolerable, with the risk of one holdout party exploiting the others kept to a manageable level. In contrast, if reconciliation must be done quickly, with a grand bargain rapidly negotiated in the face of an imminent U.S. withdrawal, the necessary compromises will be great -- making them extremely risky for all parties. In a factionalized, poorly institutionalized, immature political system such as Iraq's, many parties would doubt their rivals' motives and could refuse to make such large and risky compromises. The Iraqis, out of fear for their own safety, might well respond to a threatened U.S. withdrawal by preparing for renewed warfare. Rather than persuading the Iraqis to accept huge risks together, a threat of withdrawal would more likely produce the opposite effect.
Leverage to encourage compromise is important, as advocates of withdrawal argue, and U.S. policy has up to now erred in rejecting conditionality for U.S. aid and cooperation. But threatening withdrawal is hardly the only or the best way of gaining such leverage. Any element of U.S. policy can be made conditional -- economic assistance, military aid, the U.S. position in negotiations over the legal status of U.S. forces -- by offering benefits only in exchange for Iraqi cooperation. Withdrawal is the biggest potential threat that Washington can issue, but it is also a blunt instrument with great potential to damage both parties' interests. In an environment of increasing stability, the United States can now hope to succeed with subtler methods.
NEW PROBLEMS, NOT NO PROBLEMS
If the United States and its coalition partners are to keep Iraq moving toward stability, they must still overcome a range of new challenges. These problems promise to be generally less daunting than those faced at the beginning of 2007, but they could still plunge Iraq back into civil war. Iraq may no longer be a failed state, but it is certainly, as Emma Sky, chief political adviser to the U.S. military leadership in Iraq, puts it, a "fragile state," one that must become much stronger if it is to stand on its own and not fall back into chaos and war. Achieving this will require tackling a number of second-order issues, which are growing in visibility as the first-order problems of rampant sectarian and insurgent violence abate. There are a great many such second-order problems, but it is worth highlighting some of the most important.
First, there is the challenge of integrating the Sons of Iraq into the ISF and the Iraqi government. The stand-down of the Sunni insurgency under the Sons of Iraq program has been a critical element in the reduction in violence. The program has not "armed the Sunnis" for renewed warfare, as American critics have often claimed -- the Sons of Iraq hardly lacked weapons when they were fighting as insurgents, and they have received none from the United States. The real problem is different. Most Sons of Iraq groups want to be integrated into the government security forces -- a move they see as the best guarantee that a Shiite regime will not use the ISF to tyrannize them. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has been dragging its feet, out of fear of empowering Sunni rivals. Some mix of security-sector and civilian employment must be found for the Sons of Iraq to satisfy their economic needs -- and their security concerns vis-à-vis Iraq's Shiite majority. As with other needed intersectarian compromises in Iraq, this will require hard bargaining. But the increasing stability, along with the security that the improving ISF give to the Maliki regime, offers a reason to believe that such bargaining can eventually succeed if the United States stands firm.
The Sons of Iraq system is also highly decentralized, with over 200 separate groups under contract. Many are wary and distrustful of rivals, as are most Iraqis. Violations of cease-fire terms and contract provisions are inevitable with so many actors and so much tension; active enforcement of the terms is therefore essential to keep the peace. This is typical of the early years of negotiated settlements to civil wars, which commonly require outside peacekeepers to stabilize cease-fires. Until the Sunnis fully trust the ISF, this role will largely fall to the U.S. military -- and, in fact, many U.S. brigades already spend much of their time involved in peacekeeping duties to enforce the terms of Sons of Iraq contracts. This cease-fire policing function is likely to be an increasingly important mission for U.S. forces in Iraq.
Returning refugees and internally displaced people are another important second-order problem. The first-order problem of the civil war created about four million refugees and internally displaced people. Some of them are now starting to return home, and many more can be expected to follow if security continues to improve. The returnees often have neither jobs nor homes to return to. Although trying to put every family back in its original home would be simply impossible -- in many cases, the homes of returning refugees or displaced people are occupied by others whose homes were destroyed -- there need to be large-scale resettlement programs for the displaced. One solution would be a government voucher program to help people build new houses, perhaps in their original provinces but not necessarily their original cities or neighborhoods. Iraq should fund most of any such program, but American and international advisers can help design the program -- and then help in the critical tasks of implementing it fairly across sectarian lines and protecting the populations trying to relocate. This approach would have the added virtue of sparking a construction boom and thereby helping reduce unemployment (one of Iraq's chief economic problems). Without such measures, considerable violence -- both by and against the returnees -- could ensue, perhaps resurrecting the militias as the champions of the dispossessed.
The Iraqi central government's administrative capacity and the country's economic progress still lag far behind the gains in security, and there is still much to be done before Iraq has a mature political system and a productive economy capable of meeting the Iraqi people's basic needs. The Iraqi government has proved unable to spend more than a modest fraction of its own revenue, leaving the Iraqis largely unable to benefit from record-high oil prices. Unemployment is between 30 and 40 percent, and there has been little documented progress in providing health care, education, sanitation, clean water, or most other services. Money and goods are finally moving across the country, but they are moving very slowly. Without an electronic banking system, it is difficult to transfer funds from the central government to the provinces, where they can be more effectively spent.
Credible public administration is important for sustaining improved security. Some recent policy changes are steps in the right direction. As part of the surge strategy, the United States increased its support to Iraq's provincial governments, which are better able than the central government to develop the capacity to deliver essential services. U.S. civilian and military personnel, most deployed in new Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams (EPRTs), have fanned out into the countryside to help Iraqi officials build local and provincial governance structures and utilities. Training programs for civil servants from provincial governments were established in Baghdad and Erbil to complement the work of the teams in the field. Likewise, the United States' economic-assistance strategy has shifted from an emphasis on massive U.S.-directed and U.S.-designed infrastructure programs to more effective local initiatives, such as microloans administered by the PRTs and the EPRTs (which are now nearly fully staffed).
There are signs that things are starting to improve on the economic front. U.S., Iraqi, British, and UN officials all say that there are more markets opening up, more businesses starting or reopening, and more traffic on the streets than in the past few years. In an area of Iraq south of Baghdad once so violent that it was known as "the Triangle of Death," 255 small businesses were opened in the first five months of 2008. Still, on economic issues, the glass remains less than half full, and the delivery of essential government services remains an important challenge.
A final second-order problem worth noting is the thorny issue of Kirkuk. Preventing Kirkuk from becoming a flashpoint will require compromises on a range of difficult issues. The city and its environs, once heavily Kurdish, were "Arabized" by Saddam in an effort to weaken the Kurdish hold on Iraq's northern oil-producing region. Many Kurds were displaced by the influx of Arabs, and now, in much of the city, two different families claim every house. A solution might involve giving most Kurds their homes back or creating a voucher system to enable them to build new ones. Ensuring that all of Iraq's major groups are comfortable with a settlement on oil-revenue sharing and oil exploration will also be critical for Kirkuk. A fair resolution on oil requires making future oil wealth a national asset to be shared equally by all Iraqis. Resolving the problem of Kirkuk is likely to take considerable time, especially since any rapid resolution might produce considerable bloodshed. But the good news is that the Kurdish leadership recognizes the difficulties inherent in amicably resolving the Kirkuk problem and has so far supported the UN process established to handle it.
THE PROBLEM WITH POLITICS AS USUAL
As Iraq moves toward stability, other problems will start to emerge. Iraq risks becoming an ordinary Arab state -- hardly a rosy prospect given the horrendous political and economic record of other Arab states in the region over the past 60 years. As the United States and its partners work on such basic challenges as resettling refugees and improving government capacity, they must also try to prevent the fragile new Iraq from falling prey to the kinds of problems that have befallen so many other Arab states.
The most pressing risk is that the much-improved ISF, an increasingly competent and self-confident institution in a state of otherwise weak institutions, could turn to praetorianism. Even a failed coup attempt could have serious consequences, rekindling sectarian rivalries and causing the ISF themselves to fragment along sectarian lines. The United States' continued military presence can be an important deterrent in this regard; a rapid U.S. withdrawal could greatly increase the risk of a coup.
It is also possible that a clique of politicians aligned with the security services could take over the government from within and then proceed to hoard its vast energy wealth and parcel out the rest of the state to organized crime. The ties between increasingly prevalent organized crime and many Iraqi political leaders, the stronger ISF at their disposal, and Iraq's oil wealth make this a very real danger. Still another possibility would be Iraq's falling into a "Palestinian model," in which the central government fails to provide essential services and steals the country's wealth. That could create fertile ground for Hamas-like militias to provide many services (as JAM was attempting to do before the ISF displaced it).
None of these outcomes would bring sustainable stability to Iraq, and all would risk reigniting the civil war. The second-order problems thus demand increasing attention as the first-order problem of ethno-sectarian violence ebbs.
The United States must also contend with Iran's role. The war in Iraq is ultimately about Iraq and the Iraqis, but Iranian money, weapons, and training for Iraqi militias and guerrillas are clearly exacerbating Iraq's internal problems. How committed Iran is to this policy of malign interference, however, is unclear. The Iranian leadership is not entirely of one mind regarding its goals or strategies in Iraq, and the events of the past year and a half (particularly the weakening of the Shiite militias) appear to have shattered whatever consensus it once had. Iran has also done some things that could be beneficial -- such as trying to prevent fighting among the Shiite militias -- and the fact that it has done them to serve its own interests should not blind the United States to Iran's potential to be helpful in some regards.
Handling Iran will require a joint U.S.-Iraqi effort to engage Iran in a dialogue, in the hope of making Tehran more of a partner in the reconstruction effort. The Iranians need to be encouraged to do more of what is helpful and less of what is unhelpful, and the best route to that is to stop trying to exclude them from the process altogether. For instance, the U.S. and Iraqi governments should offer the Iranians a permanent liaison presence in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, allowing them to be briefed and to offer advice on developments relevant to their interests. Better still would be to act where possible in ways that take Iran's advice into account to reassure Tehran that it can secure its most basic interests without having to fight for them. Even a failed attempt at dialogue would underscore to the Iraqis that Iran is acting nefariously in their country -- making the Iraqis more tolerant of decisive government action against Iranian-sponsored militias and encouraging Iraqi, rather than U.S., action against Iranian arms smuggling and other types of interference.
WHITHER THE U.S. PRESENCE?
For now, U.S. troops are playing an important role in sustaining the fragile hope and security in Iraq. But current troop levels cannot be maintained forever. How soon and how deep can a drawdown be without undermining the prospects for stability?
Exact projections of troop requirements are difficult to make, but current trends suggest that the United States should be able to cut its presence in Iraq substantially -- perhaps by half -- over the course of 2010 and 2011. Doing so would be contingent on making further progress against the insurgency, keeping the peace during the upcoming provincial and parliamentary elections, and continuing to assist the Iraqis as they work toward healing their sectarian divisions. A destabilizing election, a renewal of sectarian violence sparked by badly handed refugee returns or poor resolution of the Kirkuk dispute, or more destabilizing activity by Iran would change this timing. Any schedule for withdrawal will be subject to the inherent uncertainty of a conflict as complex as the one in Iraq.
Still, one possible model if current trends continue is provided by the recent developments in Anbar Province, which has famously gone from being the worst area of the country in 2006 to nearly its best today. In 2007, the United States had 15 maneuver battalions in the province; today it has only six. Now, U.S. marines participate in less than half of all patrols, and their aim is to drop that down to only 25 percent soon. Several hundred marines remain to advise the two Iraqi army divisions in Anbar, and a sizable number of Americans are working with the Iraqi police there. They will remain necessary for some time, as will further U.S. support of efforts to patrol Anbar's border with Syria to keep out foreign terrorists (who continue to enter Iraq at the rate of about 30 a month, down by two-thirds from earlier estimates but still a worrying figure). The United States will also have to continue to provide key "combat enablers" -- aerial surveillance and air, artillery, and armor support -- to Iraqi forces in battle. But the ISF are now providing most of the infantry and policing manpower in Anbar themselves, and U.S. forces there will soon be less than half the size they were in 2007, without any increase in violence or instability.
Another potential insight, despite the imperfect analogy, comes from the U.S. experience in Bosnia and Kosovo. A key to stability in the Balkans has been the continued presence of outside peacekeepers to enforce the deals that ended the fighting -- much like U.S. forces are now doing in Iraq (but were not before). Within four years of the cease-fires in Bosnia and Kosovo, peacekeeping forces in both places had been reduced by about half without causing any resumption of violence. And over the succeeding years, the foreign troop presence fell even further, with a token force of less than ten percent of its original strength remaining in Bosnia today.
Drawdowns on this scale in Iraq cannot be rushed without serious risk. For now, a substantial U.S. presence is essential to stabilize a system of local cease-fires and maintain an environment in which gradual compromise can proceed without gambling on a single grand bargain among wary rivals in Baghdad. This is not to say that today's troop count can or should be maintained until 2010 -- modest near-term withdrawals to below the pre-surge levels will be necessary to establish a sustainable posture. The 130,000 troops and 15 brigades of the pre-2007 force may be too large to maintain into 2009 without unacceptable damage to the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps. But if the United States can maintain a substantial force in Iraq through the critical period of the next two to three years, there is now a credible basis for believing that major drawdowns after that can be enabled by success rather than mandated by failure.
Of course, much could still go wrong. And if an electoral crisis or some other event returns Iraq to civil war, it would be very hard to justify another troop surge to try to stabilize Iraq. Containment -- withdrawing all U.S. troops while working to prevent the chaos in Iraq from spilling over to the rest of the region -- would then become the United States' only realistic option.
But today, there is a real chance that U.S. persistence in the short term can secure a stable Iraq and enable major withdrawals in 2010 and 2011 without undermining that stability. The American people -- to say nothing of the servicemen and servicewomen who are fighting -- have every right to be tired of this war and to question whether it should have ever been fought. But understandable frustration with past mistakes, sorrow over lives lost, anger at resources wasted, and fatigue with a war that has at times seemed endless must not blind Americans to the major change of the last 18 months. The developments of 2007 and 2008 have created new possibilities. If the United States is willing to seize them, it could yet emerge from Mesopotamia with something that may still fall well short of Eden on the Euphrates but that prevents the horrors of all-out civil war, avoids the danger of a wider war, and yields a stability that endures as Americans come home.
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