In the Arena

Progress in Iraq…and What To Do About It

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Fred and Kimberly Kagan have been such persistent Pollyannas about progress–they would call it “success”–in Iraq that it is easy to dismiss their latest offering as more of the same. But that would be a mistake. To be sure, the Kagans still overblow the political progress made by the Maliki government and oversimplify the intraShi’ite power struggle–and are blithely innocent about the role of the Iranians in calming things down in Basra and Sadr city, but they are right about one important thing: the military situation in Iraq has improved so much that normally sober and pessimistic military and intelligence sorts are simply stunned. “I would never have believed that the Iraqi Army could simply walk into Sadr City and take over without firing a shot,” a military intelligence officer told me. “Don’t ask me what it means. I have no idea. But peace begets peace–and we’ve seen that when Iraqis live in secure neighborhoods, they are much less tolerant of those who would disturb the peace.”
Daily attacks continue, but at a fraction of 2006 levels–indeed, at levels not seen since before the Sadrist and Falluja rebellions began in April of 2004. Al Qaeda in Iraq still has the capability to ignite the occasional car bomb, but it has been weakened to the point of defeat. The real estate market in Baghdad is beginning to blossom. And on a broader front, as reported in The New Yorker and The New Republic, Al Qaeda’s wanton butchery is facing an intellectual challenge from within its own ranks.

Continued below…

Indeed, the successful operations in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul have had a completely unexpected effect on the stature of the formerly hapless Nouri Al-Maliki: At a recent cabinet meeting after the Sadr City operation, the entire room stood when Maliki entered, a sign of newfound respect for a leader who was regarded as little more than a place-holder only months ago.

There are caveats aplenty, of course. No one knows the strength or the intentions of the Sadrist movement. The decision to stand down in Sadr City may simply have been a decision to defer the long-simmering feud with the Hakim family’s Badr Corps militia until the U.S. leaves…or it may be a decision to concentrate on the regional elections next November. If Sadr romps in those elections–a distinct possibility–the Maliki coalition could shatter. U.S. intelligence sources say it’s not impossible that Maliki will try to rig the elections by moving on the Sadrist infrastructure–which is also trying to rig the results–in some election precincts. The autumn could be far more violent than the Baghdad Spring. There is also the possibility that the Sunni insurgency could be reawakened if the so-called “Sons of Iraq”–the tribal militias empowered by the U.S. military–are not incorporated into the armed forces and governing coalition. And, finally, there’s the question of who controls the northern oil fields–the Kurds or the central government.

But the tide of good news is unmistakeable. I’m told that Petraeus will probably resume withdrawals after his 45-day pause–which fits neatly into Army rotation schedules. All of which raises the question, what if any role is Iraq going to play in the U.S. election?

Well, there is the question of long-term U.S. bases and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) now being negotiated by the Bush and Maliki governments. The Bush Administration, the Kaganite neocons and John McCain have been dreaming of arrangements like those the U.S. military has enjoyed in Germany and Korea. No chance of that. As the Washington Post reports today, the Iraqis are pretty much opposed to a big U.S. presence…and so is the American public. My guess, backed by reporting, is that four years from now, if current trends continue, there will be about 30,000 U.S. forces stationed at 3 or 4 bases in Iraq–a troop level that Barack Obama would probably endorse. It is extremely unlikely, given the natural truculence of Iraqis (for which they are famous in the region), that those 30,000 would be allowed to remain in perpetuity.

In all this, we should be clear on one thing: Even if the optimistic scenarios prevail, this war was a mistake from beginning to end. It was a scandalous waste of lives, money and American prestige. It diverted U.S. attention from the real threat of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan–a war that still needs to be won. The threat of neoconservative neocolonialism overseas remains a real problem–and it is likely to be the fault line on which the foreign policy debate takes place in the coming presidential campaign. But those who oppose neocon arrogance and intransigence have to do so from facts, and an acknowledgment of the reality on the ground–an acknowledgment of the brilliant work done in the past year in Iraq by the U.S. military, an acknowledgment that the Iraqis just may have grown tired of killing each other. And with a demand that the troops come home as quickly as possible.

Update: McCain–still hoping for 100-year bases–demonstrates why Iraq could still be an issue in November.