Iraq Illusions

Posted Sept. 15, 2008, at 4:03 p.m.

In announcing a small withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq early next year, President Bush last week said the reduction was a sign of success. With more than 130,000 U.S. soldiers remaining in Iraq and no plan for their exit, with little progress on political reconciliation among the ethnic and religious groups in Iraq and warnings that violence among these groups could increase, it is hard to see how this is a success.

Further, it is the Iraqis, through the negotiation of a new agreement on American involvement there, who are pushing for the U.S. troops to go home. They want U.S. troops to leave because they want to control their own country, not because the U.S. occupation has been particularly successful.

The problem is that the Iraqi government and security forces aren’t generally ready to go it alone.

In a draft paper, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes that military victories in Iraq accomplish the first part of the “win, hold and build” strategy that is guiding operations there. But without “building and holding” the wins could evaporate. There has been little progress in building the political and economic foundation needed to hold on to the progress, Mr. Cordesman writes.

For example, provincial elections have yet to be scheduled and an oil revenue-sharing law has yet to be written. The future of the Sons of Iraq, a Sunni group that helped U.S. forces fight against al-Qaida in Iraq, has yet to be settled because the Shiite dominated government fears it could become the former insurgents next target.

“Military forces can ‘win,’ but ‘build’ and ‘hold’ require unified and effective governance, and this is still very much a work in progress,” Mr. Cordesman writes.

With unemployment among young males approaching 60 percent in some areas, economic rebuilding remains elusive as well. With a growing surplus of oil revenues, Iraq has resources to rebuild its economy. But without an agreement on how those oil revenues will be dispersed, that work is stalled.

Against this backdrop, President Bush’s talk of “return on success” in announcing that 8,000 troops will leave Iraq in February is mostly hollow. This is especially true since after those soldiers leave Iraq, about 138,000 will remain, more than were there when the president called for a troop surge in January 2007.

Worse, the president said more troops were needed in Afghanistan, where the conflict against al-Qaida and the Taliban has long been overshadowed by the invasion of Iraq. Sending a few thousands additional troops to Afghanistan, however, isn’t likely to make much difference nearly seven years after U.S. troops first arrived there.

Just months before it leaves office, the Bush administration still has no plan for a U.S. exit from Iraq and no coherent blueprint for its mission in Afghanistan. If this isn’t failure, it is mighty close.

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