Clashes between U.S. troops and insurgents throughout Iraq, political maneuvering in the United States over its presence there and the repercussions of that presence around the world leave no doubt that the Bush administration's hopes for a turnaround have been frustrated.
The recent American troop "surge" has only increased the grim statistics of military casualties, civilian deaths and overall devastation. The U.S Congress reluctantly approved funding for the continued troop presence without requiring a date for withdrawal. But despite claims of victory, media reports suggest that the Bush team understands its current Iraq policies have run their course.
The administration is reportedly considering a 50 per cent reduction of troops in Iraq next year, as well as changing their mandate from combat missions to support and training. There's renewed interest in the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, brushed aside only a few months ago. The administration has begun consulting Iraq's neighbours, Iran and Syria.
So even those who like to persist in their mistakes and illusions are being forced to rethink or, at least repackage, their policies. But is this a real change for the better? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
The key to understanding the situation - as it appears today and as it appeared one, two or three years ago, indeed as it appeared from Day One of the invasion - is simple. Iraq is occupied by U.S. forces.
That fact hasn't been changed by Iraq's creation of a parliament, the election of a new government or the establishment of relative quiet in some parts of the country. Millions of Iraqis perceive the occupation as a national humiliation. That fuels sectarian conflicts, civil strife and continuing instability.
President Bush blames the terrorists (who, incidentally, had no foothold in Iraq before the invasion) and urges Iraq's neighbours and the international community to co-operate in stabilizing the country. In fact, most of the United States' international partners - not only members of the so-called "coalition of the willing," but also those who condemned the invasion - are ready to co-operate.
A conference recently held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, agreed to write off $30 billion of Iraqi debt. This decision was supported by China, Saudi Arabia, Spain and a number of other countries. Russia agreed to forgive much of Iraq's debt even earlier. There is therefore no reason to accuse members of the world community of failing to understand the importance of a stable Iraq.
The Bush administration, however, seems to be using this apparently constructive attitude for self-serving ends. While asking its partners to help Iraq, it refuses to do the one thing that would really aid that country: develop a strategy for withdrawal.
Americans will put increasing pressure on the administration to do exactly that. Keeping a certain number of U.S. troops in Iraq for a reasonable period would be acceptable to most Iraqis, as well as to the international community. But only if it's recognized that the occupation has ended. Such recognition can be achieved only if normalization of Iraq becomes a true international initiative, with the United States ceasing to only hand off certain aspects when it is in its own self-interest.
U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is inevitable. But is it not better to withdraw when the major players inside and outside of Iraq agree on key issues?
Those don't merely include how to withdraw without too much pain, but also how to move toward national reconciliation and how to ensure peace and security in the region.
At first, to secure order it could conceivably be necessary to replace U.S. troops with soldiers from other countries whose presence would not be resented by most Iraqis. Any such troops would have to be approved by the UN Security Council. The international community's help might also be needed to advance the political process in Iraq, which is currently stalled to the point of creating a real risk of the country breaking up. No one should fear internationalizing the Iraqi problem; in the end, it would benefit all parties.
In 1985, it took a change of leadership in the Soviet Union to recognize the mistake of entangling the USSR in the Afghan conflict. That new Soviet leadership - with me as its president - set the goal of withdrawing from Afghanistan while urging other countries to help in securing peace and stability.
Regrettably, the U.S. government chose to forget its own assurances, as it had on other occasions. Instead of co-operating with all responsible Afghan forces, including President Mohammad Najibullah, the United States favoured the proxies of certain elements in Pakistan.
We had warned our American partners about the long-term dangers of playing this game, but they seemed unaware of those consequences. Finally, when Russia backed out of Afghan affairs, the road to extremism was left wide open. The "blowback" from those fateful decisions came on a September morning in 2001, in New York and in Washington.
Some would object that historical analogies, whether with Vietnam or Afghanistan, only go so far. It is true that every conflict has some unique features. But many of their lessons are the same.
Think long and hard before trying to solve any problem militarily. Talk of all other peaceful means as exhausted is often baseless: An alternative is always available. If, however, a great power makes the mistake of entangling itself in an armed conflict, it shouldn't make things worse by arrogantly refusing to heed warnings of dire consequences.
Finally, and most importantly, it should be understood from the start that ultimately there must be a political solution to these conflicts. Seek it honestly, thinking not just of your own self-interest, and look years, not just months, ahead.
Mikhail Gorbachev served as the leader of the former Soviet Union from 1985 until its collapse in 1991. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, he is currently president of the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (The Gorbachev Foundation).
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