Who is the enemy? Who, exactly, are we fighting in Iraq? Why are we there? And what's our objective?
Nearly five years into the war, the answers to basic questions like these ought to be obvious. In the Alice in Wonderland-like wilderness of mirrors that is Iraq, though, they're anything but.
We aren't fighting the Sunnis. Not any more, anyway. Virtually the entire Sunni establishment, from the moderate Muslim Brotherhood-linked Iraqi Islamic Party (which has been part of every Iraqi government since 2003) to the Anbar tribal alliance (which has been begging for U.S. support since 2004 and only recently got it) is either actively cooperating with the American military or sullenly tolerating what it hopes will be a receding occupation. Across Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq, the United States is helping to build army and police units as well as neighborhood patrols -- the Pentagon calls them "concerned citizens" -- out of former resistance fighters, with the blessing of tribal leaders in Anbar, Diyala, and Salahuddin provinces, parts of Baghdad, and areas to the south of the capital. We have met the enemy, and -- surprise! -- they are friends or, if not that, at least not active enemies. Attacks on U.S. forces in Sunni-dominated areas, including the once-violent hot-bed city of Ramadi, Anbar's capital, have fallen dramatically.
Among the hard-core Sunni resistance, there is also significant movement toward a political accord -- if the United States were willing to accept it. Twenty-two Iraqi insurgent groups announced the creation of a united front, under the leadership of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former top Baath party official of the Saddam era, and they have opened talks with Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia who was Iraq's first post-Saddam prime minister.
We aren't fighting the Shia. The Shia merchant class and elite, organized into the mostly pro-Iranian Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and the Islamic Dawa party, are part of the Iraqi government that the United States created and supports -- and whose army and police are armed and trained by the United States. The far more popular forces of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army aren't the enemy either. In late August, Sadr declared a ceasefire, ordering his militia to stand down; and, since then, attacks on U.S. forces in Shia-dominated areas of Iraq have fallen off very sharply, too. Though recent, provocative attacks by U.S. troops, in conjunction with Iraqi forces, on Sadr strongholds in Baghdad, Diwaniya, and Karbala have caused Sadr to threaten to cancel the ceasefire order, and though intra-Shia fighting is still occurring in many parts of southern Iraq, there is no Shia enemy that justifies a continued American presence in Iraq, either.
And we certainly aren't fighting the Kurds. For decades, the Kurds have been America's (and Israel's) closest allies in Iraq. Since 2003, the three Kurdish-dominated provinces have been relatively peaceful.
We're not exactly fighting Al Qaeda any more either. Despite President Bush's near-frantic efforts to portray the war in Iraq as a last-ditch, Alamo-like stand against Osama bin Laden's army, U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq are having a hard time finding pockets of Al Qaeda to attack these days, though the group still has the power to conduct deadly attacks now and then. In recent weeks, General David Petraeus, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and other authorities have pretty much declared Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) dead and buried. That happy funeral is the result not of brilliant U.S. counterinsurgency efforts, but of the determination of our newfound Sunni allies to exterminate the group. No lesser authority than General Petraeus himself now admits that Al Qaeda has been expelled from every single one of its strongholds in Baghdad. In Anbar Province, according to Crocker, "People do feel the weight's off. Al Qaeda is simply gone."
And, nearly a year after President Bush proclaimed Iran to be Public Enemy No. 1 in Iraq, blaming Tehran for supporting both Al Qaeda and Shia militias, things are even getting better on that front. Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared that Iran had quietly promised to halt the smuggling of weapons and advanced roadside bombs into Iraq. "I don't know whether to believe them. I'll wait and see," he said, in what was a rather dramatic downgrading of the White House's warnings about Iran.
Confirming Gates' comments, General Ray Odierno, the commanding general of the multinational forces in Iraq, noted a sharp decline in the use of EFP's (explosively formed penetrators), the sort of IED that the United States blames Iran for supplying. In July, Odierno said, there were 99 EFP's used against U.S. forces; in August, 78; in September, 52; and in October, 53. Partly as a result, Crocker announced that he is resuming a dialogue with his Iranian counterpart, Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, soon. At the same time, the United States announced its intention to release a number of Iranians detained in Iraq, a move seen as a good-will gesture toward Tehran.
Surge or Not, Things Are Getting Better
All in all, violence in Iraq has dropped precipitously since late summer. With Al Qaeda declared dead, former Sunni resistance fighters wearing American-supplied uniforms, and the Mahdi Army lying low, killings in Iraq are way down. The security situation in Iraq is far better than it's been at any time since 2005. Many American antiwar critics, who are invested in the notion that no good news can come out of Iraq and who (secretly or openly) revel in the Bush administration's Iraqi failures, are reluctant to admit that things are getting better.
Perhaps they worry that, if the situation in Iraq improves, the prospect of Democratic gains at the polls next November will diminish. Perhaps they've convinced themselves that Iraq's ethnic and sectarian divide is so enormous that partition is the only solution, and that Iraq doesn't deserve to be a country anyway. Perhaps their distaste for President Bush (which I share) is so all-consuming that they fear any improvement in the situation will be credited to the President -- something they can't tolerate.
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If so, that's perverse. The fact is: There is a critical window of opportunity opening for the United States to withdraw and for Iraq to hold itself together and rebuild. To the extent that things are getting better, that's good news. The majority of Americans -- from the left to conservative realists -- who want the United States to get out of Iraq quickly ought to seize this news and push for an acceleration of the momentum for withdrawal. Certainly, as the polls all indicate, this is the course Americans generally want their politicians to follow.
There's really no disputing the improvement since August. According to the careful compilers at the website icasualties.org, both U.S. and Iraqi deaths have fallen dramatically. In May, June, and July, more than a hundred Americans were killed each month; for August, September, and October the totals were 84, 65, and 38. For Iraqis, the numbers have been even more dramatic, with Iraqi military and civilian deaths falling from 3,000 per month earlier this year to 848 and 679 in September and October. There are, of course, other counts, and reliable statistics are hard to come by in Iraq, but there's no doubt that the numbers represent something real, that the violence is down in Baghdad and most of the rest of the country.
There is other, anecdotal news to support the notion that security is better these days. Last week, Iraqi officials announced that, since the summer, 46,000 Iraqis have returned to the war-torn capital. Hundreds of shops are reopening; taxi drivers say the streets are far safer; and Christian Berthelsen and Said Rifai the Los Angeles Times report that "the booze business has rebounded" after years of puritanical suppression by Islamists, another sign that Al Qaeda has been driven from the premises. On November 3, the Associated Press reported that an entire day passed in Baghdad without a single bombing or shooting. That same day, according to Agence France Press, the U.S. Air Force, for the first time in memory, declared that it had carried out not a single bombing raid or combat mission anywhere in Iraq, due to an "improved security situation."
In Anbar Province, including its capital, Ramadi, the news is rather remarkable. In January, attacks on U.S. forces in Ramadi came at the rate of 30 per day; today, there is less than one a day. During the recent month-long Ramadan holiday, there were only four attacks on U.S. forces; during Ramadan 2006, there were 442.
None of this means that Iraq has become Sweden. It's still a violent place. There is no real government; the economy is in shambles; basic services --- electricity, water, trash collection -- are nonexistent; and most areas of the country are ruled by militias, gangs, criminal elements, or local warlords. But for the first time since the invasion in March 2003, there is a real opportunity for the two main blocs of Iraqi Arabs, the Sunni and Shia communities, to strike a deal. If such a deal were indeed struck, the Kurds would have little choice but to buy into it. Problem is, the United States cannot broker the deal. Having spent five years boosting sectarianism in Iraq, killing innocent Iraqis, busting down doors in small villages, and trying to turn Iraq into an American colony, the United States simply has no credibility left.
Any deal we broker, any leader we promote, any government we sponsor has just gotten the kiss of death. What unites Iraqi Arabs, from the Sunni resistance to the Mahdi Army, is opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, as well as opposition to Al Qaeda and to Iran's heavy-handed interference in Iraqi affairs.
Next Step: A New Iraqi Accord? A new, nationalist Iraq is emerging underneath the presence of 160,000 U.S. troops. That nationalism extends from the current and former Sunni resistance fighters to Sadr's Mahdi Army to a range of moderate, secular Sunni and Shia politicians, all of whom -- albeit under exceedingly difficult circumstances -- are talking to each other about a new political framework for a new Iraqi government.
Two urgent steps are needed in order capitalize on the reemergence of Iraqi nationalism. First, the broad-based majorities among Sunni and Shia Arabs must be reconciled under a new Iraqi constitution, with new Iraqi elections creating a new Iraqi government untainted by American oversight. Second, Iraq's neighbors -- all of them, including Iran and Syria -- have to underwrite the new Iraqi nationalism. With its track record, the Bush administration is utterly incapable of accomplishing either of these tasks. It's a job for the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and other parties. And all of this, in turn, depends on the United States announcing a timetable for withdrawing its forces from Iraq.
As noted by countless observers, including official ones, the United States has so far been unable to translate the decline in violence into political gains. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) made exactly that point, accusing the administration of failing to take advantage of the improved security situation. With a great deal of understatement, the GAO said: "U.S. efforts lack strategies with clear purpose, scope, roles, and performance measures." (In other words, the United States doesn't know what it's doing.)
Similarly, the Center for American Progress, a thinktank that has truly distinguished itself from other establishment bodies by unequivocally calling for the total and rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, picks up on this in an astute memorandum called "Strategic Drift in Iraq." It notes (accurately in my reading): "The United States' current Iraq debate has three key dynamics: a lame duck president looking to hand Iraq off to his successor, a conservative movement promoting fear over reason for perceived political gain, and a progressive movement frustrated by a lack of change in Iraq policy and vague positions about what to do."
In fact, the "strategic drift" that the Center for American Progress refers to is beginning to look more and more like a Washington establishment with every intention to stay put in Iraq for decades to come. Even if the more rabid neoconservative calls for escalating the war into Iran and Syria are left aside, it's still clear that many centrist Republicans and moderate Democrats expect a long occupation followed by an even longer period in which the presence of U.S. forces will remain significant. Former Centcom Commander General John Abizaid, a realist-minded, anti-neocon officer, recently predicted that U.S. forces would have to stay in the Middle East "for the next 25 to 50 years," and he was pretty blunt about the importance of oil. "I'm not saying this is a war for oil, but I am saying that oil fuels an awful lot of geopolitical moves that political powers may take there." Notably, it was recently reported that U.S. legal advisers to the Iraqi Ministry of Oil helped Iraq to cancel an enormous Russian oil deal with Iraq to develop its West Qurna oil field, which the New York Times called "one of a dozen or so supergiant oil fields in the world." Not that the war had anything to do with oil, mind you.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), in a glum forecast, put forth two scenarios for Iraqi war costs. The first -- envisioning 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through 2017 -- would cost an additional $570 billion over 10 years. The second -- involving a slow decline to 75,000 U.S. troops by 2013 and then the maintenance of that force through 2017 -- would cost an additional $1,055 billion, bringing the war's cost to a conservatively estimated $1.7 trillion. CBO didn't project beyond 2017, so feel free to take out your calculator.