The Exit and Anbar


Republicans are beginning to realize that fundamental change in the current strategy in Iraq is needed if they aren't to face electoral collapse next year. My money is on John Warner forcing redeployment by the fall if only to save the U.S. military from being chewed up entirely by one war. Bottom line from my Sunday Times column today:

The question, of course, is whether Americans are being defeatists or realists. One way of answering this question is to ask another: if they are being defeatist in Iraq, who are they conceding defeat to? If it’s to Iraq’s Shi'ite majority, then it's not a defeat but a victory. If it’s to the Kurds, then, again, it’s a win.

Saddam is gone. There is no longer any potential threat of weapons of mass destruction from a failed Iraqi state. The actual reasons for fighting this war in the first place have therefore evaporated.

Bush says it would be a defeat against Al-Qaeda. But Al-Qaeda was not the presence in Iraq before the war that it is now. And occupying a Muslim country indefinitely is not exactly a way to staunch jihadist recruits either.

Most grown-ups in Washington, even Obama, are arguing for a redeployment out of Iraq that would retain an active potential to take on Al-Qaeda if it were to establish an enclave in Iraq more dangerous than the base it has already established in Pakistan. And if Iraq’s Shi'ites and Sunni tribes take on Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then we will have scored a huge victory by exposing the real battle that can only be fought by Muslims against other Muslims.

These arguments are not peacenik or liberal or defeatist. They are simply a recognition of fact. The fact is that a majority of Iraqis want the Americans to leave Iraq soon; and a solid majority of Americans want the same thing. Nothing looks as if it will change those two facts in the near future. And for Republicans facing an election next year, the near future is beginning to look alarmingly imminent.

The encouraging news from Anbar, where al Qaeda has out-stayed its welcome among the local tribes, does not undermine this fact. What Anbar shows is that relative peace and stability will come only when Iraqis themselves, for reasons of their own, defend their own country from al Qaeda's poison. We can and should continue to help them in any way we can. But the more they take the lead in defending their own country the better. Even in Anbar, however, the "national" government remains a problem, since the Sunni tribes don't trust the Shiites in Baghdad (with good reason). The answer, it seems to me, will be gradual US withdrawal and redeployment to Kurdistan, and a soft, informal partition that gives each ethnic and religious group enough autonomy to have something to fight for.

If this war ends with a messy soft-partition, but in which various groups of Iraqi Muslims start to take on the war against al Qaeda for their own sake, it could still end up as a relative success. We will have precipitated a situation in which the real war here - within Islam, between mainstream Islam and al Qaeda - will finally be joined. We should do all we can to help from a distance, maybe even a small distance. But this is their fight not ours. We cannot win it; only they can. Our goal should not be our victory against al Qaeda; it should be their victory against al Qaeda. It will only be their victory if we are clearly on the road out. If that happens, we change the narrative of this war decisively - in our favor. But indefinite occupation prevents that scenario from taking place. Ending the occupation and winning the war, in other words, are not opposites. They can be complements. It's a tricky process, but by far the most feasible now on the table.

(Photo: Iraq's al-Anbar province tribe leader Abdel Sattar Abu Risha greets new US commander in Iraq General David Petraeus in Ramadi 13 March 2007. Petraeus met with tribes' leaders after touring US and Iraqi units fighting Al-Qaeda in almost daily street battles in the city, much of which lies in ruins. By Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty.)