The "20 Percent" Solution

Charles Krauthammer, as usual, does a better job at framing and spinning the events in Iraq than the Bush administration. He's arguing that the surge essentially is working to the extent that it is training Sunni armed militias to battle al Qaeda. I hope he's right in the short term. It is a lonely piece of good news that Iraqi Sunni Arabs have decided that the foreign 5 percent of the insurgency needs to be taken on. Any place where Arab Muslims are actively fighting al Qaeda is a gain both in terms of tactics and strategic narrative. We should certainly wish Petraeus well in this small but encouraging task.

But Charles is realistic enough to see what this also leads to: a better armed and better trained sectarian force. If we have abandoned the central government - the "80 percent solution" - we have effectively decided to train and arm one side in a coming civil war. Money quote:

Maliki & Co. are afraid we are arming Sunnis for the civil war to come. On the other hand, we might be creating a rough balance of forces that would act as a deterrent to all-out civil war and encourage a relatively peaceful accommodation.

A reader is franker:

There is an easy way out in Iraq: support the Sunnis against the Shia. Arm them heavily and withdraw. This will restore some balance and the two parties will come to terms. If not at least it will tie up the Iranians for a long while. Combine it with a meaningful resolution of the Palestinian issue and most of ourĀ  problems go away. Not a very moral position but it will work.

So the strategy is now arming and training one side to better fight the other? And at best, create a stand-off that will prevent genocide from happening too quickly? What's interesting to me about Charles' column is that it shows that one of the most inventive and cogent defenders of this administration has conceded that the original strategy behind the surge is now moot. That was quick. We are now doing what we can to prep the sides in a looming civil war, and impeding AQI at the same time. That's the most we can hope for. He may be right and I don't see much wrong with this gambit - as long as it is combined with a very serious attempt to protect the Kurdish regions and hold Turkey's hand very tightly.

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If the administration wants to make this case in September, fine. But be honest about it. Drop the crap about AQI being the only problem in Iraq. Frame withdrawal in this context, but be clear about withdrawal. There is a potential realist compromise here in which our withdrawal is linked to creating a less centrifugal failed state than we now have, and protects the Kurds. It will require deftness and subtlety. It will also require the administration to be more candid and humble than they have been thus far. I don't have my hopes up. But when Dr K has thrown in the towel, maybe even Mr Cheney will listen.