The Bush-right blogs have been maintaining a drumbeat these past few weeks along the lines that the surge is making things better in Iraq and that we should not give up now. I have no doubt they wish the best for the US and Iraq; as an early, idealistic supporter of the war, I wish they were right about the broader picture; and I don't doubt that in a few areas, more troops and a sane counter-insurgency strategy have made some progress in local and regional security. For this, we should be immensely grateful for those risking and sometimes sacrificing their lives. But next month, we really should take a long, hard look at the wider and deeper reality before agreeing to prolonging the occupation indefinitely.

We need to recall some basic facts. Iraq is in a civil war with no end in sight. An effective counter-insurgency program would have needed half a million troops and been deployed four years ago. The current one has a third of the troops necessary and they run out next Spring, whatever decision we make next month. Yes, timing does matter - sometimes something is achievable within a window of opportunity and simply not achievable on the same terms thereafter (my guess is that our effective window of opportunity for a viable national government in Iraq was five months after the fall of Baghdad; we've been dreaming ever since). The Baghdad government is currently non-existent as a national entity. And the population cannot exert its will against a mass of militias, terrorists and sectarian police and military. None of this is getting better. Much is getting worse. This is the grim reality that has been staring at us for three years now, and is unchanged. Several soldiers made the case in yesterday's NYT to this effect. Money quote:

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event.

Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

Similarly, Sunnis, who have been underrepresented in the new Iraqi armed forces, now find themselves forming militias, sometimes with our tacit support. Sunnis recognize that the best guarantee they may have against Shiite militias and the Shiite-dominated government is to form their own armed bands. We arm them to aid in our fight against Al Qaeda.

However, while creating proxies is essential in winning a counterinsurgency, it requires that the proxies are loyal to the center that we claim to support. Armed Sunni tribes have indeed become effective surrogates, but the enduring question is where their loyalties would lie in our absence. The Iraqi government finds itself working at cross purposes with us on this issue because it is justifiably fearful that Sunni militias will turn on it should the Americans leave.

In short, we operate in a bewildering context of determined enemies and questionable allies, one where the balance of forces on the ground remains entirely unclear.

To argue that this is a credible basis for remaining in Iraq with even fewer troops than we now have is to place hope over experience, and ideology over the tenacious reality of the Middle East. We owe Iraqis, our soldiers and ourselves something better than ideology at this point. We owe them withdrawal.

(Photo: David Furst/Getty.)

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