Fareed Zakaria has a must-read essay today at Newsweek entitled "Stuck In The Iraqi Loop" in which he references one of General Petraeus' favorite scholar-warriors to explain the war supporters' dilemma over Iraq - the paradox that the Surge was supposed to give space for reconciliation and that would enable troop withdrawals, but we're now being told the Surge's gains are too fragile to risk withdrawing troops.
Making sense of this paradox is critical. Because in certain crucial ways things are not improving in Iraq, and unless they start improving soon, the United States faces the awful prospect of an unending peacekeeping operation—with continuing if limited casualties—for years to come.But signs that anythink like such a political bargain is in the offing always turn out to be more hype than reality, all the while the "window of opportunity" is closing by even General Pteraeus' admission.
In a brilliant and much-circulated essay written in August 2007, "Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt," David Kilcullen, a veteran Australian officer who advised Gen. David Petraeus during the early days of the surge, wrote, "Our dilemma in Iraq is, and always has been, finding a way to create a sustainable security architecture that does not require 'Coalition-in-the-loop,' thereby allowing Iraq to stabilize and the Coalition to disengage in favorable circumstances." We have achieved some security in Iraq, though even this should not be overstated. (Violence is still at 2005 levels, which were pretty gruesome.) But we have not built a sustainable security architecture.
How does one create a self-sustaining process that leads to stability? Do we need more troops? Longer rotations? Kilcullen points in a different direction: "Taking the Coalition out of the loop and into 'overwatch' requires balancing competing armed interest groups at the national and local level." In other words, we need to help forge a political bargain by which Iraq's various groups agree to live together and not dominate one another.
There was another major attempt at forging such a political compact due to begin today - but it's a failure before it has even begun, with key groups either not attending or saying it's all just government window-dressing with no real intent behind it.
A conference to reconcile Iraq's warring political groups began to unravel even before it got under way on Tuesday, with the main Sunni Muslim Arab bloc pulling out and protesting it had not been properly invited.The Sadrists, the National List, the Accordance Front - these are not bit players and none believe this conference is anything more than PR spin. It remains to be seen whether the central government's ruling Shiites can convince the Ba'athists and any Sawhar attendees that they mean more than platitudes and hypocrisy while continuing to use the security forces as their personal instruments of power rather than for all Iraqis. I don't think either predominantly-Sunni group is that gullible. But without those three notable groups whole-hearted belief in central government good faith and their whole-hearted co-operation, the conference is already a washout anyway.
...The gathering, billed as the biggest of its kind in Iraq, aimed to bring leaders of rival factions together around much-delayed so-called laws meant to promote common cause between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs.
The Accordance Front, the main Sunni Arab bloc, had said it would attend but pulled out as dozens of political leaders gathered at a hotel in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.
"The Front will not attend the conference, not because it does not believe in reconciliation ... but because the invitations were sent to members of the Front and not formally to the Accordance Front," spokesman Salim al-Jubouri said.
Jubouri said decisions from previous meetings had never been implemented. "How can we now arrange new proposals?," he said.
...The head of the Sadrist political bloc, Nassar al-Rubaie, arrived at the conference but refused to say whether he would take an active role.
"Such conferences are just government propaganda," Rubaie told Reuters.
...The Iraqi National List, a secular bloc headed by former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, had already said they would not attend.
The conference was open to members of Saddam Hussein's now outlawed Baath party. It was unclear whether Sunni Arab tribal leaders responsible for the neighborhood security units would attend.
As Zakaria notes, it isn't the only reconciliation failure.
There has been some positive news reported in the past few weeks. On closer examination, it is more hype than reality. Two of the laws passed, one reversing de-Baathification and the other offering a limited amnesty to former insurgents, have been worded in such a way that much will depend on how they are implemented—by the Shiite government. The reason these assurances were written into law in binding terms was, of course, that Sunnis place so little trust in the good will and fairness of that government. When Baghdad promises to administer oil revenue wisely and fairly, though there is no law telling it precisely what to do, its claims are met with mistrust and unease by the Sunnis and the Kurds.The end result of all this is to leave American troops stuck in a loop while a time-bomb of renewed violence ticks away factional patience with Maliki's government. And Bush is engaged in ensuring, via his promised Security Agreement, that should that time-bomb go off there still won't be an Iraqi future that does not require 'Coalition-in-the-loop.
A Pentagon report to Congress last week admitted that "all four components of the hydrocarbon law are stalled." The law on provincial elections passed but was then vetoed by the presidency council, specifically by Shiite Vice President Adel Abdel Mehdi, whose party now runs most of southern Iraq and does not wish to take its chances in new elections. And it's worth noting that the laws that passed did so only after months of intense wrangling, which produced an 82–82 tie that was broken by the Sunni speaker of Parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. Finally, all these measures I've mentioned add up to only three or four of the 18 benchmarks set out by the Maliki government and the Bush administration to judge their own progress.
And then there's the Republican heir-apparent, who has said he'd be just fine with another 100 years of US troops in Iraq. Alan Arkin wonders if he's any more able to face mistakes or unpleasant truths than Bush:
McCain? What does he recognize? It will be interesting to see if he comes back with anything new from Iraq or whether, like U.S. forces, he is stuck in a loop. After all, to admit that the political progress isn't keeping pace with the military progress is to admit that "we" have done as much as we can, that his ultimate position is flawed, and that we must withdraw just to give "the Iraqis" a chance.Update Various worthies, including Matt and Kevin, are noting a massive McCain gaffe that we can only hope someone has on videotape:
He said several times that Iran, a predominately Shiite country, was supplying the mostly Sunni militant group, al-Qaeda. In fact, officials have said they believe Iran is helping Shiite extremists in Iraq.As Kevin points out, even Lieberman's whispered version is simplistic - "What he should have said is that the Iranians are training many of the same extremists that we're allied with too. But that might have provoked a whole different set of questions that McCain would just as soon not answer." Such an elementary mistake, and one that shows that McCain is just as unimaginative and uninformed as the current Decider.
Speaking to reporters in Amman, the Jordanian capital, McCain said he and two Senate colleagues traveling with him continue to be concerned about Iranian operatives "taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back."
....A few moments later, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, standing just behind McCain, stepped forward and whispered in the presidential candidate's ear. McCain then said: "I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda."
But doesn't Lieberman suit the role of Wormtongue?