War Stories

Welcome to the Quagmire

The next president may be stuck with more problems in Iraq than Bush ever faced.

The next president, it now seems likely, will inherit a situation in Iraq that’s as dreadful as any time since late 2006, before the troop surge and Gen. David Petraeus’ new set of strategies.

Three stories in today’s papers forebode grimness.

First, as is widely reported, Iraq’s three-man presidential council vetoed a law that called for provincial elections in October. Mike McConnell, President Bush’s director of national intelligence, called the veto “somewhat of a setback”—an understatement of staggering proportion.

When the parliament passed that law two months ago, Bush and his supporters—including Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain—heralded the vote as a major sign of reconciliation among Iraq’s sectarian factions and thus a vindication of the surge. The point of the surge, as Gen. Petraeus and others have said, was to create enough security in Baghdad that Iraq’s political leaders could get their act together. The vote suggested some accommodation might be in the offing. The veto dashes those hopes.

As Richard Oppel and Khalid al-Ansary report in the New York Times, the veto isn’t a whim that might be reversed with some suasion. Rather, it reflects a serious power struggle not only between Sunnis and Shiites, but also among the various Shiite parties.

Unless the veto is somehow reversed, its effects may unravel the tenuous alignments that have helped to reduce the mayhem and casualties these last few months. On one level, the veto might spur Muqtada Sadr, the powerful Shiite militia leader, to suspend his six-month moratorium on violence. It is widely believed that Sadr called this moratorium in order to pursue power through political means. Now that this route has been blocked, he may resort to his earlier methods. (The Times reports that the Sadrists “were furious at the veto.”) On another level, it is bound to infuriate Sunni groups, who had hoped that provincial elections would boost their political power in Ninevah and Diyala, which are fairly calm today but have been scenes of riotous violence in the recent past.

This development feeds into the day’s second unsettling news story, in the Washington Post, which reports that many volunteer forces of the “Sunni Awakening”—the tribal militias in Anbar, Diyala, and other provinces that have formed alliances of convenience with U.S. forces to defeat al-Qaida jihadists—are backing away from the arrangements.

As the Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan and Amit Paley report, the Sunnis are increasingly frustrated by the Iraqi government’s refusal to recognize their political clout—especially reneging on its promise to let more than a handful of their militias into the national army and police—and by what they see as the U.S. commanders’ insufficient advocacy on the Sunnis’ behalf. The story notes:

Since Feb. 8, thousands of fighters in restive Diyala province have left their posts in order to pressure the government and its American backers to replace the province’s Shiite police chief. On Wednesday, their leaders warned that they would disband completely if their demands were not met. In Babil province, south of Baghdad, fighters have refused to man their checkpoints after U.S. soldiers killed several comrades in mid-February in circumstances that remain in dispute.

Before the U.S.-Sunni alliances were formed in late 2006 (before the American surge, by the way), many of these tribesmen fought alongside al-Qaida. The Post story notes that while a lot of the alliances with America are intact, they are increasingly fraying. One Sunni commander in Diyala is quoted as saying, “Now there is no cooperation with the Americans. … We have stopped fighting [against] al-Qaida.”

And so the biggest success of the U.S. operation in Iraq—which was always a gamble, one very much worth taking but not very likely to endure beyond its tactical aims—may be teetering on the verge of collapse before even those tactical aims (the defeat of al-Qaida in Iraq) are achieved.

To sum up, then, two points can be inferred. First, Iraq’s sectarian factions are nowhere near reconciliation. The point of the surge was to create enough “breathing space” to allow for such a political goal. If the goal isn’t reached by July—that is, within the 15-month span that was always, inexorably, the duration of the surge—then, in strategic terms, the surge will not have succeeded.

Second, there are many reasons for the reduction in violence and casualties these last few months. The surge and, still more, Gen. Petraeus’ counterinsurgency tactics are among them. So are Sadr’s cease-fire and the Sunni Awakening—neither of which has much to do with the surge, one of which (the Awakening) was initiated by the Sunnis before the surge was even announced. And now, both Sadr’s cease-fire and the Awakening are imperiled.

What to do about these trends?

This conundrum takes us to the third news story of (dissonant) note, in the New York Times, which reports that the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Adm. William J. Fallon, thinks there should be a “pause” in troop withdrawals from Iraq after the last of the surge troops depart this July—but that this pause should be brief and that the withdrawals should resume soon after.

The first part of Fallon’s idea—the pause—is nothing new. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called for such a pause in December after returning from a trip to Baghdad. Before the trip, Gates had been talking about continuing the drawdown of troops from today’s 20 combat brigades to the 15 that would remain after the surge brigades go back home in July and to 10 by the end of the year. He changed his tune after Gen. Petraeus told him that he might not be able to keep securing the Iraqi people with such a small force. Hence the “pause.”

But the second part of Fallon’s remark—the idea that the pause should be brief, just long enough to allow “all the dust to settle,” after which the drawdown will resume—is a new wrinkle. Perhaps reflecting Petraeus’ caution that 10 brigades won’t be enough to sustain the U.S. mission in Iraq, Fallon says that the U.S. mission will be scaled back along with the forces. In an interview with the Times’ Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, Fallon says that he is advocating a strategy that would “transfer more and more responsibility for security in Iraq to Iraqi security forces and, at the same time, withdrawing a substantial amount of our combat forces.” The U.S. troops remaining in Iraq, he added, would mostly play the roles of “supporting, sustaining, advising, training, and mentoring”—not so much fighting or providing security.

This is a major distinction. Do Fallon’s remarks reflect the views of the Bush administration or of Secretary Gates? Certainly there is, and has long been, a tension between the institutional Army and some of the commanders in the field over this very question. The former has always been skeptical about extending the war in Iraq. Senior officers are concerned that the lengthy and repeated tours of duty, especially the toll it has taken on the retention of junior officers and the recruitment of new enlistees, might break the Army. The latter brush aside those concerns and focus on what they need to accomplish their combat missions. Gates has found himself straddling this tension—very concerned about the health of the Army but also worried about the chances of failure in Iraq.

Fallon occupies an in-between position on the bureaucratic chart. He’s a sort of warrior-executive—the commander of U.S. Central Command, with headquarters in Tampa, Fla.—but, as such, he’s also the senior-most combatant commander, ranking just above Petraeus. (It’s unusual that the head of CentCom is a Navy admiral, but that may have reflected a desire to put an officer of broader standing in charge.)

Do Fallon’s statements herald a victory for the institutional Army—and a confirmation of Gates’ initial instincts? Or do they mark a ratcheting-up of the tension?

In any case, if Fallon’s strategy does prevail, the next president—whoever he or she is—may be relieved. A decision will have been made, under George W. Bush’s tenure, to scale back America’s military mission and to keep drawing down its military forces after the surge.

But two bits of caution should be noted. First, this does not necessarily mean a winding-down of the war—or of America’s involvement in it. Gates and others, in fact, have favored significant troop reductions from Iraq precisely in order to build popular support for a long-term U.S. military presence there.

Second, the question remains: What happens if, after the withdrawals, all hell breaks loose—an especially likely prospect if the Sunni Awakening collapses and Sadr calls off his cease-fire? Do we send more troops back in? Do we accelerate the withdrawal? Do we engage in diplomacy to lure neighboring countries to help tamp down the violence? And what do we offer them in exchange for finally helping us out?

John McCain has said he wouldn’t mind staying in Iraq for 100 years. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama want to pull out a brigade or two a month though ultimately keep some of them in Iraq—and still others in the region—to keep fighting al-Qaida, training the Iraqi security forces, and so forth.

The way things are going, the next president, whatever his or her preferences, may be stuck with more severe problems than Bush ever was—and will almost certainly have to make decisions that are harder.