It's time to start thinking cold-bloodedly about what we might yet eke out of Iraq.
An intriguing possibility is on display in Anbar province, where U.S. troops have formed an alliance with Sunni insurgents for the common purpose of killing al-Qaida jihadists.
These insurgents were killing American soldiers just a few months ago. They may resume doing so, once this operation is complete. Such is the nature of coalition warfare, especially when our original coalition partners have largely pulled out of the war.
The admittedly unnerving point is, we should be forming these kinds of joint ventures as often, and in as many places, as we can.
The U.S. military has several missions in Iraq, all of which involve stemming the consequences of going to war there—and botching it up so egregiously—in the first place. These missions include bolstering the new Baghdad government, creating civil order, tamping down sectarian violence, and defeating al-Qaida terrorists.
The "surge," which President Bush ordered late last year and is just now being completed, was meant not to achieve a military victory (almost nobody believes that's still possible) but rather to create a zone of security in Baghdad—a bit of breathing space—to allow the Iraqi government's feuding factions to reach a settlement.
By all accounts, the prospect of a settlement seems exceedingly remote. Nor is the surge succeeding in creating a zone of security. It was expected that the surge would trigger a rise in American casualties. The campaign, after all, mobilized thousands of U.S. soldiers out of their large, well-protected bases and into the seething neighborhoods that they were now ordered to protect. They were to engage the enemy close-up, and of course more of them—Americans and the enemy—would die in the process. Bush made this equation clear from the outset.
But it was not expected—and it can only be read as a sign of the surge's failure—that Iraqi civilian casualties would also rise. The point of the surge was to make the civilian population feel more secure. Yet a Pentagon report released Wednesday reveals that civilian casualties now exceed 100 a day, an all-time high.
The insurgents, it turns out, have mounted their own surge, and it seems to be outpacing ours. In a harrowing article in Time magazine, Baghdad bureau chief Bobby Ghosh quotes Brigadier Gen. Joe Ramirez Jr., deputy commander of the U.S. Combined Arms Training Center, as saying, "For every move we make, the enemy makes three. … The enemy changes techniques, tactics, and procedures every two to three weeks."
It may well be that many of the U.S. military's missions simply cannot be completed. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is a highly skilled and creative officer. Some of the most imaginative counterinsurgency specialists are working as his assistants. But sometimes smart people and good strategy can go only so far. An operation also requires sufficient resources and an amenable setting—and those are lacking in Iraq.
However, as the current campaign in Anbar suggests, we may yet make a go of one of the missions—the destruction of al-Qaida in Iraq. This also happens to be, from the vantage of strict U.S. interests, the most vital mission. The Bush administration's most persuasive argument in the debate on Iraq is that a U.S. pullout would embolden al-Qaida's leaders to broaden their campaign elsewhere.
(Few dispute this argument. The leading Democratic proposals for a troop withdrawal explicitly allow a certain, though unspecified, number of U.S. troops to stay for a few missions—training Iraqi security forces, providing logistics and intelligence, protecting U.S. personnel, and, above all, tracking down terrorists.)
So let's focus on that mission. Most Iraqi insurgents have no interest in al-Qaida's aims—by and large, they oppose its ideology—but some have cooperated with the jihadists in order to advance their common interest of defeating the American occupation. We should be doing everything possible to give the insurgents a reason—to make it in their interest—to cooperate with us, in order to advance the common interest of pre-emptively defeating a possible occupation by al-Qaida.
We're doing this already in Anbar. Are we maneuvering to do it in other provinces with other insurgencies? It's unclear. I hope so. Iraq is not going to be a Western, secular democracy. It's not going to be a country that embraces any of those three words, at least not anytime soon—and not likely as a result of the surge. Let's try at least to avoid the compounding disaster of handing al-Qaida a victory.
Now here comes the cold-blooded part. These deals with the lesser devils may require a commitment from us to get out of Iraq by a certain date. At minimum, they will probably require a commitment to abandon the counterinsurgency campaign. And this, in turn, probably means abandoning the Iraqi people to the ravages of a civil war far bloodier than they've endured thus far—in part because the deals will have strengthened the sectarian warlords with whom we will have been dealing.
If Bush and his officials go this route, and if their consciences ache a little at its consequences, they should start now to pave a smoother path. There are a few ways to do this.
First, let more fleeing Iraqis enter the United States, and give special attention to those who have worked for the U.S. military and embassy—as translators, drivers, informers, or whatever—and who, as a result, face certain death once we withdraw. It is a disgrace that the town of Sodertalje, Sweden—population 60,000—took in twice as many Iraqi refugees last year as the number taken in by the entire United States. (Sweden as a whole took in 20,000; the United States 7,000.)
Second, inside Iraq, Sunni Arabs living in Shiite areas and Shiites living in Sunni areas might be encouraged to move. The U.S. and Iraqi troops currently engaged in counterinsurgency might be redirected to protect these citizens as they move and to help set them up in new areas. That way, if and when a civil war erupts, the opportunities for "ethnic cleansing" will have been, at least to some extent, pre-empted.
Third, set up a diplomatic conference of all the neighboring countries, immediately—if not to settle the political conflict in Iraq (a near-impossible task), then at least to keep the conflict from spreading and to ameliorate its human toll.
For instance, a refugee crisis is gripping the region. Food prices are skyrocketing in Syria as a result of the 1.4 million Iraqis who have fled across its border, with another 30,000 entering each month. About 750,000 refugees are in Jordan, 80,000 in Egypt, 200,000 in the Gulf States. If those countries' governments weren't so keen to meddle into Iraq's trouble before, they might be roused to do so now.
The basic fact, which nearly everyone at this point recognizes, is that we're leaving—not right away, but likely sometime before Iraq settles into the league of stable, civilized nations. The aim now should be to minimize the disaster, to keep our biggest enemies from claiming victory, to redeem something from this dreadful war.