Thomas Friedman has been lambasted for writing way too many times (at least 14 times from late 2003 to mid-2006) that "the next six months" will determine the future of Iraq. The waggish blogger Atrios, who first cataloged this habit, coined the term "Friedman Unit," defined as six months in the future.
That said, the next six months might really be the decisive six months in the course of this war—and, as much as recent trends seem hopeful, the long-term prognosis, alas, doesn't.
In July 2008, the last of the surge troops—the five extra brigades that President George W. Bush sent to Iraq as a last-ditch effort to impose order—will come home, having finished their 15-month terms of deployment. No troops will be sent to replace them (mainly because, for all practical purposes, no such troops will be ready to go). The surge, in short, will be over.
At that point, things will likely go in one of three directions—one good, two bad.
The first scenario is that Iraq's security forces will have ramped up, in quality and quantity, to the point where they can effectively step in where U.S. forces have stepped out—and that Iraq's political leaders will have settled their sectarian disputes. If both of those things happen, Iraq's future will look not quite bright but not so gloomy, either.
If those developments don't occur, then one of two entities might start spiraling toward collapse—the Iraqi nation or the U.S. Army.
Is the surge working? That depends on what you mean by "working." Initial skeptics of the surge (and I count myself, as well as the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, among them) never disputed the notion that more troops, shrewdly deployed, would impose order and reduce violence where those extra troops were deployed. We doubted whether a mere 20,000 extra troops could impose order throughout Iraq (or even in all Baghdad) on a sustained basis.
There was also the larger point, emphasized by the U.S. military commander, Gen. David Petraeus, himself—that there is no strictly military victory to be had in Iraq. The point of the surge was to create "breathing space" that might allow Iraq's political leaders to reconcile their differences and form a viable central government. If the Iraqis didn't take advantage of this breathing space, the most brilliant strategy and the most successful operations would ultimately be for naught.
And so, yes, violence is down; casualties—American and Iraqi—are down. This is indisputably the case, and one factor in this is certainly the surge and, as important, the counterinsurgency strategy that Petraeus has crafted to go with it.
But there are other factors, as well, especially the alliances of convenience that Sunni tribes have struck with U.S. forces—most notably in Anbar province—to beat back the jihadists of the al-Qaida in Mesopotamia organization. These deals were struck, at the Sunnis' initiative, before the surge began. American commanders are also paying other Sunni insurgents not to attack their soldiers (a wise use of money). And, while this has been going on, Shiite militia leader Muqtada Sadr has been observing a moratorium on attacks against "coalition forces."