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.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.