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April 20, 2008

What Would Success Look Like in Iraq?

How about an end to private militias? That’s pretty important to the kind of success in Iraq that lets most American troops leave knowing that they’ve helped make the world a safer place. How about a Shiite-led government cracking down on Shiite militias while Sunni tribes turn on Sunni al Qaeda? That would be pretty good.

And how about an Iraqi army that quickly corrects its mistakes, flushes out its non-performers, tries again and succeeds? An Iraqi army that can provide security for Iraqis by itself? Wow, that would be great.

There’s plenty of reason to be cynical about apparent good news coming out of Iraq. All of the many sides (including ours) have good reasons and bad to spin the facts as much as they can, especially in the run-up to the American presidential election. Nevertheless, there are reasons to be hopeful as well, whether or not you think we should have invaded in the first place.

If it was a bad sign that Iraqi government forces didn’t flush the Mehdi army from Basra when they tried a few weeks ago, it’s got to be a good sign that they regrouped and apparently succeeded rather easily at taking control of the city this time. Sure, they had help from the US and UK; but there isn’t any question that the ground forces were overwhelmingly Iraqi.

The fact that Muqtada al-Sadr, apparently somewhere in Iran, claims to have ordered his forces to surrender their Basra headquarters indicates that that he didn’t have much of an option. His threats to end the truce he formerly “proclaimed” while his people are already fighting in Sadr City, Nasiriya, and, until very recently, Basra mean either that he has little control over his forces anyway or that he doesn’t have the means for a stronger counter-attack (I could be tragically wrong about this, of course; but I hope not). It’s a good thing that this very anti-American cleric seems to be losing power.

It’s puzzling that Iran praised the Iraqi government’s action against al-Sadr, whom they shelter and probably helped arm. That could be an ominous sign that the al-Maliki government may be too much under the control of Iran. Or it could simply mean that, for the moment, US and Iranian interests happen to coincide – probably not something we can build on.

All the many sides have their own reasons for continuing the power struggle in Iraq – not least among them that none of them can be sure of their fate if the other guys win. At a strategic level – which probably doesn’t matter much on the dangerous streets, the importance of influencing the American electorate is huge. If the situation appears to be deteriorating further, it’s likely that the next president will be someone committed to a rapid pullback of American troops; if the aftermath of the American surge is what looks like real progress (which eventually means an orderly withdrawal of most troops), then the next president may be McCain who will keep up the fight. (I’m not making a political statement; just analyzing the situation. I actually think we have a lot of important issues besides Iraq which ought to determine who is our next president.)

It’s important that we be as shrewd as we can be in recognizing both failure and success in Iraq. The original invasion was a huge success; the aftermath was a dismal failure of both planning and execution; the surge appears to have been helpful; now what’s happening? Our press needs to be as objective as human beings can be. We can anticipate efforts by those hostile to our presence to influence our election with a violent “surge” of their own which will be, like the Tet Offensive so long ago, either a sign of enemy desperation or of our inability to control events on the ground.

I wouldn’t presume to say how this story ends but am watching with an open mind and a little bit of hope.

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