Success Has No Timeline

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This column was written by Frederick W. Kagan.

Now that Congress has passed a supplemental defense appropriations bill that includes timelines for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the lines in the debate over Iraq strategy have become ever starker. The administration and other defenders of the present strategy insist that it be given the chance to succeed. Opponents, including the Democratic leadership in Congress, insist that it is time to begin winding down America's involvement in Iraq. Some of those opponents no doubt seek only to defeat the administration or appease their own constituents, but many honestly believe that rapid withdrawal is the best course of action.

Their arguments generally come down to two points: success is already beyond our reach, and setting timelines is the best way to force the Iraqis to take the difficult steps required to achieve a political settlement to this conflict. There is an inherent contradiction in these positions that war opponents must work out before acting on them, but, more importantly, neither proposition is true.

The notion that the war is already lost, articulated most recently by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, rests on the belief that Iraq has descended into a spiral of sectarian violence from which it cannot recover. In this view, the traditional hatred between Sunni and Shia became ungovernable after al Qaeda's destruction of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in February 2006. The continuing violence in Iraq, which is still often referred to as "sectarian violence," is cited as evidence of this death-spiral. Many who hold this view believe that the government of Nuri Kamal al Maliki is committed to Shia domination and even repression of Iraq's Sunni minority and is unwilling to engage in any meaningful reconciliation process. Others argue that the Sunni remain determined to recover their lost preeminence in Iraq. Most advocates of withdrawal believe that the spiral of sectarian killing is unstoppable.

Such beliefs are incompatible with the notion that American-imposed deadlines or timetables would force the Iraqi government to make necessary compromises. If the war is lost, it is because the Maliki government is unwilling to make those compromises and, presumably, is willing to engage in mass killing, if necessary, to achieve its aims. Alternatively, Iraq's government might be too weak to control the violence, in which case the issue is not the pressure they face to make the right decisions, but their inability to do so. Either way, it is hard to see how using the threat of withdrawing American forces would help the situation.

So the real alternative buried in the idea behind deadlines is that the war is not, in fact, lost. The Iraqi government could make the right decisions if it chose and could enforce them on its people, given suitable incentives. Another implicit assumption in this view is that Sunnis might accept the limitation of their power in Iraq and enter the political process if the Shiite government reached out to them properly.

Congress must decide which view it wishes to embrace. If the war is truly lost, then timelines serve no useful purpose in Iraq except to delay the departure of American troops. To argue that deadlines are a constructive force in Iraqi politics is to argue that success is still possible.

The war is not yet lost, in fact, but timelines are much more likely to hinder our efforts than to help them. The idea behind timetables is to force a supposedly unwilling Maliki government to reach out to the Sunni community. But Maliki has already started to do so. He visited Ramadi himself, and the defense and interior ministers and the national security advisor followed a few weeks later to discuss reconstruction of the province with the local provincial council. These visits followed a widespread Sunni turn against al Qaeda in Anbar that is now spreading into Salahaddin and Diyala provinces, where both Sunnis and Shiites are fighting the terrorists.

In Baghdad, sectarian violence dropped considerably after President Bush announced the Baghdad Security Plan on January 10th, even before new U.S. forces had arrived. The leaders of the major Shiite militias ordered their followers to stop killing Sunnis and most obeyed — a fact that undermines the notion that sectarian violence in Iraq is primordial and beyond rational or political control. Since then, the Maliki government has permitted U.S. forces to conduct a series of attacks on the worst of the Shiite militias in their strongholds in Baghdad and even in the Shiite south. It is difficult to see in these events evidence that sectarian violence is beyond control, that the Maliki government is unwilling to work with Sunnis, or that the Sunnis are beyond reconciliation.

Above all, Maliki has permitted operations against the militias because he believes that the larger plan to secure his capital will work. Declaring a premature end to that plan by setting timelines for withdrawal — and implicitly or explicitly declaring that it has failed — will remove the current incentives for Maliki to support attacks on the forces he will need if civil war follows our hasty withdrawal. Timelines are far more likely to undermine progress in Iraq than to advance it.

The current discussion is confused by a misunderstanding of the rise in violence that has occurred recently. The spate of car-bombs and suicide bombs, which the New York Times describes as "sectarian violence" and which many point to as evidence of the current strategy's failure, are very different from the sectarian strife we saw raging at the start of this year. Suicide bombs and car bombs are the copyright of al Qaeda and associated militant Islamist groups — Shiite militias prefer more precisely targeted killings when they kill and do not use such methods. Al Qaeda, a Sunni group, has conducted many of the recent attacks against fellow Sunnis in Anbar and elsewhere who have started to fight the terrorists. These attacks are not sectarian violence, but al Qaeda's attempts to regain its footing in its former strongholds or to establish bases in new areas.

The current wave of violence is a surge by the one force fighting in Iraq that has declared its intention to destroy the United States. It is a surge in terrorist killing by the organization that almost every leading congressman believes America should be fighting. It is not evidence that sectarian violence is uncontrollable or that the Maliki government won't make concessions. It is evidence that our implacable foe is not ready to lose yet. Timelines for withdrawal can only encourage this enemy, which has always believed that killing enough people will drive the Americans away.

The immediate drop in violence after Bush's speech resulted from the belief by many Iraqis that this operation would be different, that American forces would stay to finish the job, and that both the Iraqi government and people could rely on us to help them stop the violence. Setting timelines for withdrawal before we can possibly have solidified security in Baghdad tells the Iraqi people that we will abandon them once again and soon.

Those who bet on the success of the current plan will try to hedge and adopt good fighting positions for the full-scale civil war to come. Successes in Iraq have occurred because Iraqis believe that we will help lay the foundation for them by establishing security, knowing that they cannot do so on their own. They will prove ephemeral if we declare our unwillingness to do so. And our most dangerous enemy will conclude once again that committing horrific atrocities and killing innocent people is an effective way to defeat the United States.
By Frederick W. Kagan