Last week, in testimony before Congress, Gen. David Petraeus had a chance to answer the half-rhetorical question he coined at the start of the Iraq war: “Tell me how this ends?” Appropriately, he chose not to answer. In fact, he declined to speculate whether U.S. combat force reductions beyond those planned through July would be possible later this year.
At one level, we know what the answer should be — an Iraq democratic and stable enough to hold together on its own once we leave. If politicians can resolve major differences without escalating bloodshed, and if they oppose terrorism, eschew nuclear weapons, and avoid blatant aggression against their neighbors or their own people, we will have achieved our core goals.
But how to get there and on what timeline? The American public is entitled to some answers. Petraeus is already cutting U.S. strength in Iraq from 20.5 to 15 brigades this year, itself a challenging process. But President Bush as commander in chief, and members of Congress as elected representatives of the people, must decide how much more effort this war is worth.
We believe that, after a 75 percent reduction in the rate of violence in Iraq over the past year, and significant accomplishments by Iraqi leaders on at least half a dozen key political matters, there is a reasonable prospect of achieving a sustainable stability there within the next few years. That said, continued progress will be far more likely if major reductions in U.S. forces beyond those currently planned await early 2010. There are six key reasons that such strategic patience is appropriate:
- Basra and the south . As events in March showed, Iraq’s south has a long way to go. Competing Shiite militias, with varying ties to Iran and the Iraqi government, pursue the spoils of power and oil wealth there. Basra is a virtual mafia land. Over time, the Iraqi government cannot leave this region, which accounts for 70 to 80 percent of the country’s oil wealth, in the hands of criminals. We may not need large U.S. forces in the south, but we will need greater, not less, engagement in the coming year or two.
- Local and national elections. This fall, Iraq is scheduled to have local elections in its 18 provinces. Next fall, it will have parliamentary elections at the national level. Election sites, political offices and campaign events all require physical protection. We do not want to make Iraqi politicians worry so much about security that they behave as they did in the 2005 elections, watching out for their own sectarian groups (and affiliated militias) out of sheer survival instinct. Those who claim that accelerating our drawdown will foster greater Iraqi political compromise and reconciliation do not, in our experience, understand the motives and the reasoning of most Iraqis.
- Refugee return. Since 2003, more than 2 million Iraqis have fled their country, and a comparable number have been internally displaced. With security now far better, many will be interested in going home. But as their homes are generally occupied by others, doing so could reignite an ethnic cleansing dynamic. There is no organized process in place to handle this problem. Nor is there an international or Iraqi program to help people relocate elsewhere in Iraq (with, for example, housing grants to build new homes, which could also help create jobs). Pulling American forces out before such a policy can be developed and implemented would ask far too much of Iraqi Security Forces, given the incendiary nature of this issue.
- Kirkuk . The problem of disputed property is most acute in Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in northern Iraq that Kurds feel to be rightly theirs but where many Sunni Arabs reside as well (having been relocated there by Saddam Hussein in recent decades). A referendum was supposed to have been held last year to resolve Kirkuk’s status. But the United States rightly discouraged the vote from happening then because there was no adequate mechanism to compensate those who would have lost at the polls (whoever they might have been). Until a referendum can be written, voted upon and initially implemented, Kirkuk will remain a powder keg. We will be asking for trouble if we expect Iraqis to handle this on their own so soon.
- A national oil law. Related to Kirkuk is the question of how Iraq’s future oil resources will be developed and shared. Bills to accomplish this remain mired in debate and dispute in Parliament, even as Kurdish politicians sign deals with foreign oil firms to develop sites on Kurdish land. In theory, this matter could be cleared up at any time; in practice, it will probably take a few months and additional American prodding. Any deal will then need to be implemented in good faith, something we will need to help supervise at first.
- “Overwatch” of Iraqi security forces. The Iraqi army and police are much larger, better equipped and more proficient than ever. But they are still not a dependable force. Just last year, we had to ask Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to purge well over half the brigade and battalion commanders of each organization in the Baghdad area. Another round of purges, maybe two, may be necessary. American troops can evaluate Iraqi force performance only if we are on the streets with them, patrolling, tamping down violence when it arises and responding to crises when they become severe.
There is real hope for major progress on most of these matters in the coming two years. If this does not happen, or if backsliding occurs on other key political and strategic issues where progress has been made recently, the case for a continued American presence in Iraq will weaken. Either way, we can aspire to major additional reductions in U.S. force levels come 2010. But alas, probably not before.
This opinion was originally published with the title “How This Can End.”