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A Balanced Plan on Iraq By: John R. Thomson
The Washington Times | Thursday, August 14, 2008

An important article - perhaps the most significant of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, years - is forthcoming in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs, the rightfully esteemed publication of the Council on Foreign Relations. Titled "Building on Progress in Iraq," the article represents the research, thought and recommendations of three certified students of the contentious, challenging conflict in Mesopotamia.

It is not my habit to review or comment on the work of others, but the soon-to-be-published 6,600-word work of Stephen Biddle, a senior CFR fellow, with Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, who hold similar positions at the Brookings Institution, deserves careful consideration plus profound praise from those genuinely concerned about the War on Terrorism and the situation in Iraq.

This is not a study based on armchair profundities, or opinions gathered after one or two days in Baghdad: The writers have spent considerable time over the last five years in Iraq - importantly including during May-June of this year - and have gained valuable insights as well as solid reputations for balanced analysis.

Fundamental to their study, the authors clearly note the importance of looking ahead to what is best for Iraq and the United States, whether the reader was for or against the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Equally important, their analysis recognizes the current situation in Iraq for what it is. Noting frequently that the nation's status is fragile and subject to reversal, they state, "A series of positive developments in the past year-and-a-half offers hope that the desire of so many Americans to bring the troops home can be fulfilled without leaving Iraq in chaos."

Although decidedly not hawks, they flatly counter received liberal wisdom for immediate troop withdrawal: "starting in 2010, if current trends continue, the United States may be able to start cutting back its troop presence substantially, possibly even halving the total U.S. commitment by sometime in 2011."

Here is a sample of how Messrs. Biddle, O'Hanlon and Pollack see things on the ground:

"Any further troop drawdowns, now that the "surge" is over, should be modest until after Iraq gets through two big rounds of elections - in late 2008 at the provincial level and in late 2009 at the national level - which have the potential either to reinforce important gains or to reopen old wounds. ... Starting in 2010, if current trends continue, the United States may be able to start cutting back its troop presence substantially, possibly even halving the total U.S. commitment by sometime in 2011, without running excessive risks with the stability of Iraq and the wider Persian Gulf region.

"Overall violence is down at least 80 percent since the surge began, and ethno-sectarian violence - the kind that seemed to be sucking Iraq into all-out civil war in 2006 - is down by over 90 percent.

"The three main culprits in the ethno-sectarian violence of 2006 [Sunnis, Shi'ites and al Qaeda in Iraq] have stood down and agreed to cease-fires or been crippled by military defeat.

"The ISF [Iraqi security forces] have grown much more capable than they were in 2006. There are now some 559,000 security personnel, with about 230,000 in the Iraqi army alone, and those ranks are growing by at least 100,000 new soldiers and police a year. Some 55 percent of the units rank in the top two tiers of readiness, according to U.S. assessment methods. ...

"As recently as the fall of 2006, the national police force was a disaster; a commission led by retired Marine Gen. James Jones went so far as to recommend its dissolution. ... But a new commander, Maj. Gen. Hussein al-Wadi, has turned the force around. He fired both division commanders, all eight brigade commanders, and 18 of 27 battalion commanders. He instituted new vetting and screening measures, enrolled every member of his forces in the massive biometric data system, recruited Sunnis and Kurds into the force, and retrained every police formation.

"The Iraqis are not yet able to stand on their own. They remain dependent on U.S. and British troops to assist with planning and provide logistical and fire support.

"Thanks to reduced violence, diminished sectarian warfare, weakened militias, and the prospect of upcoming elections ... the old patterns of Iraqi political life are giving way to new ones.

"Sadr's calls for protests against the government [referring to radical Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, until recently Iraq's most powerful political figure] now draw only a few thousand people out onto the streets, in contrast to the massive crowds he could bring out in the past. ... U.S. officials report that more and more Sadrist officials have begun meeting with them in defiance of Sadr's orders."

However, everything could be lost, in the event of a sudden withdrawal of American and allied forces: "If reconciliation can be done slowly, via small steps, then each stage of compromise is likely to be tolerable. ... In contrast, if reconciliation must be done quickly, with a grand bargain rapidly negotiated in the face of an imminent U.S. withdrawal, the necessary compromises will be great. ... In a factionalized, poorly institutionalized, immature political system such as Iraq's, many parties would doubt their rivals' motives and could refuse to make such large and risky compromises.

"The Iraqis, out of fear for their own safety, might well respond to a threatened U.S. withdrawal by preparing for the renewed warfare. Rather than persuading the Iraqis to accept huge risks together, a threat of withdrawal would more likely produce the opposite effect."

Having reported the current situation, including how the 18-month surge radically changed conditions from the chaos and virtual civil war of late 2006, the most trenchant part of Building on Progress in Iraq [are] the recommendations the analysts make for creating a climate "that prevents the horrors of all-out civil war, avoids the danger of a wider war, and yields a stability that endures as Americans come home."

As a longtime observer of both war and events in the Middle East, their recommendations are sound in my view. But I'll leave that to readers' analysis when the story appears in a few days.

What counts is that a sound analysis of the Iraqi situation has been made of where we are and where we should be going, for the good of Iraqis, the Middle East and the United States. For Iraqis and Americans alike to have a clear chance for success rather than defeat, the authors put it bluntly: "With a degree of patience, the United States can build on a pattern of positive change in Iraq that offers it a chance to draw down troops soon without giving up hope for sustained stability."

After five-and-a-half years of blood and coin, can we sensibly and in honor afford to be impatient?

John R. Thomson, an international businessman and former diplomat, writes frequently on developing world issues.

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