By Freedom Newspapers
President Bush’s surprise visit to Anbar province in Iraq, leading him to suggest the possibility that further successes in the security situation could lead to an unspecified reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, was a qualified political success.
With an eight-hour visit to a military base and meetings not only with his own chief counselors but with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and representatives of most Iraqi factions, he just might have seized the initiative in the contentious debate that is sure to follow reports from Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker in coming days.
Unfortunately, the visit, at which the president pointedly prodded Maliki to come up with political progress comparable to the military progress Gen. Petraeus and U.S. forces have managed, pinpointed how disappointing the progress toward the more important goals of political reconciliation — or at least a situation in which Sunni and Shia factions are not actively plotting against one another — has been.
As Adm. Michael Mullen, the president’s nominee to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said:
“Unless the Iraqi government takes advantage of the ‘breathing space’ that U.S. forces are providing, no amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of a difference.”
As the great Prussian strategist Karl von Clausewtiz famously put it, war is politics carried out by different means. Unless political objectives are achieved, military activity can amount to little more than killing people and breaking things, as infantry-level soldiers sometimes irreverently put it.
To complicate matters, the situation in Anbar province, where President Bush chose to visit, and which most observers believe is the most notable U.S. security success since the U.S. troop “surge” began earlier this year, may be an anomaly, due less to the surge than to peculiar local conditions.
Anbar is a Sunni-dominated province where al-Qaida in Iraq, dominated by foreign fighters, had been particularly active. What happened is that local tribal sheiks and other leaders became upset with the al-Qaida insurgents and through a combination of local determination and offers of money and weapons from the United States, redirected local Sunni militias that had been actively resisting U.S. occupation to fighting al-Qaida.
The success in Anbar has been notable, but the close cooperation between tribal militias and U.S. forces has visibly upset some elements in the Shia-dominated central government, who fear the U.S. is arming the Sunni for an eventual civil war with the Shia. And whether fortifying local tribal authorities against foreign-led militias will work in other parts of Iraq, where neighborhoods are more mixed and the insurgents are less notoriously foreign-led, is an unanswered question.
It is said that if the United States leaves Iraq precipitously there will be a bloodbath. That may well be true. But the relevant question is whether that will be less true next April, when the “surge” will have to end because of logistical realities. If not, there is little reason to delay beginning the process of withdrawing and focusing on ways of reducing the likelihood of a bloodbath, perhaps even by using U.S. forces to help Sunni and Shia Iraqis separate themselves from one another, even though that doesn’t fit the vision of a centralized, unified secular Iraqi state.