War Against Time

By Jackson Diehl (THE WASHINGTON POST, 08/01/07):

The new plan for Iraq that President Bush will announce this week will suffer from the same fallacy that has infected each of his previous war strategies — and also most of the counterproposals sprouting up in Washington. That is, the notion that American action can produce decisive results in Iraq in six to 12 months.

The administration’s original war plan — to the extent one existed — foresaw the creation of an Iraqi administration and the withdrawal of most U.S. troops within six months of the invasion. When that failed, the administration wagered that it could oversee the election of an interim Iraqi government, the writing of a constitution, that constitution’s ratification and the election of a permanent government in 12 months. Insistence on that timetable produced the half-baked constitution that now hamstrings the “unity” government. A year ago the administration supposed that it could train enough Iraqi police and military forces in 2006 to draw down U.S. troops to 100,000 or fewer. It came no closer than it did in 2005, when it had much the same plan.

Now Bush is likely to bet that the dispatch of additional American forces will somehow produce a breakthrough in Baghdad before 2008. That parallels the Iraq Study Group, which foresees a transition of the war to full Iraqi control and the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces by the first quarter of 2008, and Democratic plans for the beginning of a troop drawdown in four to six months.

In Washington’s bipartisan mind-set, the next six months are always crucial in Iraq. Persistently, we believe that one big, intense effort will turn the country around — or make it possible for us to leave. Why? Perhaps because Bush has never been willing to ask the country to commit itself to a long struggle in Iraq, despite his view of it as “the central front” in a war on terrorism that will define the 21st century. Instead he proposes the war that the Army and the public can tolerate without too much strain. For their part, war opponents understandably have been looking for a way out since the mission began.

Iraq, however, doesn’t operate on Washington’s clock — something Iraqi leaders have repeatedly tried and failed to explain to the ambassadors and generals who demand benchmarks and timetables. And why should it? In historical context, the country is not much different from others that have emerged from decades of dictatorship and tried to sort out a new political status quo among multiple competing ethnic groups. Yugoslavia began to break down in 1991; despite repeated Western interventions, the bloodshed continued until the end of the decade. The wars over Congo’s future began in 1994 with the end of the Mobuto dictatorship and didn’t end until 2003. Lebanon’s civil war began in 1976 and ended in 1989.

As the behavior of the Maliki government and its Sunni enemies has made painfully clear, Iraq is nearer the beginning than the end of its sorting out. Each of the main sides — Shiite, Sunni and Kurd — remains convinced that it can impose its sectarian agenda by force. The Sunnis believe they will reconquer Iraq when the Americans leave. Maliki himself is eager for the U.S. Army to stand back so the Shiite-dominated police and army can attempt to wipe out Sunni resistance. The Kurds intend to fight before they will share Kirkuk. Until all are convinced that they have exhausted the option of force, there will be no settlement.

If Iraq is like the rest of the post-Cold War world, this will take six to 12 years, not six to 12 months. Not only is the United States unlikely to speed up the resolution of the conflict, it may even slow a resolution down, by acting as a buffer or co-combatant — as did U.N. troops in Bosnia, Syrian forces in Lebanon and the armies of multiple African states in Congo. Of course, U.S. forces might also prevent the war from spreading beyond Iraq or keep other nations from jumping in.

One day, on its own time, Iraq will reach equilibrium. At that moment a new power structure will solidify in a country that ranks second in the world in proven oil reserves; that occupies the geographic and ethnographic center of the world’s most volatile region; that now harbors many of the most dedicated enemies of the democratic West. Will the United States want to be present, as one of the shaping forces, when that settlement is finally reached? Will it want to influence which Iraqi parties are stronger, and which weaker, in the final balance?

If so, the question the country faces is not what can be done on Washington’s time, in six or 12 months. It’s how the U.S. mission can be configured to adapt to the clock that’s running in Iraq.