Small victories aren’t enough reason to stay

Freedom New Mexico

It almost seems like more than five years ago that the United States invaded Iraq. Unfortunately, no clear and satisfactory end to this conflict seems to be on the horizon.

This month’s resignation of Adm. William Fallon, leader of the military’s Central Command (CentCom), has been widely attributed to differences with the Bush administration over U.S. policy toward Iran. But differences over Iraq played an important role as well.

The “surge” in the numbers of U.S. troops will end in July due to inescapable logistical factors, leaving the number of U.S. troops in Iraq at presurge levels of about 130,000.

Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander on the ground in Iraq, wants a pause in reducing the number of troops in Iraq, perhaps lasting until a new administration takes office next January.

Adm. Fallon, fearing the military is overstretched due to the long and debilitating deployment in Iraq, and that troops might not be available should new troubles flare up in Afghanistan or Pakistan, has argued the pause should be brief.

We’re inclined to agree with Adm. Fallon on this issue, but considering the importance of civilian control over the military in our system, it may have been just as well that he resigned.

That leaves the question of how the U.S. is doing in Iraq after five years. There is little question that violence has declined dramatically since late 2006, and that some of this success can be attributed to the surge and to the changes in tactics Gen. Petraeus implemented. But those who have seen victory just around the corner in Iraq have been wrong every time so far, and it is prudent to question their wisdom now.

Two factors unrelated to the surge have contributed to the decline in violence. The “Awakening” among Sunnis in Anbar province and elsewhere, who decided to oppose al-Qaida in Iraq after being sympathetic to the jihadists, began before the surge was announced. And the cease-fire announced by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in August was also key.

Both these developments are fragile, and even Gen. Petraeus, generally an optimist, said Thursday that “no one” in either the U.S. or Iraqi governments “feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation.” Reconciliation was supposed to be the point of the surge.

Lawrence Korb, an undersecretary of defense during the Reagan administration, said the best way to prod the Iraqi government into seriousness is to start withdrawing U.S. troops, thus removing the cushion that facilitates Iraqi inaction. We’re inclined to agree.