At the end of last year I wrote a piece calling for patience with regard to the Iraq War. Even though I strongly opposed it and made the case that strategically it was foolish from its conception, I argued that voters had had a chance to vote for a new strategy in 2004 and instead re-elected President Bush. I remain convinced that the war was a mistake that has proven extremely costly in both blood and treasure. It is doubtful that it has made us any safer (it certainly hasn’t for the thousands of Americans who have been killed or wounded).
Yet for all of his faults, one thing you can say about the President is that he has continued to express his strong support for the war no matter how bad the events on the ground (even if resources and planning have not always matched his rhetoric), and he has continually rejected any timetable for troop withdrawal. It is obvious that he views the outcome of the Iraq War as his primary legacy, and that he is battling strong political forces, even within the Republican Party: voices that are calling for decreases in troop levels, and who contend that the U.S. military is over-stretched.
But for a couple of reasons, this past week may have marked a major milestone in Iraq. Although Zarqawi’s death does not spell an end to the insurgency (al-Qaeda in Iraq is actually a small component of the overall insurgency), it was nevertheless a symbolic blow to global jihadism. Perhaps more important, the first democratically-elected Iraqi government is now fully in place, with all of its major cabinet posts filled. On the same day that the President made a surprise visit to Baghdad to offer support to the new Iraqi president, Mr. Maliki announced a major new offensive against insurgents in the capital city by Iraqi armed forces numbering in the tens of thousands.
We have finally arrived at the point where we are going to know very shortly whether the new Iraqi government can stand on its own and quell what has become a low-level civil war. There is both reason for hope and reason for skepticism. On the one hand, the Iraqi people have a fully-formed government that they can hold accountable; it must be responsive to their needs or face demise. The priority is to establish stability and security in the country, and Maliki gives every indication that he will try to accomplish this as quickly as possible. However, much of the mayhem and murder is being carried out by homegrown militias, many of which are ostensibly linked to the government or to powerful sectarian factions. Only time will tell whether these forces fall in line and decide that helping to build a unified Iraq is in their interests.
This is the moment that both supporters and opponents of the war have been waiting for: soon we will know if the Iraq government is truly legitimate and can establish its authority. If within a year or two (did someone say 2008?) the Iraqi government has not been successful in bringing increased security to the country, it will be almost impossible to find a U.S. politician willing to continue to expend American lives and money to prop up a failed government. If, instead, the Iraqi government (and U.S. forces) manage to quell the violence and bring order to the country, there will be widespread calls to significantly draw down troops and proclaim, rightly this time, “mission accomplished”.
Either way, we are coming to the end of the post-invasion phase in Iraq. No matter whether you are a supporter or an opponent of the war, now is not the time to call for an immediate troop withdrawal. This is the moment the President and the architects of the war have told us to wait for; we should all hope for the best as the last chapter of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” unfolds in the coming months.