Politics & Policy

Give It Time

What we need in Iraq.

Time, time, and more time. That’s what a senior Army officer in Iraq (speaking on background) pleaded for in a recent meeting with supporters of the war in Washington in the last week.

Asked what he most needs or what he would change to make his job easier, he said, “It’s all about time — give me some time, give us time.” He noted, “The average duration of insurgencies is somewhere around ten years.”

He didn’t want to be overly optimistic. “Credibility is hugely important right now,” he said at the outset of a briefing that was often encouraging but grounded in a grim realism. What he needs most from Washington — time — is the hardest thing to come by, and what is most important in Iraq — political compromise by the Iraqis — obviously is not entirely in our control.

But there are unmistakably hopeful signs. “Sectarian killings are down, because we are in the neighborhoods,” providing security and getting intelligence. And Anbar province has seen a “dramatic, breath-taking turnaround.” He said of the insurgents, “If the Iraqi police gets strong and stays strong in Ramadi [the capital of Anbar], they’re screwed.”

The progress in Anbar highlights the importance of political factors to pacifying Iraq. It was a Sunni political shift that made all the difference in Anbar. The insurgency can’t be suppressed in the rest of the country without similar political movement.

He said an oil law is of “incalculable importance.” Distribution of oil revenues will “either be equitable, or there will be continued conflict.” “I generally think it’s doable,” he said of the oil law that passed the cabinet and is pending in the parliament.

Revising de-Baathification, another important political initiative, “might be just too hard, certainly in this legislative session.” Forging a deal on it was Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s last action in Iraq and there were “high fives all around,” then the deal fell apart.

He cited provincial elections, constitutional reform and the rule of law in general as all very important. We need from the government a “level of commitment to do the right thing, leading for all Iraqis.”

Iraq is more complicated than the Balkan wars of the 1990s. There’s “no Milosevic,” no one “who can commit their constituents,” outside of the Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani. Also, it’s “not five years into a civil war with all sides exhausted” so they’re ready to come to the table.

Even in the best case, Iraqis “will have to learn to live with violence.” He noted there was “violence in Northern Ireland for years.”

Getting to even that imperfect state will require beating back al Qaeda. Iraq is the “central front for al Qaeda,” which is “public-enemy number one.” “They’re wired into al Qaeda central” and are “trying to cripple Iraq, cause failure in general.” “Imagine Iraq without car bombs right now; Baghdad wouldn’t be so bad.”

Then, there’s Iran. Iran’s involvement is “enormous, much more than we ever realized.” “We can’t solve Iraq wholly within Iraq. We’ve got to do something about that.”

What is Moqtada al-Sadr thinking? “Sadr doesn’t know what he’s thinking,” he replied. He is hiding, probably in Tehran. “He thinks there’s a JDAM with his name on it,” a notion that he doesn’t want to disabuse Sadr of. The Shia radical is “trying to show his relevance by doing certain actions” — pulling his ministers out of the government, staging a demonstration in Najaf. Meanwhile, in squeezing his militia, we have “tried not to target run-of-the-mill members, unless they’re in the sectarian murder racket.”

With the surge, we are now doing all we can militarily: “This is the all-in strategy at this point.” “It all keeps coming back to Iraq’s political leadership. You can create the conditions but then other folks have to exploit the conditions.” In short, we can succeed, “but it will be the toughest thing we’ve ever done.” And we need time.


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