News flash: The Iraq war isn’t over.
The gusher of encouraging developments from Iraq keeps coming: Moqtada al-Sadr promises to disband his militia in what is a de facto declaration of surrender after the beating he’s taken from American and Iraqi forces; the number of American troops killed in action dropped to five in July, the lowest monthly total since the war began; attacks in Baghdad have been averaging four a day, down from ten a day earlier this year and 40 a day last June.
The turn in the war has created a large constituency for declaring victory, since the Right is accustomed to having to trumpet good news, lest no one else do it, while the Left seeks any excuse to leave — and victory will have to do if defeat is no longer an option. The danger is that the irrational pessimism that has so long characterized the conversation over the war is giving way to an irrational exuberance that will make us lose focus on the work that remains to be done.
Al-Qaeda has been dealt heavy blows in Iraq, and reports have some of its leaders leaving the country for Afghanistan. But it is a vicious foe that will search for every opportunity to revive. Iran is not going to give up, either, even if its cat’s-paw al-Sadr looks to be declawed. The faster we withdraw, the more opportunities al-Qaeda and Iran will have to adjust to new conditions and reassert themselves.
Provincial elections remain crucial to empower Sunnis who boycotted previous elections and Shia forces in the south who are not aligned with the religious parties. The Iraqi parliament failed to pass a law to hold the elections this fall; they are likely to be put off until the beginning of next year. American forces are widely — and understandably — seen as the best guarantor of the legitimacy of the elections, which we want to be accepted as free and fair as another step toward Iraqis solving their disputes through politics rather than force.
In light of all this, the drift of U.S.-Iraqi negotiations over a status-of-force agreement to keep American troops in the country is troubling. News reports say the Iraqis want to set a goal of removing American combat troops from Iraqi cities by June 2009 and all combat troops from the country by October 2010. Iraq is a sovereign country, and impatience with the presence of a foreign army is natural. But trying to hand over security to Iraqi forces too quickly is exactly the mistake that created the near-catastrophe from which the surge saved us.
The Bush administration has to do all it can in the negotiations to push off the dates and make them aspirational and conditional. The surge has created an amazing turnaround in Iraq, one that should be celebrated. But Iraq is still a fragile state recovering from a civil war, with dangerous enemies within and without. We forget it at our peril. So, please, hold the “mission accomplished” banner.