The Blog

Congress and Iraq

Democrats insist both that the Iraq war is lost and that setting timelines is the best way to achieve a political settlement. They're wrong on both counts.

3:20 PM, Apr 26, 2007 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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IN BAGHDAD, sectarian violence dropped considerably after President Bush announced the Baghdad Security Plan on January 10th, even before new U.S. forces had arrived. The leaders of the major Shiite militias ordered their followers to stop killing Sunnis and most obeyed--a fact that undermines the notion that sectarian violence in Iraq is primordial and beyond rational or political control. Since then, the Maliki government has permitted U.S. forces to conduct a series of attacks on the worst of the Shiite militias in their strongholds in Baghdad and even in the Shiite south. It is difficult to see in these events evidence that sectarian violence is beyond control, that the Maliki government is unwilling to work with Sunnis, or that the Sunnis are beyond reconciliation. Above all, Maliki has permitted operations against the militias because he believes that the larger plan to secure his capital will work. Declaring a premature end to that plan by setting timelines for withdrawal--and implicitly or explicitly declaring that it has failed--will remove the current incentives for Maliki to support attacks on the forces he will need if civil war follows our hasty withdrawal. Timelines are far more likely to undermine progress in Iraq than to advance it.

The current discussion is confused by a misunderstanding of the rise in violence that has occurred recently. The spate of car-bombs and suicide bombs, which the New York Times describes as "sectarian violence" and which many point to as evidence of the current strategy's failure, are very different from the sectarian strife we saw raging at the start of this year. Suicide bombs and car bombs are the copyright of al Qaeda and associated militant Islamist groups--Shiite militias prefer more precisely targeted killings when they kill and do not use such methods. Al Qaeda, a Sunni group, has conducted many of the recent attacks against fellow Sunnis in Anbar and elsewhere who have started to fight the terrorists. These attacks are not sectarian violence, but al Qaeda's attempts to regain its footing in its former strongholds or to establish bases in new areas. The current wave of violence is a surge by the one force fighting in Iraq that has declared its intention to destroy the United States. It is a surge in terrorist killing by the organization that almost every leading congressman believes America should be fighting. It is not evidence that sectarian violence is uncontrollable or that the Maliki government won't make concessions. It is evidence that our implacable foe is not ready to lose yet. Timelines for withdrawal can only encourage this enemy, which has always believed that killing enough people will drive the Americans away.

The immediate drop in violence after Bush's speech resulted from the belief by many Iraqis that this operation would be different, that American forces would stay to finish the job, and that both the Iraqi government and people could rely on us to help them stop the violence. Setting timelines for withdrawal before we can possibly have solidified security in Baghdad tells the Iraqi people that we will abandon them once again and soon. Those who bet on the success of the current plan will try to hedge and adopt good fighting positions for the full-scale civil war to come. Successes in Iraq have occurred because Iraqis believe that we will help lay the foundation for them by establishing security, knowing that they cannot do so on their own. They will prove ephemeral if we declare our unwillingness to do so. And our most dangerous enemy will conclude once again that committing horrific atrocities and killing innocent people is an effective way to defeat the United States.

Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military (Encounter).