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Baker on the Surge, Timetables

12:22 PM, Apr 5, 2007 • By INFLUENCE PEDDLER
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As Congressional Democrats continue their trek from wanting no responsibility for anything that happens in Iraq to insisting that US troops depart today, it's useful to recall that the Iraq Study Group whose recommendations they so often cite rejected such an idea. And that reminder is delivered today by former ISG co-chair James Baker:

The report does not set timetables or deadlines for the removal of troops, as contemplated by the supplemental spending bills the House and Senate passed. In fact, the report specifically opposes that approach. As many military and political leaders told us, an arbitrary deadline would allow the enemy to wait us out and would strengthen the positions of extremists over moderates. A premature American departure from Iraq, we unanimously concluded, would almost certainly produce greater sectarian violence and further deterioration of conditions in Iraq and possibly other countries.

The goal of the United States should be to help Iraqis achieve national political reconciliation and greater effectiveness of their security forces, the report said, so that Iraqis can assume more of the security mission. This in turn could allow for an orderly departure of U.S. troops. An important way to encourage Iraqis to work together is to hold them to the type of benchmarks that Congress, President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have all considered. If the Iraqi government does not meet those benchmarks, the United States "should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government," the report said. But we did not suggest that this be codified into legislation. The report doesn't recommend a firm deadline for troop removal unless America's military leadership believes that the situation warrants it.

Nothing has happened since the report was released that would justify changing that view. Setting a deadline for withdrawal regardless of conditions in Iraq makes even less sense today because there is evidence that the temporary surge is reducing the level of violence in Baghdad. As Baghdad goes, so goes Iraq. The Iraq Study Group said it could support a short-term surge to stabilize Baghdad or to speed up training and equipping of Iraqi soldiers if the U.S. commander in Iraq determines such steps would be effective. Gen. David Petraeus has so determined.

The president announced a "new way forward" on Jan. 10 that supports much of the approach called for by the Iraq Study Group. He has since said that he is moving to embrace our recommendations. The president's plan increases the number of American advisers embedded in Iraqi army units, with the goal that the Iraqi government will assume control of security in all provinces by November. It outlines benchmarks and indicates that the Iraqi government must act to attain them. He has approved ministerial-level meetings of all of Iraq's neighbors, including Syria and Iran; the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council; and other countries.

In its first test, the surge is clearly working. That is, where troops are surging, violence is falling and life seems to be returning to normal. The $64,000 question--the one that Democrats don't want us to see answered--is whether that improvement in security can be sustained. If it can be--first by a combination of U.S. and Iraqi troops, then solely by Iraqis--then the surge will have worked.