First, stop digging

September 26, 2006

What single organization is doing more than any other to drive angry Muslims worldwide into the arms of jihadist fanatics? Apparently, it's the U.S. government - and in particular the people prosecuting the war in Iraq. That, at least, is what a new National Intelligence Estimate reportedly concludes. By pursuing the war, America is creating its own worst enemies.

A grain of salt: The previous National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, in 2002, said there were weapons of mass destruction there, so you have to consider the source. But the evidence looks pretty overwhelming that American spy agencies have called this one right, for once.

The Bush administration's reaction has been to argue that anti-American feeling existed before the war in Iraq, which is true but also exquisitely beside the point. This is the point: If American policy in Iraq is helping terrorists by creating more of them, then it's time to change the policy.

Sticking it out until the tide has turned, and Iraq can become a source of stability in the Middle East rather than instability, might seem like a worthwhile project - except that it's a fantasy. It's the strategy of an administration that has no idea what to do.

Not only has the Sunni Arab population turned almost entirely against the U.S., according to polls, but followers of the most dangerous Shiite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, are also lobbing mortar shells and taking potshots at American soldiers from their sanctuary in Baghdad's Sadr City slum. Sunnis and Shiites, however, are primarily at war with each other, and all the while the sophistication of their fighters has been growing by leaps and bounds. This is a development that will have consequences for years, even decades, to come.

The president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, says the U.S. will have to keep bases in Iraq for many years to come. Of course, he's a Kurd, and the Kurds are threatened by hostile Shiite and Sunni Arabs in Iraq as well as by equally hostile Turks just across their northern border. But he has a point: Some sort of semi-permanent American presence might make sense, if only to keep an eye on things. An abrupt withdrawal of all forces could be as destructive as the British withdrawal from India in 1947, which led to the deaths of millions and still reverberates today.

But it makes no sense at all to have 147,000 troops continuing to pursue a 3-year-old pacification policy that more than anything else fuels both Shiite and Sunni jihadism - both in Iraq and, significantly, elsewhere in the Muslim world. The U.S. should pare down its commitment now, stop risking its soldiers' lives in defense of one group of militants over another, and start work on the sort of global political effort that will tamp down the fires of Islamic extremism.

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