Looking for warlords

September 16, 2007

Forget about the benchmarks on progress in Iraq. They were an alien notion, imposed from Washington, and they're irrelevant. Also, recognize that Congress will not be able to assert any control of the war effort; the votes aren't there, for now at least. On top of that, give up on reconciliation among the Iraqis; it's not happening now, and it won't happen until a lot more water has gone over the dam.

So what's going on? President Bush, in announcing a modest troop reduction that had to happen anyway, talks about "return on success"; that's a less than clever slogan that doesn't merit further discussion. But it's still his war, and Americans need to figure out how to weigh the events of the coming weeks and months.

The administration's strategy is to keep the lid on, to the extent possible, with a heavy troop presence. The hope is that this might give the Iraqis time to work out an arrangement that will keep their country from totally disintegrating once the U.S. starts to pack up. It's a long shot, as Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker said last week, but in his view (not ours), it's the least bad course to follow. In any case, it's what will happen.

But if it is to succeed (or at least not fail too badly), it won't be because of a political accommodation at the national level. That sort of reconciliation is dead. The U.S., instead, has stumbled upon a different strategy, which is to support the emergence of regional chieftains who, in another context, would be called warlords.

This is what has happened in Anbar - although the Sunni sheik who was most helpful there was assassinated Thursday - and it is what American forces are pursuing among Shiite tribes in the south, who may be persuaded to turn against the extremist militias operating there.

If, region by region, the U.S. can sponsor one man or one organization with a monopoly on local violence, then it will have created a warlord system. It's difficult to imagine that working out, but if it does, and if those warlords can be ushered into what amounts to a cold war among one another, Iraq could be spared the worst.

The likelihood of this, in our view? Very, very slim. Warlords tore Afghanistan apart. Failure, moreover, could result in the precipitate American withdrawal from Iraq that President Bush is so determined to avoid, instead of the measured and strategic reduction in force that could be launched right now, while U.S. strength is intact.

Nonetheless, this ad hoc policy is the slender reed upon which a resolution in Iraq depends. Watch to see whether the U.S. succeeds in propping up regional strongmen. It may be the next best thing to success.

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