Nostalgia for 2006

November 20, 2007

Violence in Iraq is down, and that's a welcome development. But it has gone down before, and then gone up again, and there are no signs this time that the political work is being done - by Iraqis - that would help to ensure that it stays down.

The latest Army report says attacks are at the lowest level since February 2006. It's worth noting that hardly anyone thought Iraq was healthy in 2006, and that 2005 had seen a 29 percent increase in attacks over the previous year. Some, however, now argue that at least this time the trend is in the right direction. That brings to mind another event from February 2006: the release of a controversial report to the Army's Combined Arms Center arguing that the U.S. military is consistently out of touch with Iraqi opinion and sensibility, and relentlessly over-optimistic.

Nonetheless, the dynamic this time seems to have been the decision by the U.S. to curry favor with Sunni formations and persuade them to join in the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq - a decision quite independent of the surge in forces that took place this year. Right now, the policy looks smart, because this extremist movement is on the run.

The problem is that al-Qaida in Iraq has not been responsible for most of the violence there - but in order to quell this one organization, the U.S. has been assiduously cultivating groups that are bitterly opposed to the current Shiite government.

So, join the optimists for a moment and assume that al-Qaida in Iraq can be totally smashed. Then what happens? What is the rationale for a continuing American presence if the "terrorists" are beaten and the only disputes are among Iraqis vying for power? What is the possibility that heavily armed and subsidized Iraqi militias - subsidized by both the U.S. and Iran - can refrain from going to war with each other?

The possibility, in our view, is very slim, unless Iraqi leaders take advantage of the relative lull right now and try to forge some structured way of living with each other. Absent that, it's impossible to argue that whatever progress has been made in the past month or so can in any way be sustained.

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