When should we leave Iraq? Not just yet

August 19, 2008|By Larry Smith

Fortunately for all of us, the "surge" in Iraq worked. By honorably facing the responsibilities we incurred when we decided to remove Saddam Hussein, we will ultimately get our troops home more quickly than if we had announced a linear timetable for withdrawal - a timetable that almost assuredly would have been interrupted because of its implicit invitation for our opponents to rest, refit and return.

Gen. David Petraeus got it right when he said, "Warfare is not linear - it is a calculus." In other words, the rate at which conditions change is itself constantly changing. Now, with the surge having greatly accelerated the rate of improvement in Iraq, we need to press this thing to the end - an end that will likely come sooner if it is pressed rather than later (or not at all) if it is not.

So when is it time to leave? When Iraq's young democracy is fully established. This will happen when three conditions are fully met. First, the Iraqi government must finish becoming truly representative of all Iraqi factions and blocs; second, the rule of law must be entrenched and universally applied; and third, political dissent must be fully institutionalized and protected.

This winter, Iraq will have national provincial elections featuring an outpouring of candidates from Iraq's tribes who now want to use national office in Baghdad to improve conditions for their people back home. Unlike last time, these elections will not be contested based on bloc lists. Then, in late 2009, Iraq is scheduled to hold national presidential elections (such elections were boycotted by the Sunnis last time they were held). America's continued robust support will help ensure these elections are entirely free and entirely fair.

The universal, nonsectarian application of the rule of law is essential to prevent human rights violations and corruption. America must also ensure that Iraq's mechanisms for dissent are firmly in place and thoroughly protected. Iraq's Sunnis, Kurds and Christians all need to know that Iraq is their country too, and that its government is theirs as well. They need America to help them claim their full stake in Iraq's democracy, and to see to it that they are treated fairly in the process.

Counterinsurgency experts generally agree that this type of warfare requires about 10 years to complete. We are in our sixth year and on pace to match or beat that historical average. Historically, for counterinsurgencies, it's the second round of elections that "do the trick," because the first ones generally only get the process of democracy started. Follow-up elections - after a period of stabilization and the return of a country's belief in its own future - are where the population "buys in" to the principle of a national government that works for it.

This was seen, for example, in the Philippines Huk insurgency of 1946-1954. The insurgency's popularity was not diminished by elections in 1949. But two years later, with intensive monitoring and transparent fairness, came elections that were subsequently recognized as the major psychological blow to the insurgency.

In Iraq, progress on achieving benchmarks has been solid. In May, Iraq's three remaining benchmarks were militia disarmament, oil revenue-sharing laws and new equitable election laws. The first one was recently achieved when Muqtada al-Sadr ordered a key militia to disarm and become a political organization that will provide charity to poor Shiites. Arrangements to share oil revenue already exist and may be codified soon. On the third benchmark, if America continues to forcefully exert its influence in Iraq while election plans are developed and then successfully executed, we will provide the last "push" Iraqis need from us to make it on their own.

Violence, corruption and crime will all fall to acceptable levels once Iraq's governments are populated by representatives who answer to their constituents at home, rather than distant sectarian leaders or external actors. In the meantime, current officeholders and outside actors such as Iran are going to attempt to maintain or grow their power any way they can. America is the sole regional instrument that can counter those attempts, protect minority blocs and keep it all fair.

After Iraq's presidential elections are over, we should be done. Iraq's newly and fairly elected representatives will take it from there, working inside a system that will perpetuate Iraq's success.

So hang in there, America. Our intensive investment in Iraq will be reduced relatively soon, and the peaceful and democratic Iraq we leave behind will be a historical legacy well worth the sacrifices we made helping to create it.

Larry Smith, a Timonium resident, has served for the past four years on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, J2 (Intelligence Directorate). His e-mail is smithlm83@hotmail.com.

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