Opinion and Editorial

Old debate over new reality in Iraq

Henry A. Kissinger
Filed on August 5, 2008

THE US presidential campaign has been so long and so intense that it seems to operate in a cocoon oblivious to changes that should alter its premises. A striking example is the debate over withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

Over the past year, setting a deadline for withdrawal has been put forward with the arguments that such a decision, by compelling the Iraqi government to accelerate the policy of reconciliation, would speed the end of the war; that it would enable the United States to concentrate its efforts on more strategically important regions, such as Afghanistan; and, above all, that the war was lost and withdrawal would represent the least costly way to overcome the debacle. (For full disclosure, I occasionally advise presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain.)

These premises have been overtaken by events. Almost all objective observers agree that major progress has been made on all three fronts of the Iraq war: Al Qaeda, the Sunni jihadist forces recruited largely from the outside, seems on the run in Iraq; the indigenous Sunni insurrection attempting to restore Sunni predominance has largely died down; the government in Baghdad dominated by Shias has, at least temporarily, mastered the Shia militias that were challenging its authority. After years of disappointment, we face the need to shift mental gear to emerging prospects of success.

Of course, we cannot tell at this moment whether these changes are permanent or whether, and to what extent, they reflect a decision by our adversaries, including Iran, to husband their forces for the aftermath of the Bush administration. But we do know that the outcome of the conflict will determine the kind of world in which the new administration will have to conduct its policies. Any appearance that radical Islamic forces were responsible for a US defeat would have enormous destabilising consequences far beyond the region. How and when to leave Iraq will therefore emerge as one of the principal decisions before the new president.

Whatever the interpretation of recent events, the Sunni part of Iraq has created local forces backed by several Sunni states to fight Al Qaeda and indigenous insurgents. These, in turn, have contributed to easing Sunni concern over being marginalised by the Shia majority. The Kurdish region has all along developed its own self-defence forces.

In this manner, prospects for reconciliation among the three parts of the country, Kurdish, Shia and Sunni, have appeared not through legislation, as congressional resolutions applying the American experience imagined, but by necessity and a measure of military and political equilibrium. Since the need for American forces in dealing with a massive insurrection has diminished, they can increasingly concentrate on helping the Iraqi government to resist pressures from neighbours and the occasional flaring up of terrorist attacks from Al Qaeda or Iranian-backed militias. In that environment, the various national and provincial elections foreseen in the Iraqi constitution for the next months can help shape new Iraqi institutions.

A strategic reserve can now be created by the United States out of part of the forces currently in Iraq, some moving to other threatened areas, others returning to the United States. American deployment is transformed from abdication into part of a geopolitical design. Its culmination should be a diplomatic conference charged with establishing a formal peace settlement. Such a conference was first assembled two years ago on the foreign ministers' level. It was composed of all Iraq's neighbours, including Iran and Syria, together with Egypt and the permanent members of the UN Security Council. That conference should be reassembled and charged with defining an international status for Iraq and the guarantees to enforce it.

In addition, regional initiatives are under way to stabilise the situation in the Middle East. Turkey is seeking to mediate between Israel and Syria; a Qatari initiative has achieved an at least temporary pause in the fighting in Lebanon.

Establishing a deadline for withdrawal of US troops from Iraq is the surest way to undermine the hopeful prospects. It will encourage largely defeated internal groups to go underground until a world more congenial to their survival arises with the departure of American forces. Al Qaeda will have a deadline against which to plan a full-scale resumption of operations. And it will give Iran an incentive to strengthen its supporters in the Shia community for the period after the American withdrawal. The establishment of a fixed deadline will dissipate assets needed for the diplomatic endgame.

The inherent contradictions of the proposed withdrawal schedule compound the difficulties. Under the fixed withdrawal scheme, combat troops are to be withdrawn, but sufficient forces are to remain to protect the American Embassy, fight a resumption of Al Qaeda and contribute to the defence against outside intervention. But such tasks require combat, not support forces, and the foreseeable controversy about the elusive distinction will distract from the overall diplomatic goal. Nor is withdrawal from Iraq necessary to free forces for operations in Afghanistan. There is no need to risk the effort in Iraq to send two or three additional brigades to Afghanistan (the numbers being talked about), which will become available even in the absence of a deadline.

In a positive gesture, leading advocates of a fixed deadline have recently put forward the idea that both withdrawal and the residual force will be condition-based. But if that is the case, why establish a deadline at all? It would suggest shifting the debate to the conditions for withdrawal rather than its timing.

These considerations explain Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki's conduct on the occasion of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama's visit to Iraq.

Maliki is engaged in a negotiation with the Bush administration about a status-of-forces agreement for the residual forces to remain in Iraq. Given popular attitudes and the imminence of provincial elections, he probably wanted to convey that the remaining American presence was not planned as a permanent occupation. The accident of the arrival of a presidential candidate, who had already published views on that subject, reinforced that incentive. To reject the senator's withdrawal plan in front of a large Press contingent would have been to antagonise a candidate with whom Maliki might have to deal as president.

The American presence in Iraq should not be presented as open-ended because this would not be supported by either Iraqi or American domestic opinion. But neither should it be put forward in terms of rigid deadlines. To strike this balance is a way for our country to come together as a constructive outcome emerges. The next president has a great opportunity to stabilise Iraq and lay the basis for a decisive turn in the war against jihadist radicalism and for a more peaceful Middle East. Surely he will want to assess the situation on the ground before setting a strategy for his term. He should not be limited by rigid prescriptions to vindicate maxims of the past, no matter how plausible they once seemed. Withdrawal is a means; the end is a more peaceful and hopeful world.

Henry A Kissinger, a former US secretary of state, is considered the architect of US foreign policy during the Cold War

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