From Mark T. Kimmitt
Inspector Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
The situation in Iraq appears much the same: suspiciously quiet. The recent attacks against the foreign and finance ministries attracted little more than a one-day story in the press. Yet, these attacks could be a precursor to more violence, and should give pause to those that believe the job in Iraq is done. Despite progress, there remains a significant number of unresolved grievances such as the status of Kirkuk, distribution of oil revenues, inadequate incorporation of the Sons of Iraq into the security services and, in general, a “winner-take-all” attitude by the Maliki government. Any of these could lead to a reversal on the ground and a renewal of widespread violence.
Others would suggest the opposite. They point to noteworthy reductions in attacks against, and casualties among American forces, the easing of widespread tensions between the Sunni and Shi’a communities, and a general war-weariness which often precedes a long-term reduction in violence.
So which side is right? Is Iraq on the verge of backsliding, or is it moving towards a normal, albeit rocky, political situation which militates for the final departure of U.S. troops in 2011? Will 2010 be the year when it all falls apart or finally comes together? Will Iraq transform itself into a relatively pluralistic nation at peace with itself and its neighbors, and remain an ally of the United States?
On this, the United States cannot sit idly by and allow the situation to determine its own path. U.S. involvement in shaping and achieving an outcome positive to our interests is critical. However, one wonders if this can happen, given the comparatively laissez-faire policy embraced since the elections. I believe the current situation argues for more administration effort, and a return to direct administration involvement in order to ensure a “soft landing” in Iraq. If the goal remains the drawdown of all combat brigades by June 2010 and the complete withdrawal of all troops by the end of 2011, the administration must devote more time and effort to the problem.
The administration in general and President Obama in particular must reinforce a message and reinforce a policy which demonstrates that success in Iraq remains a national priority. The current message seems to be, “we’ve won in Iraq, so let’s move on to Afghanistan” or, dangerously, “we never should have been there, so let’s get out as quickly as possible.” Those who criticized the “forgotten and unresourced war” in Afghanistan and now devote full attention to that effort risk making the same mistake in reverse. Too rapid a shift of focus, resources and priorities from Iraq to Afghanistan, and failure to devote the required time and high-level effort to working through the unfinished business, put the hard-won gains in Iraq in peril. Despite the 2008 election rhetoric, this administration inherited the responsibility for success in Iraq. Pretending it doesn’t exist, bleeding it of needed resources or failing to rally public support for the remaining hard work abrogate the responsibilities that came with the election victory.
While Afghanistan remains an important priority, it cannot be at the expense of Iraq. For a reminder of this, I often turn to an editorial published by Professor Eliot Cohen in 2003. In talking about leaving Iraq prematurely, he noted:
Cut-and-run cannot be disguised, and the price to be paid for it would be appalling. No one else would take on the burdens of Iraq; talk of handing it over to the United Nations or NATO is wishfulness, not strategy. Whatever one’s view of the war’s rationale, conception, planning or conduct, our war it remains, and we had best figure out how to win it.
While there has been tremendous progress since Eliot Cohen wrote this in 2003, there is still work to be done. And we had best figure out how to do it.
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