WHATEVER THE future holds, the United States has not “lost” and cannot “lose” Iraq. It was never ours in the first place. And however history will judge the war, some key U.S. goals have been accomplished: Saddam Hussein has been ousted, tried and executed; Iraqis have held three elections, adopted a constitution and established a rudimentary democracy.
But what now? After four years of war, more than $350 billion spent and 3,363 U.S. soldiers killed and 24,310 wounded, it seems increasingly obvious that an Iraqi political settlement cannot be achieved in the shadow of an indefinite foreign occupation. The U.S. military presence -- opposed by more than three-quarters of Iraqis -- inflames terrorism and delays what should be the primary and most pressing goal: meaningful reconciliation among the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
This newspaper reluctantly endorsed the U.S. troop surge as the last, best hope for stabilizing conditions so that the elected Iraqi government could assume full responsibility for its affairs. But we also warned that the troops should not be used to referee a civil war. That, regrettably, is what has happened.
The mire deepens against a backdrop of domestic U.S. politics in which support for the ill-defined mission wanes by the week. Better to begin planning a careful, strategic withdrawal from Iraq now, based on the strategies laid out by the Iraq Study Group, than allow for the 2008 campaign season to create a precipitous pullout.
With four out of five additional battalions now in place, there is no reason to believe that the surge will help bring about an end to what is, in fact, a multifaceted civil war. The only bright spot is in Al Anbar province, where Sunni tribal leaders have joined U.S. forces in the fight against foreign Al Qaeda fighters. They deserve our continuing support. But as long as civil war rages in Iraq, even the post-surge force of 160,000 troops cannot achieve more than marginal progress.
As Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. war commander, has acknowledged, the solution to Iraq’s problems cannot be military. Yet political progress has been backsliding. It was only frantic White House intervention last week that prevented the resignation of the last Sunni leaders in the Shiite-dominated Cabinet of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. The Sunnis say the Maliki government is sectarian, corrupt and incompetent; and they’re right. The Bush administration should convene national peace and reconciliation talks as early as possible -- say June 1. All of Iraq’s parties, tribes, ethnic and sectarian factions, except for Al Qaeda, should be invited to the table.
But an important element needs to be taken off the table: American blood. The U.S. should immediately declare its intention to begin a gradual troop drawdown, starting no later than the fall. The pace of the withdrawal must be flexible, to reflect progress or requests by the Iraqis and the military’s commanders. The precise date for completing the withdrawal need not be announced, but the assumption should be that combat troops would depart by the end of 2009. Iraqi political compromise is more likely to come when Washington is no longer backing the stronger (Shiite) party. U.S. troops could then be repositioned to better wage the long-term struggle against Islamic extremism.
We are not naive. U.S. withdrawal, whether concluded next year or five years from now, entails grave risks. But so does U.S. occupation. The question is how best to manage the risks.
First, there is the grim prospect of a bloodbath in Iraq. But the best way to forestall slaughter is political reconciliation, not military occupation. Second is the worry that Al Qaeda will establish a beachhead in Al Anbar. Yet Iraqis have already turned against the foreign fighters. Third, the neighbors may meddle. Alarmists fear an Iranian proxy state in Baghdad; southern Iraq is already allied with Tehran. But Iraq’s neighbors are more likely to be helpful once withdrawal is assured, and instability is not in their interests, especially without a U.S. occupier to bleed.
Having invested so much in Iraq, Americans are likely to find disengagement almost as painful as war. But the longer we delay planning for the inevitable, the worse the outcome is likely to be. The time has come to leave.