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‘Surge’ and go

The latest statistics are in and, by every reasonable measure, the U.S. military is making commendable progress in lessening the violence in Iraq.

Iraqi civilian and military deaths have plummeted in recent months, as has the number of American soldiers killed or wounded. Bombings are down, attacks on U.S. troops have plunged and the ghastly daily count of corpses bearing the signs of sectarian torture is markedly lower. While the U.S. military’s data are rosier than some other tallies, all the indicators of violence are now, mercifully, pointing down. As a result, some of the 2 million Iraqi refugees who have fled their homes have begun to come back -- 46,030 of them reentered the country in October, according to the Iraqi government.

Analysts will continue to debate how much of the progress is because of the “surge” of 30,000 U.S. troops last spring, how much is the result of Iraqi Sunnis in Anbar province and elsewhere making common cause with the United States against Al Qaeda terrorists, and how much is because ethnic cleansing of some neighborhoods is complete and the “enemies” within have fled or been killed. All of these factors undoubtedly played a role. And the daily carnage, though lessened, remains horrific. The high casualty rate earlier this year made 2007 the deadliest for U.S. troops in this tragic misadventure.

Still, now is the moment to praise the U.S. military for doing what it said it would do when it embarked on the surge: reducing the violence so as to allow Iraqis breathing space to work out the modus vivendi that has so far eluded them. We salute them and hope that their blood and tears are not squandered by whatever comes next.

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The question, however, is what should come next. The surge has succeeded militarily; it has so far been an utter failure politically because there has been no progress toward reconciliation. Anbar is more peaceful, but Basra is more racked than ever by fighting among Shiite warlords. There is no oil law, no plan for reversing de-Baathification, no progress toward an integrated police force, no plan for federalism that would accommodate Iraq’s ethnic and regional aspirations while keeping the country from fracturing.

Without actually saying so, the Bush administration is now trying to move the goal posts, yet again, by arguing that stopping the violence in and of itself constitutes success. The president and the secretary of Defense have both mentioned South Korea as a model of where the United States might be heading in Iraq: leaving perhaps 35,000 U.S. troops there, perhaps for a decade or more, to keep a modicum of peace, prevent the country from splitting up and keep the neighbors out. But U.S. troops in South Korea were helping to keep an external enemy, North Korea, from crossing an armistice line. U.S. troops in Iraq are trying to suppress a sectarian civil war, not to protect a fragile peace. Neither the American nor the Iraqi publics will tolerate a prolonged U.S. occupation of Iraq. The surge has created an opportunity to leave -- and leave we must.


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