Iraq still has problems, but ...

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to Opinion.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the recent offensive in Basra is that when Army Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker appear before Congress today and Wednesday, their charts will show an uptick in Iraq’s violence last month. But that is an anomaly. Violence has already dropped back to pre-March levels, and Iraq is demonstrably more peaceful now than it was before the surge. Civilian deaths are down more than 80% and American deaths are down more than 60% since December 2006.

Faced with this evidence of the surge’s military success, critics of the war effort have resorted to claiming that promised political progress has not followed. But even that talking point is outdated. The legislative logjam was broken Jan. 12, when the Iraqi parliament passed a law designed to ease the reintegration of former Baathists into society.

There are still questions about how that law will be implemented, but there is no denying that the parliament made an even more dramatic breakthrough on Feb. 13, when it simultaneously passed a law on provincial powers, a law offering amnesty to many (primarily Sunni) detainees and a new national budget. Although one of Iraq’s vice presidents vetoed the provincial-powers law, his veto was withdrawn and the law was approved by Iraq’s presidency council. Provincial elections are set for Oct. 1.


According to the U.S. Institute for Peace: “It may be that Feb. 13, 2008, will be remembered as the day when Iraq’s political climate began to catch up with its improved security situation -- or, more to the point, when Iraqi leaders discovered the key to political compromise and reconciliation.”

Overall, according to Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, the government of Iraq “has now met 12 out of the original 18 benchmarks set for it, including four out of the six key legislative benchmarks. It has made substantial progress on five more, and only one remains truly stalled.” The one benchmark that remains stalled is the hydrocarbon law, but its purpose (the equitable sharing of oil revenues) is being accomplished de facto through the budget.

This is hardly meant to suggest that everything is suddenly swell. Iraq is still a country at war, with deep problems that will take years to resolve. For every sign of progress, there is a “but” that follows.

Al Qaeda in Iraq has suffered major defeats in the last year, largely being driven out of Anbar, Diyala and Baghdad provinces, but it is still hanging on in Mosul, where Iraqi and American forces are fighting a tough battle against the terrorists.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has shown a welcome willingness to go after Shiite extremists, but the Basra offensive showed that he still does not have the ability to rout the Mahdi Army and other entrenched militias that receive considerable support from Iran.

Ninety thousand Iraqis (mainly but not entirely Sunnis) have joined the Sons of Iraq, U.S.-backed security groups, to protect their own neighborhoods from terrorists, but the central government needs to make greater progress in finding long-term employment for them -- either in civilian jobs or in the Iraqi security forces.


The security forces are growing in size (from fewer than 500,000 in 2006 to more than 600,000 today) and competence (although a few deserted in Basra, most do not run away from a fight), but they still need U.S. support, especially for higher-level functions such as command and control, air cover, logistics and intelligence collection.

Iraqi politicians are showing a welcome ability to make compromises, but administrative competence remains low. The government’s most corrosive problem is the failure to deliver basic services -- which might begin to be addressed by the election of new provincial governments.

The question that opponents of the war effort have to answer is: Will Iraq’s problems become better or worse if we pull our troops out? Few who have spent any time in Iraq doubt that an American withdrawal would trigger chaos that would make the recent fighting in Basra look like a picnic. That would be not only a terrible stain on our honor (we might be indirectly responsible for genocide) but a significant strategic setback because it could destabilize the entire region.

Victory -- defined as a democratic state that does not oppress its own people, provide a haven for terrorists, proliferate weapons of mass destruction or threaten its neighbors -- remains eminently achievable if we listen to the best advice of Petraeus and Crocker and resist the urge to pull our troops out too fast. If we ignore their warnings and head for the exits, we are assured of the worst military defeat in U.S. history and a major victory for Shiite and Sunni extremists who will continue to attack us in the future.