Ralph Peters argues that we should give the Iraqis one more year to get things together, and that’s it. In the end, I disagree, as a successful counterinsurgency takes time. Furthermore, we can’t risk sending a signal of weakness to our enemies by pulling out on more or less arbitrary timetables. Still, Peters makes an interesting argument:
As this column stressed months ago, the test for whether we should remain in Iraq is straightforward: Will Iraqis fight in decisive numbers for their own elected, constitutional government? The insurgents, militiamen and foreign terrorists are willing to die for their causes. If “our” Iraqis won’t match that strength of will, Iraq will fail.
If Iraq’s leaders stop squabbling and lead, and if Iraq’s soldiers and police fight resolutely for their constitutional state, we should be willing to stay “as long as it takes.” But if they continue to wallow in ethnic and religious partisanship while doing as little as possible for their own country, we need to leave and let them face the consequences.
Give them one more year. And that’s it.
Peters is harsh — Iraq’s civil society has been utterly smashed by decades of Ba’athist rule, its ethnic tensions only temporarily suppressed at the barrel of a gun, and its government institutions hollowed out by corruption and autocracy. The Iraqis have had to start from what amounts to essentially nothing. The Kurdish north gives us our best view of what Iraq can be — but the Kurds have had a ten-year head start on the rest of Iraq, and that came after a two-year state of virtual civil war between 1994-1996.
Still, it is beyond question that we cannot allow Iraq to become a vassal state to the United States — that has never been our intention. Sooner or later the American military will leave Iraq. The question is how much good we can do before that happens. Can we really leave Iraq in a better state through our actions or is it now up to the Iraqi people themselves?
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been severely decimated. The vast majority of the fighting is now sectarian in nature. The Iraqi police and military has to step up to the plate sooner or later — they have the manpower and equipment, what they lack is the political will to unite their country.
Here at home, there’s a strong chance that the defeatist Democrats will take the House, and possibly the Senate. Were that to happen, it would be virtually certain that the American military would be forced to leave Iraq.
We no longer have the luxury of time, even though that’s what we need. Already joint US and Iraqi forces are working to dismantle the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army. That is a positive development, but ultimately it’s the Iraqis who will have to provide their own security. Either the Iraqi government has the strength to keep it all together, or they don’t. If they don’t the Iraqis are going to have to sort things out themselves — we just don’t have time to start back at the beginning once more.
Peters is quite sour on our post-war performance, which is becoming an increasingly common outlook. Whether we should or should not have committed more troops in 2003 and 2004 is now an academic question: Iraq is today what it is. Our ultimate question needs to be how we can help the Iraqis get out their own two feet before the political will runs out on one side or another.
Iraq must be ruled and safeguarded by the Iraqi people themselves. Thousands of Iraqis have fought and died for their country, joining with their American allies in what was and is one of the center battles of this war. It is ultimately up to them whether those deaths will have been largely in vain. The hopes of a more democratic Middle East rest on their shoulders, and if they falter, the region as a whole will suffer. We must pray that they do not.