The key to an American exit from Iraq is not the number of Iraqi troops and police that we have trained. It is the formation of an Iraqi government that Iraqis of all communities accept as a legitimate expression of their will.
A legitimate Iraqi government sooner or later, and likely sooner, will ask the United States to leave. Occupation and legitimacy cannot survive together for very long.
Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, the Iraqi elections held this past week appear to have failed to create a legitimate Iraqi government. The voting patterns in Iraq, now clear over three votes in the past year, are firmly fixed.
The Kurds, who want an independent Kurdistan, vote for Kurds. Shiite Arabs overwhelmingly vote for those who have the endorsement of their clerical leaders and who stand for the unfettered dominion of a long-suppressed majority. And Sunni Arabs, when they chose to express themselves through ballots, still believe they are the rightful rulers of a united Iraq.
Among these three communities there is no common view of what Iraq is, much less who should rule it. They sit on the edge of all-out communal civil war. The excursions into the voting booth are only another form of expression of the sectarian sentiments otherwise visible in the brutal insurgency and the response to it.
American officials who are intimately familiar with the situation inside Iraq understood this all too well. But inside the White House bubble, they were convinced their favored Iraqis would do very well in the election and lead the new government - a game plan they have been trying to force on Iraq for more than two years.
Instead, the two secular blocs led by the Pentagon and neo-con favorite, Ahmed Chalabi, and by the CIA-State Department choice, former Premier Ayad Allawi, got trounced. Even in Baghdad, where his appeal should be greatest, Allawi managed to get only 14 percent of the vote. Chalabi, who made a triumphant tour of Washington only a few weeks before the vote, may not even make it into the parliament. The game plan is in shreds.
American officials try to content themselves by pointing to the turnout of Sunnis who had boycotted the previous parliamentary vote last January. But as a senior intelligence community veteran explained it to me this past week, the decision of the Sunni leadership to promote voting - and to order the insurgency to stand down for the day - was hardly a sign that they had decided to abandon insurgency.
Rather, he explained, Sunni participation was a "lose-lose proposition." If the Sunni electoral bloc failed - and many Sunnis passionately believe they constitute 50 percent rather than 20 percent of the population - it would only reinforce the commitment to armed insurgency. And if they did well, it would create the political arm of the insurgency.
Indeed, as the election results are announced and it becomes clear that the Shiites will likely be able to form the new government on their own, or with the aid of some smaller groups, the Sunnis are crying foul. Sunni leaders, a combination of Baathists, Islamists and tribal leaders, claim the election was rigged.
"We will demand that the elections be held again," Adnan al-Dulaimi, leader of the Sunni election front declared. "If this demand is not met, we will resort to other measures."
The American ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad - the subject of an excellent profile last week in the New Yorker - is doing his best to hold this shaky edifice together. He is pushing to form a government of national unity, bringing everyone into a new regime. This may be the only path to political legitimacy out of this election but it is unlikely either the Shi'a or the Sunni leadership will take him up on the proposal.
If this fails, the United States will face an agonizing choice. I do not see how, after setting Iraq on the path to civil war, it can yet walk away from its responsibility. At the same time, however much they are needed, the continued presence of American troops ultimately undermines the legitimacy of the Iraqi government, whatever government is established.
In the meantime, ignore the Washington propaganda machine now spinning like a top on steroids, and lend your support to the men and women of our armed forces who are doing their best to make some sense out of a failed policy.
- Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and is currently a Pantech Fellow at Stanford's Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center.