Should we set a timetable for leaving Iraq?
This has become the hottest topic in Washington. Last week, U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., a decorated former Marine and respected defense hawk with close ties to many military commanders, called for full withdrawal in six months. No Cindy Sheehan he.
Senate Republicans rejected the Democrats' plan for a timetable, and both parties vetoed a call on Friday for an immediate pullout. But even Republicans demanded that the administration clarify its Iraq plans. So is it time to set some dates? Or should we follow President Bush's repeated call to "stay the course"?
Neither of those options will work.
"That's the false choice the country has fallen into," says Paul Rieckoff, a former stockbroker who served in Iraq and now heads Operation Truth, a group of Iraq veterans. I agree with Rieckoff that a third option is needed.
Before we get to option three, however, let me tell you why the first two won't work.
Bush's Iraq policy is floundering, but a timeline would make a bad mess worse. We broke Iraq's old system; we have a moral and legal responsibility to restore a minimum of stability before we leave there.
Some Americans believe that the fighting would die down if our troops left the country soon. I disagree. Many Iraqis are indeed fighting against occupation, but the insurgency's core consists of Baathists and Islamists who are seeking to grab power. A timetable would inspire them to fight harder.
Others ask: Why not let Iraqis fight their civil war to the end? If their country splits into three pieces - Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni - that's their problem. However, their problem became ours when we invaded.
If Iraq splits, the bloodshed in mixed areas will dwarf what you see now. Kurds will retreat to the north, and a religious Shiite statelet to the south will fall under Iran's sway. The Sunni region in the west will become an even bigger training ground for Islamist terrorists who seek to overthrow their Arab neighbors. Having created this Islamist haven, we would probably have to return to Iraq to quash it.
So should we "stay the course"? President Bush says U.S. troops will stand down as the new Iraqi security forces we are training stand up. Sadly, that formula is wishful thinking.
It's hard to create a new, effective army in a bitterly divided country, where, right now, there is no sense of a nation. Military forces are more loyal to ethnic and religious communities than to something called Iraq. Relatively few Sunnis even join the security forces, making it harder to fight insurgents on their home turf. Iraq's military can't defeat the insurgents.
That's why we need Option Three: a political strategy to help the Iraqis help us leave.
U.S. military commanders believe the best hope of undercutting the insurgents is political, not military. A good chunk of the Sunni minority must be wooed into the political system and away from military struggle.
Sunnis are set to participate fully in Dec. 15 elections, after boycotting the vote last January; that should produce new Sunni leaders. U.S. efforts in the next six months must center on cajoling and pressing Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to devise a form of federalism that will hold the country together. Amendments to the new constitution will be needed.
Sunnis must be given a sufficient economic stake - including a share of future oil revenues - to make them split with the insurgents. Neighboring Arab countries and the United Nations must be enlisted in the effort to work out this modus vivendi.
But Iraqis should be warned that if they fail to reach an internal accord within the coming six months, American public opinion will demand a troop drawdown. For all their bluster about occupation, Sunnis know a speedy U.S. exit would leave them exposed to Shiite revenge. If they can help curb the insurgents, however, the Americans can go home.
The goal should be to get Sunnis to police much of their own region, as Shiite forces are already doing in the south and Kurdish militias in the north. American troops could then pull back from the cities and provide backup support for Iraqis to battle diehard Baathists and Islamists. Iraq's parliament would have to approve the U.S. troop presence.
All U.S. decisions on timetables should be postponed until mid-2006 to see whether the Iraqis can deliver. If they can't, there are no good options left.