For anyone trying to make sense of the white-hot American political debate over Iraq policy, let me offer a few tips from a recent trip to Baghdad.
Much of the debate is a reaction to Pollyanna-ish claims by the White House that we will achieve stability and democracy in Baghdad. It's past time for the White House to level with the public.
Yet, far away from the Washington blah-blah, U.S. military forces in Iraq are pursuing far more pragmatic goals that the public needs to be aware of. So here's a reality check, based on interviews with U.S. and Iraqi officials in Baghdad.
What is the military now trying to achieve in Iraq?
Even the White House agrees there is no purely military solution to the Iraq mess. So the supposed goal of the troop "surge" is to provide breathing room for political progress - specifically, for Iraqi political factions to reconcile.
The push for reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite factions has long been a basic premise of Bush policy. As long as the Iraqi government is divided into warring sects, the argument goes, the Iraqi military and police will reflect that division and will fail to jell into an effective army. Civil war will continue.
So the Bush team, and Democratic legislators, have set out benchmarks for Iraqi political leaders to meet, including legislation aimed at bringing them closer together, such as a broader sharing of revenue from oil.
Well, here's the bad news. Forget about reconciliation. The current Iraqi government is led by a weak Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who has neither the strength nor the desire to reconcile with Sunnis. Nor do the Sunnis have strong, capable leaders. Neither side trusts the other.
The Iraqi Islamic Party, the main Sunni political grouping, is (fruitlessly) trying to organize a parliamentary vote to oust Maliki, in cahoots with the Shiite Islamist Party of Muqtada al-Sadr, who originally was Maliki's strongest supporter. If that makes you dizzy, I won't pursue the vagaries of Iraq's fragmented politics further, save to say that it is useless to base U.S. policy on hopes of national reconciliation under Maliki. The benchmarks won't be met.
U.S. military commanders understand this. As I was told by a senior counterinsurgency adviser to the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus: "We cannot mortgage our future to (the Iraqi government's) ability to negotiate."
So what are the U.S. military's actual goals in the coming months?
Military commanders say they believe there will be a sizable drawdown of U.S. troops in 2008, not just because of domestic political pressures but because the army is severely overextended. The numbers I heard vary, and a residual force would remain. Let me add that there are no concrete plans yet for such a withdrawal.
But the military's aim is to create a sufficiently stable security situation so that a drawdown would not cause a rout as U.S. forces are reduced, or precipitate a worse calamity inside Iraq and in the region. Toward this end, the goals are as follows:
¢ Prevent the establishment of any al-Qaida safe havens in Iraq;
¢ Prevent the worsening of Iraq's civil war, or a spillover of the Shiite-Sunni power struggle into the Mideast region;
¢ Ensure that oil continues to flow.
Seen from this hardheaded perspective, the current U.S. military effort seems much more pragmatic than the rhetoric from the White House. The military's primary focus is to disrupt the operations of al-Qaida in Iraq, a group now composed mainly of Iraqis (but with hundreds of foreign Arabs coming to train or to blow themselves up as suicide bombers).
The Iraqi army and police are still unable to hold areas that U.S. forces have cleared of al-Qaida. But the hope is that local tribal fighters will be able to hold their towns and provinces, once cleared, with the help of fewer U.S. soldiers. There are no guarantees, but increasing numbers of Sunni tribal leaders have become hostile to al-Qaida over the last year.
The military's premise is that, if al-Qaida is badly damaged, Iraqis themselves can better cope with the ongoing internal struggle for power. The main goal - before a U.S. troop drawdown - is to lower the chances that Iraq will become a failed state, where terrorists train.
This strategy is far more realistic than much of the discussion in Washington. It speaks to many of the concerns of those who fear that Americans are trapped in Iraq with no hope of an exit. I believe it deserves a chance.
Of course, other pieces need to be added to this framework. For example, the administration must try harder to persuade Iraq's neighbors to help stabilize the country. And it must also push harder for provincial elections to get new leaders at local levels.
And while reconciliation may be far off, it is still possible to help key parts of the Iraqi government function. A perfect example is provided by the current minister of electricity, Karim Waheed, a skilled technocrat who works 18 hours a day and may finally succeed in bringing more electricity to Baghdad.
Unlike Waheed, most of Iraq's ministers are not technocrats, but were chosen by sectarian parties whose main interests were patronage and corruption. U.S. efforts might be better served to press Maliki to appoint competent technocrats than to push for reconciliation. If parts of Iraq's government began to function, this might defuse the hopelessness that feeds chaos.
Meanwhile, if Washington pols adopted the practical approach of the military, they might find a bipartisan strategy they could agree on. The time for fantasies is past. The goal now must be to prevent the chaos from becoming much worse.