March 23, 2007

A withdrawal date – bad strategy

This appeared on the MSNBC Hardball Hardblogger

On the surface, the initial “surge” statistics from Baghdad appear encouraging. By all measures, the number of deaths is down, the number of attacks is down and the number of Iraqi security forces on the street is up.

Good news, right?

Sure, but has the surge solved the problems of sectarian violence in the city and environs? Not if you look at the continued vicious Sunni attacks against the Shia in an attempt to provoke them to reignite the conflict, and the recent attack on a Sunni deputy prime minister. Thus far, the Sunnis have been unsuccessful in goading the Shia into retaliation – the Shia have followed the advice of their religious leadership and not rejoined the fight.

The leader of the most infamous of the Shia militias, Muqtada al-Sadr has instructed his fighters in an-Najaf and Baghdad to lay low while the Americans and Iraqis conduct the surge. American officials believe that al-Sadr has sought refuge in Iran, and his key lieutenants are hiding in the southern cities of Iraq. This is good strategy – wait out the Americans and the surge. When it is over and the Americans begin to reduce troops levels, al-Sadr will return and resume his political activities, militia intact.

The U.S. House of Representatives has included a provision in the supplemental war funding bill requiring that all American forces be withdrawn from Iraq by a specified date. This plays right into not only Shia militia leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr, but the Sunni insurgents as well, be they Iraqi Baathists, Islamists or the al-Qaeda in Iraq group. Once they know when American forces will be gone, they will use that as a planning date for their operations. Their goal will be to survive until that date, knowing that afterwards they will only be confronting Iraqi forces. When the Americans mount offensives between now and then, the insurgents will melt away, waiting out the mandated and published American timetable.

This does not solve the problem; it merely defers it to the future. Both sides in the Iraqi civil war are waiting for their moment. Up until the U.S. Congress imposes a mandatory withdrawal date, the Shia would have been content to lay low while American troops focus on the Sunnis. Now the Sunnis have the same option.

The Congress will be giving both sides hope – with good reason. I have problems with the Pentagon’s conduct of the war, but this action on the part of Congress will guarantee failure in Iraq. This is bad strategy.