Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Thursday, January 24, 2008

‘Too late to talk about victory’ in Iraq?

The interrelated nature of political, sectarian and military issues in the Middle East was at the core of discussion at a forum, “Iraq: An Assessment of Policy Options in 2008,” held by the Brookings Institution Wednesday. A group of the Institution’s senior fellows – Martin Indyk, Michael O’Hanlon, Carlos Pascual, Peter W. Rodman and Phillip H. Gordon – spoke about the possibility of reducing troops in the area over the next few years, the conditions that would be necessary to do so, and the possible results of any such action if it does occur.

Indyk began by discussing the negative ripple effect that has occurred throughout the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iran’s bolstered power over the region, heightened sectarian violence, the growing popularity of Islamic political parties and an increased international awareness of the importance of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty are all factors related to the war, he said.

There was a consensus among the panel that, due to President Bush’s desire to maintain stability, there will not be any dramatic change in numbers of troops this year. Gordon pointed out that Iraq has seen a marked improvement in recent months, but that what is open for discussion is the reason for this and the influence that the numbers of troops have upon it.

The surge in troop numbers is just one factor among many, argued O’Hanlon. He noted the importance of several internal political factors in the consideration of the situation in Iraq, arguing that there have been some positive developments, including reforms allowing former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party to return to public life, a reasonably successful purge of extremists from government and an improving sectarian balance in the security forces. However, he said that the glass of Iraqi politics continues to be only one-third full.

The enduring problem faced by Iraq, what Indyk called the “abiding dynamic,” is sectarian rivalry: there continue to be significant divisions between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, with disputes over land, property and compensation ongoing. It was suggested by Rodman that military presence gives all sides a reasonable assurance that they are safe from each other.

The issue is, of course, extremely complex. It was argued that, if anything, the apparent improvement of conditions over the last year serves to illustrate the difficulty in judging the effectiveness of the troop presence in Iraq, and certainly doesn’t make decisions about possible withdrawals any easier. As Indyk said, “If things get better we have to stay because we’re the reason that things are getting better, and if things get worse we have to stay until things get better.”

It was this uncertainty, combined with the “years of bloodshed” that have already been witnessed, that led O’Hanlon to argue that it is no longer possible to talk of victory in Iraq. Any progress made will be an avoidance of defeat, and to call it victory would be “callous to the costs we’ve experienced,” he said.


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