It's Not About Winning


Now there's another subtle shift, even farther in the same direction, in which the military seems to be focusing away from any possible military solution, in favor of concentration on a political solution. The new U.S. commander, General David Petraeus, set the tone in his first press conference here on March 8. In the 8,000-word transcript, the words "victory" and "win" nowhere appear. "Any student of history recognizes that there is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq, to the insurgency of Iraq," he said. "Military action is necessary to help improve security, for all the reasons that I stated in my remarks, but it is not sufficient. A political resolution of various differences, - of various senses that people do not have a stake in the success of the new Iraq, and so forth, that is crucial. That is what will determine in the long run the success of this effort." And that, Petraeus and other military leaders seem to be saying, is the responsibility of the Iraqi government. So if they fail at that, it's not our fault. It won't be the military that lost Iraq; it will have been the politicians.

Petraeus and other U.S. military leaders aren't dumping on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his government just yet; it's far more subtle than that. And Maliki has proven a cooperative partner as the Baghdad Security Plan rolls out; he's making the right noises, going out to Ramadi in the belly of the Sunni extremist beast, calling for a crackdown on militias and an end to death-squad killings. "That clearly has to include talking with and eventually reconciling differences with some of those who have felt that the new Iraq did not have a place for them, whereas I think, again, Prime Minister Maliki clearly believes that it does, and I think that his actions will demonstrate that," Petraeus said.

So far Maliki's government has been able to deliver politically, because above all the drop in death-squad activity is fundamentally a political achievement: there just aren't enough troops in all of Iraq to bring about the dramatic reduction in Shia on Sunni sectarian killings that we've been seeing these last few weeks in Baghdad. For whatever reason, or combination of reasons, the Mahdi Army and Moqtada al-Sadr have decided to hold their fire. (Interestingly, even the U.S. military isn't claiming credit for that, not explicitly). And so far, the U.S. military hasn't been able to provide the quid pro quo, a security crackdown that will stop the Sunni on Shia violence, the suicide car bombs and roadside bombs, and that will, in turn, open up political space for reconciliation between moderate Sunnis and Shias. How long Maliki can hold the extremists back when the military isn't able to give him a reduction in Sunni extremist attacks in return, that will be the question. But if he fails to do so, the U.S. military seems ready to shift the blame his way, not ours.

Meantime, in comment after comment, military leaders here are emphasizing patience and the long haul, reminding everyone that most of the new surge troops won't be fully deployed for months yet--only two of five planned new brigades have so far reached Baghdad, with a third assembling in Kuwait, as Maj. Gen. William Caldwell IV, the top coalition spokesman, reminded everyone at today's military briefing in the Green Zone. "General Petraeus says the way forward will take more than military force," Caldwell said. "We can and we will win every battle, but we cannot win the peace alone. In the end Iraq needs political and economic solutions. The Multi-National Force is committed to creating the security that is necessary for this progress." It's a more modest goal that lacks the sort of ring you can name camps after--"Camp Battle Winner"?, "Camp Conditions-for-Security"?--but it's a goal that's a bit more plausibly achievable.