Zakaria: We're Fighting the Wrong War

Pity the U.S. presidential candidates. They had their positions on Iraq all worked out by last summer and have repeated them consistently ever since. But events on the ground have changed dramatically, and their rhetoric feels increasingly stale. They're fighting the Iraq War all right, but it's the wrong one.

The Democrats are having the hardest time with the new reality. Every candidate is committed to "ending the war" and bringing our troops back home. The trouble is, the war has largely ended, and precisely because our troops are in the middle of it.

From 2003 to 2005 the war in Iraq was defined by an insurgency. After the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in February 2006, it became largely a sectarian conflict. Now the dominant feature of the war is the proliferation of local ceasefires across the country. The real questions that candidates need to answer are these: How do they interpret this new reality? What would they do to maintain the new stability? What does all this mean for U.S. foreign and military policy in the next few years?

American forces in Iraq have done superbly but the violence has not ended because they won great military victories. Instead, the adversary —the Sunnis—switched sides. Instead of shooting Americans they are now allied with them. This has happened for many reasons—changes in U.S. policy, Al Qaeda's brutality, Sunni defeats and war weariness. But it's a fragile peace. Stephen Biddle, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has made several trips to Iraq to advise Gen. David Petraeus, says, "If you go south of Baghdad you will see Sunni units that are the most impressive Iraqi fighting forces in the country, never defeated, with their command structure, tight discipline, equipment and gear all intact. They have simply made a decision to stop fighting."

This realignment, however, has been directed at the United States and not the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Petraeus has been trying to integrate these "Concerned Local Citizens"—the military's wonderful euphemism for Sunni militias—within the Iraqi police and security forces, so they can be paid by the central government and develop a new relationship with Shiites. But both sides remain extremely wary. The Shiites suspect the former insurgents' motives; the Sunnis say that jobs and weapons are being withheld by the government. As of now, the United States Army is the organizer, financier, guarantor and enforcer of the peace.

Iraq remains deeply divided. The national reconciliation that Iraqi politicians promised has not occurred. Some movement has taken place on sharing oil revenue but on almost nothing else. The complicated new law on de-Baathification has been, in the words of a senior Iraqi official, "a big mess, perhaps worse than if we had done nothing." The non-Kurdish parts of the country remain utterly dysfunctional, and chaos and warlordism are growing in the south. Of the 2.5 million Iraqis who have fled the country, a trickle—a few thousand—have returned home.

This is why Republican rhetoric about Iraq is also somewhat unhinged. John McCain deserves credit for supporting the surge. But the notion, articulated by many Republicans, that if we just stay the course a bit longer we will achieve "victory" is loopy. Iraq is seen—and will be for years—by the rest of the Middle East as a cautionary tale and not a model.

"Our initial goals in Iraq—WMD, democratic transformation—are impossible," says Biddle. "What remains is a negative objective, stopping the war from spilling over, within Iraq but also outside it." It's similar to the challenge the Clinton administration confronted in the Balkans in the 1990s—where the mission was to end a civil war and keep the peace.

The problem with such a mission is that it requires lots of troops. By most estimates, peacekeeping in Iraq would take more foreign troops than are there right now. While it is all well and good to say that the United States should not be policing a civil war, the fact is that we are, and were we to leave, it would likely start up again. This is not the war that we signed up for and it is not really about fighting Al Qaeda, but it is the reality.

The most intelligent strategy for the United States now is a combined political and military one. If we are to engage in peacekeeping, the operation needs to be internationally recognized, sanctioned and supported—as it was in Bosnia. We should call an international conference on Iraq and get the support of other countries—crucially Iraq's neighbors—for this new mission. There should then be a joint international push to get the Iraqis to make the kinds of political deals that will turn the ceasefires into lasting peace. Over the next year if the violence continues to decline, countries like India, Poland and South Africa could be persuaded to relieve American troops. With sustained and focused efforts, over time, American forces could draw down substantially. The mission could then become what it was always billed as, a genuinely international effort to assist the Iraqi people in founding a new nation.