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How the U.S. can salvage Iraq

Peter Harling, International Herald Tribune  |   11 Jan 2005

In Iraq, the United States is engaged in a war it already has lost while losing sight of a struggle in which it still may prevail. Original objectives - a secular, free-market, democratic government close to the United States and a model for the region - are no longer achievable. Worse, their pursuit has become an obstacle to realization of the most important goal: A stable government viewed by its people as a credible embodiment of national interests and able to preserve the country's territorial integrity.

America's image has suffered too much, the insurgency spread too far and the credibility of the transition process sunk too low for its current approach to succeed. Washington's missteps are now largely viewed as intentional, its statements as hypocritical, and its perceived undeclared agenda - of long-term domination of Iraq - as responsible for the armed opposition's violence.

Insurgents have broadened their appeal. They are far from enjoying majority support, but popular passivity is a worrisome rather than hopeful sign. Violence is not confined to a small group of fanatics; to a large extent the insurrection is driven by hostility to the United States, not so much by opposition to a credibly sovereign state as by anger at its absence.

Yet, while conditions under which the war is being waged have fundamentally changed, the yardsticks used by Washington to measure success have not. The benchmarks - numbers of insurgents killed, reconquest of "enemy" territory, adherence to the political timetable - are disconnected from the current battle and hardly indicative of its trajectory.

Militarily, the elimination of insurgents and capture of their strongholds have no durable impact. To the contrary: Resorting to heavy-handed tactics has redoubled the insurgents' motivation and handed them recruits. Politically, little correlation exists between progress along the transition path and progress toward a legitimate government. Largely because the current transition process reflects association between the United States and Iraq's authorities, it no longer is a solution to the crisis but an integral part of it.

A way out still may exist. It requires acknowledging that Iraqis do not want to prolong the existing process but break from it. And it entails embarking on a process of dual disengagement: gradual U.S. political and military disengagement from Iraq and clear Iraqi disengagement from the United States.

To free Iraq's authorities from U.S. tutelage, decisions made since the end of the war must be open to reconsideration. The new government should debate and potentially nullify decrees or contracts ratified by former Iraqi institutions and the occupation authorities.

Likewise, Iraqis should negotiate the terms of the U.S. military presence, and independently take crucial policy decisions - even, indeed especially, when the outcome directly contradicts the occupation's legacy. President George W. Bush's position that elections must take place on Jan. 30 is, in this respect, both substantively suspect (because the harm caused by elections in which large numbers of Sunni Arabs do not participate outweighs the harm occasioned by delay) and politically unwise (because Washington should not be seen micromanaging an issue best left in Iraqi hands).

U.S. troops should become less visible while maintaining rapid response capacities. Civilian protection - not the elimination of insurgents - should be the guide. Military benefits of conduct endangering civilians - sweeping attacks against insurgent sanctuaries, for example - should be measured against their lasting political damage.

Even Washington's language must change. It should cease referring to Iraq as a "front" in its war on terrorism while proclaiming that war is better fought overseas than at home - hardly a winning argument for Iraqis. And it should stop describing all insurgents as "anti-Iraqi": Forces hostile to the United States are neither necessarily nor universally hostile to establishing a sovereign state. A primary objective of Iraq's government should be to distinguish between both positions, so that those opposed to a U.S. presence can participate in the state-building enterprise.

Iraqis must recover a sense of national allegiance - which requires the emergence of a convincingly sovereign state. For the United States, this will be a thankless task: satisfying the aspirations of a population now largely hostile to its policies, and encouraging independent institutions whose credibility will depend on their being emancipated from America.

These are bitter pills to swallow. But things have gone wrong for too long for it to be otherwise. The new Iraqi state must define itself at least partially in opposition to the United States or it runs the risk of defining itself largely in opposition to much of its own population.

Robert Malley, a former director for Near East and South Asia Affairs at the National Security Council, is Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group. Peter Harling, a consultant with Crisis Group, has spent extensive time in Iraq.

 
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