In a speech Monday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vice President Joe Biden was upbeat about developments in Iraq, where U.S. forces have officially withdrawn from combat operations:
First, violence in Iraq has decreased to such a degree that those who last served there three or four years ago—when the country was being torn apart by sectarian conflict—would hardly recognize the place. Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Shiite extremists remain dangerous, and their attacks still claim innocent lives. But they have utterly failed to achieve their objectives of inflaming sectarian conflict and undermining the Iraqi government.
Second, Iraq’s security forces—now more than 650,000 strong—are already leading the way to defend and protect their country. We have transferred control over hundreds of bases, and many thousands of square miles of territory. Some said that our drawdown would bring more violence. They were wrong, because the Iraqis are ready to take charge. And in recent months, operations that they led, based on intelligence they developed, killed two key leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq and purged more than 30 other top terrorists from its ranks.
Third, but no less important, is the fact that Iraqi leaders who once settled disputes through violence are at this very moment, ironing out their differences in face-to-face negotiations. The Iraqis recently held their second national election that the world all agreed was legitimate, and although it is taking a long time to form a government, I am convinced that this will happen soon.
I wish I shared Biden’s optimism, but I don’t. While the 2007 surge of U.S. troops did help improve security in Iraq, the larger goals of the surge remain unmet more than three years later. The Iraqis have yet to pass a national oil law, and they have yet to work out a power-sharing agreement among the major Iraqi sects. As a result, more than five months after national elections, no new national government has taken shape. And without progress, there is inevitably regression.
From today’s New York Times:
BAGHDAD — In one of the broadest assaults on Iraq’s security forces, insurgents unleashed a wave of roadside mines and a more than a dozen car bombings across Iraq on Wednesday, killing dozens, toppling a police station in the capital and sowing chaos and confusion among the soldiers and police officers who responded.
The withering two-hour assault in 13 towns and cities, from southernmost Basra to restive Mosul in the north, was as symbolic as it was deadly, coming a week before the United States declares the end of combat operations here. Wednesday was seemingly the insurgents’ reply: Despite suggestions otherwise, they proved their ability to launch coordinated attacks virtually anywhere in Iraq, capitalizing on the government’s dysfunction and perceptions of American vulnerability.
Tom Ricks, the author of “Fiasco” and now a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, made a similar point in an NPR interview this week. The basic questions that have dogged Iraq from the beginning have yet to be resolved, he pointed out.
“How are these three major groups in Iraq going to get along? How are they going to live together? Are they going to live together? How are you going to share the oil revenue? What’s the form of Iraqi government? Will it have a strong central government or be a loose confederation? What’s the role of neighboring countries, most especially Iran, which is stepping up its relationship with Iraq right now, even as Uncle Sam tries to step down its relationship?
All these questions have been hanging fire in Iraq for several years, in fact before the surge…. All of them have led to violence in the past, and all could easily lead to violence again. The only thing changing in the Iraqi security equation right now is Uncle Sam is trying to get out.”
The Iraq war hasn’t been won anymore than the Vietnam war was won. In Vietnam, U.S. officials simply manipulated events to allow American forces to be withdrawn under seemingly honorable conditions, and were then willing to let events take their natural course. We’re doing the same in Iraq, and in time will probably repeat the pattern once more in Afghanistan.