Where is vision for next steps in Iraq?

By Lee Hamilton
Mar 24 2008

 Saddam Hussein no longer rules the country.

The costs of the war in Iraq will be measured in the trillions of dollars. It has now endured longer than either world war and ranks only behind World War II in its price tag.

Nearly 4,000 American soldiers have died in Iraq, and roughly 30,000 have been wounded, injured or left ill. The human and financial cost in veterans' benefits and long–term care will mount for decades. Probably more than 100,000 Iraqi deaths are linked to this war.

Beginning last year, President Bush ordered 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq with the purpose of, in his words, creating “the breathing space (Baghdad) needs to make progress in other critical areas.”

The security gains of the last year have been real and substantial; 75 percent of Baghdad is secure, up from 8 percent one year ago. In the capital and Anbar province — formerly an al–Qaida stronghold — attacks on U.S.–led forces are down more than 10–fold compared to December 2006. Civilian fatalities are a fraction of what they once were, but still averaged 20 per day in November.

Why the downturn in violence? The increase in U.S. troop levels is only part of the answer. Sunnis have turned their guns on jihadists. Shia leader Moqtada al–Sadr declared a ceasefire. The U.S. has engaged local leaders. Sectarian cleansing in Baghdad is largely finished. Iran has reined in some Shiite militias.

But violence in Iraq's northern Sunni provinces — Nineveh, Salahadin and Diyala — has not decreased substantially. Al–Qaida has shifted its focus to Mosul. The violence has been reduced, but not eliminated, and in recent days a new wave of attacks has erupted.

The conflict remains in stalemate. A sustainable security architecture that would enable the U.S. to disengage responsibly has not been created.

Meanwhile, national reconciliation has not progressed at an acceptable pace. We have failed to pressure Iraqi officials to act decisively. They have squandered American soldiers' best efforts.

The central government is dysfunctional and disorganized. It cannot meet its people's basic human needs. More than 4.2 million Iraqis remain displaced both inside and outside Iraq's borders. It is beset by crime, corruption and the insurgency.

A commitment to legitimate political institutions and the rule of law is virtually non–existent. The De–Baathification law (to re–integrate Hussein–era government officials into the public sector), a law establishing provincial elections, the 2008 budget and an amnesty bill for mostly Sunni insurgents are full of caveats and have yet to be implemented. A proposed law on sharing oil wealth is stalled.

The goal of the surge was to create the space for political reconciliation at the top — in Baghdad — with the benefits trickling down throughout the country to all sectarian groups. But the security gains are occurring because of bottom–up policies, cementing sectarian divisions.

The best estimates suggest the U.S. will be needed for the long haul.

Iraq's defense minister stated in January that Iraq cannot take responsibility for internal security until 2012. Iraq will not be able to defend its borders until at least 2018, he said.

Tolerable outcomes are still achievable if we employ all the tools of American power. We need a responsible plan for a slow, steady and sure exit, not a stalemate that forces us to stay put.

This will demand candid discussions with Iraq, but our domestic discourse now is shallow, with ambiguous definitions of success, defeat and withdrawal. The costs and benefits of the various paths available get little attention. Objectives in Iraq are rarely discussed in connection with our larger goals in the Middle East.

A new chapter for Iraq begins with the new president. Yet none of the candidates has put forth a vision of the next steps in Iraq beyond the most general comments, mostly about troop levels.

In a forthcoming column, I will describe one such vision.

 (Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)