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No shortcuts

Pulling out of Iraq now would spark a civil war that the U.S. would have to quash later.

March 22, 2006|MAX BOOT | MAX BOOT is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

THE IRAQ WAR is now 3 years old, and only a paid administration apologist could claim that it has gone swimmingly well. The truth is that the war has cost more and lasted longer than its advocates had envisioned, and there is still no end in sight.

It is sobering to reflect how long even an unsuccessful insurgency can run. Israel has been battling Palestinian guerrillas since the 1940s. Colombia has been battling Marxist guerrillas since the 1960s. Britain battled Irish guerrillas nearly continuously from the mid-19th century until recent years. Even the campaign often cited by experts as a model counterinsurgency -- Britain's defeat of a communist uprising in Malaya -- took 12 years to succeed, from 1948 to 1960.

It might have been possible to avoid such a costly and protracted conflict in Iraq if Central Command and the Defense Department had been better prepared for the "post-conflict" phase of operations. But, as we now know, there was a horrifying and inexplicable failure to undertake adequate preparation for running Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The most criticized aspect of this failure -- and rightly so -- was not sending enough troops to control a population of 25 million. The lack of security allowed the insurgency to flare up and spread like wildfire across the Sunni landscape. Now this rebellion is proving nearly impossible to stamp out. Indeed, it may trigger a wider conflagration as Shiites take up arms to defend their hard-won political gains.

Is Iraq already in the middle of a civil war? That depends on the meaning of "civil war." Clearly there is increasing internecine violence, and if Iraq isn't already in a civil war, it is heading that way. But bad as the situation is, it could get far, far worse if the U.S. were to withdraw prematurely. At the moment, the presence of about 136,000 U.S. troops is, believe it or not, keeping a lid on the violence and limiting the options of the most extreme elements in both the Sunni and Shiite communities.

At least 30,000 Iraqis have died over the last three years, largely at the hands of ruthless terrorists. But the current period would seem paradisiacal if a full-blown civil war were to erupt. An all-out sectarian conflict could resemble the bloodbaths in the Balkans, Rwanda and Sudan, with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, dying and neighboring states being drawn into the fray. If that were to happen, there would be a call for international intervention led by -- who else? -- the United States. We would be back exactly where we are today: in the middle of Iraq, trying to preserve a modicum of security and urging the various factions to cut a deal to end the fighting.

In short, there is no hope of a short-term escape from our current predicament. The Pentagon might as well stop leaking information about how it's preparing for troop withdrawals -- which is what it's been saying since the spring of 2003. Every such leak emboldens our enemies, discourages our allies, decreases our political leverage and makes all sides in Iraq less willing to rely on U.S. security guarantees.

Instead of talking about how quickly we can get out, the administration should be talking more about how we can win this war. That may actually require sending more troops -- perhaps an extra division or two to help secure Baghdad and Anbar provinces. The administration's continuing unwillingness to adequately police Iraq, or to increase the permanent size of the U.S. Army, suggests the need for a thorough spring cleaning at the Department of Defense.

Yet if President Bush has blundered badly -- and he has -- that does not make him different from any other wartime leader. Think of all the setbacks the U.S. has suffered even in successful conflicts of the past, from the failed invasion of Canada and the loss of New York, Philadelphia and Charlestown in the Revolutionary War to the horrific retreat from the Chosin Reservoir followed by two years of bloody stalemate in the Korean War. All were catastrophes of infinitely greater magnitude than anything that has occurred in Iraq, and yet none precluded a satisfactory resolution. We can still triumph in Iraq if we have the patience to outlast the fanatical jihadists and cynical opportunists who want to drive us out. Of course, that's a big if.

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