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Iraq, Afghanistan and the politics of war

In both countries, military advances must be matched by political progress toward peace.

October 27, 2009

Tons of explosives, suicide bombers in coordinated attacks and triple-digit death tolls. The wreckage at the Iraqi Justice Ministry and Baghdad's provincial council headquarters this week, like the devastation at the Foreign and Finance ministries in August, is a reminder that foreign powers cannot impose peace on a divided nation. Two years after a U.S. troop "surge" helped tamp down Iraq's sectarian war, the bloodletting illustrates why military advances must be accompanied by a steady march of political progress. This is true in Iraq and it's true in Afghanistan, where President Obama is weighing deployment of up to 40,000 more troops to battle Taliban insurgents.

Former President George W. Bush sent tens of thousands of additional soldiers to Iraq in 2007 to provide security and create conditions that would allow for ethnic and political reconciliation. Sectarian conflict has diminished overall, but the Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds and Arabs have failed to address fundamental issues of wealth and power-sharing at the root of the violence. The immediate deadlock centers on a proposed law to regulate parliamentary elections on Jan. 16, particularly in the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Failure to hold the vote could leave a political vacuum after the current parliament loses its mandate and there is no new legislature to select a prime minister. It also could delay the departure of U.S. combat troops by August and the rest of U.S. forces in 2011.

The bombings bear the hallmarks of Sunni extremists seeking to overthrow U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who has been campaigning with his Shiite allies on a record of improving security. Even many moderate Sunnis distrust the Shiite majority and are apprehensive about the U.S. withdrawal. But while the United States can continue to train and aid Iraqi security forces, the violence will not cease until the parties come to a political accommodation. Only Iraqis can pass an election law, decide what kind of government they want and divide the country's oil revenue. Resolving these problems will weaken extremists and diminish violence.

This is instructive for those seeking to pacify Afghanistan with more soldiers. U.S. and Afghan troops can fight to clear areas of Taliban insurgents, but absent a legitimate government, the fighting will not stop. President Hamid Karzai's agreement to a runoff in an election tainted by fraud is a step forward, but there's more to be done to address corruption and win support for the government over insurgents. As Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said after returning from Kabul, "The legitimate government of Afghanistan cannot be less accountable than the Taliban." That's a prescription for war, not peace.

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