Sunday, December 18, 2005

What Will Victory Look Like?

It's a fair question. And, it's one that we all ought to ponder very thoughtfully. We are going to come to some sort of decision point sometime in 2006, most likely. It's a question that's closely tied to another one, namely, "What are our objectives?" That's the better question to ask.

Our basic, number-one objective was to put paid to Hussein's Baath Party regime in Iraq. That was the easy part. The hard part is figuring out how to replace it.

The way I see it, that comes down to three or four things. Two of them require our assistance. The other two require that we get out of the way.

The two things that we need to help with are:

(1) Standing up a new government, and
(2) Standing up a new army, police, and security apparatus.

The two things that we more or less need to stay out of the way for are:

(3) Re-constituting Iraqi civil society, and
(4) Re-constituting the Iraqi economy.

The next year is critical time for (1) and (2) above. The worst of the heavy lifting is done on that score, though. Now, it's all about follow-through. The good news is that the Iraqi people have taken to parliamentary politics like ducks to water. They're very enthusiastic about it, and participation has grown in each of this year's elections. The Sunnis, who were holding out only a year ago, have begun to participate in earnest. That, to me, looks as though a critical mass of that population has acquiesced to the new way of things, and does not hold out much hope for a return to their former privileged position.

The critical things to look for in the coming year have to do with how the new Parliament takes care of business. Are the Sunni parties sufficiently included that they feel like they're getting their money's worth? Do things devolve into sectarian knife-fights, or can they find at least a few areas of broad nationalist consensus? This year was all about just getting a political process started in the first place. That's been done. This next year is all about keeping the ball rolling.

Largely, our involvement in that process is done. We can tick off item (1) on our list as accomplished. It's the responsibility of the Iraqi people to manage it, now.

Now, as far as security goes ... There's still work to do. But again, the heavy lifting has been accomplished. It can still be a violent and dangerous place, but over the last year, Iraqi forces have borne more and more of the load. Increasingly, Iraqi security has an Iraqi face. Mind you, the Iraqi forces that are taking over security aren't as good as the American forces they're replacing, but they don't have to be. They only have to be better than their opponents, who have a pretty lousy sense of grand strategy and public relations. To those who question that assessment, just look at the recent record. They discover that suicide bombings aren't necessarily well-received by their own press corps. Their response? More suicide bombings. They ain't the sharpest tools in the shed, folks. They're ideologically fixated on tactics that aren't working, and most likely won't work in the future, either.

So, number (2) looks like it's going fairly well.

The third and fourth items are important, but they are things that will largely take care of themselves if the security environment is something within shouting distance of reasonable. Given good government and safety, people will sort out things like soccer leagues and business plans for themselves. We don't need to fiddle around with that, and will sow much ill-will if we try.

So: as far as we're concerned, the victory conditions are as follows. First, a stable, self-sustaining government that is accountable to its citizenry. Second, an army and police force that is capable of both defending Iraq's borders and keeping the peace within them.

Now, just to clarify for those who ride the short bus: "keep the peace" does not mean "eliminate all violence." That's an unreasonable expectation. There will always be violent criminals to deal with. But we're reaching a point where the insurgency will be just that: an assortment of violent criminals. A syndicate that must be crushed, not ennobled by false attributions of political legitimacy. But, the fact that some of them are still running about cannot be taken as a sign of failure. If they begin to gain popular support, yes, that's a major failure. But so long as the government continues to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and the security forces gain strength, then all indicators are moving in the right direction. Given that, you can't lose so long as you keep your nerve.

So far, so good. We've made real progress in 2005, and have condiderable momentum going forward into 2006. So, what will victory look like?

Purple fingers. Saddam having to answer to a court of law. Free citizens voting their conscience, not their fears. People all over the Middle East looking to Iraq and asking, "Why not here?"

We're not there yet, but I can see it from here. That's more than I could say a year ago.

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