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Iraq: U.S. Analysts Say 'Surge' Progress Warrants Patience

U.S. soldier approaches a Baghdad checkpoint (file photo) (epa) August 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Leading U.S. foreign policy analysts who are often critical of the U.S. strategy in Iraq have just returned from a tour of that country with what some might see as surprising news. The analysts are pointing to tangible progress in the recent U.S. military surge in Iraq as a reason for the American people and Congress not to demand a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The analysts traveled to Iraq just weeks before top U.S. military and civilian officials in Iraq are expected to issue a much-awaited report on the progress of the so-called "surge."

That military strategy has involved a boost in U.S. troops levels to a record 162,000 and a fresh effort to crack down on insurgents. The objective: to give the Iraqi government time to work out reconciliation and power-sharing among the country's Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurdish populations.

The analysts aren't painting a rosy picture of military and political progress. And all three say the Iraqi government is moving unacceptably slowly toward political reconciliation.

But Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution and Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies say that the U.S. military surge is so far working well enough that the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki deserves a little more time to make progress on the political front.

'Keep Trying Well Into 2008'

O'Hanlon says that while he and Pollack do believe in the U.S. is in serious trouble in Iraq, pulling out troops now would be too soon.

"Ken Pollack and I only argue that it's going well enough now that we should keep trying well into 2008 -- but that's not very far away -- and the Congress should not try to use this upcoming period of debate in the early fall to stop the war. Because there's enough going well that we should hope that we can see that momentum spread to other areas, such as Iraqi politics," O'Hanlon says. "And moreover, if we were to give up on the war now, it would lead to -- probably, in our view -- a worse outcome than most Americans are really braced for or ready for, or that the region could easily withstand."

As an example of progress, O'Hanlon and Pollack point to Sunni sheikhs in Anbar province west of Baghdad -- once the most hostile area for U.S. troops -- who now are helping U.S. commanders fight Al-Qaeda and other insurgent forces.

O'Hanlon was asked about U.S. President George W. Bush's comment on August 9 when asked about the seemingly poor performance of the Iraqi government. Bush blamed it on what he called "years of tyrannical rule" and their faltering efforts to learn how to govern democratically.

O'Hanlon agrees that the Iraqis have little experience in democracy, but he argues that there's another reason Iraqi politicians seem so ineffective.

"Mr. Bush might have added, 'Coming out of a couple years of chaos, which was in part due to the fact that his administration did not properly prepare for the post-Saddam [Hussein] period, listened too much to the [former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld doctrine,'" O'Hanlon says. "That makes it even harder, because it's not just the decades of tyranny -- it's the last few years of civil conflict that have really laid emotions raw and may be the single greatest impediment to progress right now of all. So I would take Mr. Bush's interpretation and go one further and remind him of the degree to which his own administration has contributed to the problem."

Ultimately, O'Hanlon and Pollack conclude that those problems are in the past and urge just a few more months to await concrete progress from al-Maliki's government.

"It's working, it's working in a way it never has before," O'Hanlon says. "There's a lot of momentum. It's still a very dangerous country. We have a lot of work to do even on the military front. It's a very difficult situation, but we're making progress, and I think it'd be a shame to give up at just the moment we're finally establishing some momentum."

O'Hanlon and Pollack presented their findings in an article in "The New York Times."

Not Yet A Gamble

Cordesman's conclusions were published by his think tank in a more detailed, 25-page report.

Even his examples of progress often are couched in pessimistic language. Yet he, too, advises what he calls "strategic patience."

But like O'Hanlon and Pollack, Cordesman tells RFE/RL that unless Iraqi politicians achieve some measure of reconciliation by early 2008, then the case for "strategic patience" evaporates.

"But if they do make that progress, then the only way to avoid further suffering and to create some kind of stability is to continue with political aid, with economic aid, and above all efforts to create Iraqi forces that are willing to work with each other enough to avoid the country being plunged into really serious division or civil conflict," Cordesman says.

Cordesman cites a person he identifies only as a "very senior U.S. officer" who says what the United States now faces in Iraq might be a risk, but it's not yet a gamble. No one knows when the risk does in fact become a gamble, he says, but either way, the Bush administration faces no guarantee of success.

Cordesman is also scornful of Bush's attributing poor political progress to a history of tyranny and the novelty of democracy.

"That's nonsense," Cordesman says. "It is not a matter of past tyranny, it isn't a matter of getting used to democracy. It is the fact [that] Iraq is divided into major sectarian and ethnic factions with directly competing interests, and where leaders put those interests above the search for conciliation or compromise, or fear each other so much that it's extraordinarily difficult for them to move forward."

It may be too much to ask Iraqis to establish true conciliation, Cordesman says. But it is reasonable and realistic, he adds, to ask them to accept co-existence under a limited central government and agree on ways to share control over both the country's vast oil resources and its security forces.

And, Cordesman says, there is what he calls the "moral and ethical" question.

"We have, in many ways, taken a country and reduced it to a far more poor, troubled condition," Cordesman says. "We do have a moral and ethical responsibility. We do have to look beyond the current costs and casualties and consider what the future of the region and the future of Iraq is going to be in terms of our strategic interests. And all of these factors require us to think far beyond the issues simply of U.S. force levels and actually face the complexity involved."

Even if Bush wanted a rapid withdrawal of troops from Iraq, Cordesman says, he couldn't achieve it simply because of the size of the operation. He says that whenever it's time to pull out, the United States must deal with about 300,000 troops and civilians, as well as up to 300,000 metric tons of equipment.

Cordesman says any politician, analyst or journalist who presents a quick and easy way for the United States to withdraw its military and civilian presence from Iraq is spouting what he calls "irresponsible nonsense."

Iraq In Transition

Iraq In Transition

THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.