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Iraq on the knife’s edge

Iraq on the knife’s edge

By Peter Feaver

With all the excitement further east, it is almost possible to forget that the coming week will be a momentous one for Iraq. Almost possible, but not quite, because tragically, Iraq still generates more than its fair share of newsworthy events.

June 30th is the deadline for U.S. combat troops to leave urban areas. The deadline was contained in the Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) that the outgoing Bush administration negotiated and that the incoming Obama administration embraced back in March. Obama squeezed it with such a tight embrace, in fact, that at the time I worried that this early deadline of June 30th might be a "read my lips pledge" that would haunt him later.

Early reports that General Odierno felt the deadline should slip a bit gave way to more recent reports that he was comfortable meeting the deadline. This reassured me somewhat, until I re-read this assessment by Stephen Biddle. He offers a sober assessment of a number of ways the Iraq project could unravel, and a grim reminder that, as bad as Iraq has been, there are many ways that it could become much worse if we misplay our hand.

And in fact, Biddle intimates that the United States may very well be in the process of misplaying its hand by hewing too rigidly to the SoFA withdrawal schedule. The money quote: "The most effective option for prevention [of renewed violence in Iraq] is to go slow in drawing down the U.S. military presence in Iraq." Biddle recognizes that slowing the withdrawal would impose costs — strain on the armed forces and, perhaps a greater hurdle, political embarrassment for Obama and for the Maliki government. But he reminds us that letting the positive trajectory in Iraq reverse imposes great costs, too, and thus concludes: "On balance, paying the cost of a slower withdrawal, while expensive, may ultimately be the cheaper approach."

I have a lot of respect for Biddle — he made some of the most trenchant critiques of the Bush Iraq policy back in the day, and so I went to some lengths to ensure that President Bush heard his critique firsthand. But I also respect General Odierno, and consider him to be an unlikely candidate for naïve optimism about whether the Iraqis can handle the consequences of meeting the June 30th deadline.

I also know that it would be a mistake to overreact to the expected surge in enemy attacks which we are seeing now. Such surges were expected (and sometimes seen) around every previous major Iraqi milestone such as an election, referendum, or anniversary. Those attacks feel particularly jarring now for two reasons: first, the baseline violence is far calmer than it was before other such anniversaries, so the uptick is more dramatic; and second, at previous critical junctures, Coalition and Iraqi forces conducted mini-surges of their own to preempt the violence, but now the catalyzing event is a withdrawal (or more precisely, a repositioning) of combat power, thus making those preemptive tactics more difficult.

These attacks may simply be what Secretary Clinton has called "a signal that the rejectionists fear Iraq is going in the right direction." This sounds eerily like the much-derided claim by Vice President Cheney that similar attacks back in 2006 were a sign of "desperation" on the part of terrorists. It may have been a sign of desperation, but, at least in 2006, the terrorists were able to use them to seize the initiative. We must hope that they are not able to do that again today.

Starting this week, the parade of critical junctures in Iraq will accelerate. If the Iraqis go ahead with plans to put the SoFA to a national referendum, the parade could become a stampede. When even skeptical war critics like Fareed Zakaria are penning articles about "Victory in Iraq" that read almost like a Bush valedictory speech on the topic, the opportunity for a decent outcome in Iraq seems tantalizingly close. I hope we are not jeopardizing that outcome with a premature withdrawal.