Looking Forward in Iraq
February 14, 2008; Page A16

On Sunday, Nancy Pelosi was asked on CNN whether she feared squandering the success of President Bush's "surge" in Iraq with a hasty withdrawal. "There haven't been gains, Wolf," the House Speaker told anchor Wolf Blitzer. "The gains have not produced the desired effect which is the reconciliation of Iraq. This is a failure. This is a failure."

Yesterday, the Iraqi Parliament passed a budget, approved an amnesty for thousands of detainees and enacted a crucial law on provincial powers. Sunni lawmaker Adnan al-Dulaimi called it "the greatest achievement possible for the Iraqi people."
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We'll assume Ms. Pelosi isn't actually disappointed by the latest good Iraq news. Yet the political calendar in Washington, with its noisome demands for benchmarks and timetables, is increasingly out of step with the strategic calendar in Baghdad. Getting them into line will be the great challenge of the Bush Administration's final months in office.

On Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates took a step in that direction by announcing that there would be a pause in troop reductions in Iraq once the five additional "surge" brigades were withdrawn this summer. "I think that the notion of a brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense," said Mr. Gates on a visit to Baghdad, endorsing the recommendation of General David Petraeus.

Ryan Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, will also soon begin negotiating a "status of forces" agreement with the Iraqi government to establish the parameters for a long-term security relationship. In a Washington Post op-ed yesterday, Mr. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted that the U.S. has no fewer than 115 such agreements with other nations, covering everything from rules of engagement to how troops will get their mail.

"Nothing to be negotiated will mandate that we continue combat missions," they wrote. "Nothing will set troop levels. Nothing will commit the United States to join Iraq in a war against another country or provide other such security commitments."

Such an agreement shouldn't be controversial, especially given that the government of Nouri al-Maliki doesn't plan to extend the U.N. resolutions that authorize the coalition's presence in Iraq beyond the end of this year. The next President will need an accord whatever he (or she) intends to do in Iraq. Yet both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are trying to make a campaign issue of this, demanding that any agreement be authorized by Congress. The Democratic rivals also seized on Mr. Gates's comments about a pause in U.S. troop reductions, with Mr. Obama warning of "war without end."

At this point in the Democratic primary season, even a declaration of surrender by al Qaeda in Iraq would probably be treated as further evidence of Bush Administration incompetence. Speaking of which, this week the Times of London published remarkable excerpts from letters by two al Qaeda chieftains in Iraq that were seized late last year in a U.S. military raid.

"The Americans and the apostates launched their campaigns against us and we found ourselves in a circle not being able to move, organize or conduct our operations," wrote one terrorist "emir." The loss of Anbar Province, he added, had created "panic, fear and an unwillingness to fight," while the flow of foreign jihadis had dwindled as they lost faith that their "martyrdom" would yield results. In a second letter, another al Qaeda leader complains how his force shrank to fewer than 20 fighters from 600.

What remains of al Qaeda has reportedly been driven north to Mosul, and may soon face an offensive by U.S. forces and an increasingly confident Iraqi Army. All the more reason, it seems to us, to make sure our forces in Iraq remain adequate to finish the job and not let al Qaeda slip away to fight another day -- as critics of the Administration constantly allege it did in Afghanistan.

So it's strange that some senior military brass -- including, we hear, Army Chief of Staff George Casey -- are pushing for faster troop drawdowns in the hopes of easing the strain that long and repeated deployments have imposed on soldiers and their families. Nobody wants to overburden the military, but we can think of nothing that would "break" it more completely than losing a war. For evidence, look at what happened to military readiness and morale in the years after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The Army and Marines in Iraq have adapted from their earlier troubles to a counterinsurgency strategy that is working. General Petraeus should be given as long as he needs.

What is certain is that next January U.S. forces will still be deployed in Iraq in large numbers. Securing the conditions by which they can drive out al Qaeda and tame the Shiite militias, deter Syria and Iran, and guarantee Iraq's integrity and freedom would be a worthy legacy for this Administration, and a useful inheritance for the next.