Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s demands for a specific timetable drawing U.S. troops out of Iraq cities by next year and out of the country by 2011 couldn’t have come at a better time for the Democrats. Despite the Iraqis’ change of heart, an objective look at the situation in Iraq shows that a timetable does not make any more sense now than it has in the past.
Following al-Maliki’s request, Barack Obama crowed to the AP, “They are working on a plan that looks, lo and behold, like the plan that I’ve been advocating.”
This development spells trouble for John McCain, who has campaigned on the Bush doctrine that the troop pullouts will be determined by conditions on the ground, and not by timetables. Simply because the Iraqi government wants a timetable, though, doesn’t mean that McCain is on the losing side of the issue. One correspondent recently back from assessing the situation in Iraq from the ground believes that a strict timetable would be a mistake.
Former U.S. Army Platoon Leader Joel Arends recently spent 10 days embedded with the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions in Baghdad, and saw firsthand the progress made in Iraq since the start of the surge. Arends fought in Iraq from late 2003 to early 2005. He is now a member of the non-partisan organization Veterans for Freedom, which sent him and seven other veterans back to Iraq to revisit the areas they once patrolled.
Arends told TAS that in 2005 his division in the Karrada district, south of the Green Zone in Baghdad, faced “stiff resistance” from not only al-Qaeda and their car bombs, but also from the Jaish al-Mahdi — a paramilitary group organized by the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
After his return last month, however, Arends found that the surge had worked even better than reported. When he left Baghdad there had been around 400 insurgent attacks in the city every day. Today, that average has dropped to four.
He described how the pervading attitudes of people in the city have changed. He wondered at the changes in the agenda of the Karrada city council, noting, “Three or four years ago everyone was talking about security and violence, and what they could do to keep their families and their children safe. Today, they were talking about water and electricity and the kind of infrastructure problems that people in the States would deal with.”
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, the commanding general in Iraq whom John McCain has listed as one of the three people he would rely on most as president, always cautions that the security gains in Iraq are “fragile.” Arends explained, “‘Fragile’ means that security is in place, but at any point if you take one card out of that house of cards, it’s going to fall down. With the situation now, top commanders feel that if we withdraw any more troops, Al-Qaeda could resurface.” Iraq’s “fragility” means that a timetable could erase the accomplishments of the last year.
The Iraqi army is almost ready to take full responsibility, which reflects great improvements, according to Arends. “In 2004, the Iraqi soldiers were unprofessional looking, they were unable to execute the simplest of tasks, and they would run away from a fight. Today, they really take the fight to the enemy. Back in 2004 it was very hard to keep the Iraqi army engaged without the US Army. Each individual soldier would fire off their AK-47 clip and then they’d run away.”
With the Iraqi army’s improvements, U.S. troops may soon be superfluous — but not just yet. Arends warned that not one of the many commanding officers he met with in Iraq favored a stringent timetable. The officers believe that in order to sustain the surge’s achievements, decisions regarding manpower must be dictated by conditions on the ground, not predetermined timelines.
ARENDS EXTENDED this warning to the presidential candidates, noting that the candidate who uses a timeline plank in his platform “is someone who definitely wants to make the American people feel happy or pander to them to win an election, as opposed to winning the war.”
McCain (and President Bush) may feel as though the rug has been swept from underneath him. The success of the surge had neutralized one of Obama’s strengths: blaming others for mismanaging the Iraq war. The Iraqis’ unexpected call for a timetable placed the gun right back into Obama’s hands.
If, however, McCain was sincere on the many occasions when he said he’d rather win the war than the election, then he shouldn’t necessarily cede this issue. He trusted Gen. Petraeus enough to support the surge. Now he should trust the leaders Petraeus has left behind in Iraq. Maliki, who is thought to be catering to Iraqi nationalists in preparation for next year’s election, should not have the last word.
Meanwhile, the White House and the Iraqi government are still negotiating over the terms to the agreement, with the Iraqis arguing for definite dates on the timetable and Bush holding out for language that would allow flexibility. In the interest of preserving the fragile gains, the president — whether it is Bush, McCain, or Obama, should follow what the conditions and officers in Iraq suggest — Maliki and the election can wait, but ensuring peace and a safe withdrawal from Iraq cannot.