It almost seems like more than five years ago that the United States invaded Iraq. Unfortunately, no clear and satisfactory end to this conflict seems to be on the horizon.
The resignation last week of Adm. William Fallon, leader of the military’s Central Command, with responsibilities stretching from the Mediterranean to south Asia, has been widely attributed to policy differences with the Bush administration over U.S. policy toward Iran. But differences over Iraq played an important role as well.
The “surge” in the numbers of U.S. troops will end in July due to inescapable logistical factors, leaving the number in Iraq at pre-surge levels of about 130,000. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander on the ground in Iraq, wants a pause in reducing the number of troops further.
Fallon, fearing that the military is overstretched and that troops might not be available should new troubles flare up in Afghanistan or Pakistan, has argued the pause should be brief.
History might prove Fallon’s assessment to be accurate, but considering the importance of civilian control over the military in our system, it may have been just as well that he resigned.
That leaves the question of how the U.S. is doing in Iraq after five years. There is little question that violence has declined dramatically since late 2006 and some of this success can be attributed to the surge and other changes Petraeus implemented.
However, unrelated factors also have contributed. There was an “awakening” among Sunnis in Anbar province and elsewhere, who decided to oppose al-Qaida in Iraq after being sympathetic. The cease-fire announced by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in August was also key.
Both these developments are fragile, and even Gen. Petraeus, generally an optimist, said March 13 that “no one” in either the U.S. or Iraqi governments “feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation.” That needs to change quickly or the surge’s effectiveness could fade away in a new tide of bloodshed.