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Troop Debate Hinges On Key Assumptions

'The narrative, then, can be read this way: The White House wanted this war, massaged the truth to get it, and carried it out poorly. Anything said now should be regarded with heavy suspicion if not disregarded outright'.

Washington (UPI) Nov 29, 2005
The debate over troop withdrawal in Iraq has taken a turn for the surreal. People are choosing sides based as much on their feelings about the Bush administration as about the realities of Iraq, and people lining up on either side for good, solid reasons are tarred and feathered with charges of partisanship.

Let us stipulate the politics: 2006 is an election year. There seems to be growing voter discontent with the Republican Party. President George W. Bush's approval ratings are in a steep decline, and concern about the war in Iraq -- and dissatisfaction with Bush's handling of it -- is at a three-year peak, according to the latest polls.

The looming mid-term election, Bush's legacy, the Republican Party's control over Congress and the White House after 2006 and 2008 -- and the prospect of a Democratic resurgence now that blood is in the water -- all cast a long shadow over the war in Iraq.

But Iraq is much bigger than all of these things and, if bungled -- some would add "further" -- could have grievous consequences for the nation beyond the 2,100 U.S. dead so far, the 17,000 wounded in action, and the $250 billion spent.

The Iraq discussion is clouded by a credibility gap, and not just the White House's. Congress has one -- why is it having this fundamental debate about Iraq now instead of three years ago? Why is it only now asking substantive questions about the way ahead? And the media has a credibility problem: Why are so many of its stories unrecognizable to so many of the soldiers and Marines fighting and working in Iraq? Has it reached a collective conclusion about the war, and is it tailoring its coverage, unconsciously or otherwise, to promote that view?

But the difficulty in discussing Iraq absent the politics has a great deal to do with the White House's credibility gap. The Iraq war was sold as a war of necessity. The White House said, and publicly available intelligence seemed to corroborate, that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons and was on his way to attaining or building a nuclear bomb. After more than a year of searching, no weapons of mass destruction were ever found, and major questions remain about whether intelligence was "cherry picked" to support the case for war while that which undermined the WMD threat was either overlooked, ignored or suppressed.

The war, then, has come to be perceived as a war of choice to rid Iraq of a brutal dictator who was a certainly a thorn in the side of the United States but not yet an existential threat.

At the same time, confidence in the Bush administration has been diminished by inept post-war planning and execution. They believed the United States would be greeted as liberators and the large middle class would rise up, govern and police itself. They believed Iraq could pay for its own reconstruction. It was dead wrong on both counts.

The narrative, then, can be read this way: The White House wanted this war, massaged the truth to get it, and carried it out poorly. Anything said now should be regarded with heavy suspicion if not disregarded outright.

The White House isn't helping matters by going on a political offensive, questioning the patriotism of those who question the war, or leveling charges of hypocrisy at those who've changed their mind. That just reinforces the notion this is all about politics. Reasonable people can disagree on Iraq, and reasonable people can change their minds.

But in the meantime, Iraq has morphed into the central battlefield for Islamist terrorists, who use it as a place to kill Americans, to learn the particulars of urban warfare, and to learn how to organize operational cells. There is evidence battle-hardened terrorists are now being exported from their Iraqi training ground to the outside world: Jordan, certainly, but potentially North Africa and Europe as well.

The war of choice has transformed itself again into a war of necessity. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright identified this phenomenon in September 2003 just as the Iraq insurgency was sinking deep roots but before it was widely appreciated, in an interview on PBS' NewsHour.

"They said (Iraq) was the center of terrorism and now, I think, it is. It has attracted all the various terrorism groups and it is a breeding ground and a gathering ground for terrorists," she said.

She was right.

The question now is what to do about it. The options are pretty straightforward: keep troop levels the same, withdraw some, withdraw all or shift forces around. The calculations, however, are complicated.

Will a withdrawal of some or all U.S. forces take the steam out of the Sunni part of the insurgency so they join the rest of Iraq in developing a new government? Or will a withdrawal embolden them to brutally subjugate towns and regions to their rule, for their own personal or political gain?

The answer depends on your belief about the Sunni insurgency. Are they freedom fighters, opposing the occupation, or are they Saddam's ex-thugs, bent on regaining power? Or are they criminal opportunists who simply want chaos so they can continue whatever it is they are doing now, unchallenged? Or are they in league with Islamic terrorists, who see Iraq as a stepping-stone to something larger, who want to make Iraq headquarters for a new worldwide terrorist network?

Will a partial withdrawal or reduction in U.S. troops compel the Iraqi government to stand up to the challenge before them, to be effective and win the support of the people? Are U.S. forces a crutch for them, knowing as long as they are there, Baghdad will remain in government hands? Or will the government crumble, or fall back on old, corrupt ways? And if it does, is that acceptable to us because it was voted in a reasonably democratic election?

Are Iraq's security forces ready and able to face the insurgency on their own? It is easy to glibly discount them all. The truth is some battalions are capable, many are not, but as time passes more join the ranks of ready and able, and Iraq is having a far easier time recruiting new soldiers than the U.S. Army is.

The next question is whether we are willing to let them fight in ways anathema to American forces, taking note of the excesses of the Iraqi interior ministry's secret jail. That was not an isolated incident.

Are we confident if we pull our forces out Baghdad will be committed to expelling from Iraq foreign terrorist organizations like that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? Or is it an acceptable risk if there is not positive security control over every inch of that country -- like in the United States, which is unable to secure its own borders?

Will leaving 160,000 U.S. troops there or even adding more help Iraqi security forces overwhelm their enemy and squeeze the life out of the insurgency? Will it convince the insurgents of the futility of fighting? Are the insurgents now on the ropes, as many in the military suggest?

Will pulling out U.S. forces placate the Sunni population, and win their cooperation in turning in the enemy? Will it satisfy the Arab world and make it easier for those governments to cooperate in the war against terror?

If troops are pulled out of some places, are there others -- like Anbar province -- that would benefit from an increase? Or would adding troops there only exacerbate the problem?

Would a U.S. pullout precipitate a civil war in Iraq? Does the United States have an obligation to prevent that, and would it necessarily threaten U.S. national interests?

War is a hateful art and once set in motion, an improvisational dance between enemies. The right answer to any of these questions can not be demonstrated so in advance. Whatever course is chosen, and hopefully calibrated along the way to respond to the unforeseeable cascading effects of any decision, will be revealed right or wrong in the end, by unfolding history.

Twenty-one hundred lives later, whether the answers serve or undermine the political ambitions of the White House or the Democratic Party must be beside the point.

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Outside View: What To Do About Iraq
Herzilya, Israel (UPI) Nov 29, 2005
A new and heated debate has broken out in the United States about future policy toward Iraq. As so often happens this argument is being conducted along partisan lines and over theories and symbols rather than focusing on the actual problem.

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