Frederick Kagan argues that President Bush’s visit to Anbar province may represent “the Gettysburg of this war,” and “could well mark a key turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terror.” I think it would be more accurate to say that recent developments in Anbar province probably mark a key turning point in the war against al Qaeda in Iraq. That’s no small thing, of course. Preventing al Qaeda from gaining a foothold in Iraq is probably our most important strategic objective in this war.
But the U.S. is also committed to quelling sectarian violence in Baghdad, and it’s far from clear that our success in Anbar province and other Sunni strongholds significantly increases the prospects for accomplishing this goal. To be sure, recent developments should cause the central government and reasonable Shiite leaders to have less to fear from the Sunnis. But the Shiite factions that engage in violence against Sunnis are not necessarily doing so out of fear. Moreover, Sunni willingness to cooperate with the U.S., and even to some degree with the Iraqi government, in taking on al Qaeda is not the same thing as willingness to let bygones be bygones when it comes to Shiites in the mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad.
The U.S., of course, is not relying on events in Anbar province to reduce sectarian violence in Baghdad. Rather, it is relying mainly on the troop surge, coupled with new policing strategies and rules of engagement. The clear consensus is that this approach has produced positive results. As the Washington Post said today, “if there is one indisputable truth regarding the current offensive, it is this: When large numbers of U.S. troops are funneled into areas, security improves.” However, the Post described these gains as “tenuous,” and this assessment is probably fair. The U.S. cannot maintain large numbers of troops in all contentious neighborhoods for a sustained period. Thus, we will have to depend on the Iraqis. In Anbar province, it may be that we can count on our new allies the Sunnis to deal with al Qaeda, but there’s little evidence that in Baghdad we can count on Iraqi forces even-handedly to provide security.
What policy consequences should flow from this assessment? To me, it seems clear that we should continue to pursue the present strategy; indeed, it would be perverse to abandon an approach that’s helping to produce a dramatic turnaround in Anbar and other Sunni dominated areas and that’s improving security in Baghdad. The new facts we’ve created on the ground can’t help but alter the political landscape in Iraq. Whether they will alter that landscape enough to produce a stable and reasonably secure Iraq that can serve as our ally in the war on terror is an open question. But we’d be foolish not to preserve and enhance these new “facts on the ground” long enough to find out.
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