The problem with artificial deadlines — an object lesson

Preliminary election returns from Iraq bring relatively good news. First, Prime Minister Maliki’s party appears to have prevailed in two southern provinces over its nearest rival in that region, the more pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance. Second, former Prime Minister Allawi’s party is winning in two Sunni provinces. Allawi is, by the standards of Iraqi politics, considered a secularist, and his solid showing increases the likelihood that will be influential in the next government.
As Max Boot argues, “if the results hold up, it would suggest that last year’s provincial elections were no fluke — Iraqi voters prefer nationalist candidates running on law-and-order platforms to religious candidates who are seen as too close to the Iranians.” However, it seems that no results have come in yet from Baghdad, which has the most seats in parliament. In addition, allegations of voter fraud further cloud the picture.
In any event, there is likely to be a period of instability under even a best plausible case scenario. Thus, as I’ve argued before, the U.S. should, at a minimum, slow the pace of its troop withdrawal.
This is the also view of former U.S ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, In an interview with Foreign Policy, cited by Boot, Crocker stated:

The agreement I helped negotiate had an intermediate timeline to have forces out of cities and towns by mid-2009, which was accomplished, and full withdrawal by 2011. The August 2010 date was not part of that agreement. I would have preferred to see us keep maximum flexibility with the Iraqis between now and 2011.
It makes me nervous. We’re going to have a prolonged period of government formation. It could take two or three months, [and] it’s likely to be a pretty turbulent process. I think [the government formation process], in and of itself, is not likely to be destabilizing, but it means that the major issues out there aren’t going to be addressed. Things like disputed internal boundaries, Kirkuk, the relationship between federal, regional, and provincial governments — all of that’s going to be on hold until you have a new government.
That means that things aren’t going to be much further along come August than they are right now. So I would be more comfortable, within the terms of the agreement we negotiated, with keeping a more robust force for a longer period of time.

It has never made sense to allow artificial deadlines to trump circumstances on the ground. The current situation shows the folly of doing so. Let’s hope that Presdent Obama doesn’t play the fool on this one.

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