Would leaving Iraq mean "surrendering" to the enemy and "losing" the war? That is how the war's supporters have cast the alternative of a phased American withdrawal. But at a time when the Taliban are gaining strength in Afghanistan and have seized control over a substantial area in northern Pakistan, it is important to remember what the United States legitimately sought to accomplish after September 11 and why the Iraq War needs to be brought to a prompt conclusion based on realistic and limited aims.
The legitimate objectives after September 11 were the defeat of the al-Qaeda network of terrorists who had attacked us, the overthrow of the Taliban regime that harbored them, the elimination of other enclaves where terrorists could train and organize, and the strengthening of moderate Islamic forces that could combat Islamist extremism.
The Iraq War has been utterly counterproductive in achieving these goals. Before it invaded Iraq, the Bush administration promoted the fiction that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and September 11, and the president has since tried to maintain support for the war on the false premise that Iraq is the central front in the "global war on terror." But in the wider Islamic world, the war has inflamed the anti-American sentiment that nurtures terrorism, and in Iraq itself the American invasion has led to a civil war between Sunnis and Shia that has undermined and possibly destroyed the basis for a stable national government that controls its own territory. It is the failure to establish effective political authority that risks making terrorism based in Iraq a long-term threat.
The question is no longer whether Iraq will become a beacon of democracy in transforming the entire Middle East. That was a chimera. But the question is also not whether al-Qaeda will seize power. That is not likely even in central Iraq, and through the strategy we follow on the way out, we can minimize the chances that al-Qaeda will permanently entrench itself there.
The de facto reality is that Iraq has broken up into an autonomous Shia area in the south, a Kurdish zone in the north, and a central region wracked by internecine warfare. We can't do much about the south, and we support the Kurds. The crux of the problem is in the center, where the insurgency draws its primary support, not from al-Qaeda, but from Sunnis fearful of Shia power and from nationalist opponents of the U.S. occupation. The Sunnis are not acting irrationally; our efforts to bolster current Iraqi security forces, heavily infiltrated by Shia militias, are a mortal threat to them.
If we were out of Iraq, however, the Sunni nationalists would not necessarily be a problem for us; indeed, we would have reason to support them to strengthen the opposition to al-Qaeda. Moreover, neither Iran nor the Sunni Arab states want al-Qaeda to retain a foothold in Iraq; it is in their interest to help avoid that result after a U.S. withdrawal.
And that is the limited aim that we ought to pursue. The war has been lost if we think of it in the grandiose terms that the president originally set. But if the chief limited aim now is to prevent central Iraq from becoming a staging ground for international terrorism, that is still attainable. Only we shouldn't be trying to achieve it by prolonging the occupation. Neither should we be unreservedly backing a Shia-dominated government that is unwilling or unable to protect the Sunni minority. We need to compel that government to make concessions.
No idea of the Baker-Hamilton Commission was so roundly condemned as the proposal to approach Iran as part of an effort to negotiate a regional settlement. But this is not a matter of begging Iran to do us a favor.
The great danger that all parties face is that the conflict in Iraq, which is already becoming a proxy war between Iran and the Sunni states, will turn into a full-scale regional war -- Iran against the Arabs. That risk, however, is America's remaining source of leverage. Because a U.S. withdrawal could draw them into a war against each other, all the neighboring states, including Iran, have an interest in stabilizing Iraq.
We made a mess of Iraq, and some say we should stay until we clean it up. But there is little chance that we can, and our best interests lie in announcing that we're on our way out of Iraq (except for Kurdistan) and that the neighbors had better help clean it up, lest they be sucked in. We should never have invaded. But by extricating our forces, we can refocus on the real enemy regrouping in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.