The “new way forward” in Iraq is now a waiting game. In testimony before the U.S. Congress on April 8 and 9, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the coalition commander in Iraq, called for an open-ended suspension (AP) of troop withdrawals scheduled to begin this summer. While security has improved, he said conditions in Iraq rule out the kind of withdrawal timetable put forth by the two leading Democratic presidential candidates. President Bush endorsed that view Thursday. “I’ve told him he’ll have all the time he needs,” Bush said. That means roughly 140,000 soldiers will remain on the ground at least through the summer. Bush also announced a reduction in the standard Iraq tour to twelve months from the current fifteen, something many senior commanders have been lobbying for.
The general’s recommendations drew heated criticism from advocates of a quick departure from Iraq. If implemented, they also effectively put the ball in the next administration’s court (CSMonitor). As Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin writes, the pause means “getting out of Iraq is now exclusively the next president’s problem.” Bush’s spokeswoman, Dana Perino, confirmed this (AFP): Ending the war before January 2009, she said, is “not going to be possible.” This underscores what many military analysts have been saying ever since the insurgency took root.
The debate over troop numbers and time frames plays out against the larger question of the viability of victory in Iraq. Both Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker used their testimony to paint a mixed picture on prospects for an eventual U.S. victory. Despite the fact that security and political progress in Iraq remain fragile, they said measurable gains have occurred. The number of weapons caches discovered has increased, the general said, contributing to a decline in overall violence (PDF) between June 2007 and February 2008. And while a spike in internecine Shiite violence in Basra and Baghdad last month did lead to a an increase in overall attacks in March 2008, many analysts—Michele A. Flournoy of the Center for a New American Security, for instance—generally share Petraeus’ and Crocker’s opinions on security improvements (PDF).
And yet Iraq’s future is not without innumerable hurdles. CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon writes in Foreign Affairs that the “Anbar awakening” model, in which Sunni tribes have turned their weapons against insurgents, could yet fail. Recent Shiite-on-Shiite clashes in Basra and the capital were coupled with renewed allegations of Iranian arming, training, and funding of Iraqi militants (WashPost).
For Iraqi civilians the situation is equally tenuous. The International Organization for Migration estimates a total of 2.7 million Iraqis have been displaced within Iraq since 2003, with an additional 2.4 million forced abroad. Angelina Jolie, who cochairs CFR’s Education Partnership for Children of Conflict, says Iraq’s child refugees need special attention (Video).
Beyond Iraq’s continuing challenges are concerns that the U.S. military is fracturing under the weight of an open-ended war. Lt. Col. Gian P. Gentile, a West Point historian and former battalion commander in Iraq, argues the army has placed too much emphasis on the counterinsurgency doctrine championed by Gen. Petraeus. Further up the chain of command, Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army’s second-ranking officer, says the U.S. army is “out of balance” (PDF) and suffers a degraded ability to respond to other contingencies.
Analysts warn that what lies ahead is no clearer today than it was five years ago. As CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle sees it, the best the United States can do is change its definition of winning in Iraq. RAND’s Terrence K. Kelly, a former diplomat recently based in Baghdad, adds that “talk of ‘victory’ and similar terms” (PDF) is premature.