Thursday, December 20, 2007

Meanwhile, in a war far far away...

I'm stressing brevity today, due to other deadlines. But it's worth expending a few words on the latest Pentagon assessment of the war in Iraq.

You may remember the war in Iraq. That's the place where, as recently as last May, roughly four American soldiers were being killed every day. But now that the death rate has dropped to one soldier a day, and that the volume of Iraqi civilian deaths has declined, fewer Americans at home seem to be worked up about the war.

National polls indicate that Iraq is no longer viewed as the overriding issue in the '08 campaign; the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal survey, released late yesterday, reports that only 18 percent of Americans list Iraq as the top priority - tied with health care. In the same poll last month, 26 percent cited Iraq, with health care at 16.

Clearly, the troop "surge" has acted as a tourniquet to staunch the bleeding, and that has apparently calmed the millions of Americans who care about Iraq only when people (especially Americans) are being killed in unacceptably large numbers. Apparently the current death rate - 600 Iraqi civilians a month, or 20 a day - is considered acceptable.

The new Pentagon report, a quarterly document required by Congress, reminds us of the grim realities that persist in President Bush's elective war. Amid the cascade of presidential campaign news, it was easy to miss this story, which surfaced in the press yesterday, before vanishing again. The bottom line conclusion:

The U.S. troop surge has tamped down the violence quite nicely. But the purpose of the surge was to create enough space for the central Iraqi government to successfully pursue political reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis, and thus lock in the gains achieved by the surge. And it turns out - I know this will come as a shock - that the central Irqai government has done virtually nothing. Which means that the gains achieved by the surge could be reversed at some future point - probably the point at which U.S. troop levels are reduced. If they are reduced, given the dangers of the fractious failed state that Bush and his war team have created.

The report found that the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has done nothing to reconcile the warring sects, passing no legislation; that it has made only "minimal advances" in delivering basic services to the people (a move long urged by the Bush administration, as a way to improve morale and ease tensions); that the central Parliament can barely muster enough lawmakers for its sessions; and that its security forces still can't operate on their own.

Regarding the latter, the report cites "deficiencies in logistics, combat support functions and...shortages of officers at all operational and tactical levels." Also: "The aggressive growth of police forces to meet present challenges . . . requires a mature, integrated recruiting, screening, training, equipping and basing system that does not fully exist." (Here was Bush, 11 months ago: "We will accelerate the training of Iraqi forces.")

The Pentagon report says that corruption and "sectarian bias" persists at all levels; in translation, services are still skewed to Shiites, at the expense of Sunnis. All told, the report concludes, "Although security gains, local accomodation and progress against the flow of freedom fighters and lethal aid into Iraq have had a substantial effect, more needs to be done to foster national, top-down reconcilation to sustain gains."

So the question is, what happens next spring, when the Bush war team has to decide whether to loosen its tourniquet? Presumably, the major presidential contenders - or, by then, the presumptive nominees - will need to weigh in on that. With an election looming, there's no way this war can stay under the radar.

So much for my vow of brevity.