Sunday, April 26, 2009

Obama, Pakistan, Iraq, and a need to Shift Priorities

When President Barack Obama was running for the position he now holds, some journalists questioned why he wouldn't admit that he was wrong when he opposed the United States troop surge which his campaign opponent, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) backed.

General David Petreaus crafted the troop surge when it seemed like Iraq was on the verge of falling apart. Reports of sectarian violence were found in the newspapers on a daily basis. It was unveiled after the voters ousted the Republican majority from Capitol Hill in 2006, promising to bring the war in Iraq to an end and after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked to resign. The public at that point no longer believed in the prior administration's claims that we were winning the war in Iraq.

Petreaus offered a comprehensive strategy. It included an escalation in troop levels and negotiations with some of their former enemies in the Sunni insurgency. Tribal leaders were promised American aid and a chance to have their troops incorporated within Iraq's armed force infrastructure if they aligned themselves with the central government in Baghdad.

Many tribal leaders took the deal and the de-escalation in violence was attributed to the troop surge and the associated negotiations with the Sunni Awakening, as the realigned Sunnis would later be called.

Senator John McCain backed the surge but President Barack Obama did not. He didn't think it could work. He believed we were engaging doubling down on a flawed strategy at the very moment Iraq was about to collapse.

I wasn't as skeptical or as optimistic as the either of the candidates had suggested they were when this issue was debated in Congress. A troop surge, I noted, might buy Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies in Parliament some time to negotiate with the warring factions. In effect, the troops could uphold a ceasefire but they could not, by themselves, force a peace on warring factions that have no intention of negotiating with each other.

Any chance of winning the war in Iraq would require not only a doubling down in troops but also a doubling down in diplomacy. At the time, I thought we should use our leverage to force Maliki to sign onto a federalist power-sharing agreement so that Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish factions would have a reason to make peace. If he were to object we could always arm the Sunnis to help shift the balance of power and let the warring factions duke it out amongst themselves.

There was a decrease in violence so the troops did their part of the job heroically and effectively. The journalists were pleased and attributed this success to the troop surge which McCain backed. For his part, Obama avoided any questions concerning a potential mea culpa while members of his party either (a) credited to the apparent success to the negotiations with the Sunnis or (b) downplayed the degree of success by suggesting that nothing would come of this in the long term unless there was a permanent political solution.

Obama, who ran on the promise to withdraw U.S. "combat troops" within a 16-month period of time, ultimately changed his mind and now speaks for an 18-month withdrawal plan that leaves a good 30,000 - 50,000 residual force in Iraq until 2011.
He justified his "withdrawal" plan (or his appearance of one) on the grounds that yes, McCain was right because the troop surge worked, that Iraq's stability seems to be in tact.

That perception however, seems to be fading. Within the span of two weeks we have been bombarded with news reports concerning an escalation in violence and now there is a news report which suggests that the window of opportunity on future negotiations between the Maliki administration and the Sunni Awakening appears to be fading, as is the attempt to reintegrate some lower-level Baathists into Iraqi society as recommended by the Iraq Study Group.

The situation in Iraq isn't the only one which Obama must concern himself with, however. Pakistan may be on the verge of collapse. The Taliban, the group that provided Al Qaeda with the training camps it used to hatch their successful plot to bring down the World Trade Center, when they controlled Afghanistan, has now moved its forces within 60 miles of that country's capitol. We may be on the verge of keeping (or trying to keep) one country (Afghanistan) from providing them training camps while losing another (Pakistan). Worse, we don't know if the nuclear weapons in this country's possession would be secured were it to fall.

The administration may have to choose where we shall focus our efforts. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised the Iraqis we would hold true to our commitments but our priorities lie with the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We never, in hindsight, had an interest in removing Saddam Hussein from power and there really hasn't been a chance that Al Qaeda would gain a foothold in that country in either case. Pakistan is a nuclear power that may very well fall into the hands of those who supported those who attacked us on 9-11.

President Barack Obama might want to rethink his decision to keep our troops in Iraq. They may be able to preserve the peace as long as they are there but at what cost? Obama must ask those who would have us stay whether we can afford to divert our resources to this endeavor and wait for Iraq's political factions to make a deal or whether he should move them to Afghanistan and Pakistan to save that region from the Taliban.

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