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Let’s Put Together a Few Iraq Developments

First, and most importantly, is Nouri al-Maliki’s call for a U.S. withdrawal in 2010. As discussed, he did so for a variety of political imperatives: for instance, not being crushed in provincial elections by more-nationalist forces. But what happened afterward demonstrates Maliki’s wisdom in doing so. On Friday, Moqtada Sadr actually offered to disband the Mahdi Army if the U.S. picks a date for withdrawal. "When there is no more occupation," Sadrist bigshot Salah Obeidi told McClatchy’s Leila Fadel, "There will be no need for these cells." Now, trusting Sadr to disarm is not a wise move, but the fact that he would cast the rationale for the Mahdi Army’s existence in terms of the occupation should be a flashing neon red sign. Finally, and I hope this isn’t a strained interpretation, a coalescing Sunni faction wants to use the elections as a lever for ousting the U.S. from Iraq.

This is the political equivalent of lightning striking twice. In 2004 — the buildup to the first national elections — nearly every faction ran on the promise of kicking the U.S. out, ballot-wise. On the eve of the purple-finger-moment, I wrote:

[I]f the United States brokered an accord with the new Iraqi government to bring the troops home–preferably in a staggered fashion and by the end of the year–it would hand the fledgling Iraqi government perhaps its largest opportunity for sectarian reconciliation: the ability to say that democracy, not violence, secured the end of the occupation for the benefit of all Iraqis. More than any other policy option, such a move has the potential to fracture the radical Baathist and Salafist elements of the insurgency from the insurgency’s broader, nationalist base of support, enabling an Iraqi counterinsurgency campaign to fight the true "dead-enders."

Alas, it was not to be, and years of needless violence ensued. All counterinsurgents recognize that part of defeating an insurgency is co-optation — or, put another way, acquiescence to its legitimate demands. In this case, these demands — U.S. out of Iraq — happen to be overwhelmingly in our interest. There is no better political strategy for extrication than being able to say, and say truthfully, that ballots and not bullets got the U.S. to end the occupation.

Think of it this way. We have a bunch of former insurgent and current-militia groups willing to cooperate with us, provided we negotiate an exit. If we don’t, what will their reaction be? Consider that we’d be rejecting them while we reduce our troop strength. Even if those groups themselves don’t return to anti-U.S. violence, won’t the next generation of Iraqi youths think, "The 1920 Revolution Brigades/the Mahdi Army thought they could get the U.S. out peacefully. But the U.S. can’t be reasoned with! It can only be confronted, humiliated, bled. What choice do I have?"

Successful counterinsurgency is about giving that kid another choice. Lightning is, miraculously, striking twice. How many times can we refuse to take yes for an answer?

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