With the increasing violence leading up to this week's Iraqi elections for 275 seats in a new national assembly, a despair emerged in some U.S. circles that 150,000 American troops and their coalition allies could never really maintain security. If one could not always get to and from the Baghdad airport without being fired upon, how could Iraqis adjudicate a nationwide election? If the old conventional wisdom held that long-awaited Iraqi autonomy would undermine support for the terrorists, the new gloomy prognosis was that endemic violence and Sunni boycotts would nullify the significance of the elections or perhaps that a Shia-dominated, wild-card national assembly would circumscribe U.S. military options and play into the hands of Iran. "No matter how the voting turns out," Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria recently wrote, "the prospects for genuine democracy in Iraq are increasingly grim."

Now, even though the elections on January 30 proved to be mostly free of violence and saw good turnouts, the old pessimism remains. John Kerry warned Tim Russert on "Meet the Press," "[N]o one in the United States should try to overhype this election." New York Times columnist Bob Herbert admonished us the day after the vote that nothing was really changed. Consequently, we are still pondering calls either to leave Iraq--confessing defeat or claiming that we have already won by removing Saddam Hussein--or de facto to trisect the country.

 

I. Flight?

Days before the elections began, Senator Ted Kennedy urged us to announce when American troops were leaving and to make the date sooner rather than later. Yet such withdrawal would be an abject disaster. As in the case of the precipitous departure from Vietnam, when millions were abandoned to be jailed, executed, or to take to the sea, Iraqi civilian reformers would be hard-pressed to fend for themselves against hard-core former Baathists and jihadists. For the near future, there are simply not enough properly trained Iraqi troops to allow for a substantial U.S. withdrawal anytime soon. Lebanon of the 1970s or Algeria of the 1990s would be the model for the ensuing sectarian warfare, with all the predictable fallout throughout the Gulf. And, just as the Cambodian holocaust, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Central American insurgency, and the Iranian hostage-taking followed from the scenes of U.S. helicopters taking off from the embassy roof in Saigon, so, too, we should expect all the progress achieved in Libya and Pakistan to erode and reformist pressure on Egypt, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia to cease--to the applause of everyone from Al Qaeda cells to Iran, Syria, and China.


Rapid departure would break our word to those who believed in a democratic Iraq; it would undermine the morale of our armed forces for decades, much as the fall of South Vietnam did. Of all people, our generation should know the consequences of timidity: A humiliating withdrawal from Beirut and Mogadishu, coupled with weak or nonexistent responses to dozens of subsequent terrorist attacks, emboldened the terrorists who carried out the September 11 attacks. On the other hand, the perception of American success in guaranteeing legitimate elections in Iraq and our willingness to stick it out--not announcements of withdrawal--prompted the Europeans to promise increased efforts in training Iraqi security forces. George W. Bush's resolve, not Kennedy's prognosis, encouraged French President Jacques Chirac to tell the president that the election "was an important stage in the political reconstruction of Iraq" and that "the strategy of terrorist groups [had] partly failed."

 

II. Withdrawal to the North and South?

The second fallback alternative, advocated by the Council on Foreign Relations's Leslie Gelb, among others, at first glance seems more logical. The Kurds and the Shia are not vehemently anti-American. They have sources of economic support from the country's oil reserves in their environs, where there is relatively little violence. They comprise roughly 70 to 80 percent of the population, and there is something absurd about the new Iraq being held hostage by Sunni and Saddamite diehards who cry over the unfairness of the very election process that they have done so much to subvert.


Retreating to Kurdistan and the south might in theory allow us the relative tranquility to develop a real Iraqi army, which we could enhance with U.S. Special Forces and air power when it reemerged to take on the insurgents. Yet grave problems arise with such a scenario as well.Not all Sunnis can be so easily characterized as anti-democratic by either their mere geographical residence or their religion, nor should they be left to fend for themselves in a lawless enclave. Even if sensational reports of 200,000 insurgents are true, the vast majority of millions of Sunnis still have not taken up arms, but rather are unsure who or what will be running their towns in the future.


Thus, to abdicate the Sunni Triangle would only encourage the insurgents and create a permanent haven for Sunni and Wahhabi extremism throughout the region--in the manner that our earlier pullback from Falluja this past spring became a propaganda victory for the terrorists and provided a base of operations for Islamic radicals. Those Americans who courageously retook Falluja did not bleed and die only to abandon it a few months later. Indeed, ceding control over the Sunni Triangle, even if temporarily, would only postpone the problem of confronting and defeating the Islamists and former Baathists. Such withdrawal is the last choice, and we are not at the point of making it yet--especially in the wake of an election generally acknowledged to have been successful.

III. Sticking with Democracy

The third and best alternative is to continue on the present path of countrywide reconstruction in hopes that the democratic process will begin to create a momentum of its own--as we have seen in the scenes of genuine postelection rejoicing. Soon there will be a psychological shift as Iraqis begin to blame other Iraqis--rather than Americans--for shortfalls of power or gasoline and start to appreciate the difficulties that the United States has faced. And, contrarily, the praise for establishing the Arab world's first democratically elected nation will empower the reformers, as nationalists will gradually become less vulnerable to charges of collusion with the infidel. As The New York Times noted in the immediate aftermath of the recent vote, "Arab channels and newspapers greeted the elections as a critical event with major implications."


Eventual withdrawal is inherent in any U.S. position; yet leaving must be predicated on a stable Iraqi government that has the ability to protect itself. Afghanistan, not Connecticut or Carmel, should be our model. Elected interim leaders should work in association with a U.S. military presence that steadily devolves into air support and Special Forces, with conventional troops reserved for emergencies and the continued training of the Iraqi army. Rather than pull back from the Sunni Triangle, we should at least guarantee the new government that we will support Iraqi forces in pursuit of terrorists in any region of the country.


A Shia-dominated government, or Kurds in the north, may have no belly for continued battle; but we at least owe them U.S. military support to ratify their newly won freedom by defeating the Sunni insurgents. The elections brought clarity, and the Sunnis in their triangle will have the opportunity to distance themselves from the killers in their midst, accept the will of the majority, and join a new Iraq--or see conventional geographical lines emerge that will facilitate the overwhelming use of power in a war they cannot win. U.S. air dominance and Special Forces integrated with Iraqi units, under the auspices of an elected government with sealed borders and an improving economy, are the classic ingredients for successful counterinsurgency.


With elections and freedom accorded to the Shia and the Kurds, we must renew, not disavow, our efforts to help democratize the Middle East. Few here or abroad appreciate the implications of making a Kurd or a Shia equal to a Sunni. We are witnessing a monumental U.S. commitment to the perennial underclass of the Middle East, and such idealism should be appreciated for what it is--one of the most radical social and cultural upheavals since the American-sponsored emancipation of women in postwar Japan or our own civil rights movement of the 1960s.


We must cease to envision Iraq as an amazing three-week victory that has a thousand fathers, followed by an orphaned and messy reconstruction, as once-zealous hawks have bailed from the enterprise with the easy excuse that the lapses of Donald Rumsfeld, L. Paul Bremer, or "the Pentagon" mean that Iraqi democracy no longer warrants their principled support--as if victory in war were not always a matter of those who make the fewest errors rather than no errors at all. The truth is--and always was--that the war against Saddam and the ensuing efforts to rid Iraq of Baathists and Islamists exist on a continuum and must be seen in a larger historical context of defeating a fascist government, occupying a country of 26 million in the heart of the ancient caliphate, and then fostering democratic government where it has no history.


The loss so far of more than 1,100 combat dead is tragic, but, by historical standards of comparable operations, the U.S. achievement has been nothing short of miraculous. Our aggregate combat fatalities after 22 months in Iraq were often exceeded in single months during the Vietnam war or a single day at Normandy, in the Bulge--or on September 11. Such reckoning may seem callous, but it is the terrible arithmetic of war--and the United States should not delude itself: This is a real war.


War is not static. The insurgents and terrorists count on bleeding the U.S. military while U.S. public support erodes and the Arab world rallies to the insurgents' cause. Thus they may see stalemate as victory. But the truth is more likely the opposite; if we persist, they will be forced to try to defeat us outright before larger trends inside and outside Iraq begin to nullify their indigenous support. As the United States has refined its tactics and learned more about the terrorists, its losses in recent weeks have fluctuated, but they are not steadily increasing from month to month. Meanwhile, American soldiers are killing or capturing more insurgents than before--15,000 in 2004, according to an estimate by General George Casey--who are now primarily confined to four of 18 provinces. At the same time, the Arab world is beginning to see elections take hold in the Islamic world--in Afghanistan, the West Bank, and now Iraq. And that fact will eventually be fatal for Al Qaeda and Baathists alike. We cannot appreciate these positive symptoms in our despair over the post-invasion period. But, often in conflicts, the deadliest moments--at Meuse-Argonne, the Bulge, or Okinawa-- occur just before the enemy cracks. Our present course is unpopular, but it is bringing results. If we don't lose our confidence, this most recent successful election will begin to show proof of our past wisdom and persistence--and be followed by steady evolution toward Iraqi legitimacy, security, and, one day, friendship.


This article originally ran in the February 14, 2005, issue of the magazine.