Fred Kagan has a piece at NRO online on the significance of President Bush choosing to meet with Iraqi leaders in Anbar province when he visited the country yesterday. Anbar has become key to the improving situation in Iraq, and increasingly desperate critics of the war are now trying to find fault with the policies that the US has pursued in that region with such spectacular results.
Opponents of the war are also clinging to the position that the Iraqi government has failed to meet most the benchmarks imposed on it by the US Congress. Notwithstanding arguments about whether or not the benchmarks are being met, Kagan argues that progress at the regional and local levels is overtaking events in Baghdad, and will work its way up the system in the run-up to parliamentary elections in 2009.
Of course, such developments are conditional on the continued presence of the US and its allies. As Kagan writes:
The Sunni, of course, don’t trust the Maliki government any more than it trusts them, and herein lies a key point for American strategy. Right now, American forces are serving as the “honest broker,” the bridge between Sunni and Shia. Both sides trust us more or less, and are willing to work with us; neither trusts the other completely. If we remove this bridge now, it is unlikely that the Iraqis will be able to continue on a path to real reconciliation. … This is a process that is ongoing and will take time to work, but it depends unequivocally on the continued presence of American forces and a continued American commitment to Iraq.
Addressing the situation in Anbar, Kagan dismantles a number of myths peddled by the media and the Democrats, not least the notion that the US is ‘arming’ Sunni militias who could later turn on the Shia. For one thing, thousands of young Sunnis are being recruited into the Iraqi army, where they operate alongside both Shia and US troops, which, as Kagan notes, is ‘hardly a solid basis for fighting a sectarian civil war’. And, in a country awash with weapons, the Sunnis are hardly in need of arming by the US or anyone else.
US forces have worked skilfully and patiently to turn the Sunnis against al Qaeda using a combination of military force and diplomacy, and by cracking down on Shia militias with equal resolve have headed off a civil war that no long ago seemed inevitable. Few of even the most optimistic supporters of the war could have foreseen the progress that’s been made in a few short months, but there’s still a long way to go.
Stripping the U.S. effort of the forces needed to continue this strategy, as some in Washington and elsewhere are demanding, will most likely destroy the progress already made and lay the groundwork for collapse in Iraq and the destabilization of the region. President Bush clearly understands this fact, as his choice of venue in Iraq demonstrates. We should all understand the significance of the president’s presence in Anbar. With a little good fortune and the continued pursuit of a successful strategy, this visit could well mark a key turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terror.