Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Does the Iraq timetable start the clock on Afghanistan? by Thomas Barnett

ARTICLE: "Iraq Approves Deal Charting End of U.S. Role: Lawmakers Cast Vote; Despite Fierce Disputes, Wide Majority Backs Security Accord," by Alissa J. Rubin and Campbell Robertson, New York Times, 28 November 2008.

ARTICLE: "Afghan Leader, Showing Impatience With War, Demands Timetable From NATO," by Kirk Semple, New York Times, 27 November 2008.

ARTICLE: "Vote on U.S. Troop Departure Bares Ethnic Tensions in Iraq," by Gina Chon, Wall Street Journal, 26 November 2008.

So the reality ends up being predictable enough: we leave--quote unquote--Iraq on Iraq's timetable, not ours. In the end, the local politicians decide, not our generals.

Yes, that's a fluid dialogue, but we're no longer in control of it. But "victory" was always going to feel like this: getting the boot. Failure will be the inverse: the begging to stay that can still emerge if ethnic tensions internally get out of control.

Not surprisingly, Afghan's Karzai takes some cues from this dynamic, for now imitating his Baghdad counterparts in starting the dialogue on a timetable for withdraw. It may strike us as fantastic, but there is a logic to the request: now that his country is the "central front" by most definitions, he's looking for Petraeus to "tell me how this ends," to borrow the general's famous question going into Iraq years ago. Plus, the guy's trying to bolster his internal standing in anticipation of a re-election campaign next year, when the violence is likely to be worse than it is today and already he's taking a ton of flack over civilian casualties from airstrikes that strike locals as too indiscriminate.

Karzai admits his powerlessness here, but doesn't conceal his populist anger: "I wish I could intercept the planes that are going to bomb Afghan villages, but that's not in my hands."

Hmmm, the local small-state leader begging the intervening great powers to stop bombing his villages. Where else have I heard that in the last several months? But here's where the NATO cover counts: the UN won't criticize--much.

Of course, we have our fears about what happens to Afghanistan if our troops no longer buffer the weak central government from the Taliban, but "in" for that penny increasingly puts us "in" for the far larger pound that is Pakistan. So no, for all of you who never wanted to shift the fight to Iraq, we begin to see how much harder it may become to make our serious stance here.

In some ways, we can thank our lucky stars that we burned off the unilateralist impulses of the Bush-Cheney team in Iraq, leaving us much more sensibly configured--both politically and strategy-wise--for the inevitable redirect back here. It's scary to think what a full-bore unilateralist push on Afghani-Pakistan by that crew would have looked like, because here the nukes are real.

Still, as the drawdown in Iraq unfolds, we will begin to see whether or not the surge really ended the internal violence or just delayed it inevitable final spasms. There is no regional agreement, much less forum for any such agreement to be pursued, regarding Iraq's future. So little's been decided even as much has effectively been postponed.

In short, the question of Iraq coming apart still remains, with me still thinking the soft partition (already here on the Kurds) is inevitable, the only question being the nature of the weak federalism. The Sunnis may have given up the dream of a unitary Iraq, but I'm not sure the Shia have--much less Iran.

So yeah, Iran still wields the most important veto, and Iraq still presents the region with the opportunity for serious proxy conflict.

And history says that's not a great combination.

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