Iraq continues to make progress — slow, halting, often frustrating, incomplete progress, but progress nonetheless. Nearly a year after elections were held, parliament has finally approved a new government, which includes representation from all the major blocs. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, showing an impressive canniness for hanging on to power, has managed to propitiate all the other major powerbrokers, including his archrival, Ayad Allawi, who won more seats than Maliki did. He has even cut a deal with the Sadrists, whom he battled as recently as 2008 — and without giving the Sadrists control of one of the really important ministries, such as Interior or Defense.
It may not be pretty, but Iraq is showing that it does have a functional democracy, thereby refuting the argument made by so many critics of the “surge” that its gains were transitory and unsustainable. The good news is that throughout the year-long political crisis that has followed the elections, Iraq’s major factions have mostly refrained from violence, preferring to settle their differences in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms. There have been terrorist atrocities committed during the past year, but they have not upset Iraq’s political equilibrium, and the overall rate of violence has remained low despite a drawdown of American forces.
For all that, I remain concerned about what will happen in a year’s time if the remaining 50,000 U.S. troops are withdrawn. That appears to be an increasingly likely prospect, since there seems to be little enthusiasm on the part of either Maliki or Obama to negotiate an accord to allow a substantial body of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq post-2012. Iraq may very well be fine even without much American help. Certainly, its security forces continue to grow in size and competence. They don’t need nearly as much help as they once did, but nor are they yet capable of operating entirely on their own.
More important, the fragile peace of Iraqi politics constructed by General Petraeus in 2007-2008 needs years to set into concrete. The continued presence of U.S. troops would create some certainty about Iraq’s continued progress. Their departure will, on the contrary, raises the risks of Iraq once again falling apart. Admittedly, that risk is much lower than it was a few years ago, but there is a good deal to be said for an insurance policy — in the form of, say, 20,000 U.S. troops — to ensure that the gains that so many of our soldiers gave so much to achieve will last for the long-term.