The report by the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, opens the next chapter in the debate about when to bring the troops home
Security Forces. A key question now is whether the de facto Sunni militias, supported by U.S. military forces, can be brought into the Iraqi government security forces. Such a scenario is, suffice it to say, not a dream come true for the Shiite Maliki, no friend to former Baathists. The U.S. strategy now is to force Maliki to accept more Sunni participation in the government. The jury is still out on whether Maliki will drop the sectarian agenda, but slowly—very slowly—the prime minister may be coming around. The Iraqi government has started to quietly bring former Iraqi Army officers back into the armed forces, and the U.S. military continues to push for Sunnis who have signed up for U.S.-paid guard duty in their neighborhoods to be incorporated into the Shiite-dominated police force.
It's a crucial development. While 2006 was widely touted as the "Year of the Police," the 25,000-strong national police force remains broken—beyond repair, some say. U.S. military officials say it is unlikely that the force will be disbanded, as the Jones report recommends. "There are clearly challenges there," says the senior military official in Baghdad. "But I don't think scrubbing a system and starting again is the way to go. We're well beyond that point." National police, some U.S. officials are quick to add, are a small portion of the country's security forces.
After the surge, most scenarios put the U.S. training of Iraqi security forces at the center of future efforts. It is a "back to the future" scenario, a repeat of the pre-surge mantra that as Iraqi forces stand up, American forces can stand down. There are two key factors that determine the ability of Iraqi security forces to support U.S. forces in operations—and to eventually operate on their own: readiness and reliability. The Jones report concluded that the Iraqi Army, which consists of about 152,000 troops, is "increasingly effective," but while the commission expects to see continued improvement in the next 12 to 18 months, this will not include, the report adds, the ability to operate independently or to "secure Iraqi borders against conventional military and external threats."
Diplomacy. To that end, analysts are pushing for more robust diplomatic efforts to reach out to Iraq's neighbors. Though much of the conversation this week is revolving around a set of benchmarks that analyze the Iraqi government's advances in legislative, security, and economic realms, the actions of Iraq's neighbors—Saudi Arabia, Syria, and most important, Iran—will affect the course of events.
For the United States, it is clear more military help won't be coming from allies. Even Great Britain will soon pull the last of its 5,500 troops out of the volatile southern region of Basra, but other countries may do more to assist development of the Iraqi ministries or to pressure Iran.
U.S. Military. The bulk of the U.S. debate centers on how many U.S. troops are needed in Iraq and for how long. At the heart of this debate are very real constraints on the U.S. military. Extending the surge past the spring would require lengthening the tours of troops from 15 to 18 months—something top military leaders have repeatedly said they are unwilling to do given the extreme stresses of combat on their soldiers.