The Basra experience

Amid all the discussion by the Democratic presidential candidates of how best to withdraw American troops from Iraq, we’ve heard precious little about a partial troop withdrawal that is currently taking place in Iraq and its highly visible consequences.

In southern Iraq, the British, our closest allies in this Mesopotamian folly, are drawing down troop levels from 30,000 to just 5,000 by the end of this summer. In the process, soldiers are being removed from their posts in the cities to an airbase outside Basra, where their main mission will be training Iraqis to assume security responsibilities, while undertaking occasional counterinsurgency missions.

Sound familiar? It’s just the scenario many Americans and some presidential candidates are recommending.

But is it working? No. In Basra, as in Baghdad, the police are infiltrated by sectarian militias and either unable or unwilling to maintain order. As the British move out, criminal gangs and Shiite militias are moving in and fighting, neighborhood by neighborhood, for territory and power

The few British troops remaining in the city are hunkered down in Basra Palace, taking fire from all directions, the New York Times reports, while troops at the airport are under regular mortar attack by Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

Not that long ago, Basra was being hailed as a success story. Vice President Cheney referred to it as a part of Iraq “where things are going pretty well.” So the question is: If this is what happens with “successful” southern Iraq when troops pull back, what will happen in central Iraq when and if the Americans do likewise?

If we can’t win this thing with 160,000 troops, we certainly can’t do it with 40,000.

There are three alternatives, none of them good. One is to “stay the course,” as President Bush puts it, in the hope that somehow it will lead to victory, whatever that might be. The American people don’t support that, and our weary military forces can’t continue such a commitment.

Another possible route is to keep trying to secure the country while drawing down troop levels, as the British are doing. That’s not working in Basra and is even less likely to work in Baghdad.

That leaves the third choice, which is bad, too, but the best of the lot. We need to bring our troops home, leaving only as many as are needed to fight al-Qaeda—something most Iraqis want us to do—and protect the U.S. embassy. It’s time to acknowledge that the peace cannot be gained militarily and that ultimately the Iraqis themselves are going to have to create it.