January 19, 2009 — Read the full article here.
Late in the presidential race, after Senator John McCain suspended his campaign in the wake of the financial crisis, Senator Barack Obama remarked, “A president has to be able to do more than one thing at a time.” Indeed, an administration’s ability to balance competing demands is essential—especially in conducting effective foreign policy at a time when the nation is involved in two wars. The key foreign policy balancing act that President Obama will have to perform will be preserving security progress in Iraq while drawing down the U.S. military forces there in order to reinforce Afghanistan.
On a recent Iraq visit that included Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra, the security improvements were undeniable. The famed Dora Market in Baghdad was not only open for business—including jewelry shops without visible private security, a clear sign of dramatic change—but were guarded largely by the “Sons of Iraq” local security forces whose members were formerly the backbone of the Sunni insurgency. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) still has a strong toehold in Mosul but is elsewhere on the verge of defeat. The radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has made relatively little noise since the April 2008 battles in Basra and Sadr City, and his oncefeared Jaysh al-Mahdi militia is dormant.
The Iraqi military and police have demonstrated increasing competence and decreasing sectarian tendencies. Violence, although still significant, has dropped to its lowest levels in years; there were days during an August 2008 visit when there were no reportable security incidents in all of Baghdad. Two years ago, people were fleeing the city in droves. Today, they are lining up to return home.
However, this is no time for triumphal declarations of victory or rapid pullouts. Iraq will continue to be a foreign policy challenge of the first order for the next administration. Though security gains appear increasingly durable, they must not be taken for granted. The emerging order in Iraq remains fragile, and crucial questions about Iraq’s internal security, political system, and relationship with the United States remain unanswered. America has only begun to
extricate itself from the Iraq war and “must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in,” in the words of President Obama. The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan over the past few years was abetted by the Bush administration’s decision to focus on Iraq. That mistake might
be repeated in reverse if the next administration fails to implement a coherent and cautious strategy to help maintain Iraq’s stability while freeing up the resources desperately needed to succeed in rebuilding Afghanistan.
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