Beginning of the end

By DAVID IGNATIUS, Washington Post Writers Group
Published September 13, 2007

WASHINGTON - "Tell me how this ends." That famously is the question that Gen. David Petraeus posed to journalist Rick Atkinson in March 2003 as U.S. troops were moving to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. And it's still the right question after Petraeus' sober progress report to Congress on the U.S. troop surge in Iraq.

The problem is that there still isn't a good answer to the general's hauntingly simple question of four years ago. In his testimony this week, Petraeus reported some encouraging progress on a local level in Iraq, but he couldn't show much progress toward the national reconciliation that has been America's goal. Neither could Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who, when asked Monday what a future Iraq would look like, could answer only, "These things have to be worked through."

What you think about Iraq today is partly a measure of what you've thought in the past. That said, my sense was that Petraeus and Crocker made a decent case for continuing a while longer with America's trial-and-error effort to reconstruct the nation we shattered in 2003. Just as important, they also signaled the beginning of the end of this uncertain mission by recommending that a drawdown of American troops begin this year.

For an impatient, war-weary America, that is the right stance: Try to consolidate recent gains, even as we make clear that our time in Iraq is limited.

Certainly the Bush administration thinks it has turned a corner. Senior officials concede that the recent successes in Iraq aren't what they expected - nobody anticipated the sharp reduction in violence in Anbar province, or the alliance with Sunni tribal leaders against al-Qaida. But that's what has happened, and senior officials now think the United States is on the way to defeating al-Qaida in Iraq.

The problem, senior officials acknowledge, is that Iraq isn't coming together as a nation. So they are trying a different approach - more decentralized, more local, more "bottom-up," to use the favorite phrase of the month. Officials recognize this will mean a weaker central government than the United States had previously sought, but they don't seem unhappy about that. They reject the term "soft partition," but concede that the new Iraq will be a loose confederation.

The bottom-up style of Petraeus and his group represents a decisive break with the cocksure, top-down ethos of Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon - and with a military leadership that bought into Rumsfeld's idea that technology had transformed the nature of warfare itself. Nonsense, said the colonels who advised Petraeus, many of whom, like him, are on their third tours in Iraq. They have learned the hard way to be skeptical of big ideas.

Petraeus and his team understand, too, that this war is about people - and helping them one by one to break the cycle of intimidation. When I asked Col. H.R. McMaster, a key Petraeus adviser, to name a turning point in Anbar, he cited the day last February when al-Qaida deposited at a hospital in Ramadi an ice chest containing the severed heads of the children of several sheiks who had been cooperating with the United States. Rather than submitting to this barbarous act, the enraged sheiks deepened their alliance with the U.S. military.

We need to be honest about what's happening now in Iraq: Local solutions are better than no solutions; tribal power is better than terrorist intimidation. But Petraeus' ad hoc security framework is not the same thing as stabilizing the country. In the time remaining, he has to pull things together as best he can - connect local successes to provincial and national institutions; extend the Sunni rebellion against extremists into the Shiite regions; break the control that Shiite militias now exert over the Interior Ministry and the police.

We know how this is going to end: with U.S. troops returning home. The question is what they will leave behind. It's likely to be a ragged, patchwork quilt, and there isn't much time left to stitch it together.

David Ignatius' e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.