Leading article: The beginning of the end


The Independent

Published: 01 December 2005

Mr Bush's speech on Iraq yesterday was entirely for domestic consumption, an attempt to convince an American public that has plainly turned against the war, that his administration has a strategy to win it. Whether he succeeds, however, depends not on his limited oratorical powers, but on events on the ground, 5,000 miles away.

Neither the presidential words yesterday, nor the glib assertions of the 35-page "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" issued by the White House in advance of the speech, reconcile the conflicting realities facing Mr Bush.

The domestic political reality is that a majority of Americans wants the troops brought home - not immediately, to be sure, but soon. Disillusion has driven the President's popularity to record lows. If unchecked, it could cost the Republicans control of Congress at the mid-term elections in 11 months' time. On top of this is political reality in Iraq, that US troops are now part of the problem, fuelling the insurgency with their very presence.

The military reality, however, is almost the opposite. More, not fewer, US troops are needed to provide basic security. As Mr Bush made clear, a timetable for withdrawal could be self-defeating. At present there are roughly 160,000 US troops in Iraq. Some 25,000 were always going to leave after the parliamentary elections on 15 December. Over the next year, the total will be further reduced, the Pentagon hopes, to no more than 100,000. If not, military experts warn, the already over-stretched US Army would be at breaking point.

There is only one way to square this circle: the replacement of US troops with a trained Iraqi security force, capable of quelling the insurgency on its own. One may argue over exact numbers. But only a tiny portion of the 212,000-strong security and police force meets this standard. For the foreseeable future they will depend on US troops and US firepower.

But the principle is clear, and very familiar to students of America's recent foreign wars. In the early 1970s, the buzzword was "Vietnamisation", whereby the South Vietnamese would take over responsibility for the conflict, albeit with US backing. Now "Iraqisation" is the order of the day. Iraqis will take the lead in their own defence, with American forces taking a smaller and lower profile.

But Iraq's internal divisions mean there is no guarantee that "Iraqisation" will be any more successful than "Vietnamisation". President Bush faces a dilemma. Political opinion at home is demanding an exit strategy. But to announce a timetable could bring disaster in Iraq as well as be seen as cutting and running. Wishful thinking, however, will hardly help him to solve the problem.