Five years after the September 11 attacks that triggered U.S. intervention, the situation in Iraq is bleak and policy is adrift. Constant changes in the nature of the conflict have undermined all measures put in place by the Bush administration. While President George W. Bush is showing great determination to stay in Iraq until the country is stable, he does not have a policy to address the country's multiple conflicts. The problem goes beyond the present administration: neither the Democratic Party nor, more broadly, experts in the policy community have answers. All are torn between realizing that continued U.S. presence cannot resolve the conflicts and fearing that withdrawing U.S. forces would lead to chaos. Gone are the Bush administration's hopes that Iraq would prove a democratic inspiration to the Middle East; now most U.S. officials hope merely for an exit from the country with honor.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the conflict was simple: Washington went to war against a regime believed to be dangerously armed with weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorist organizations. That conflict came to an end quickly. On May 1, 2003 Bush could declare “mission accomplished.” Indeed, the Saddam Hussein regime was no more.
Unfortunately, a new conflict immediately arose: an asymmetrical confrontation between the U.S. military and Sunni insurgents. Washington initially believed insurgents to be as a relatively small number of die-hard supporters of the Saddam regime, determined to resist but bound to fail. Accordingly the Bush administration devised a two-prong military-political strategy. Militarily, it sought to retool from conventional warfare to counterinsurgency tactics and at the same time to launch a major training program to build up a new Iraqi military and police force. Politically, it devised a complex transition process—involving a new constitution, two elections, and a referendum—in order to set up a democratic, inclusive government that would command the loyalty of all Iraqis, isolate Sunni insurgents, and stabilize the country. Together with the training of new Iraqi security forces, the setting up of a legitimate government would allow the United States to turn over security operations to the Iraqis, maintaining permanent bases in the country only as a bulwark against enemies in the region, as it had done in Germany during the Cold War.
The strategy failed because the conflict changed once again. From a two-sided confrontation between U.S. troops and former Saddam supporters, it turned into a tangle of conflicts involving a variety of Sunni groups, Shiite militias, and foreign jihadists. The Sunni insurgency did not fade away but diversified its domestic support and attracted foreign jihadists, creating a terrorist threat that had not existed before in Iraq. Shiites divided into rival factions, some openly hostile to the United States. All factions built up militias and infiltrated the new security forces, in particular the police. The Kurds welcomed U.S. occupation, but in the end foiled the U.S. goal of rebuilding a unified, democratic Iraq by insisting on complete autonomy and a constitution that turned the central government into a largely empty shell.
As a result of these changes in the nature of the conflict, the political process (successful from a purely technical/procedural point of view) failed to create a strong government and to stabilize the country. Two elections and one referendum were carried out despite extraordinarily difficult conditions, and Iraqis showed great determination and courage in turning out to vote. But the government emerging from this laborious process is a loose coalition of parties with conflicting agendas presiding over a country deeply divided along sectarian lines and unable to restore security because the police and army are not disciplined forces but constellations of militias taking orders from different groups.
So far the Bush administration has not developed a policy to address this complex situation. The policy to which it still adheres—continue to fight the insurgents directly while training the Iraqi forces until they can take over the job themselves and at the same time convince other Sunnis to participate in the government—was designed to address a limited insurgency by die-hard supporters of the Saddam regime, not the multiple sectarian conflicts that plague Iraq today and divide the security forces as much as they divide the rest of the society.
The Bush administration appears determined to remain in Iraq until the country has been stabilized, despite increasing public skepticism about U.S. policy in Iraq and the loss of support for the president and the Republican Party in an election year. But without a policy that addresses today's conflict rather than yesterday's, determination is unlikely to be accompanied by success. And rather than the wind behind the sail of democracy in the region, Iraq has become a millstone—along with U.S. policy on Palestine and now Lebanon —dragging down President Bush's freedom agenda.
Marina Ottaway is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.