The spate of deadly bombings in Iraq this week has prompted concerns that the fragile stability that had started to take hold in Baghdad is coming apart, and that the coming drawdown of U.S. troops in June will result in the widespread chaos and bloodshed predicted by Republican opponents of withdrawal during the presidential campaign.
But Brookings Institution fellow and Iraq expert Michael O'Hanlon, who challenged the Democratic orthodoxy during the presidential campaign by positing that the increase in American troop levels could potentially lead the United States to winning real stability in Iraq, and who in February pointed out the dangers of a rapid exit from Iraq, thinks that the blame for the violence rests more with Baghdad than with American policy.
"I don't think it's a Washington mistake," O'Hanlon told me. "I think it's a Maliki mistake."
The problem, as O'Hanlon sees it, is that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, has failed to keep his promise to give stable government jobs to the Sunnis that comprised the Sons of Iraq forces, who left the insurgency and helped American forces fight the Sunni extremists in groups like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. O'Hanlon said he wasn't suggesting that the Sons of Iraq were behind the violence—"I certainly hope not" he said—but he believed that their political grievances led them to be "less prone to crack down" on extremist groups.
"I actually resisted reaching this kind of a conclusion back in March when, you may recall, there were other little attacks and trends that were spikes themselves," said O'Hanlon. "We do have to worry about over-interpreting each and every little thing. But this week is becoming worrisome, and it's worth asking the question whether there's at least the beginning of a new trend."
O'Hanlon emphasized that, while the violence might rise above the "level of statistical noise," it was in no way a return to the bloody days of 2006, when such attacks were so commonplace as to find themselves reported on the back pages of international sections.
"I don't think it's the end of the world," he said. "But I think it's meaningful and the right way to think about it is a trend we've got to address, rather than just hoping that it just goes away. And that's primarily through trying to cajole Maliki into restoring the Sunni-Shia bargain he had begun to build in the last couple years."
The Obama administration, O'Hanlon said, could help pressure Maliki to bring the former Sunni insurgents into the government, even though their procurement of good government jobs in an economic downturn would prove to be deeply unpopular with Shiites. The way the United States could do that, O'Hannlon said, was through subtle diplomatic channels rather than high profile grandstanding.
"The way you affect this is not by having Hillary Clinton or Bob Gates, or David Petraeus or Barack Obama grab a podium in Washington and the nearest speech site and lay down harsh language," O'Hanlon said. "I think it actually is more through the ambassadorial-level work. Because you want a more subtle form of pressure. You don't want to make implausible and non-credible threats, like if you don't reach out, the country is going to blow up and we're not going to be there to help you. You don't want to say stuff like that. That's sort of melodramatic. What you want to remind the guy of is that the violence stopped – to some extent, or it went down – when the Sunnis began to believe they could work with the system."
O'Hanlon considered misguided any placement of blame for the violence on the Obama adminitration's decision to draw down troops and move them to Afghanistan.
"You know, we haven't drawn down that much yet," he said. "We certainly ended the surge, but we haven't drawn down that much. We're still at around 14 brigades. And so if we were a year from now and we were pulling out a brigade a month and we were down to nine brigades, then it would be harder for me to make this argument. But I think we're being quite gradual as it is, so far, anyway. So I don't think that can explain it."
He added, "I would lean more toward pinning this one on Maliki".
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