The other day, it was the first anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq. As expected, opponents of the war seized the opportunity to add a fresh coat of gloom to the picture they paint of the situation there.
The doomsters insist the United States and its allies, including the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people who have just formed their first democratically elected government, are losing and the terrorists, euphemistically labelled "insurgents" are winning. The problem is these doomsters do not offer any standard for success against which the performance of the US-led coalition and the Iraqi people could be measured.
When it comes to offering a strategy for coping with this supposed failure, all that they have to offer is a time-table for US military withdrawal.
The only rational way to approach this issue is to ask: What business does the United States have in Iraq? If we assume it has no business, a perfectly legitimate position, we should be asking not for a time-table but immediate withdrawal. But if we assume the United States is in Iraq on some business then, surely, we cannot talk of withdrawal in abstraction. Also, any success or failure could then be measured against the goals of that business. Thus the real debate concerns the nature of the business the United States may have in Iraq and the best ways of accomplishing it.
Did the United States go to Iraq to seize oil resources and bring oil prices down? If yes, then with oil prices pegged at $60 (Dh220) per barrel compared to $18 (Dh66) before the war, it has failed and better bring its troops back immediately.
Or did the United States go to Iraq only to topple Saddam Hussain and to finish the job which Bush Senior had left unfinished? If that is the case, the United States has succeeded because Saddam and almost all his henchmen are under lock and key. Again, the United States can declare that it achieved its goal and bring its soldiers home.
US President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, however, claim the US-led coalition is in Iraq on an altogether more ambitious mission, of which the toppling of Saddam Hussain was only the first phase.
That mission is aimed at transforming Iraq from a despotic system into a vibrant democracy. The plan is a part of a broader strategy to bring the Middle East into the global political and economic mainstream.
The US-led intervention in Iraq and earlier in Afghanistan, however, is not the result of starry-eyed altruism but the fruit of enlightened self-interest. Today, the single deadliest threat to the US national security comes from Islamist terrorism which, although it has sympathisers in the West, uses the Middle East as its main support base. Terrorism cannot be defeated and eventually uprooted unless it is deprived of the swamps of despotism in which it breeds like deadly mosquitoes.
The United States and its allies are beginning to abandon the 60-year or so policy of allying themselves with Arab despots in exchange for cheap oil. The US-led interventions in both Afghanistan and Iraq symbolised that change. Even though the United States and its allies have not fully shifted their weight away from despotic regimes and in favour of pro-democracy forces in the region, the Middle East is already abuzz with messages of change and reform.
If we assume that the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were part of such a grand strategy we will then have something with which to measure success and failure.
Let us see how this works in the case of Iraq.
The Iraq mission could be seen in four phases: liberation, pacification, reconstruction and democratisation. These phases should not be considered consequentially. Rather they should be seen as parallel tracks along which movements of different rhythm and tempo takes place.
The first phase liberation has been completed in the physical sense. The Baathist regime and its machinery of repression have been shattered, never again to be rebuilt. In a broader sense, however, it may take generations before the people of Iraq can liberate their souls from decades of life under the worst tyranny seen since the Second World War.
The second phase pacification has also been largely accomplished. Barring common criminality partly due to lack of proper policing, most of Iraq is peaceful. The terrorists do not hold any territory, even at night. Over the past year, specially since the general election of January 30, the insurgents have been losing support even in the Jazirah region, known as the Sunni Triangle. They have also failed to develop a political leadership to challenge the leadership that emerged from Iraq's first free elections. Nor has the insurgency developed any clear political demands. This partly explains why it is increasingly depending on "holy warriors" from other Arab countries.
The full pacification of Iraq, in the sense of not having a single car bomb, may not come anytime soon. No Arab country is in such a felicitous state. In this context, the experience of Algeria is of importance. The war that the Algerian state has waged against Islamist terror gangs for the past 13 years has claimed almost a quarter of a million lives. It took Egypt 20 years and over 30,000 lives to crush the Islamofascists.
The third phase reconstruction has been the least successful. Despite efforts on a heroic scale, the US-led coalition gets no more than a C, largely due to bureaucratic constraints, confused planning and corruption. But reconstruction, too, is a long-term effort and Iraq may need years to become a modern economy.
The fourth phase democratisation is an undeniable success. We have already mentioned the general, provincial and municipal elections. But a more important, and lesser known, fact is the culture of democracy is beginning to strike roots in Iraq. This can be seen in the growth of the new privately-owned media, and constant improvement in its quality, and the emergence of Western-style political parties. Again, all this may take decades before Iraq becomes a truly democratic society as opposed to a despotic one with some trappings of democracy.
Tactically, the enemies of this grand strategy, that is to say the Islamofascists and their Baathist and Khomeinist allies, remain deadly and dangerous. As in other Arab countries they may continue to wreak havoc in Iraq for some time yet. Strategically, however, their back has been broken by the combined force of American military power and the Iraqi people's resolve to shake-off tyranny.
The Iraq enterprise has been and remains a strategic success for the United States, its Iraqi and other allies and for all those who wish the Middle East democratised. But there is still much unfinished business. This is no reason to cut and run.
So when should the US-led coalition withdraw? The answer has been there all along: when the current political process in Iraq produces a new elected government based on a new democratic constitution ratified in a popular referendum.
Such a government, speaking for the whole Iraqi people, could then, if it so wishes, demand an end to the coalition's military presence.
Such a time-table takes us into the spring of next year or, as Iraq's Prime Minister Ebhraim Al Jaafari said in London the other day, early 2007. Until then it would be irresponsible to cast doubts on the resolve either of the United States or of the new Iraqi leadership to stay the course.
Iranian writer Amir Taheri is the author of "L'Irak: Le Dessous Des Cartes" (Editions Complexe, France; 2003). He is a member of Benador Associates.