It may take weeks before Iraq's newly elected parliament agrees on a new government. But whenever that government is formed the first item on its agenda should be the status and mission of foreign armies in Iraq and the duration of their presence. The issue is certain to feature prominently in negotiations among Iraqi political parties hoping to form a coalition government.
None of the Iraqi parties contesting last week's general election wants the US-led coalition troops to leave Iraq immediately. But they all agree that the next government in Baghdad must negotiate a timetable for withdrawal. It is, therefore, imperative that the US and its allies prepare a negotiating position that reflects both Iraq's new realities and the broader objective of reshaping the Middle East.
The US-led coalition has achieved all its principal objectives in Iraq:
• The Baathist regime has been toppled and its apparatus of repression dismantled. The war-machine that Saddam Hussein had used to massacre the Iraqi people and invade Iran and Kuwait has also been broken.
• The sapling of democracy has been planted in Iraqi soil and seems to be flourishing after several local elections, a constitutional referendum, and two general elections.
• A one party system has been replaced with a pluralist one with more than 200 political groups and parties representing every imaginable strand of ideology and opinion. The whole thing is backed by an increasingly interested public informed by scores of newspapers, radio and television stations, numerous political and social clubs, and over 200 nongovernmental organizations that, together, provide a picture different from the monolith of the Saddamite system.
• Baghdad, which once hosted the headquarters of some 30 international terror organizations, is now one of the few capitals in the Middle East in which terrorists are no longer welcome, let alone protected.
• Iraq's economy, modeled on Soviet-style central planning and control under Saddam, has been opened up with over 18,000 new small and medium companies registered across the country during the past three years. Iraqi agriculture, moribund in the last years of Saddam, has been revived and is now providing the bulk of the nation's food for the first time since the 1950s.
Taking all that into account, one might wonder why the US and its allies do not simply declare "mission accomplished" and leave.
The answer is that all those achievements remain fragile and vulnerable to attacks not only by the terrorist-insurgency but also mischief-making by Iraq's predatory neighbors.
Does this, therefore, mean that the US and its allies should remain military present in Iraq for decades — as has been the case in Germany and Japan after World War II?
Not necessarily. What is needed is to define the new mission of the US-led coalition beyond that of regime change and the launching of a democratic project, both of which have already been accomplished.
What could that mission be?
In his recent statements about Iraq, President George W. Bush has mentioned two, interrelated, missions: The creation of a new Iraqi Army, and the defeating of the terrorist-insurgency.
This may give the impression that these two missions can either be sequenced or may be accomplished within the same timeframe. To complicate matters further the yardsticks with which success or failure is measured in either case have not been spelled out. When would we know that we have succeeded in creating a new Iraqi Army?
Do we want an army with the same fighting capabilities as the average NATO standards? Or should we be satisfied when the new Iraqi Army reaches the standards of the time of Saddam Hussein or that of the actual army in neighboring Syria?
After liberation, the US-led coalition first focused on creating a new Iraqi police known as the Civil Defense Force.
Once the terrorist insurgency started, however, that plan was abandoned in favor of creating a more muscular military force. So far, however, the focus has been on recruiting, training, and testing light infantry units. Some of these have performed rather well in fighting the insurgency. But their success has been partly due to American logistical support and air cover.
The type of army that Iraq wants and can afford is something that can be decided primarily by the new Iraqi parliament and government. Once that has been decided we would know how much time is needed to achieve that goal and what role the US and its allies should play in reaching it.
If we go by NATO standards in place in neighboring Turkey, Iraq may need at least another 10 years before it has a credible army to defend it against any regional adversary.
The issue of the terrorist insurgency is even more fraught.
No one can assume that as soon as Iraq has a new army the insurgency would taper off. Egypt has an army twice the size of the projected Iraqi Army and, yet, it needed a quarter of a century to defeat the Islamist terrorists.
Iraq may well have to live with some level of insurgency for years, if not decades. What matters is that the terrorist insurgency has already been defeated in political terms. Although it has claimed some 10,000 lives in the past three years the terrorist insurgency has not been able to delay the political process by a single hour.
What the terrorist insurgents are fighting for in Iraq is a psychological victory that can come only if he Americans cut and run.
The coalition's presence in Iraq is covered by a unanimous resolution of the United Nations' Security Council until the autumn of next year. It is clear that that resolution cannot be renewed without the agreement both of the new Iraqi government and the US-led coalition. There is, in fact, no need for any renewal.
What is needed is for the US and allies to declare publicly that they have already achieved their key political objectives in Iraq and that they are prepared to negotiate the withdrawal of their forces with the new Iraqi government.
Such a declaration would have several merits.
First, it would reflect the reality on the ground. Yes, Iraq is still bleeding from a terrorist insurgency. But its new democratic project remains on course.
Secondly, a statement of readiness on the part of the coalition to discuss the issue will make it harder for the various Iraqi parties to use it for populist and demagogic purposes during complex negotiations over the formation of a new government.
Thirdly, such a statement would deprive the "cut-and-run" party in both the United States and Britain of the last fig-leaf to hide its shameful defeatism.
Finally, it would indicate that the commitment of the United States and its allies to the new democratic Iraq is not conditional either to the creation of a new Iraqi Army or the full defeat of the insurgency.
The US-led coalition came to Iraq not to impose democracy by force but to use force to remove impediments to Iraq's democratization. That task has been achieved in record time. The US must acknowledge that success by inviting the new Iraqi government to negotiate future bilateral relations on the basis of equality and joint interests.