In recent months, supporters of the mission in Iraq have been in high spirits.  They insist that the “Surge”—the strategy of deploying an additional 30,000 U.S. troops, which President Bush announced in December 2007—has turned around the dire security situation.  The Bush administration, they believe, has finally adopted the right approach to Iraq.

War proponents do have some evidence to back up their assertion–at least in the narrow military sense.  There is no doubt that the overall security environment in Iraq has improved.  Both the number of insurgent attacks and the number of overall fatalities (Iraqi as well as American) declined sharply during the last five months of 2007, and, despite a slight uptick in January and February, they remain about 60-percent below the levels of 2006 and the first half of 2007.  Violence in Iraq is no longer the lead story on the network evening news programs on most days.  Indeed, the media seem to have grown a bit jaded with the Iraq war now that spectacular car-bomb explosions in Baghdad and other major cities are less frequent occurrences.

Advocates of the war should be a bit more cautious about proclaiming victory, however.  For one thing, they have prematurely proclaimed victory on many occasions before.  President Bush’s infamous speech under the “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Lincoln was only the first of many faulty announcements.  The capture of Saddam Hussein, the battle of Fallujah, and the election of the Iraqi parliament (with voters waving their purple ink-stained fingers) were all hailed as decisive turning points in the conflict.  Vice President Cheney’s comment in May 2005 that the insurgency was in its “last throes” was yet another erroneous claim of imminent victory.  Given that dismal track record, Americans have a right to be skeptical when the White House and its neoconservative supporters assert that the Surge is a definitive success.

If one looks more carefully at the reasons for the improved security environment in Iraq, the case for caution and skepticism becomes even stronger.  The deployment of additional combat troops undoubtedly has had a beneficial impact, but that is not the principal reason for the better security environment.  Several other factors have played more significant roles.

One reason is especially sobering.  In Baghdad and, to some extent, in several other cities as well, killings have declined largely because previous ethnic cleansing efforts have succeeded all too well.  At the beginning of the U.S. occupation, about 45 percent of Baghdad’s neighborhoods were predominantly Shiite, about 35 percent were predominantly Sunni, and the remaining 20 percent were thoroughly mixed.  Now, about 65 percent of the neighborhoods are overwhelmingly Shiite, about 30 percent are overwhelmingly Sunni, and only about 5 percent are mixed.  The last two categories are also heavily dependent on protection by U.S. forces to maintain their precarious status.  Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Sunnis, have fled the city and, in many cases, fled Iraq entirely.  With far fewer mixed neighborhoods—and fewer Sunni neighborhoods in proximity to Shiite ones—there are simply not as many opportunities for armed clashes between rival forces or circumstances for Shiite death squads to practice their deadly trade.

A similar process of ethnic segregation has occurred in other areas of Iraq.  Indeed, there are some two million internal refugees, most of whom have moved from areas in which they were ethnic or religious minorities to areas in which they and their kinsmen are in the majority.  Another 2.4 million have left Iraq for other countries.  The security environment has become more quiescent as a result of those purges, but that should hardly occasion U.S. satisfaction.  It also does not bode well for Iraq’s long-term prospects as a united country, which remains a key objective of the U.S. mission.

Another factor explaining the decline in violence is the less confrontational role that radical Shiite cleric Muq­tada al-Sadr has been playing of late.  Frequent clashes had occurred between Sadr’s Mahdi army and both U.S.  and Iraqi-government forces since the summer of 2003.  Sadr’s followers were apparently some of the most active participants in the Shiite death squads that murdered countless Sunnis.  On more than a few occasions, especially during the first two years of the occupation, U.S. military commanders considered arresting Sadr, but they feared that doing so would enrage his followers and lead to full-scale warfare with the Mahdi army.  Moreover, after elections for Iraq’s parliament, it became even more difficult to contemplate arresting him, since his faction controlled some 30 seats in the new legislature and became (nominally, at least) a member of the political coalition supporting the U.S.-backed prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

This uneasy relationship between the U.S. occupation force and the Mahdi army persisted until September 2007, when Sadr unexpectedly announced a six-month cease-fire.  Although his forces have not entirely honored that truce, there have been noticeably fewer incidents with U.S. and Iraq-government troops, and, perhaps even more important, a significant decline in death-squad activities.

Sadr’s motives for the cease-fire (which he extended in mid-February) are not entirely clear.  Perhaps his forces had been weakened by previous skirmishes and needed time to regroup and re-equip.  In addition, factional rivalries appeared to have begun to undermine the Mahdi army, and Sadr used the cease-fire period to purge the organization of rogue elements.  Those elements apparently consisted of anyone who challenged Sadr.  Several experts, including Patrick Cockburn, the author of a new book, Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq, believe that the cease-fire has substantially strengthened Sadr’s position and given the Mahdi army time to augment its power and influence.

Whatever the motive, the cease-fire has reinforced the decline in overall violence that accompanied the Surge.  It is uncertain, though, how long that truce will last or what will happen if it comes to an end.  In all likelihood, an end to the cease-fire would bring the Mahdi army back into play as an adversary of the occupation force and lead to a resurgence in violence.  If that occurs, Sadr’s forces are likely to be even more capable and cohesive than they were previously.

The most important reason for the improved security environment has been the willingness of Gen. David Petraeus and other U.S. commanders to forge compromises with influential Sunni tribal leaders instead of reflexively regarding them as Saddam “dead-enders” and implacable enemies.  Many of those leaders were signaling a willingness to turn on Al Qaeda fighters and cooperate with the United States long before the Surge began.  Indeed, there were scattered media reports as early as the summer of 2006 that some Sunni tribes had soured on their alliances with the terrorist organization.  That was not surprising.  Foreign Al Qaeda operatives showed a degree of arrogance worthy of the worst neoconservatives.  For proud Sunni chieftains, accustomed to exercising power in their regions, being snubbed, bypassed, and bullied by Al Qaeda zealots was infuriating.  Al Qaeda’s strategy of car bombings and other indiscriminate acts of violence against fellow Muslims served to alienate the organization from its Iraqi allies.  Even though most of the victims were Shiites, the spectacle of innocents being slaughtered on a daily basis became too much to tolerate.

Unlike their predecessors, Petraeus and his subordinates were shrewd enough to exploit the growing rifts in the insurgency.  Indeed, the United States began a strategy to court receptive Sunni leaders.  Washington has provided extensive funding to cooperative Sunni tribes and has even helped train the armed fighters of the so-called Awakening Councils.  The strategy has changed from trying to bludgeon the Sunnis to trying to bribe them.

By early December 2007, the U.S. military command had signed up 73,397 men to the Awakening Councils.  Some 65,000 were already being given salaries, courtesy of the U.S. Treasury.  Ordinary members received stipends of $300 per month, while higher-ranking figures received somewhat larger sums.  Three hundred dollars might not seem like much to most Americans, but in Iraq, that is a sizable largesse.  It is especially attractive in a country that has an unemployment rate running well in excess of 20 percent, and where economic opportunities for the politically dispossessed Sunnis are especially bleak.

In addition to the salaries given to rank-and-file Sunnis, unspecified sums are being passed out to tribal leaders, largely in the form of reconstruction grants.  The United States distributed $223 million to leaders in Ramadi, a major Sunni city, alone between February and December 2007.  At least some of that money is for purchasing weapons—apparently coming from Saudi Arabia—to boost the military capabilities of the Awakening Councils.  And, of course, some of the lucre likely goes into the pockets of Sunni tribal elders.

At least in the short term, that approach has worked far better than the previous U.S. strategy.  Many, although not all, Sunni leaders have waged open warfare on Al Qaeda fighters, and, perhaps even more important, the new Sunni allies have provided valuable intelligence to the U.S. military about Al Qaeda, instead of shielding the organization.

Yet the strategy of bribing and arming friendly Sunni forces is not without potential peril.  If Washington’s new Sunni allies do not remain bribed, they could pose a more lethal danger than before both to the Iraqi central government and to U.S. forces.  As Washington Post correspondents Alissa J. Rubin and Damien Cave note:

It is an experiment in counterinsurgency warfare that could contain the seeds of civil war—in which, if the fears come true, the United States would have helped organize some of the Sunni forces arrayed against the central government on which so many American lives and dollars have been spent.

Finally, whatever the tactical military successes of the Surge, it has not achieved its larger political goal.  Getting Iraq’s feuding Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish political leaders to create an effective, united government remains elusive.  American optimists highlight such developments as the parliament’s recent passage of de-Ba’athification reform and a national budget as evidence of great progress.  But most Sunnis regard the former as a fraud that will make their precarious status even worse, and when advocates of staying in Iraq cite the mere passage of a national budget as a huge achievement, they are truly grasping at straws.

The reality is that the central government remains quarrelsome and largely impotent.  The real power lies in the increasingly ethnically homogenous regions.  Iraqi Kurdistan is an independent state in all but name, having its own flag, currency, and military—and routinely bypassing Baghdad to cut deals with foreign oil companies and other firms.  The predominantly Shiite south is likewise increasingly independent of Baghdad when it comes to the policies that really matter.  The oil-rich Basra area, for example, is dominated by a local Shiite faction that repeatedly shows its contempt for the central government.  Despite the recent lull in violence, the long-term prospects for a stable, united (much less secular and democratic) Iraq are not good.

What the Surge has done, though, is give the United States a window of opportunity to execute a semi-graceful withdrawal.  U.S. leaders could claim, quite plausibly, that Washington has gone the extra mile to give the Iraqi people a chance to create a new and effective political system.  We overthrew Saddam Hussein, presided over the creation of a new constitution, supervised the election of a new government, stabilized the security environment, and dealt severe blows to Al Qaeda forces that infiltrated the country (after our invasion).  American leaders should argue that it is now up to Iraqi leaders and the Iraqi people to determine the future of their country.  If they are not ready now, when will they be?

Unfortunately, U.S. political leaders apparently regard the lull in violence as an excuse to perpetuate the American presence in Iraq indefinitely.  As the Surge draws to a close and U.S. troop levels return to pre-Surge levels, it is important to clarify the real strategic choice in Iraq.  The choice is not between a U.S. withdrawal in the next six to twelve months or a withdrawal sometime in the next five years or so.  It is a choice between a prompt withdrawal or trying to stay in Iraq for decades–or, in Sen. John McCain’s flippant formulation, a century.  Unfortunately, the creation of numerous “enduring” military bases and the building of an embassy nearly as large as Vatican City confirms that the United States intends to stay a very long time.

That would be a serious error.  Despite the current decline in violence, it is unlikely that Washington will ever achieve the goals that it had when it invaded Iraq in 2003.  The notion of post-Saddam Iraq as a secular democratic model for the Middle East was always a chimera.  The long-term prospects for even modest unity and stability remain bleak, with or without a U.S. military presence.  One must ask how many more American tax dollars should be wasted, and, even more important, how many more Americans should die because political leaders are unwilling to admit that they made a mistake.  The United States needs a withdrawal strategy—one measured in months, not years.  The partial success of the Surge provides that opportunity.