Staying in Iraq

Obama should consider Allawi’s request to rethink the U.S. withdrawal timeline.

The current spate of murderous bombings in Iraq has shown the poor development of the Iraqi security forces in urban areas. Since 2006, Prime Minister Nuri Maliki has kept tight political control over the police and the army in key areas, especially Baghdad. Simply put, Maliki has done a terrible job on the security front because he centralized control in his immediate office and because his anti-Baathist pathology has manifested itself in anti-Sunni political actions.

No self-respecting police force would allow dozens of murderers to sneak into an urban neighborhood, undertake a day-long killing spree and escape without a trace. The killers had informants, safe houses and vehicles. Somewhere on the outskirts they have a lair. They do not pass unnoticed by everyone. They cannot come back days later and set off bombs hither and yon, murdering dozens more, and again escape if a police-and-detective force are on the alert.

Calculating his political fortunes, Maliki has kept American aid on security matters at arm's length. While Iran lavished money and support on its preferred Iraqi politicians, the United States, beginning with Condoleezza Rice in 2005, has made scant efforts to support Iraqi politicians. Yet Ayad Allawi surprisingly emerged as the narrow front-leader to put together a coalition and claim the premiership. Allawi has publicly asked Washington to reconsider its withdrawal timeline.

This opens an opportunity for the Obama administration to shore up Iraq's chances of emerging as a functioning democratic state. President Obama is skilled at employing eloquent rhetoric. This is his chance to make it "perfectly clear" that the United States has no desire to interfere, but does stand ready to offer expert technical police assistance and, yes, the prudent and temporary redeployment of U.S. forces from their bases outside the cities in order to do all we can to assist the Iraqi officials in bringing the al-Qaeda terrorists to justice and safeguarding the Iraqi people.

Phrased the right way, we're not picking favorites and we're not responding to one candidate over another. We are indicating that we do not have a fixed deadline that means more than security.


Bing West is a former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs and combat marine. His third book on the Iraq War is The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics and the Endgame in Iraq (Random House, 2008).