If all goes according to plan, the roughly 120,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq will fall to 50,000 by August of next year, a decline that would greatly facilitate a stepped up pace of operations in Afghanistan and that would give a battered and overextended American military badly-needed breathing room. But the undeniable fact is that the Iraqis will have an extremely difficult time containing their insurgency without substantial American assistance. Incredibly, the August attacks involved two-ton truck bombs assembled in the middle of the Iraqi capital. If the Iraqi security forces don’t have the intelligence capability to foil such a crude plot, it’s easy to see why American military planners are full of despair. The hope is that Iraq will become something like Colombia during the most violent phase of its civil war: a country that controls its borders and that can contain lawlessness and violence just enough to prevent it from overwhelming the central government, even without large numbers of foreign troops to keep the peace. For a while, that goal seemed to be within reach. Now, well, it’s hard to tell.
Meanwhile, the political process is going in exactly the wrong direction. The contentious negotiations over the January election are the least of it. Just as the Islamic State of Iraq intended, the attacks have led to a series of accusations and counteraccusations. Shia politicians are inclined to blame Syria and Saudi Arabia and, of course, members of the Sunni-dominated Baathist Party for the violence. And Sunni politicians, in turn, will often accuse leading Shia Iraqis of serving as Iranians pawns. Reconciliation between Sunni and Shia Iraqis is as far away as ever.