As the date for the referendum on the Iraqi constitution draws nigh the question of what strategy the US and Coalition should pursue in Iraq remains neither less urgent nor more settled than it has been at any time in the past two and a half years. That the Coalition has reached this point without formulating a clear or effective counterinsurgency strategy is amazing, made more so by the fact that with the formation of a new Iraqi government the utility of the Coalition presence in Iraq (always problematic and limited) will rapidly wither away. To date US forces continue their round of search and destroy missions in northern Iraq, despite clear indications that such operations are doing nothing to stem the tide of insurgent violence or US casualties.
The only notion approaching a strategy that the Bush administration has offered is the "stand up, stand down" plan- the proposition that US forces will "stand down (withdraw)" as Iraqi forces "stand up"- as the Iraqi national army becomes capable of fighting the insurgency. This principle is either woefully misguided or deeply disingenuous. It is a fantasy to suppose that a national army could be constructed without a national government, yet both the administration and its critics here in the US have persisted in promoting this illusion.
Interminable debates over who is to blame for the slow speed at which Iraqi units have been made "combat ready" read like the dialogue of an Ionesco play. It has now been more than 30 months since the defeat of Saddam Hussein. I recently queried my father-in-law, a WWII veteran, and we determined that from the time of his joining the US Army until his landing in a combat zone in France was less than one year. Why would it take more than 30 months to turn citizens into soldiers in one instance and less than 12 in another? The answer is clear- to become a citizen-soldier one must first be a citizen, and to be a citizen one must have a government the legitimacy of which one recognizes and supports.
The truth of this assessment is clearly demonstrable in the case of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army. US forces were in Iraq less than a year when al-Sadr ordered his forces into the field against the US. Coalition commanders are fearful of sending Iraqi army soldiers to fight a small and primitively armed insurgency, yet Moqtada al-Sadr had no difficulty in mobilizing his men against the most technologically sophisticated and lethal combat force in world history. What could account for this disparity? Yes, the Mahdi army was tactically defeated, but can anyone doubt that the Iraqi army would be a much more effective fighting force if it had some fraction of the political will and internal cohesion of al-Sadr's militia? Today the most effective ex-Coalition forces in Iraq are those given a mission and esprit du corps by the larger institutions they serve- al-Sadr's Mahdi army, SCIRI's Badr Brigades, and the Kurdish Authority's Pesh Murga militia.
In this light one can see that waiting for the Iraqi national army to "stand up" prior to the Coalition withdrawal is totally unrealistic. The Iraqi national army will only begin to behave as such when at least the rudiments of an Iraqi nation emerge, and as long as Coalition forces remain in Iraq the Iraqi government will be perceived as a puppet regime. Once a new constitution is in place and an independent government is elected under its auspices (leaving aside complex questions of how legitimate the Constitution will be perceived to be given the difficulties in its drafting) there will be some hope that the Iraqi national army will cohere into a force capable of defending the new constitutional order, but that process will only begin AS Coalition forces begin to withdraw, NOT before.
A strong argument can be made that Coaltion forces must remain in Iraq to protect the formation of a new government and that subsequent withdrawal should be gradual and prudently conducted, but it is madness to insist that the Coalition must remain until the insurgency is defeated or even until the Iraqi national army proves itself capable of doing so. The Coalition cannot defeat the insurgency, as the presence of Coalition forces add as much fuel to the fire of the insurgency as their combat power depletes. The Iraqi national army, for its part, will only become capable of defeating the insurgency when it develops the same cohesiveness and political will displayed last year by the Mahdi army, and that will only happen when Coalition troops have withdrawn or at least begun to do so in earnest.