I am finding it difficult to see threads for optimism in Iraq, not least after Ali Fadhil’s City of Ghosts, an account of a visit to Falluja over the Christmas period (see here).
But the least unconvincing account of how things might not turn out worse that I have seen recently is Robert Malley and Peter Harling's article in the 11 Jan International Herald Tribune:
In Iraq, the United States is engaged in a war it already has lost while losing sight of a struggle in which it still may prevail. Original objectives - a secular, free-market, democratic government close to the United States and a model for the region - are no longer achievable. Worse, their pursuit has become an obstacle to realization of the most important goal: A stable government viewed by its people as a credible embodiment of national interests and able to preserve the country's territorial integrity….
U.S. troops should become less visible while maintaining rapid response capacities. Civilian protection - not the elimination of insurgents - should be the guide. Military benefits of conduct endangering civilians - sweeping attacks against insurgent sanctuaries, for example - should be measured against their lasting political damage.
Even Washington's language must change. It should cease referring to Iraq as a "front" in its war on terrorism while proclaiming that war is better fought overseas than at home - hardly a winning argument for Iraqis. And it should stop describing all insurgents as "anti-Iraqi": Forces hostile to the United States are neither necessarily nor universally hostile to establishing a sovereign state. A primary objective of Iraq's government should be to distinguish between both positions, so that those opposed to a U.S. presence can participate in the state-building enterprise.
Iraqis must recover a sense of national allegiance - which requires the emergence of a convincingly sovereign state. For the United States, this will be a thankless task: satisfying the aspirations of a population now largely hostile to its policies, and encouraging independent institutions whose credibility will depend on their being emancipated from America.
Robert Malley is a former director for Near East and South Asia Affairs at the National Security Council, and nowMiddle East program director at the International Crisis Group. Peter Harling, a consultant with ICG, has spent extensive time in Iraq.