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Achievable goals in exiting Iraq

MORE SERIOUS than the refusal of the president and senior officials to acknowledge either the deteriorating situation in Iraq or any past error is their failure to provide a clear strategic goal for the future. In effect, we are told that our troops will stay until the job is done. But the job itself remains ill-defined, beyond slogans about freedom and democracy.

The president must now answer the question: What is the political end state that must be achieved so we can truly tell our soldiers "Mission Accomplished" and bring them home?

Our only hope is to establish a strategic goal that we have some small chance of achieving. One may be on the horizon: the election, scheduled for the end of this year, of an Iraqi constitutional government. When it is in place, we should withdraw our combat forces, leaving behind only such training and advisory personnel as are required. Any other goal is unachievable and could embroil our combat forces in an endless civil war.

Strategy is best developed by anticipating key events down the road. There are three such points over the next year.

First, holding credible elections for a transitional national assembly at the end of this month is problematic. The insurgency has grown significantly over the past 15 months. In about half the country, which is home to about 40 percent of Iraqis, the situation is so precarious that many people may not dare show up at the polls. The result will be that those areas of the country that are relatively secure -- primarily Shi'ite and Kurdish -- will be disproportionately represented in the national assembly, making Sunni participation even less likely and future Sunni opposition more certain.

Yet the administration is right: Postponing elections at this late stage is not viable. Three-quarters or more of the Iraqi population want elections. The insurgents would also see any postponement as a vindication of their strategy. Finally, it's not clear when the situation would be more propitious for elections.

The next critical point will be the drafting of a new constitution by the newly elected assembly. We and the international community must ensure that it protects minority rights and includes mechanisms for the nonviolent resolution of disputes. The chances are very high that we will see continued struggle among Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds for many years. The absence of such a constitution will guarantee that the struggle is primarily military.

The third critical point will then arrive with the election of the new government. We need clarity on what to do once it is in place. If we continue to provide large numbers of combat troops in what is likely to be a continuing civil war, we could be trapped there for many years. Some may argue for such a course, seeing this struggle as a civil war between a democratic (more or less) government and radical opponents. But we should see Iraq for what it also is: a central front in the region-wide conflict between Shi'ites and Sunni radicals. Getting caught in the middle would not only continue to impose great costs on our military and society, but also bear serious political costs throughout the Muslim world.

We should now not only decide, but announce, that our combat presence will end once we have accomplished our mission of seeing a constitutional government elected. Between now and then, the mission of our military forces must support this political strategy.

Crucially, we should end our counter-insurgency operations; this offensive is failing -- at least according to the Rumsfeldian metric of whether we are killing the insurgents faster than we are creating them. A year ago, intelligence officials estimated that there were 2,000 to 5,000 insurgents; today, according to the head of the Iraqi intelligence service, there are 30,000 hardcore fighters and 200,000 insurgents overall.

The other main military mission must be to continue training and equipping Iraqi security forces. But we need to do so in a more serious, expedited way. We cannot expect young Iraqi men, desperate for some form of income, to take classes for a couple of weeks and then be competent police officers. Our friends in Europe and elsewhere should help much more than they have, if not by training Iraqis in Iraq then by doing so in their own countries.

This political/military strategy offers us a chance to aim at an achievable success, one which would allow us to focus again on the many serious threats to our security around the world. We owe it to our interests and our society -- and especially to our military, who could some day be blamed, as they were so unfairly in Vietnam, for failing to achieve vague goals that were, in the end, unachievable.

Anthony Lake, a former national security adviser, is a professor at Georgetown University. 

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