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Iraq - The Closed Window of Opportunity

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On July 4th, President Bush reiterated that US troops would stay in Iraq until "the job is done." But what is "the job?" Can it be "done?" Is there still a window of opportunity in Iraq?

The Bush Administration thinks the window is still open. In a June 13th interview, Major General Bill Caldwell, the Army's deputy chief of staff for strategic effects, said "there is a window of opportunity right now to ensure Iraq will remain whole and become prosperous." Caldwell added that this "window" would last five to seven months, until just after the November 7th elections.

General Caldwell defined the window as a largely economic opportunity "to ensure Iraq will remain whole and become prosperous." The most recent Gallup Poll defined the window in terms of democracy, "Should the United States troops stay in Iraq as long as it takes to make sure Iraq is a stable democracy?" A recent Atlantic Monthly poll defined the window in terms of domestic security," "What would be best for Iraq's security and stability over the next two years?" These three different definitions of the US goal in Iraq -"stable democracy," "whole and prosperous," and "security and stability"-reflect the shifting objectives of the Bush Administration.

Even as Bush's definition of "victory" in Iraq has altered, the notion that the US has a window of opportunity has remained constant. His unstated assumption has been that the US has an unlimited amount of time to accomplish our mission; that no matter how many mistakes we make the window remains open for Iraqi democracy, prosperity, and security. Yet, it's not in the nature of windows of opportunity to remain open indefinitely. In the business world, these windows only open briefly. George Bush should have learned this at Harvard Business School or as a CEO. For example, there was a narrow window of opportunity for the Concorde supersonic airliner. The window closed and "the British and French government continued to fund the joint development of Concorde even after it became apparent that there was no longer an economic case for the aircraft... political and legal issues ultimately made it impossible for either government to pull out." Once a window closes no amount of funding can reopen it, but it's very difficult for those in charge to acknowledge this fact. That's what's happened in Iraq.

It's one of the functions of leaders to recognize when a window of opportunity closes, to cut off funding for an effort even though this may be politically difficult. Unfortunately for America, George Bush is not a leader but rather a politician.

The truth is that the Bush Administration has failed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The White House refuses to acknowledge this and claims that all is well, the window is still open. A relatively short time after the US invaded Afghanistan, in 2001, President Bush declared victory and told the nation that al-Qaida and the Taliban had been vanquished. The US invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003; on May 1st Bush again declared victory and said that the regime of Saddam Hussein, "an ally of al-Qaida" had been toppled. On March 1st of this year, President Bush made a four-hour visit to a heavily fortified area of Kabul and described the progress in Afghanistan as "inspiring." On June 13th Bush made a five-hour visit to Baghdad's massively fortified green zone. Afterward, he said, "I was inspired to be able to visit the capital of a free and democratic Iraq."

Nonetheless, A recent study by NYU Professor Barnett Rubin indicated that the window for Afghan democracy has closed. Rubin painted a grim picture of Afghanistan including: "A corrupt and ineffective administration without resources and a potentially dysfunctional parliament." The US has promoted a national parliament ensconced in Kabul, but has not contributed the resources required to secure civil society in the rest of the country. The same mistake has been repeated in Iraq. The sole democratic institution is the national Parliament, which is housed in Baghdad's "green zone." No civil society has been nurtured in Iraq, because the Bush Administration didn't provide the necessary resources.

The economies of both countries are in shambles. The Afghan window of opportunity for prosperity never opened. Rubin described the desperate situation in the countryside, "Levels of poverty, hunger, ill health, illiteracy, and gender inequality that put Afghanistan near the bottom of every global ranking." Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid reported that Afghanistan, "needs to develop an entire alternative economy to replace the drug economy." However, there has been no international investment to accomplish this; nor has there been the funding necessary to build a modern infrastructure; "Only one in three Kabul residents has electricity." Iraq's economy is also in ruins. A recent article estimated the Iraqi unemployment rate as exceeding 60 percent in 2005. At the end of 2006, Iraqi reconstruction money runs out and there is little to show for our investment. The US failed to provide safe drinking water in heavily populated areas of Iraq and gas and electricity remain below pre-war levels.

These failures leave only the window for internal security as possibly still open. There are three standards that can be used to evaluate this window: by objective measures, is security better or worse? What do the people think? And, what do the leaders think? Yet, by each of these standards, the US has failed to provide security in Afghanistan or Iraq. Recently the Defense Department warned Congress that the Afghan insurgency was growing and represented the greatest threat "at any point since late 2001." A recent New York Times snapshot of Iraq showed that the insurgency is increasing there, too.

Afghan public opinion is turning against the US efforts. Last month the US commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry noted "Ordinary Afghans won't risk their lives to support Karzai's government, which many view as weak and corrupt." Public opinion in Iraq is also negative. a recent poll indicates 70% of Iraqis favor setting a timeline for the withdrawal of US forces.

On June 23rd, Afghanistan President Karzai "criticized the U.S.-led coalition's anti-terror campaign Thursday, deploring the deaths of hundreds of Afghans and appealing for more financial help for his government." "Karzai said the focus on hunting militants doesn't address terrorism's root causes. 'We must engage strategically in disarming terrorism by stopping their sources of supply of money, training, equipment and motivation.'" On May 30th, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said, "His patience was wearing thin with excuses from U.S. troops that they kill civilians 'by mistake.'" Maliki asked for a timeline for withdrawal of US troops.

Despite George Bush's phony optimism and stubborn dogmatism, the die is cast: the US is not going to spend more money on reconstruction or send more troops to either Iraq or Afghanistan. The US window of opportunity has closed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's time to make the tough decisions that a real leader would make, but that Bush is incapable of making. It's time to bring our troops home and rethink the war on terror.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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