Running out of options

Here’s the upshot of two days of testimony on Capitol Hill by our top military commander and top diplomat in Iraq: We’re stuck.

The “surge,” due to begin winding down this fall, brought some measure of increased security, but not as much as one might expect from 30,000 additional troops. The Sunnis and Shiites are not closer to reconciliation; the central government remains quarrelsome and ineffective; and the Iraqi security forces are only marginally more capable.

The one positive development, an alliance between Sunni tribes and the U.S. military against al Qaeda, was not a part of the surge strategy and indeed came as something of a surprise.

And there are no good options. A rapid U.S. withdrawal, said Ambassador Ryan Crocker, one of our most experienced hands with Iraq, would mean “massive human suffering — well beyond what has already occurred …”

A phased departure with announced troop withdrawals, he said, would only encourage the warring factions to stockpile ammunition and get ready “for a big nasty street fight.”

Meanwhile, we are witnessing the de facto partition of Iraq, into a Shiite south, Sunnis in the center under U.S. protection and a thriving Kurdish north. The depth of that partition was demonstrated this week when the semiautonomous Kurds signed an exploration deal with Hunt Oil without reference to the central government in Baghdad — still without a national oil law despite a year of pressure by the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, an increasingly aggressive Iran, with whom Army Gen. David Petraeus says we’re fighting a “proxy war” in Iraq, makes any withdrawal strategically unwise for the broader Gulf. The United States is building a large base and a string of outposts along the Iranian border to interdict weapons. The base, to be finished in November, is to be occupied for at least two years.

As Petraeus and Crocker laid it out, we have to keep going forward in Iraq because we can’t go back.

By next summer, Petraeus plans on reducing U.S. troop levels to 130,000, the level we had before the surge. In other words, we’re back where we started. We’re stuck.