A quiet change in strategy

By Jim Hoagland Published:

By Jim Hoagland

WASHINGTON -- Two important and related changes in the Bush administrations strategy for the long war on global terrorism emerged here last week. One tiptoed in quietly. The other came with trumpets blaring for political effect. It might have worked better the other way around.

The quiet change was suggested in classified briefings for friendly diplomats and visiting foreign officials: U.S. troops will be moving out of Iraqs streets and then out of Iraqs cities by the end of 2006 as part of a coordinated drawing down and concentration of all foreign forces. Troops from Italy and other nations will leave the country and a reduced British force will redeploy into a smaller area of operational responsibility.

This is part of a new internal exit strategy that President Bush hinted at in his March 13 Iraq speech. American forces will stay in Iraq beyond 2006 to fight al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists who are using Iraq as a platform for terrorism. Iraqi units -- operating with U.S. logistical assistance from remote locations and embedded command help -- are to be given primary responsibility for containing the domestic insurgency. This is what Bush calls Iraqis standing up to allow Americans to stand down.

Drawing lines between global and local terrorists will be a difficult task, as U.S. officials privately acknowledge. And Iraqi security forces and their political leaders, deadlocked in an intensifying power struggle, still must demonstrate they can carry out their part of the internal exit strategy.

But on its face, that strategy is a coherent way of reducing the foreign occupation footprint that fuels much of the conflict in Iraq. It realistically scales down what Iraqi units can be expected to accomplish: A long-term containment of terrorist attacks to a level that does not destroy the countrys fraying ethnic and sectarian balances, rather than a quick final victory over the rebels. Finally, an internal exit is consistent with the administrations newest National Security Strategy white paper, released with fanfare on Thursday.

The White House has struggled since Sept. 11, 2001, to define with precision both the enemy that Americans confront and the path to victory they must take in the war on terror. The Bush team gets closer with this exercise, which portrays the long war as a global ideological struggle that hinges on a battle of ideas within and about Islam.

That is change: The words ideology and Islam were each mentioned only twice, and in passing, in the 12,629-word version of the strategy document issued in 2002. They are at the conceptual heart of this years one-third longer paper, which argues that Washington and its allies must counter the lies behind the terrorists ideology by empowering the very people the terrorists most want to exploit: the faithful followers of Islam. ... Responsible Islamic leaders need to denounce an ideology that distorts and exploits Islam for destructive ends and defiles a proud religion.

Bush himself steered drafters away from any discussion of Islam in the earlier paper, I am told, and his concern about attacking another religion is reflected in a caveat this year that the War on Terror is a battle of ideas ... not a battle of religions. But this years realistic acknowledgment of the decisive role of moderate Muslims in defeating al-Qaeda and its allies is a welcome adjustment.

The heavy emphasis on ideology -- explicitly al-Qaedas and implicitly Bushs -- is less useful. By proposing democracy as a cure-all for the vast frustrations and delusions of al-Qaedas target audience, the White House skips over a lot of the hard work that must still be done to shape the military and political battlefields of the long war, trying instead to rally U.S. and foreign support for Iraq and Afghanistan.

A new tone of realism about those conflicts has taken hold in internal administration discussions of the way forward. Nothing could reassure Americans more than publicizing that change.

The intensity of that power struggle in Baghdad was brought home to me when my phone rang shortly after a column reporting that Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari is fighting to keep his job was published last week. The president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, was calling to say that he too is dug in: The Shiite alliance that backs Jafari should present an alternative candidate so a national unity government can be formed in the next two weeks.

Talabani, an acquaintance of 30 years, would not discuss his reasons for opposing Jafari now. But speaking in English, he emphasized that the presidency needs new powers to block extreme demands from the other side. As they say, stay tuned.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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