Over the last few months, the volume of bad news from Iraq has diminished. For example, the number of US troops killed in November (about one per day) was the lowest in a couple of years. While itâ€™s much harder to measure Iraqi casualties the number seems to be declining, at least in Baghdad. What does this mean for the policy choices facing the US and its allies?
The short answer is â€˜Not muchâ€™
The long answer has a number of parts.
First, while there is less bad news as regards death and destruction, thereâ€™s no corresponding increase in good news, in the sense of progress towards a sustainable solution. Admittedly, itâ€™s good for the US that the Sunni insurgents have decided to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, and to do so with US backing. But that very backing increases their capacity to sustain conflict with the Shia majority in the long run. And the one area where things seemed to have been resolved, Iraqi Kurdistan, is now on the edge of an international conflict with Turkey.
Second, the decline in bloodshed doesnâ€™t say much about past policy decisions. The big question of whether it was a good idea to go to war was settled long ago. The hundreds of thousands of dead canâ€™t be brought back to life and the trillions of dollars spent or committed are gone forever. No conceivable future outcome can make this war anything other than a disaster.
As regards the decisions of the past year, and particularly the US escalation (aka the â€˜surgeâ€™) the picture is a bit more mixed. While the Pentagon is claiming success for the surge, the UK (followed in this by Poland and now Australia) is claiming similar success for a policy that amounts to â€˜declare victory and get outâ€™. And even if the recent decline in deaths can be attributed to the surge, the year as a whole has been the bloodiest of the war, partly because of the expansion of the conflict in the middle of the year.
Most importantly, as regards future options, little has changed in relative terms. There are no good options, but all of the options look a little less likely to end in disaster than they did a few months ago. Whether US troops are withdrawn rapidly or slowly, the worst-case disaster scenarios, such as all-out civil war, or a helicopter evacuation of the Green Zone, now seem to have receded a bit. But with another year passed, and not much achieved, the time for withdrawal must have come that much closer.
In the end, the only lessons are old ones. War is unpredictable, and all wars come to an end sooner or later. But it is usually beyond the wit of those who start wars to predict when they will end or who will remain standing.