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It was supposed to be a day of vindication for the Bush administration, as the world watched former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein facing charges in an independent Iraqi court on Wednesday, only days after the Iraqi nation went peacefully to vote in a referendum over the new constitution - and most probably approved it by a large majority.
But when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took her seat at the center of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it was clear that it was not a festive day.
Rice, who tried to present the lawmakers with an optimistic view of the situation in Iraq, found herself under attack from both sides of the political spectrum. Senators, both Democrats and Republicans, wanted to know what now: how long will the American troops have to stay in Iraq, how many soldiers will be needed to do the job, and what exactly is the job that has to be done there. Joe Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the committee, found the sound byte which summed up the questions of most members of the committee: "What's the plan, Stan?" he asked of Rice.
That, in essence, is still the question, even after the referendum - what is the American plan for Iraq?
There is an equally pithy answer to this question. Rice encapsulated the American strategy in Iraq in three words: "clear, hold, build".
By "clear" the administration is talking about the need to take care of areas which are hit hardest by insurgents and terrorists; then comes the "hold" - making sure there is an efficient civilian and military presence in those areas to prevent the insurgents from taking hold again; and the third phase is the "build" - constructing Iraqi institutions that will be able to ensure the country's security and stability - namely an effective military force and a representative democracy.
Now that the referendum has taken place and the constitution has likely been approved, the US administration feels that its three-pronged approach can move forward and gain success. The foundation of this theory is the belief that democracy can defeat terrorism.
Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Iraq coordinator at the State Department, put it this way: "The political process is very important for defeating the insurgency, which is the overall goal of our presence and our work with the Iraqis". Jeffrey made a point of emphasizing the connection between politics and military operations in Iraq, inferring that the success of the referendum can help with the fight against the insurgency.
"This has to be a political as well as a military security process, and we hope and we believe that elections, in bringing all groups into the political process as we saw [on Saturday], is a step in the right direction," Jeffrey said.
The strategy of "clear, hold, build" is not a new idea. The US has tried it, relatively successfully, in Afghanistan, where the first mission of American troops, after driving the Taliban out of power, was to tackle their remnants in the mountain regions. The two other stages - "hold" and "build", were done, and are still being done, simultaneously.
The US is maintaining a significant presence in Afghanistan, making sure Taliban loyalists and al-Qaida terrorists do not regain control over regions from which they were ousted and, at the same time, the forces are serving as a shield for the democratic institutions of the state and for President Hamid Karzai.
But the Afghan model cannot necessarily be copied in Iraq.
The biggest problem is with step one: "clearing" the insurgency. While in Afghanistan the problem was concentrated in a small and fixed number of supporters of the old regime, in Iraq there is a constant flow of new recruits joining the insurgents. Iraq has turned into a symbol for those fighting American world domination and for terrorists from around the world. Before moving to eradicate the insurgency from the country, the US has to figure out a way to stop it from growing in size.
The politics of Iraq is also different than that of Afghanistan. While in Afghanistan the US-backed government, though fragile, is strong enough to maintain a certain amount of sovereignty in all regions, in Iraq the tensions are greater and the dividing lines seem to be harder to bridge.
One clear policy of the US administration is not to significantly change the number of American troops in Iraq. Currently there are some 150,000 US soldiers there and many military experts claim that this is not enough to fulfill the diverse missions that are imposed on the troops: fighting insurgents, securing the borders and serving as a security force within the cities. A larger military force might be more effective launching major offensives against the insurgency and keeping Iraqi citizens secure.
But sending more troops to Iraq is out of the question. It is not a matter of military needs, but rather of public opinion. With polls showing support for the war and for the way President Bush is conducting it is at an all time low, the administration is in no position to send reinforcements to Iraq.
As part of the post-referendum strategy, the US is planning to increase its civilian presence in Iraq, embedding diplomats, police officers and aid workers with the military forces and setting up provincial reconstruction teams that will work in each province. The idea is to take some of the reconstruction burden off of the military and to show the Iraqi people the softer side of the US presence.
But for the American public, these are only minor adjustments in US policy in Iraq. Even if there is a grand plan for gaining stability, there is still no answer to the most pressing question, "when?" When will the troops come home?
President Bush answers with a slogan: "As the Iraqis stand up, coalition and US forces will stand down." But when that will happen, and exactly how one measures that the Iraqis have stood up is unclear. The formal reply is that any timetable will only serve the enemies of the US and will encourage them to increase their attacks. Unofficially, the talk is of 10 years or even more.
It is likely the main force that will determine America's exit from Iraq has nothing to do with establishing Iraqi democracy or with the abilities of the new Iraqi military. Rather it is American public opinion that will decide when it is time to leave and with the number of casualties reaching 2000, the patience of the American citizens, is being tried.
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