The outside advisers who worked to persuade President Bush in 2006 to send a "surge" of reinforcement troops to Iraq now fear their efforts are on the verge of being erased.
Iraq has spiraled into a sectarian political crisis and suffered several deadly bombings since the last U.S. combat troops left on Dec. 18. Al Qaeda in Iraq, a terrorist group all but destroyed by the surge's pinpoint raids and airstrikes, claimed it carried out the biggest blast on Monday.
The advisers comprise some of the best national security minds in Washington - strategists such as retired Army Gen. John Keane, Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute.
They banded together in 2006 to devise a reinforcement strategy and sell it to the White House, as the U.S. appeared to be losing the Iraq campaign to sectarian violence and al Qaeda bombings.
They had a willing warrior in Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, and they met with White House officials, including Mr. Bush, to sell the plan.
By 2007, more troops flowed into the country and the tide of battle shifted to the U.S.
But now, less than two weeks after the last U.S. troops crossed into Kuwait, the band of advisers is becoming pessimistic.
Mr. Biddle told The Washington Times that the U.S. has missed the lessons from the Balkans, where U.S. troops remain today as a safeguard against ethnic violence, 12 years after NATO's intervention.
He said that, using the former Yugoslavia as a template, Washington at this stage of Iraq's fledgling democracy should maintain half the surge force, about 80,000. A politically viable number would be about 20,000, he said.
"The peacekeeping presence in the Balkans started big, but then ramped down quite dramatically but slowly, and the result is a place that has stayed reasonably stable," Mr. Biddle said.
"What we've got in Iraq is a situation where Sunni and Shia are still very wary of each other, as stands to reason they would be. The process of getting used to each other does happen, but it's slow and it takes time, and it hasn't had nearly enough time in Iraq," he said.
"The point is, do people who were shooting each other for their identity two or three years ago trust each other now? And the answer is, of course, they don't. You need an outside party to keep everybody calm. I think it's a mistake for us to have left when we did."
The Balkans peacekeeping force operates in Kosovo to protect its population from neighboring Serbia. U.S. troops make up about 1,400 of the 6,600-troop contingent.
Iraq's power vacuum now puts Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a position to exert authoritarian rule. His Shiite-led government chose the first day after U.S. forces exited to issue an arrest warrant for the highest elected Sunni in government, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, on terrorism charges.
Asked whether Iraq is unraveling, Mr. Biddle said: "I think there is a serious danger that it will. I think probably the likeliest single case is we won't get a return to civil war, but we will [see more] violence in the hands of Maliki and something that looks like a Shiite Saddam Hussein in two or three years."
Another adviser and surge advocate who met with Mr. Bush in 2006 is Gen. Keane, at one time the Army's vice chief of staff. Gen. Keane has bemoaned Iraq's deteriorating security and political situation since U.S. troops left.
After the pullout was announced, he said: "We should be staying there to strengthen that democracy, to let them get the kind of political gains they need to get and keep the Iranians away from strangling that country. That should be our objective, and we are walking away from that objective."
Analysts at the American Enterprise Institute also worked on and promoted the surge in 2006. Among them was Mr. Kagan, who writes in the Weekly Standard this week that the Obama administration is making false claims about Baghdad's stability "even as Iraq collapses."
"The withdrawal of all American military forces has greatly reduced America's leverage in Iraq," he wrote with wife and co-author Kimberly Kagan, who heads the Institute for the Study of War.
"U.S. military forces were a buffer to prevent political and ethno-sectarian friction from becoming violent by guaranteeing Maliki against a Sunni coup d'etat and guaranteeing the Sunnis against a Shiite campaign of militarized repression," the Kagans wrote.
"The withdrawal of that buffer precipitated this crisis and removed much of our leverage. The withdrawal is complete and unlikely to be reversed. Still, the United States maintains some leverage in Iraq and considerable leverage in the region. The Obama administration will have to use all of its skills to maximize the impact of what leverage it retains."
U.S. troops left on a timeline negotiated by the Bush administration before Iraq's 2010 parliamentary elections. The idea was to give Mr. al-Maliki political cover before nationwide voting, then try to forge a new status of forces agreement in 2011 that would keep a stability force in place.
Critics say President Obama was so eager to leave Iraq that his administration made little effort to reach a new deal.
Mr. Biddle said the administration also assumed a hands-off approach as Mr. al-Maliki took nine grueling months to form a new government.
The prime minister now is relying on a voting bloc of lawmakers loyal to anti-U.S. firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric with close ties to Iran. This alliance made it difficult for Mr. al-Maliki to buck Mr. al-Sadr and move to keep some U.S. troops on Iraqi soil.
"If you talk privately to Iraqi officials, they all wanted a sizable U.S. continued presence," Mr. Biddle said. "They were afraid they would get demagogued by the Sadrists if they said so publicly. Because the United States took a hands-off position during government-formation negotiations, the result is Maliki turned to the Sadrists and not to [the Sunnis]."
The Pentagon wanted to keep a residual stability force of 3,000 to 6,000 in Iraq. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said he could not let troops remain as long as Iraq failed to give them immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
Critics said the administration did not try hard enough to reach a deal.
"We're prepared to continue to negotiate with the Iraqis. We're prepared to try to meet whatever needs they have," Mr. Panetta told a Senate panel in November.
As U.S. troops exited Iraq on Dec. 14, Mr. Obama marked the war's end in a speech at Fort Bragg, N.C.: "Iraq is not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead. But we're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people. We're building a new partnership between our nations. And we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home."
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