TAL AFAR….Last year, it seemed as if half the reporters in Baghdad made a pilgrimage to Ninewah province and filed glowing reports about how the relative calm in the city of Tal Afar demonstrated that counterinsurgency could work in Iraq if only it were planned and executed competently. This was always something of a mirage, but even with that in mind yesterday’s news about the resurgence of violence there left me too discouraged to write anything about it. However, others are made of sterner stuff. Joe Klein gets the gist here:

The violence in Tal Afar is all the more depressing because that city was the site of the most recent, pre-Baghdad experiment in counter-insurgency tactics. The estimable scholar-warrior Col H.R. McMaster led the effort, and Bush praised it at the time…and it fell apart as soon as the Americans left.

Spencer Ackerman, who spent last week in Mosul (about 40 miles east of Tal Afar), says that without exception, every officer he talked to credited the relative peace of Ninewah province to “the competence and strength of the 2nd and 3rd Iraqi Army Divisions operating in Ninewah, as well as the Iraqi police.” But that was last week. So what happened?

The depth of sectarian division in Ninewah is impressive to behold, even for a cynic or a pessimist….Yet for the most part, the political process in the province has held.

….What the Tal Afar massacre shows is how thin a tissue the process is. By Baghdad standards, the twin suicide bombings weren’t that much pressure for the jihadists to apply, and they managed to spur a bloodbath that sucked at least some members of the security forces in….Yet Petraeus, Wiercinski, Twitty, etc, have a point. Ninewah does evince more normalcy than most Iraqi provinces. The trouble is that things like the Tal Afar massacre are part of normalcy in the new Iraq.

It’s simply not possible for a political process to take even minimal hold in the middle of a tinderbox — and this week’s violence strongly suggests that even after two years of successful (!) counterinsurgency Tal Afar remains a tinderbox. So ask yourself: If the Army’s showpiece of counterinsurgency — in a city of modest size far away from the fury of the Sunni triangle — breaks down at the first hint of violence, what does that say about Baghdad? That we would need 200,000 troops there for ten years to have even a modest hope of success? Probably. But we don’t have either 200,000 troops or ten years.

Every day that we stay in Iraq does further damage to our long-range best interests in the Middle East. At best, that would be worth it only if our continued presence there were likely to bring a measure of peace to Iraq itself. The failure of Tal Afar suggests that we don’t have either the manpower or the ability to do that, and that in turn means we’re literally accomplishing nothing in Iraq except making things worse along almost every dimension.

The sooner we get out of Iraq, the sooner we can rethink our recklessly militaristic approach to the war on terror and instead start applying some common sense to the problem. Unfortunately, it looks like we still have a couple more years of digging ourselves deeper into a hole before that will happen. 2009 can’t come soon enough.