As recently as a month ago, it appeared that Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker would be running into a withering fusillade of rhetorical fire when they appeared on Capitol Hill to report on the progress of the “surge” in Iraq. Now that their testimony is upon us, the political environment has become, in military argot, considerably more “permissive.”
A sign of how much things have changed: In July, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was pressing for a “date certain” for troop withdrawal; he derided those who wanted to pass a nonbinding drawdown resolution “that has no teeth in it” just so “you can circle and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ “Today, he’s trying to reach accommodation with Republicans on just such a “Kumbaya” bill.
It’s obvious what accounts for the more cooperative mood. Notwithstanding all the political hype and hyperbole, events on the ground do matter, and there is no denying that events in Iraq have been moving in the right direction since the surge started. Not even the Democrats deny it. Sens. Jack Reed, Hillary Clinton and Dick Durbin, among others, have acknowledged that, as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin put it, “The military aspects of President Bush’s new strategy in Iraq... appear to have produced some credible and positive results.”
These results include, according to a well-placed officer in Baghdad, a 48%decline in civilian deaths across the entire country since December 2006 and a whopping 74% reduction in Baghdad, the focus of American and Iraq security efforts.
Faced with those impressive returns, surge opponents have tried to change the topic by pointing to the lack of political progress. They cite the Government Accountability Office report that found that the Iraqi government failed to meet 11 of 18 benchmarks and only partly met four others. But not one of these benchmarks relates to the most stunning and unexpected development of the last year: the decision by large numbers of Sunnis to take up arms against Al Qaeda in Iraq.
This movement started in Anbar province and has now spread to Diyala, Nineveh , Babil and other provinces, including parts of Baghdad. According to David Kilcullen, Petraeus’ recently departed counterinsurgency advisor, the Sunni uprising “is now affecting about 40% of the country.” If it continues, it could have far-reaching implications, political as well as military, because the more success that American and Iraqi security forces have against Al Qaeda (which is rabidly anti-Shiite), the more they undermine the claim that Shiite militias are necessary to protect their own people. “We might end up,” Kilcullen writes, “with a revolt of the center against both extremes, which would be a truly major development.”
Or we might not. The tribal strategy may still fail; it may even backfire by exacerbating warlordism and sectarian divisions. But it’s clear that the top-down political strategy we were following before — of trying to get agreement from political leaders in Baghdad — wasn’t getting anywhere. The new bottom-up strategy, focused on the tribes and the provinces, is producing tangible improvements in security.
While the long-run consequences for national-level political reconciliation remain speculative, in the short term American and Iraqi troops working with tens of thousands of newfound Sunni allies have Al Qaeda on the run. This is the biggest blow that group has suffered since American troops entered its Afghan lair in October 2001. Ending the surge prematurely would allow the terrorists to regroup and get back on their feet.
But the prospects of that happening are slim. Given the strains of “Kumbaya” in Washington , it is probable that the surge will be allowed to run its course. That course is not, however, indefinite. Current projections at the Pentagon are for the first of the five surge brigades to start coming home in April 2008. The surge could be prolonged by either calling up more National Guard brigades or by extending deployments beyond 15 months, but neither option is terribly likely.
In all likelihood, by August 2008 the U.S. troop contingent will be down from 160,000 to 130,000, the pre-surge level. What then? The prudent course would be to maintain a substantial force into 2009, by which time Petraeus’ Joint Campaign Plan aims to create “sustainable security.” That goal seems consistent with the findings of a congressionally chartered commission led by retired Gen. James Jones, which reported that “the Iraqi army is capable of taking over an increasing amount of day-to-day combat responsibilities from coalition forces.”
It will be years before the Iraqi military is independent of U.S. support when it comes to vital “combat enablers,” such as air cover, communications and logistics, but the same could be said about many of our NATO allies. More significant is that the Jones commission found “the Iraqi army possesses an adequate supply of willing and able manpower” and that “there is evidence to show that the emerging Iraqi soldier is willing to fight against the declared enemies of the state, with some exceptions remaining along ethnic lines.”
The national police aren’t doing as well; they remain hopelessly sectarian and ineffective. But the more numerous local police are another bright spot cited by the panel.
Far from being already lost, as Reid said in April, the war is being won. But if our troops are to build on the momentum of the last few months, they will need more time and greater patience on the home front. That may be a hard pill for the body politic to swallow, but it’s better than the alternative — one of the worst military defeats ever suffered by this country and one of the biggest victories for Al Qaeda and the Islamic Republic of Iran, temporarily united in their hatred for the Great Satan.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.