Make or break for Iraq war

September 12th, 2007
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From the editorial pages of the Calgary Herald, Sunday, September 9, 2007:

Sub-headline: Gen. Petraeus’ testimony to Congress this week will determine whether Bush’s strategy remains alive

For three years Iraq’s Anbar province was among the world’s most dangerous places. The vast triangle of desert, its population clinging to the green ribbon of irrigated lands along the Euphrates River, teemed with Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq terrorists, tribal insurgents, suicide-bombing recruits transiting the “rat line” from Syria, renegade Baathists and ordinary smugglers and thieves. U.S. Marines had fought stubbornly and sometimes brilliantly for the towns up and down the river, but never pacified the region. Last year, U.S. military intelligence officers concluded Anbar was a write-off.

Two weeks ago, the family of a Baghdadi dentist made a personal visit to Damascus, Syria. They journeyed by road – traversing Anbar in both directions, unmolested. One night, their group even camped out. “Obviously the drivers and families feel safe enough that they know they won’t be robbed and slaughtered by cold-blooded terrorists,” the dentist, Omar Fadhil, exulted on his English-language weblog, Iraq the Model. “I still laugh every time I think of this incredible change and I honestly wouldn’t have believed it if the story teller wasn’t my father.”

The “incredible change” is the expulsion of Al Qaeda in Iraq from its principal bastion, Iraq’s largest province and the heart of Sunni Arab opposition to Iraq’s elected government and American forces. Anbar is largely quiescent.

Will it be enough to rescue the Bush Administration’s war effort in Iraq? Tomorrow, [Al: Monday] Gen. David Petraeus, the American four-star general who is Commander, Multi-National Forces – Iraq, will testify before Congress on the state of play in Iraq. He’ll be followed by Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador who’s trying to nudge Iraq’s political parties towards compromise.

Their testimony itself results from a delicate political compromise. Following the Republican Party’s setbacks in last November’s Congressional elections, with American forces stalemated in Iraq and president George Bush’s strategy in tatters, Bush had to get out from under mounting pressure to leave Iraq and accept a massive strategic defeat for himself and the U.S.

Bush’s answer: a new defence secretary, a new Iraq commander, a new counter-insurgency strategy and a formal, objective progress report to Congress in September. Without the Congressional support this gained Bush, American soldiers might already be streaming out of Iraq – a potentially genocidal cataclysm for Iraqis. But Congress’s OK was tenuous, and temporary. What Petraeus reports could determine whether Bush can continue.

Petraeus is an army intellectual who commanded the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq and co-authored the U.S. military’s new counter-insurgency field manual. Bolstered by a “surge” of six extra combat brigades that began in January, he aimed to restore physical security for Iraqis. American and Iraqi units would sweep cities neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood and house-by-house – then use local outposts to integrate with the population.

His first priority was Baghdad, the scene of horrific sectarian carnage and the international symbol of Iraq’s failure. Al Qaeda bombs by day were matched by nightly death-squad killings, bodies dumped in the capital’s streets.

American casualties went up. But as streets were occupied, neighbourhoods cordoned and markets reopened, Iraqis began flooding American forces with warnings, tips and encouragement. Al Qaeda, it turned out, was hated. Michael Totten, an independent journalist, recently embedded with the 82nd Airborne Division in the Graya’at neighbourhood. Reports Totten: “Their sector has been so thoroughly cleared of insurgents that they haven’t suffered a single casualty this year.”

Petraeus pushed offensive operations out to surrounding villages and towns called the “Baghdad belts”, where many terrorists had fled and were now “commuting” into town. The process: retake and clear an area, hold it in force, and begin rebuilding and restarting the local economy.

Amidst this came the Anbar turnaround. The region’s tribal society was realizing it too despised Al Qaeda – and tribal leaders began organizing an uprising called the “Anbar Awakening”. Nowadays, Marine units in the scattered combat bases routinely go days without filing a “contact report” with the enemy. Former tribal insurgents are patrolling fields and villages alongside Iraqi army units and American trainers. Tribal leaders in other provinces are trying to mimic this process.

Iraq remains exceptionally violent. Areas are lawless and dangerous. Politics are chaotic and sectarian, with deep distrust between Sunni and Shia, Kurds and Arabs, secularists and Islamists. Iranian meddling is endemic and deadly. Shiite militias like the Mahdi Army of demagogue Moqtada Al Sadr are a menacing wild card.

Partisan politics in Washington have also reached a fever pitch. Some war opponents are so intent on harming Bush they’ve subordinated U.S. foreign policy and national interests to their own calculations. Prominent Democrat James Clyburn recently declared that if early reports of Petraeus’s progress turned into a serious trend, it would be “a real big problem for us.”

Ponder this: Signs things are improving for fellow countrymen risking their lives in Iraq, for the stability of an allied government, for the foreign policy position of his country itself, were “a problem”. Because they complicated a party’s anti-war positioning. This would be akin to Liberal leader Stephane Dion being disappointed – publicly – if no Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were killed by roadside bombs for a month or two.

“As shadows cast beneath the Capitol dome lengthen, as summer draws to a close, official Washington is preparing for what is shaping up to be the nastiest fight in years,” warned U.S. commentator Reid Wilson last week.

Quite so. Last week war opponents were trying to discredit Petraeus before he even showed up on Capitol Hill. Reports and analyses flew about claiming that violence in Iraq isn’t down at all, that Iraqi security forces – whom Petraeus helped train – are corrupt, incompetent and riddled with Shiite extremists, that the Iraqi government failed to meet most of 18 “benchmarks” set by Democratic Party bosses. The turnaround in Anbar was ignored.

So what might Petraeus and Crocker actually report? Their message could mirror this assessment by Jason Campbell and Michael O’Hanlon, experts from the Brookings Institute who’ve visited Iraq: “Given the continuing violence, and the absence of political progress, Iraq is not now on a trajectory toward sustainable stability – and America is not yet on a clear path to an exit strategy.” These two analysts do recognize the progress – but see the war as far from won.

Half a world away, Al Qaeda has been trying to discredit Petraeus in its own murderous way – by maintaining the appearance of limitless violence. The stakes for them couldn’t be higher, for Al Qaeda’s top leaders have declared Iraq the central battleground of their war with the West.

In mid-August, terrorists unleashed horrific carnage in northern Iraq, killing more than 500 Yazidi villagers, members of an obscure Muslim sect. The attack had no military significance, and signalled Al Qaeda’s apparent inability to mount a complex, multi-vehicle operation in Baghdad or Anbar. But it generated days of worldwide headlines.

Almost unreported went a concurrent phenomenon: U.S. commanders working around the clock to maintain offensive momentum, calling in every favour and exploiting every intelligence tip, constantly raiding Al Qaeda-held areas to keep the terrorists off balance and prevent them from mounting an early-September surge of their own – its message aimed at Washington’s politicians.

On Labour Day, Bush landed in Anbar to drive home the message that things are looking up – and that he intends to see the job through. “In any other war, with any other president, this event would be recognized for what it is: the sign of a crucial victory over two challenges that had seemed both unconquerable and fatal,” wrote military historian Frederick Kagan in a magazine article last week.

Bush needs enough evidence of improvement to credibly demand more time for Petraeus to finish the job. For, he vowed during his Anbar touch-down, “When we begin to draw down troops from Iraq, it will be from a position of strength and success, not from a position of fear and failure.” Although many Canadians no doubt sneer at him, can anyone of good sense and goodwill disagree with that?

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