Taking Stock of Iraq

The drop in violence raises hopes for progress in 2008, but it's far from a sure thing.

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The year closes on Iraq with a substantial reduction in the convulsive violence that has wreaked havoc on the country, its people, and many of America's own. As summer turned to autumn, the monthly death figures for both U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians were nearly cut in half—rates that have encouragingly continued to fall. But U.S. military commanders, though heartened, are not in celebration mode. There is little talk now of reaching turning points in a place where progress can be so fleeting. They will eat a holiday meal in the mess hall and then continue to wrestle with the hard realities on the ground.

That grappling involves plenty of questions that go to the heart of the elusive nature of war itself—and of this war in particular. The explanations for recent trends will take time, they say, to flesh out. Is the surge working, or is it "dumb luck," one colonel wondered aloud recently. The answer from both military analysts and soldiers on the ground tends to be, a little bit of both. "The bottom line is that the situation on the ground has appeared to change dramatically and for the better," says retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a West Point professor and military adviser who regularly visits Iraq. "That's not arguable. The only question is why—and to what extent is it sustainable?"

And as the surge ebbs next year, as it must because of the ferocious toll two wars have taken on the U.S. military, the questions will keep coming. Are Shiite militia leaders like Moqtada al-Sadr beginning to realize that they would do better to put aside street battles to gain more influence, or are they

at the helm of fractured forces saving their ammunition for a civil war they still believe lies in the future? And what will happen as Iraqi refugees arrive home in greater numbers, having exhausted their life savings: Will they opt for revenge or resignation as they return to houses that may have been burned to the ground or taken over by occupants unwilling to move? And how soon can they get jobs in an economy with new oil wealth but a government struggling to cobble together reconstruction projects for its people?

Here are five broad issues that U.S. military commanders are watching to help them gauge how things are going in Iraq and what comes next:

1. Troop reductions

While some 30,000 soldiers start to return home as the surge comes to an end in the months ahead, Pentagon officials will be holding their collective breath as they see what this means for the remaining American soldiers on the ground—and the Iraqi civilians they are there to protect. That will be measured in large part by whether the positive security trends continue and, just as important, whether Iraqi security forces are able to step up as they are needed. Military officials will be keeping a close eye on "enemy forces—how many attacks they make, how much capability they have remaining—and the progress of the Iraqi security forces in keeping them under control," says a senior military official in Baghdad.

That last part is pivotal: U.S. officials cite improvements by the Iraqi military—both in operations and in gaining the trust of the Iraqi public—although its ability to operate without the help of U.S. soldiers remains unclear. One challenge is logistics; in particular, how well Iraqi security forces can feed, supply, and move their soldiers. It's not a sexy topic, but the top brass in Baghdad consistently cite it as one of the biggest factors in whether Iraqi security forces can stand on their own. Many of those logistical hurdles may have less to do with capability—Iraq managed to sustain a long war with Iran—than with sectarian mistrust, which can cause the ministries to withhold supplies from their own security forces.

And the Iraqi police are a major problem. They are still seen in many neighborhoods as sectarian thugs, and it doesn't help, officials say, that within the headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the police, occasional shootings still take place within the building's halls.