As Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. forces in Iraq, prepared to hand over the reins of command to Gen. Raymond Odierno this week, he cautioned that recent progress in the country remains quite fragile and "not yet self-sustaining"—sentiments echoed in the halls of the Pentagon as well.
"I don't like to use words like victory or defeat," said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who made a surprise visit to Baghdad this week. "In fact, I am a realist, not an optimist or a pessimist. And the reality is that there has been significant progress but there are still serious challenges."
To that end, U.S. defense officials will be keeping a close eye on four key factors that continue to concern them greatly in Iraq—and that will help them gauge how things are going post-surge in the months to come.
1. Local Militias. The rise of the local militias known as Sons of Iraq—and paid by the U.S. government—has been touted as a major reason for the decline in violence throughout the country. They are largely composed of Sunni citizens, who currently operate under what can be charitably described as the watchful—some would say deeply suspicious—eye of the Shiite-dominated government.
U.S. forces have been working hard to integrate them into the Iraqi police and Army. It was, in fact, one of Petraeus' big goals when he arrived in Iraq last year.
But these efforts have been slow going and consistently blocked, U.S. military officials say, by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Shiite members of parliament. Sometimes, this opposition has taken the form of stalling. At other times, it has been more overt.
Recently, the government said that it would allow only 20 percent of the Sons of Iraq ranks to be absorbed into the police and Army. "The state cannot accept the Awakening," the name for rise of the Sunni militias allied with U.S. forces, according to one leading Shiite member of parliament. "Their days are numbered," he added last month.
Most alarmingly, there have also been reports that Sons of Iraq leaders have been targeted. Several have been arrested. Next month, the Awakening movement will undergo another major strain as U.S. forces plan to reduce their ranks by nearly 40 percent, from more than 32,000 to less than 18,000. The goal is to get most of them into job-training programs, where they can learn to be electricians, bricklayers, and carpenters, for example.
But the threat of continued targeting of Sons of Iraq—by the Iraqi government—is of deep concern to U.S. officials, particularly because many were formerly allied with other insurgent groups, including al Qaeda in Iraq. "If this is not handled properly, we could have a security issue," said Brig. Gen. David Perkins, the senior military spokesman in Iraq, last month. "You don't want to give anybody a reason to turn back to al Qaeda."
2. Decline of U.S. Forces. The surge is now over, and the U.S. military plans to pull an additional 8,000 U.S. troops out of Iraq early next year. That will bring the total number of U.S. forces in the country to around 138,000, down from a peak of 170,000. But with progress as fragile as it is, U.S. officials point out, the question becomes who will fill in for the troops should violence reignite.
Gates has pointed to the growing abilities of Iraqi troops. But U.S. officials caution, too, that putting Iraqi security forces in charge too soon would be a mistake. "I'm not sure that pushing them forward is the right thing that we want to do. We tried that once before and found that that didn't work," said Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, referring to the pre-2007 strategy that emphasized quickly handing off security responsibilities to Iraqi forces and keeping U.S. forces on larger bases.
Last month, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, told reporters that he has "about seven different [insurgent] organizations" that he's fighting in his area. He adds that none of the four provinces in his area of operations "are at an acceptable level of security, in my opinion." And, for this reason, he added, U.S. forces should not yet turn over responsibility in these areas to the Iraqi Army.