The report by the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, opens the next chapter in the debate about when to bring the troops home
In the course of creating any new strategy, there are three big questions military planners pose to themselves: What are the ways, what are the means, and what are the ends? In Iraq, the ways and means of the current strategy have involved sending an extra 30,000 troops into the country's capital this year in the hopes of tamping down violence there. The ends: to give the national government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, breathing room to try to bring together the citizens of his broken country. The question on the table this week: How is that working out for the Iraqis? No less important, how is that working out for a U.S. military strained mightily by this troop buildup?
The answers to these questions will determine in large part the crucial next step: where we go from here. In Capitol Hill hearings coinciding with the anniversary of September 11, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker—privately referred to in the Pentagon halls as the "twin towers" of testimony—are delivering the news that progress toward the current brass ring of Iraqi political reconciliation has been, put most charitably, uneven.
At such a crucial time, it is remarkable for the U.S. general in charge of the war to so thoroughly set the terms of the national debate. President Bush, in a tacit acknowledgment of his credibility problems, has pushed Petraeus out front. And for months, lawmakers have deferred any tough action-taking until after he has his say. Now, this assessment offers points that can be alternately embraced or rejected by war critics and supporters. But as keeper of the purse strings, it is ultimately Congress, not a general and arguably not even Bush as commander in chief, that decides whether the surge will continue months longer—and whether the bulk of the 168,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq will be heading home sooner or later.
The Petraeus and Crocker testimonies come on the heels of reports released last week that find that, while there are promising local developments on a number of fronts, there remain serious hurdles to stability—to say nothing of national healing. In a separate report requested by Congress, retired four-star Gen. James Jones, a plain-spoken former Supreme Allied commander, chaired a commission that last week made headlines. It declared that while there is much progress to herald within the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi National Police force is "operationally ineffective" and "not viable in its current form"—so infiltrated as it is with militia thugs, the report concludes, that it would be best to simply "disband" the units.
The police are not the only such challenge. A report last week by the U.S. Government Accountability Office pithily concluded that "violence remains high, the number of Iraqi security forces capable of conducting independent operations has declined, and militias are not disarmed." The military disputed some of the GAO's points, and lawmakers will very likely allow Petraeus to continue the surge into the spring. Planners are looking at drawing down some 4,000 troops by early 2008—a nod to congressional war critics and the strains of the surge.