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.
But what happens after that hinges on conditions in Iraq and whether Congress concludes that America is helping to give birth to, if not a model democracy, then at least a moderately stable place—or whether it decides that the effort is irredeemably flawed. In the course of debating the alternatives, lawmakers will be weighing several key factors:
Violence. There is agreement that the surge is, to an extent, working, in that sectarian violence is down in Iraq, according to military figures. There is, however, disagreement about just how to define that sectarian violence. GAO head David Walker testified last week that his office has not been able "to get comfortable" with U.S. military data on that count. That's not surprising. "Sectarian violence is the hardest to gauge, because it's not always easy to figure out why one person killed another," says one senior U.S. military official in Baghdad. "But obviously, when you're not finding piles of bodies in markets and rivers—which was fairly common when I arrived—that's a pretty good sign."
Others have floated the idea that perhaps a downturn in violence is the byproduct of the ethnic cleansing that has already cleared out many mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad and sent some 2 million Sunnis fleeing to Syria and Jordan.
Some residents cite an increased feeling of safety as the result of increased U.S. troop presence and a proliferation of joint security stations throughout the city. The bottom line, though, is not just whether sectarian violence is down, but whether any gains are temporary or not and whether such strides are sustainable by Iraqi security forces when the surge ends.
Politics. In addition to saving lives, the point of decreasing the violence is to help bring about some form of lasting political peace. In other words, bringing minority Sunnis, who once ruled the country, into a now largely Shiite-led government with lingering sectarian resentments. On this front, the GAO report found little progress. In response, Petraeus and others have focused on grass-roots security efforts that they hope will foster national reconciliation.
There has been such progress in areas like Anbar province, where Sunni sheiks have teamed with U.S. forces to fight the Sunni terrorist group known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, as well as in Baghdad. The question, say Walker and others, becomes just why Sunnis have joined up with Americans. Are these partnerships widely replicable? And, perhaps most important, are they sustainable? Just because Sunni sheiks are teaming with U.S. forces does not mean they support the national government. What's more, some say that empowering de facto Sunni militias may actually undermine the national government.
Others argue that Maliki simply needs to be far more accommodating. There have been congressional calls to replace Maliki, but U.S. officials—having concluded that would further delay matters—are working instead to identify Iraqi technocrats capable of filling 17 current cabinet vacancies. "Those inclined toward changing this government," Crocker tells U.S. News, "would do well to consider the pain and time it took to form the current government."
Security Forces. A key question now is whether the de facto Sunni militias, supported by U.S. military forces, can be brought into the Iraqi government security forces. Such a scenario is, suffice it to say, not a dream come true for the Shiite Maliki, no friend to former Baathists. The U.S. strategy now is to force Maliki to accept more Sunni participation in the government. The jury is still out on whether Maliki will drop the sectarian agenda, but slowly—very slowly—the prime minister may be coming around. The Iraqi government has started to quietly bring former Iraqi Army officers back into the armed forces, and the U.S. military continues to push for Sunnis who have signed up for U.S.-paid guard duty in their neighborhoods to be incorporated into the Shiite-dominated police force.
It's a crucial development. While 2006 was widely touted as the "Year of the Police," the 25,000-strong national police force remains broken—beyond repair, some say. U.S. military officials say it is unlikely that the force will be disbanded, as the Jones report recommends. "There are clearly challenges there," says the senior military official in Baghdad. "But I don't think scrubbing a system and starting again is the way to go. We're well beyond that point." National police, some U.S. officials are quick to add, are a small portion of the country's security forces.
After the surge, most scenarios put the U.S. training of Iraqi security forces at the center of future efforts. It is a "back to the future" scenario, a repeat of the pre-surge mantra that as Iraqi forces stand up, American forces can stand down. There are two key factors that determine the ability of Iraqi security forces to support U.S. forces in operations—and to eventually operate on their own: readiness and reliability. The Jones report concluded that the Iraqi Army, which consists of about 152,000 troops, is "increasingly effective," but while the commission expects to see continued improvement in the next 12 to 18 months, this will not include, the report adds, the ability to operate independently or to "secure Iraqi borders against conventional military and external threats."
Diplomacy. To that end, analysts are pushing for more robust diplomatic efforts to reach out to Iraq's neighbors. Though much of the conversation this week is revolving around a set of benchmarks that analyze the Iraqi government's advances in legislative, security, and economic realms, the actions of Iraq's neighbors—Saudi Arabia, Syria, and most important, Iran—will affect the course of events.
For the United States, it is clear more military help won't be coming from allies. Even Great Britain will soon pull the last of its 5,500 troops out of the volatile southern region of Basra, but other countries may do more to assist development of the Iraqi ministries or to pressure Iran.
U.S. Military. The bulk of the U.S. debate centers on how many U.S. troops are needed in Iraq and for how long. At the heart of this debate are very real constraints on the U.S. military. Extending the surge past the spring would require lengthening the tours of troops from 15 to 18 months—something top military leaders have repeatedly said they are unwilling to do given the extreme stresses of combat on their soldiers.
Top military officials have hinted that some U.S. troops may start coming home this winter. "We know we are going to start reducing sometime between January and June next year," says Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 commander of U.S. troops in Iraq. That hinges, he says, on results of the surge, and the simple fact that "the surge is ending and they've [troops have] done their 15 months. But the point I'm trying to make is to make those recommendations now, it's not going to be accurate."
What is clear is that the military is stressed, but while the tasks ahead remain considerable, a smaller force level in Iraq would be far more sustainable. There remain, of course, some calls in Congress for an immediate withdrawal of all troops. Privately, some military officials estimate that the military could comfortably keep 10 brigades (which each number some 3,500 troops) in Iraq and three brigades in Afghanistan "indefinitely."
But if the administration "tries to keep a force as big as it can in Iraq, the next administration is going to have to dramatically shrink the force and you're damaging our long-term interests," says one senior military official. Exhausted captains and noncommissioned officers are worn out by the war and are leaving the military in numbers that concern senior Pentagon officials.
Not even the best military minds can predict whether America will in the end achieve what most closely resembles victory—a stable Iraq. "I am not a pessimist," says Petraeus's chief of staff, Col. Peter Mansoor. "But there is a long way to go, and no guarantee of success."
With Linda Robinson in Iraq