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A nation must think before it acts.
The past few weeks have introduced a whirlwind of reporting on the current situation in Iraq. In particular, the reports of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces in Iraq, the U.S. General Accountability Office’s report, and the September 10-11, 2007 testimonies of Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Army General David Petraeus before the House and Senate Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, respectively, have caused much debate and political mudslinging. The pro- and anti-Bush camps tend to see such reports entirely through their own analytical prism. Worse still, each side has some ground to stand on in making their particular arguments, because the metrics for judging success or retrogression on the ground are often inexact and therefore can yield contradictory findings for or against the war. That being said, the surge and refined counterinsurgency strategy that began earlier this year does appear to be working. Whether the metrics continue on an upward path remains to be seen; still, given the consequences of defeat, they suggest that the current strategy should be allowed to continue until the spring, at which time a fuller picture of the situation on the ground should determine whether the strategy should be totally reexamined and other options undertaken. What follows is a discussion of the surge strategy, the abovementioned reports, and the options moving forward to provide more context and evidence for the position stated above.
The surge strategy that the president announced on January 10, 2007 called for a multi-tooled and multi-phased approach toward the political-military situation on the ground. More troops would be committed to the fight and a new emphasis on counterinsurgency operations would guide the use of those troops. While some have argued that Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus’ recent testimonies amounted to a nine-month report card on the surge, in reality the full surge force package was not in place until earlier this past summer. Presently there are 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq; according to figures collected by the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon, we had 140,000 troops in Iraq in November 2006, 135,000 troops in February 2007, and 150,000 troops in May 2007.
Regardless, the number of boots on the ground is not necessarily the best metric for success. How those forces and other interagency actors would be used on the ground (i.e., “force employment”) would be just as, if not more so, critical to the strategy’s chances of success. Key determinants for the successful force employment and implementation of such a strategy are the leaders in place on the ground. In Iraq this fundamentally changed with General Petraeus’ assumption of command of Multinational Force-Iraq in February 2007 and Crocker’s confirmation as ambassador to Iraq the next month. No matter what one’s view of the current situation on the ground, the arrival of these two individuals has seemingly created a new sense of unity of effort and increased labors to build Iraqi and U.S. counterinsurgency capabilities on scene. U.S. forces have moved away from a thick concentration on massive forward operating bases (FOBs) and have deployed out to smaller combat outposts (COPs) where they have more interaction with Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Iraqi populace.
The Petraeus-Crocker testimonies were preceded by several other reports of note. The Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq Report, or the Jones Commission, was mandated under May 2007 Congressional legislation. Its twenty commissioners have a combined history of over 500 years military and more than 150 years of law enforcement service. The Commission examined the security environment of Iraq and assessed the forces serving under both the Iraqi Defense and Interior ministries.
Overall, the Commission found that Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have made uneven progress, but signs point to an increasing capability to provide internal security. Externally, however, the ISF will not be capable of independently securing their borders against foreign conventional military threats (p. 8). In the case of the defense ministry, there are still logistical and administrative problems that hamper capability and effectiveness. The Iraqi Army will be unable to independently operate within the next 12-18 months, but that is mainly due to the lack of adequate logistics and leadership deficiencies.
The commissioners were less sanguine about prospects for the Interior Ministry, which they found to be a ministry in name only that serves dysfunctionally and along sectarian lines (p. 10). The Iraqi Police Service, National Police Force, and Border Security forces are all assessed as being ineffective absent a functional ministry.
The General Accountability Office also issued a report on its independent assessment of 18 benchmarks in the legislative (7), economic (1), and security (10) realms. It found that the Iraqi government has met 3 benchmarks, partially met 4 others, and failed to meet the other 11. For its part, the administration, through the State Department, claims that conditions are present to meet only 16 of the 18 benchmarks, and that in those 16 areas, progress is satisfactory in 8, mixed in 2, and unsatisfactory in 6. Again, different measures produce different evaluations.
The administration and the GAO agreed that the Iraqi government has failed in enacting legislation on de-Baathification and for the equitable distribution of hydrocarbon resources to the people of Iraq, providing Iraqi commanders with authority to execute the Baghdad Security Plan without political intervention to go after sectarian parties, ensuring that ISF are enforcing the law even-handedly, increasing the number of ISF units capable of operating independently, and preventing Iraqi political authorities from undermining or making false statements against ISF members. In addition, the GAO claims that the Iraqi government has failed to form a Constitutional Review Committee and then conduct a review and enact legislation establishing electoral commissions with special emphasis on provincial elections, reducing sectarian violence, eliminating militia control of local security, enacting and implementing legislation on amnesty and a strong militia disarmament program.
Agreement on Iraqi progress was shared, in part or in whole, between the GAO and the administration on legislation to form semi-autonomous regions, the establishment of holistic committees to support the Baghdad Security Plan (BSP), the provision of 3 Iraqi Army brigades to support Baghdad operations, ensuring that Prime Minister Maliki keeps his word on the BSP not allowing sectarian or political safe havens for insurgents, establishing planned joint security stations across Baghdad, ensuring that minority political rights in the legislature are protected, and ensuring that $10 billion in Iraqi revenues are allocated and spent for reconstruction projects.
The advent of a new strategy and a more unified diplomatic-military leadership comes amid a bitterly partisan debate, aggravated by the early onset of presidential campaigning. Although General Petraeus, like Ambassador Crocker, is a “career professional,” attitudes toward his report were sharply political: in a Gallup poll taken on the day of the general’s testimony, 68 percent of Republicans surveyed stated that his report would be independent and objective compared to 68 percent of Democrats, who held that the testimony would be biased to reflect the administration’s position. The ambassador and the general gave frank, direct testimonies, designed in part to cool the boiling stew of partisanship. There were no glowing progress reports, but each man stated that progress, however frustrating and slow, is taking place.
Ambassador Crocker stated that “the cumulative trajectory of political, economic, and diplomatic developments in Iraq is upwards, although the slope of that line is not steep.” He acknowledged that the progress will be uneven and that “[t]here will be no single moment at which we can claim victory; any turning point will likely only be recognized in retrospect.” The legacy of Saddam Hussein and the sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007 have produced a context where modern Iraq is best characterized as a “traumatized society.” And while there are frustrations with politics at the national level there has been a flowering of federalism at the local and regional levels, particularly in the west and north, and such regional consolidation has helped with the security environment in those parts of the country. Still, the security environment has led the Iraqi economy to perform sub optimally — especially in terms of manufacturing and agriculture. And while many neighbors have been helped in Iraq (in particular Kuwait, Jordan, and Turkey), Syria has been “problematic” and Iran plays a “harmful role.” That having been said, the U.S. is expanding the number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (advisors on a full-range of political and economic issues) to 25 this year (up from 10 previously) and he called for the establishment of an Iraqi-American Enterprise Fund to provide for investment, training, and infrastructure improvements.
General Petraeus, for his part, declared that the military objectives of the “Surge” are largely being met. In particular, going after Al Qaeda-Iraq has reduced the number of security incidents and helped with the rejection of Al Qaeda in Anbar over the past eight months. Iraqi security forces continue to grow in number and capability, if slowly. However, all is not bright: “Lack of adequate government capacity, lingering sectarian mistrust, and various forms of corruption add to Iraq’s challenges.” Agreeing with the Jones Commission, he acknowledged that sectarian issues, logistics and support deficiencies, and insufficient numbers of qualified commissioned and non-commissioned officers hindered the effectiveness of the ISF. Still, of 140 stood-up Iraqi Army, National Police, and Special Operations Forces battalions, 95 are capable of taking the lead in operations with some coalition support. Moving forward the U.S. should be able to reduce forces starting in December and return to a pre-surge level of 15 brigade combat teams by summer 2008. If progress continues, that number could then be decreased even further. Petraeus cautioned that there will continue to be a sizeable role for U.S. forces for the foreseeable future, but concluded that over time the U.S.’s leading and partnering portions of combat operations should give way to providing overwatch and serving as a backstop to the ISF.
The Ambassador and the General underscored that one cannot divorce the military and police roles from the political, cultural, and economic contexts. Much progress needs to be gained on the ground, particularly on the political and economic fronts. The events of the past six months suggest that the best way ahead on those fronts is a bubble-up approach that focuses on providing security at lower levels, which then percolates to produce political progress at the local and regional levels to further press reform at the national level. As the late-French officer and counterinsurgency expert David Galula gladly quotes from a Chinese source, an insurgency is a 20 percent military and 80 percent political proposition. While one may quibble with the percentage distribution, in counterinsurgency operations the political ends overshadows the military means. Three elements—time, the Iraqi Security Forces, and politics—might just allow such a bubble-up strategy to work in Iraq.
(1) Time. The Surge strategy should be allowed to run its course while U.S. troops are available on the ground. By the spring a clearer picture should emerge as to whether recent gains are real or just a chimera. This is, no doubt, tough on the troops, many of whom have been extended to 15-month rotations, but current conditions seem to warrant the continuance of a full-court press. The developments in Anbar province allow a shift to Baghdad, Diyala, Salahaddin, and to provinces further south. Time is also needed because the full repercussions of the repositioning of British troops in Basra are not yet evident — and Basra is important because it both abuts the major supply route for the land delivery of supplies for U.S. forces in Iraq and is a major epicenter for Iranian influenced Shia militias.
(2) ISF. While there are certainly many problems with the Iraqi Security Forces, the dueling feuds over effectiveness might not be using the proper metrics. To be sure, logistical difficulties and shortages for the ISF must continue to be pressed, particularly from U.S. advisors at the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team and military, police, and border transition team levels, but one element seems to be paramount: can these units fight? Various evaluation methods of the readiness of Iraqi forces are nice to have and can show progress or slippage in performance, but ultimately the best metric seems to be whether such forces are actively engaging insurgents and criminal elements within their areas of operations without contributing to sectarian violence. If units are conducting themselves in this way then increased coalition attention should be given to helping in areas such as straightening out logistics. Less or no assistance should be forthcoming if units with enough soldiers/policemen and rudimentary logistics are still not pulling their weight in their area of operations or are conducting missions to further sectarian goals.
(3) Politics. We should continue to work with localities and the emerging provincial governments, many of which (such as Ninawa and Anbar) are moving forward on election decisions without deference to Baghdad. Such progress is a welcome development and should drive positive change, or at least break deadlocks, in Baghdad.
In sum, Petraeus and Crocker were able to demonstrate just enough progress from the surge in Iraq to break the “surge” in Washington that threatened to end the American combat effort by a date certain. Still, as the other reports also emphasize, even if we have the right strategy in place and the right command and control structure on the ground, the enemy also gets a vote. The remainder of the Ramadan period, the heaviest period of insurgent attacks over the past several years, will be an early test for American resolve. Six months from now General Petraeus’ metrics will have to be clearer and Ambassador Crocker’s trajectory steeper if longer term U.S. support for the Iraqi operation is to be sustainable.
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