If what goes up must come down, every surge must eventually recede. According to recent reports, the current one in Iraq may give way to large-scale withdrawals of U.S. forces as early as spring 2008. At that point, the war’s opponents will continue claiming defeat and supporters will begin to claim victory. And the fact is that in both cases, the claims will be faith-based, because we won’t know for many years whether we are leaving behind an Iraq that can govern itself, defend itself, sustain itself, and be ally in the war on terror. In other words, we won’t know for a long time whether we won.
The struggle against terrorism and insurgency will continue long after the U.S. presence is reduced to a token force, and that is the bad news. But Iraqis will be shouldering the burden of that struggle in their own country, and that is the good news. And the trends described in the most recent Pentagon quarterly report on stability and security in Iraq, which was released earlier this month
, suggest that Iraqis are much closer to standing on their own than most people think.
The contrast with the reports of a year ago is striking. Back then, Iraqis were starting to do some important things on their own, but still relied on the U.S. — led Coalition for nearly everything. Now, the Iraqis are doing most things on their own, and rely on the Coalition only where particular gaps create limiting factors that only the Coalition can remediate.
This can be seen in each of the areas covered by the report: politics, economics — and most important, security.
Because the most essential condition of victory in Iraq is the survival of the central government, national reconciliation must win out over the centrifugal tensions threatening to tear Iraq apart. Luckily, the central government has a powerful ally in that fight. By overwhelming majorities, the Iraqi people continue to believe that Iraq should remain a unified state. Beyond that, the question is simply one of governance at the federal, regional, and local levels; and here, it’s been a story of slow progress — sometimes excruciatingly slow — but the important thing is that there has been progress across the board, with few signs of retreat or collapse.
Challenges remain, but it is increasingly easy to isolate and target them. Sunnis continue to feel marginalized, and often have more reason to fear the Shiite-dominated police forces than to trust them. The Shiites are split, and there is an increasingly open (and often violent) conflict between the mainstream Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and the Mahdi Army led by the firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr, who recently returned from several months in Iran. Seven of the 18 benchmarks set forth in the recent supplemental funding legislation (which must show substantial achievement by September) have to do with legislative targets — laws governing energy resources, de-Baathification, implementation of constitutional rights, and provincial elections — none of which have been met thus far.
But Iraqis have increasingly led the effort to overcome these challenges. After the recent destruction of two minarets at the main Shiite mosque in Sunni-dominated Samarra (the destruction of which in February 2006 triggered the slide towards civil war) Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki immediately traveled to the town to reassure the Sunnis of his government’s support and protection. Iraqi security forces were surged to protect Sunni mosques from reprisals, while security operations continued to target the Shiite death squads. Meanwhile, the government has made progress on all the benchmark legislative initiatives, and the parliament is expected to take up and finalize several of the most crucial ones before its current session ends at the end of July. U.S. efforts have focused on capacity-building. In the field, provincial reconstruction teams (a concept born in Afghanistan, and which came late to Iraq) are now embedded in every brigade headquarters, giving commanders in every sector of Iraq the flexibility to target assistance where it is most crucially needed. And advisers from all over the U.S. government are now embedded all over the Iraqi government, helping prepare for “transition” — a term that basically means “get ready, because soon you’re on your own.”
On the economic front, the news is equally mixed — good news and not-so good news, but not much really bad news. The economy grew by ten percent in the last year — seven percent in the non-oil sector. Electricity, the major focus of U.S. reconstruction spending, still trails demand by a wide margin, but remains higher than it was before the invasion (although Baghdad no longer receives preferential treatment, so its electricity consumption is actually lower than it was under Saddam). Most other indicators — from oil production to food distribution — are stable and pretty close to prewar levels, except when they are much improved.
The strategy of tying debt forgiveness to Iraq’s success in maintaining sound fiscal, monetary, and financial policies, and implementing crucial liberalizing economic reforms, has delivered real results, and promises more. Just in the last year, for example, the Iraqi government eliminated a $2.6 billion program to import refined fuel products for distribution to the population at subsidized prices. Here, Iraq is in much better shape than Iran, which still spends a crippling amount of the state budget on imports of refined gasoline.
As in the political realm, the effort here is to make ourselves obsolete. Of the final $10 billion in U.S. reconstruction aid, 90 percent has been committed and 80 percent has been disbursed. The reconstruction assistance phase of America’s effort in Iraq is coming to an end. But Iraqis are already making up the shortfall. The current Iraqi budget contains $10 billion earmarked to keep funding the projects for which the American taxpayer was previously footing the bill.
It is on the crucial security front that most of the recent good news may be found. The last of the five brigades of the “surge” arrived in Baghdad just days ago, and went straight into combat as Operation Phantom Thunder launched across the country, from Anbar to Baghdad to Baqubah, targeting chiefly al Qaeda in Iraq and affiliated terrorist cells. The ground for this highly intelligence-gathering-intensive effort has been laid by months of putting Iraqis in the lead in security operations throughout the country, which has helped tap into the wealth of intelligence that Iraqi citizens have been increasingly willing to provide. The most spectacular success has come in Anbar, where Sunni tribes formerly allied to the insurgents have been working alongside local security forces to destroy al Qaeda nests in the part of Iraq that not long ago was safest for them. Al Qaeda is taking a fearsome onslaught against its leadership and rank-and-file in Iraq. We know who they are; we’ve already captured 80 percent of their senior leaders in a matter of months; and hardly a day goes by without the announcement that another senior al Qaeda figure has been killed or captured.
In Baghdad, “joint security stations,” composed of Iraqi police, Iraqi army, and Coalition soldiers, have been set up all over the city. The highly increased visibility of these local stations have increased confidence; tips from the local population have increased dramatically. Last week saw only 33 murders in Baghdad, which on a per capita basis is about the same as many of my favorite cities in the world, including San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The security situation in particular is a fast-moving target. As one senior leader recently explained, we are now going from a surge in forces to a surge in operations. In other words, the “kinetic phase” of the surge has just begun. And while it’s too early to tell, it certainly seems that morale is high among the troops — both Coalition and Iraqi.
In Iraq, bad news is about spectacular events, which are easy to report, while good news is about incremental progress, which is difficult to report. Naturally, the bad news gets reported a lot, while the good news hardly gets reported at all. The resulting distortion in news-reporting results in predictably distorted public perceptions about the course of the war, and has fueled a great deal of irrational pessimism.
But look at the facts, and the direction in which they are moving. We are clobbering the enemy while at the same time making ourselves increasingly obsolete to the efforts of Iraq’s own government. The administration is shifting so as to accommodate Iraq as a long-term foreign policy issue to be managed, while attention focuses on more pressing crises. We removed Saddam, arrested or killed most of his murderous henchmen; we eliminated a terror sponsor and an apparent weapons-of-mass-destruction threat; our casualties are about what most of us expected; and Iraqis are now organized to fight terror. We’ve already accomplished much of what we went to do.
The possibility of defeat appears to be receding with the surge, and that means that when the surge itself recedes, we may well be staring victory in the face — even if we don’t know it.