What a difference eight months makes. Last September, General David Petraeus was essentially branded a liar for reporting to Congress that the situation in Iraq was improving markedly, that the so-called “surge” strategy was achieving its intended aims. Today, the general returns with more good news: violence in the country down 75 percent; Sunni sheiks cooperating with the government and Coalition (the “Anbar awakening”); and al-Qaeda in Iraq severely weakened and on the run. The situation in Iraq is undeniably vastly improved, no willing suspension of disbelief necessary.
Unfortunately, General Petraeus will no doubt have to contend with a barrage of questions about the recent weeks’ fighting in Basra and Baghdad. The government of Iraq, buoyed by the very success the general is coming to Washington to report, launched Operation Knights’ Assault, an offensive in and around Basra seeking to bring government rule to an area controlled by a combination of Shiite militias and organized criminal groupings, the difference between the two being rather difficult to discern. President Bush, echoing the initially enthusiastic Prime Minister al Maliki, declared this autonomous assertion of Iraqi authority a historic moment, which raised expectations to the point that when the resulting fighting was tougher than expected, critics of the war were handed a convenient cudgel.
It would have been better for both leaders to have approached the matter more cautiously. Total victory was too much to ask for the first serious attempt to bring order using primarily Iraqi Security Forces. While the operation was a good test of capabilities, it did not bring about a solution to the problem. There will be many such brief, small-scale fights in the future, and in wars of this type managing perceptions is vital. One should never talk about making history in the future tense.
Those who seek to declare the surge strategy dead because of the recent “uptick in violence” are ignoring a critical, in fact a definitive, distinction. Fighting has increased because government and Coalition forces are increasing it. There is a vital difference between insurgents conducting attacks on their own terms, and our forces taking the fight to them. One of the most important outcomes of the surge is that we have seized the initiative and increasingly are able to define how the war plays out. For example, there has been an increase in activity in Mosul, but this is because Coalition forces have been pursuing al-Qaeda terrorists displaced from their former sanctuary in Anbar province. To dismiss this by saying “violence is violence” would be like equating the 1940 German conquest of France with the 1944 D-Day landings, both of which were “invasions.”
The fight in Basra likewise affirmed the success of the surge. It demonstrated the willingness of the Iraqi government to come to grips with issues that have been on the back burner while it has been busy contending with disaffected Sunnis, al-Qaeda terrorists, and street violence in Baghdad. With those objectives in sight, the government could turn to other, lower priority problems. Reasserting government authority in Iraq’s fifth most populous city was a good place to start.
Moqtada al Sadr and others (backed materially by Iran) sought to change the dynamic of the fight by shelling the International Zone and conducting other high profile acts of violence, to attempt to engage the media’s “Tet” reflex. On cue, Frank Rich in the New York Times called the fighting in Basra “a mini-Tet that belied the ‘success’ [scare quotes in original] of the surge.” Of course, Tet was launched by the enemy and Basra was initiated by the government; Tet was nationwide and this was subregional; Tet was an attempt by the Communists to foment a people’s uprising to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and in Basra the enemy was at best seeking to defend their local criminal enterprises. But these days it seems like any time a group of masked guerillas shows up in an urban area with assault rifles we are facing some form of Tet Offensive and should meekly declare defeat.
Rich also wrote that the fighting was “a failure that left Mr. Sadr more secure than before.” How so? Sadr is in hiding in Iran. If he can’t show his face in his own country, exactly how secure can he be? Senator Joe Biden declared Sadr victorious because “he lives to fight another day.” I always understood the first part of that particular proverb to be “He who fights and runs away…,” the clear implication being that the “he who” lost the battle and chose dishonor rather than death. Biden is establishing a very low victory threshold for Sadr, and imposing an impossible task on those who oppose him, unless of course they actually kill him, which I assume the senator is not recommending.
Though both sides declared victory, Sadr was the one who stood down first, which in that part of the world is an unmistakable sign of weakness, regardless of how the truce came about, itself a hotly debated topic. When Sadr subsequently defied calls to disarm his militia, government and Coalition troops responded with an offensive into the Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, putting his forces there on the run. Sadr now states that he will disband his militia if leading Shiite clerics recommend it, which strikes one as a useful fig leaf. He also has called for a million-man protest march for Wednesday, though note that last year’s annual protest, held in Najaf, was planned for three million of whom 5-7,000 showed up.
It is unfortunate that the operation in Basra was scheduled for the weeks before General Petraeus’s testimony. Perhaps the government of Iraq wanted to use the opportunity to announce a stunning victory over the recalcitrant militias in Basra. Instead, hearings that would have been an opportunity to showcase the laudable progress of the war effort in the past year will be dominated by political posturing over the failure of Operation Knights’ Assault to meet its exaggerated stated objectives. To the extent the recent fighting distracts from or diminishes the success of the surge it will have been a costly exercise indeed.
– James S. Robbins is the director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington University , senior fellow for national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.