Politics & Policy

Welcome, General

Sen. Dick Durbin accuses Gen. David Petraeus of “carefully manipulating the statistics” to convince people “that violence in Iraq is decreasing and thus the surge is working.” Majority Leader Harry Reid says Petraeus has “made a number of statements over the years that have not proven to be factual.” Welcome to Washington, general. We hope you don’t mind being called a liar.

Democrats will be courting political disaster if they make a full frontal assault on General Petraeus when he testifies about the surge today before a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and International Relations Committees. Petraeus knows more about Iraq than they do; he has more credibility; and — judging by his careful statements about the surge so far — he is considerably more sober-minded.

At the very least, Democrats will attempt to overwhelm his testimony with a flurry of distressing indices drawn from other recent reports about Iraq. They will wave high and often a General Accountability Office (GAO) report judging that the Iraqi government has failed to meet 15 of 18 political, security, and economic benchmarks. In all of human history, a war has never been won by checklist. The United States Congress, however, is trying to lose one by checklist.

The benchmarks represent the best wisdom on how to make political progress in Iraq, circa about a year ago. Since then, conditions in Iraq have changed dramatically, but the GAO — always preferring to use static analysis, as our friends the suppy-siders have long noted — has missed it. That’s the peril of having guys with green eyeshades grade your war effort.

The report fails to take account of the extraordinary turn of the Sunni tribes in Anbar, and mentions the province only twice. This is because the GAO was given a narrow mandate — to focus only on the benchmarks — even as events on the ground made the benchmarks less relevant.

When the benchmarks were written into U.S. law, they seemed the best way to address the sources of the Sunni insurgency. With the surge and the tribal revolt, that insurgency has fractured, the bulk of it siding with us, a remainder with an al Qaeda that is increasingly on the run. This has made it possible to achieve some of the intended effects of the key political benchmarks without their being legislated by the Iraqi parliament. An amnesty law was supposed to ease Sunni fighters out of the insurgency; the tribal shift has led them from the insurgency in droves. A de-Baathification law was supposed to reintegrate Sunnis into Iraqi institutions; many of the Sunnis leaving the insurgency have been joining the Iraqi Security Forces. An oil law was supposed to spread revenue to Sunni areas; the central government has just sent $107 million in aid to Anbar. Ultimately, passing the laws is important, but in the meantime Iraq is hardly frozen in place.

Democrats will also point to a commission report on the Iraqi Security Forces prepared under the direction of retired general Jim Jones. This is a solid and credible piece of work, and Democrats can make it serve their purposes only by ignoring its main thrust. They will cite its assessment that “the ISF will be unable to fulfill their essential security responsibilities independently over the next 12-18 months.” This is true, and not surprising. The Iraqi military was designed as a light infantry capable of quickly getting into the fight. We wanted to create combat capability first, since we were there to provide logistics. So it’s to be expected that, in the words of the Jones report, Iraqi forces “will continue to rely on help in areas such as command and control, equipment, fire support, logistical support, intelligence, and transportation.”

The most important benchmark for the Iraq army is that it take on more and more of the fight, and here the Jones report is quite encouraging. It says, “The Iraqi Army possesses an adequate supply of willing and able manpower, a steadily improving basic training capability, and equipment tailored to counterinsurgency operations. There is evidence to show that the emerging Iraqi soldier is willing to fight against the declared enemies of the state, with some exceptions along ethnic lines.” Even if the Jones commission thinks the army will not operate independently in 12–18 months — again, an unrealistic goal — it “believes that substantial progress can be achieved within that period of time.”

It is important to remember that, as Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute puts it, “Iraqi troops volunteer every single day.” There are no real penalties for desertion, and soldiers go home once a month to bring their paychecks to their families. Moreover, ISF casualties are three to four times higher than coalition casualties. In light of all this, the fact that ISF manning rates are still at 75 percent amply demonstrates that the Iraqi forces are in the fight.

In another passage beloved of the Democrats, the Jones report appropriately excoriates Iraq’s corrupt and sectarian ministry of the interior. It says that the Iraqi National Police — meant to be a bridge between the Iraqi army and local police forces — is “not viable in its current form,” and calls for it to be disbanded. (The national police number about 25,000; total Iraqi forces are more than 300,000.) It notes that local and provincial police are, by contrast, “improving,” and that “the most visible sign of police success remains at the local level, where police units are organized along ethnic lines representative of their communities.” The report calls this “acceptable” and a “pragmatic accommodation” until such time as Iraq’s factions reconcile.

Another Democratic talking point will be that the statistics Petraeus relies on to show a diminishing of sectarian killings are bogus. They will cite select media reports casting doubt on Petraeus’s numbers, as well the GAO’s conclusion that it is impossible to measure sectarian killings.

Here Democrats will simply be ignoring overwhelming evidence that the surge has reduced violence. The latest National Intelligence Estimate — a consensus estimate of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies — said that “there have been measurable but uneven improvements in Iraq’s security situation” and that “the state escalation of rates of violence has been checked for now.”

Michael Gordon reported in the New York Times on Saturday that both American and Iraqi reports “note a roughly 50 percent drop in the number of civilians who have been killed since the end of 2006. According to Iraqi government data, the number of civilians nationwide who died as a result of violent causes dropped to about 2,000 in August from about 4,000 in December 2006. American military statistics show that the number of civilian deaths declined to 1,582 in August from 2,989 in December.”

On National Review Online this morning, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution writes that virtually every primary source of data he has seen shows a decline in violence: “Depending on which category of violence one emphasizes, and which starting and end points one uses for the comparison, most categories of killings are down 20 to 50 percent since the surge began. This is true for overall civilian fatalities from all causes, for victims of extrajudicial killings (basically reprisal assassinations), for murders, and for the most part for car and truck bombing victims.”

O’Hanlon notes that this still probably brings violence down only to the high levels of 2004–05. When a country is just beginning to step back from the brink of hell, the picture is going to be mixed. What is important is the trajectory. We have made strides toward stabilizing Baghdad, and have achieved remarkable success in Sunni provinces. These gains make it conceivable that we can chase al Qaeda from all of central Iraq. This is a very big deal.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein yesterday dismissed General Petraeus as not an “independent evaluator” of the Iraq war. Everything we’ve heard this year indicates that Petraeus is in fact a cautious and factual evaluator of the surge, but in a sense Feinstein is right — Petraeus is vested in the war, sees it as an important national project, and wants to win. Would that Democrats showed a similar bias.

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