Politics & Policy

Nobody Puts Petraeus in a Corner

The general and the ambassador show no signs of compromise on Iraq withdrawal.

Unlike last September, when General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker first reported to Congress about the progress of the surge strategy in Iraq, Tuesday’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees was decidedly low key.

Which is not to say that it was not a media circus; only that the continued success of the surge has had a chilling effect on the antiwar movement. Last September’s testimony was characterized by large-scale antiwar protests. This time around, the big rally was sponsored by Vets for Freedom and featured an appearance by Republican senator John McCain — an early and consistent advocate of the surge. In the midst of a tense presidential campaign, and with the war still deeply divisive among American voters, McCain stood before the Vets for Freedom crowd and declared, “We will never surrender to extremists.”

How empowered are supporters of the Iraq war feeling over General Petraeus’s continued success at quelling sectarian violence in the country? Senator Lindsey Graham — a colonel in the Air Force Reserve — screamed to the delighted Vets for Freedom crowd, “You want to know who wants [American troops] to come home more than anybody?” Graham continued. “Al-Qaeda, because [the troops are] kicking their ass.”

Inside the Dirksen Senate office building the hearing room for the Crocker and Petraeus testimony before the Armed Services was packed as expected, but not overwhelmed with protesters as it had been last fall. Still small numbers of protesters affiliated with the group Code Pink were in the hearing room and began making vocal interruptions throughout the testimony of Petraeus and Crocker.

As they did in September, Petraeus and Crocker’s testimony was marked by a cautious optimism. Focusing on Iraq’s ongoing security problems, Petraeus noted that the gains had been made but that the situation was “fragile”:

There has been significant but uneven security progress in Iraq. Since September, levels of violence and civilian deaths have been reduced substantially, al-Qaeda-Iraq and a number of other extremist elements have been dealt serious blows, the capabilities of Iraqi security force elements have grown, and there has been noteworthy involvement of local Iraqis in local security. Nonetheless, the situation in certain areas is still unsatisfactory and innumerable challenges remain. Moreover, as events in the past two weeks have reminded us and as I have repeatedly cautioned, the progress made since last spring is fragile and reversible.

Petraeus’s testimony was supplemented by various visual metrics of security progress in the country. The first two slides detailed 1) the number of “Weekly Security Incidents” as a breakdown of specific acts of violence — attacks against infrastructure and government facilities; IEDs and mines (found and exploded); sniper, ambush, grenade and other small-arms attacks; and mortar, rocket, and surface-to-air attacks and 2) the number of civilian deaths, measured both by Coalition data, and measures the much larger body counts supplied by Iraqi data.

Both slides showed violence tapering off significantly since Petraeus last testified before Congress. This time around, though, Petraeus’s figures went unchallenged. During his previous testimony, Petraeus met sharp criticism and disbelief over the fact that, in just a few months, the surge reduced sectarian violence by 75 percent from the all-time high of June 2007. The head of the Government Accountability Office David Walker publicly disagreed with the Pentagon’s statistics, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton famously declared that Petraeus’s claims required a “willing suspension of disbelief.” After looking at more data, an October Washington Post editorial declared, “It’s looking more and more as though those in and outside of Congress who last month were assailing Gen. Petraeus’s credibility and insisting that there was no letup in Iraq’s bloodshed were — to put it simply — wrong.”

The one aberrant trend in the violence metrics was the March rise in Weekly Security Incidents — driven by Shiite militias associated with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. However, the graph shows that the peak of violence in March was still low compared with incident levels over the last two years. Also tempering the recent uptick in violence are reports over the last few days that disparate factions of the Maliki government have united against Sadr. After Iraqi forces raided Shia-militia strongholds in Basra, Sadr made concessions — offering to help the Maliki government to purge militia elements from Iraqi security forces.

The problems with Sadr’s militia were emblematic of the bigger problem of “special groups” — the term Petraeus and Crocker used to describe Iranian-supported and -trained militias. “Unchecked, the special groups pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq,” the general noted.

While Petraeus expressed his displeasure at the Iraqi government’s timeline and tactics for their offensive against Sadr’s militia, Crocker’s testimony saw the silver lining. “When viewed with a broader lens, the Iraqi decision to combat these groups in Basra has major significance. First, a Shia-majority government, led by Prime Minister Maliki, has demonstrated its commitment to taking on criminals and extremists regardless of sectarian identity. Second, Iraqi security forces led these operations, in Basra, and in towns and cities throughout the south,” Crocker said.

But like Petraeus, Crocker insisted that the political progress remains tenuous. “Developments over the last seven months have strengthened my sense of a positive trend. Immense challenges remain and progress is uneven and often frustratingly slow; but there is progress. Sustaining that progress will require continuing U.S. resolve and commitment. What has been achieved is substantial, but it is also reversible,” Crocker said.

Still, the undeniable progress in Iraq on both the security and political fronts meant that opposition to the war from Democratic senators on the Armed Forces and Foreign Relations committees was confined to narrow lines of argumentation.

Petraeus expressed his desire for a 45-day “period of consolidation and evaluation” before deciding on additional withdrawals following the planned pullout of the extra surge combat troops this July, further noting “This approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable.”

Armed Forces Committee chairman Senator Carl Levin criticized Petraeus, asking him to commit to a time when he would decide on further troop withdrawals. “What you’ve given to your chain of command is a plan which has no end to it,” Levin said. Petraeus stayed firm.

After Crocker and Petraeus’s testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee, presidential candidate Barack Obama followed a related line of questioning, trying to get Petraeus to define what specifically would constitute success in Iraq. “At what point do we say [al-Qaeda] cannot reconstitute themselves or are we saying that they’re not going to be particularly effective and the Iraqis, themselves, will be able to handle the situation?” Obama asked.

Petraeus again refused to be put in a corner, telling the Illinois senator, “We are drawing down very substantially in Anbar province, a place that I think few people would have thought would be the situation . . . say, 18 months ago. And, again, that’s what we want to try to achieve in all of the different areas in which al-Qaeda has a presence.”

Sen. Hillary Clinton told Crocker and Petraeus directly “It’s time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops.” Petraeus demurred, telling Clinton that the decision to withdraw was not a “mathematical equation.”

Petraeus and Crocker’s testimony before the two committees frustrated Senate Democrats looking for a commitment to a specific timetable to withdraw from Iraq. Since their controversial testimony in September, Petraeus and Crocker have earned a significant amount of credibility within Congress and among the American people. After testifying Tuesday, Petraeus and Crocker gave Democrats no hope their frustration will abate soon.

 – Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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