Tom Ricks had an interesting (and not uncritical) piece in the Washington Post yesterday on the war in Iraq we are supposedly not seriously fighting:
Current U.S. military commanders say they have come to understand that they are fighting within a political context, which means the results must first be judged politically. The pace and shape of the war also have changed, with U.S. forces trying to exercise tactical patience and shift responsibilities to Iraqi forces, even as they worry that the American public’s patience may be dwindling…
The war here has gone through three distinct phases, each with its own feel and style of operation.
The first period, from May 2003 to July 2004, was characterized by drift and wishful thinking, military insiders say, with top U.S. officials at first refusing to recognize they were facing an insurgency and then committing a series of policy and tactical blunders that appear to have enflamed opposition to the U.S. occupation.
The second phase began in the summer of 2004, when Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. replaced Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez as the top U.S. commander in Iraq and developed — for the first time — a U.S. campaign plan. That plan, which looked forward from August 2004 to December 2005, gave U.S. operations a new coherence, directing a series of actions intended to clear the way for Iraqi voters to establish a new government.
Now, after parliamentary elections held in December, the U.S. effort has entered a third stage. The current emphasis is on reducing the U.S. role in the war, putting Iraq army and police forces in the forefront as much as possible — but not so fast that it breaks them, as it did in April 2004, when a battalion ordered to Fallujah mutinied. Eventually, Casey said, the hope is that U.S. forces will be able to focus on foreign fighters, while Iraqi security forces take on the native insurgency. But that hasn’t happened yet. The hardest fighting, especially in rural areas, still is being done by U.S. troops.
Several aspects make this third phase different from the war of a year or two ago:
*The U.S. effort now is characterized by a more careful, purposeful style that extends even to how Humvees are driven in the streets. For years, “the standard was to haul ass,” noted Lt. Col. Gian P. Gentile, commander of the 8th Squadron of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, which is based near a bomb-infested highway south of Baghdad. Now his convoy drivers are ordered to move at 15 mph. “I’m a firm believer in slow, deliberate movement,” he said. “You can observe better, if there’s IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on the road.” It also is less disruptive to Iraqis and sends a message of calm control, he noted.
*U.S. commanders spend their time differently. Where they once devoted much of their efforts to Iraqi politics and infrastructure, they now focus more on training and supporting the Iraqi police and army. “I spent the last month talking to ISF [Iraqi security force] commanders,” noted Gentile, who holds a doctorate in American history from Stanford. “Two years ago I would have spent all my time talking to sheiks.”
*Real progress is being made in training Iraqi forces, especially its army, according to every U.S. officer asked about the issue. One of the surprises, they say, has been that an Iraqi soldier, even one who is overweight and undertrained, is more effective standing on an Iraqi street corner than the most disciplined U.S. Army Ranger. “They get intelligence we would never get,” noted Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East. “They sense the environment in a way that we never could.”