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Is the "Surge" Working?

An Analysis of Gen. David Petraeus' Letter to U.S. Troops

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On Sept. 7, 2007, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the Iraq operation, wrote a letter to U.S. troops detailing, in his words, "what I believe we have--and have not--accomplished" with the troop "surge" in Iraq. Petraeus wants to convey the Bush Administration's message: The "surge" must continue because it's working. Is it? Add a little context to Petraeus' own words, and the answer is far less positive than he makes it seem. Here's a point-by-point analysis of Petraeus' claims:

"Up front, my sense is that we have achieved tactical momentum."

Petraeus is right, but the operative word is "tactical." That's small-scale military success: Are U.S. troops able to overwhelm the enemy in battle-by-battle situations? Of course. Are troops able to clear out a Baghdad neighborhood or even of an entire town, such as Tel Afar, of insurgents? Of course. Are U.S. troops able to respond immediately to an up-tic in violence anywhere in the country? No question. Troops' tactical advantage has never really been in question. It's the strategic momentum that's in question: Are troops winning hearts and minds? Not quite. Is stability maintained after troops withdraw from a "secured" neighborhood? No. Are U.S. military successes followed by political successes through the Iraqi government? No.

We are "a long way from the goal line but we do have the ball..."

"... and we are driving down the field." Petraeus is using a football metaphor in a soccer country. Nothing better sums up the disconnect between American assumptions and Iraqi expectations. To the American effort, the war is a matter of downs, as in football: Hold on to the ball, keep up the offense, drive "down the field" one down after another. To Iraqi nationalists and the Iraqi insurgency, it's more like soccer: The ball may be in the Americans' possession for a while. But in soccer possession isn't offense. Strategy is--waiting out the opponent, defending, even letting him exhaust himself through possession. The difference is exclusively who scores more. In Iraqi public opinion, Americans are playing the wrong game--and losing.

It's about "Al-Qaeda, associated insurgent groups, and militia extremists."

Petraeus has his order wrong. In the Iraqi insurgency, al-Qaeda's influence and foreign fighters, according to the U.S. military's own numbers, come last. As The New York Times reported on Aug. 25, 2007, "The military says that 78 percent of attacks against the United States are now carried out by Shiites, not Sunni militants, who had caused the vast majority of the violence in the early years of the war." Al-Qaeda is a Sunni organization that includes Shiites among its long list of enemies. In Iraq, al-Qaeda is itself reviled and considered an outsider even among most Sunnis. Petraeus is right: It's about "militia extremists." But most are Shiites, whose leader, Moqtada el-Sadr, likes to bide his time.

It's Sunnis' fault. It's Shiites' fault. It's Saddam's fault.

Petraeus makes a curious statement: "All of this takes place in a climate of distrust and fear that stems from the sectarian violence that did so much damage to the fabric of Iraqi society in 2006 and into 2007, not to mention the decades of repression under Saddam's brutal regime." It's as if the American-led invasion that did so much to destabilize the country, along with massive blunders by the Bush Administration in the early days of the war (such as fighting the war on the cheap with few troops and big firepower, disbanding the Iraqi military and the de-Baathification program) never happened. But those events precipitated the chaos and sectarian violence that followed. Petraeus is projecting a convenient blind spot.

Sectarian violence is "at considerably reduced levels from 8 months ago."

Petraeus is being selective by focusing only on August 2007 figures, when various indicators showed a drop in insurgent activity. But August is the hottest and sometimes slowest month in Iraq. If numbers from all six months of the surge are analyzed, including those from June and July, when troop levels peaked, no progress is shown on car-bomb attacks; IED attacks broke a record by exceeding 300 in May, and again in June by nearing 400. July's IED tally was the second-heaviest of the entire war. Mortar and rocket attacks surged during those months too to levels seen only once before (in August 2004). The civilian death toll has hovered well above 1,000 a month since the surge began--far higher than in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

"You have taken many of al-Qaeda's former sanctuaries away from them."

That's one of Petraeus' most misleading statements. Al-Qaeda had no foothold in Iraq before the American invasion. It's now one of its battlegrounds. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has strengthened and expanded its presence elsewhere. The very day Petraeus wrote his letter to troops, CIA Director Michael Hayden was warning "with high confidence that al-Qaeda's central leadership is planning high-impact plots against the American homeland." From where? From al-Qaeda's reconstituted lairds in western Pakistan, where it operates with impunity.

Insurgents "continue to sustain losses that are two to three times our losses."

That's an irrelevant, and quite callous, statement. What does it matter if insurgents' casualties are if civilian and American casualties continue to be as high as they've been? The American casualty rate is at its highest level in 2007. More to the point, The estimated number of insurgents keeps rising. The Brookings Institution estimated that number at 20,000 in June 2006. In August 2007, the figure was put at 70,000, and that's just for Sunni insurgents.

Popular rejection of al-Qaeda helped transform Anbar into a safer province.

Petraeus is right. A series of alliances between former Sunni insurgent groups and the U.S. military in once-deadly Anbar province has helped reduce the violence there. But that's not because Sunnis love Americans, or trust the Shiite majority in Iraq eventually to treat Sunnis fairly. It's because most Sunnis in Iraq despise al-Qaeda and its brutal means more. Tribal alliances work to drive out al-Qaeda, not resolve fundamental differences. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote from Baghdad, "Peace in Iraq has to be built on a Shiite-Sunni consensus, not a constant balancing act by us. So far, the surge has created nothing that is self-sustaining. That is, pull us out and this whole place still blows in 10 minutes."

Iraqi leaders are giving us "hope that they are up to the task before them."

Petraeus concedes that the Iraqi government hasn't done nearly as much as was expected by way of political progress. But he relies on a late-August "summit" of Iraqi government officials to declare himself more hopeful. Again, that hope is in direct contradiction with intelligence assessments of the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki. An August 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (which represent the consensus view of America's intelligence community), cast huge doubt on the likelihood that Iraqi politicians can work out their differences before U.S. troops will have to be reduced next year (due to an impending troop crunch).

Why all the contradictions?

Petraeus is right: "We face a situation that is exceedingly complex." But the chief complexities in play -- the political complexities -- are out of Petraeus' reach, both in Iraq and in the United States. Petraeus is trying to put a good face on a bad situation. He's doing so at President Bush's behest in order to sway Congress and preserve the "surge" in Iraq. But political gamesmanship in Washington and on-the-ground realities in Iraq are vastly different things. Petraeus knows that even the military situation is tenuous. So he keeps dismal aspects of the situation in Iraq under a big veil. But those aspects, as various government and media reports keep proving, can't be hidden--even by the Commander-in-Chief. Only spun.
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