The Iraq Surge: What Next?


By: Greg C. Reeson

As the U.S. Congress and Iraqi parliament enjoy their summer recesses, reports from military officials and independent analysts in Iraq indicate that President Bush’s so-called “surge” strategy for Baghdad and al-Anbar Province is beginning to have its desired effect. A serious reading of events since the final surge troops arrived in Iraq in June reveals that U.S. forces are making steady, if incremental, progress.

The new emphasis on counterinsurgency operations and securing the Iraqi population has resulted in a nearly 50 percent decrease in major attacks (the spectacular bombings generally attributed to foreign terrorist elements), Sunni tribes turning against al-Qaeda in Iraq elements, some progress toward reducing sectarian violence, something resembling normalcy in several Baghdad neighborhoods, and improved morale among U.S. military troops who now feel they have a solid strategy and a commander they can trust. Yes, there are still mass casualty bombings and unacceptable levels of violence, but the trend is clearly toward an improved security situation in Iraq.

Of course, this should come as no surprise to anyone who has been more than a casual observer of the performance of U.S. troops in the field. American military forces are the most capable and professional in the world and, given the right resources, can bring order and stability to just about any environment into which they are placed. But the improving situation in Iraq cannot be maintained indefinitely. The successes we are seeing are at the tactical level and are being paid for with the blood and sweat of American military men and women. What is required now is progress at the national level among the elected Iraqi leadership.

If there is to be any hope of maintaining a unified Iraq, the warring factions must come together as Iraqis to move the country forward while fighting together against state and non-state actors interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs. So far there have been no positive signs on this front as Shi’a, Sunnis and Kurds continue to place ethnic and sectarian loyalties above any commitment to the national government.

President Bush, in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, is giving Iraqis a chance to move forward. The surge is beginning to establish the breathing space the President has said is essential to political progress. The real question is what the Congress will do when General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker return to Washington to present their next Iraq report. Petraeus, who is serving as the commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq and chief architect of the current counterinsurgency strategy, has promised a candid assessment of the situation on the ground no later than September 15.

The report will not say that Iraq is on the road to recovery. Nor will it say that U.S. forces are beginning to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Instead, the September assessment is likely to be a mixed bag, showing progress in some areas while expressing worry in others. The key will be to look for indicators that provide hope for a positive outcome somewhere down the road. There is no magic solution and Iraq will not become peaceful anytime soon. But if the security situation is improving and there are signs that Iraqis want to move toward a peaceful future, the President and the Congress may have to make the hard decision to continue, or even expand, the surge, regardless of any potential political consequences.

The strategic ramifications of failure are too great, and too frightening, to just walk away because Iraq did not completely turn around by September. If there are visible signs of political accommodation, as there are in the improving security situation, governmental leaders and the American public must be prepared to continue the surge, with increased force levels if necessary. But the onus still rests with the Iraqis themselves. Despite the parliament’s recess, key leaders continue to work on important issues like oil revenue sharing, de-Baathification, regional engagement and provincial elections. The Iraqis must realize by now that time is running out for them to step up to the plate and take concrete actions to move Iraq forward. American troops are doing their part; now the Iraqis must do theirs.

The outcome in Iraq is still very much in doubt, and the citizens of the United States must be prepared for a long struggle if the President decides that progress is indeed being made. To truly make Iraq a safe and secure country, America will need to maintain a significant commitment in terms of both manpower and money. That means hundreds of thousands of troops to secure Iraq’s borders, expand our human intelligence capability, find and eliminate the perpetrators of violence, and continue the mission of training members of the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police forces so that Iraqis, and not Americans, can take responsibility for what happens inside Iraq’s borders.

It also means that civilian employees of the federal government must be prepared to deploy to Iraq to assist in the endeavor. Representatives of federal agencies must stay in place for at least one year to ensure continuity and stability of effort. Likewise, military deployments must be determined by whatever makes sense in the context of our strategic objectives. That may mean longer tours in Iraq and shorter stays at home. No one wants to hear such talk, but that is the reality we are facing if we hope to win this war. Finally, everyone in America and abroad must understand that this is a fight that will go on for a very long time. To make Iraq work, the United States will need to be prepared to stay engaged for at least the next decade. Counterinsurgencies are long, tough affairs. There is simply no easy solution.

So while we wait for General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker to provide their assessment next month, we must start thinking about what we will do if there is cause for optimism in Iraq. Does America have the stomach for continuing or increasing the surge? If there is visible progress, then I think the answer is a resounding yes. The public will support the war effort if they see that our sacrifices are resulting in positive gains. However, if America is unwilling to do what it will take to win in Iraq, the problem immediately shifts from one of war fighting to one of managing the inevitable implosion and all of its associated consequences. If you think things are bad now, brace yourself. You haven’t seen anything yet.

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