The Iraq War is Not Lost, Yet
By: Greg C. Reeson
There’s been a noticeable decrease in the anti-war rhetoric coming out of Washington lately, no doubt because there has been a noticeable lack of bad news coming out of Iraq. Each day, more critics of President Bush’s Iraq policy are being forced to recognize that things on the ground do in fact seem to be getting better.
Even Reuters, which can almost always be counted on to give us nothing but the bad and the ugly, has now reported the good: that Iraq seems to be experiencing some positive trends and that the violence is showing signs of being under control. In a story this past week, Reuters correspondent Aseel Kami wrote that levels of violence in Iraq have decreased significantly since the last of President Bush’s surge troops arrived in late June, citing statistics provided by the Iraqi Interior Ministry that show a drop of 70 percent for violent incidents.
So what’s going on? It would appear that the President’s strategy is working. With levels of violence decreasing, and with Sunnis in al-Anbar and elsewhere turning against al-Qaeda in Iraq elements, a level of security conducive to political compromise is being provided in Baghdad and other key areas. According to the report, the number of car bombings in Baghdad is down 67 percent, the number of roadside bombings is down 40 percent, and the number of bodies found on the streets of Baghdad is down 28 percent. In al-Anbar Province, which was once written off as a lost cause by a U.S. Marine Colonel serving there, Reuters reports that violent deaths are down by more than 80 percent.
Now, it’s important to note that violence increased elsewhere as insurgents and al-Qaeda elements abandoned the sites targeted by the surge, with Reuters noting that Nineveh Province has experienced a 129 percent increase in car bombings and a 114 percent increase in violent deaths. But the difference between now and last year is that the new tactics developed and implemented by General Petraeus call for maintaining troop levels in areas cleared of insurgents and terrorists. American forces are on the offensive and pressure is being maintained on the individuals and groups perpetrating the violence. Simply put, insurgents and terrorists are running out of places to hide because General Petraeus is taking away the game of “chase the bad guy” that American troops played for far too long.
It is true that American forces cannot sustain surge troop levels indefinitely, and that over the near term the number of brigades in Iraq will have to be reduced. But the surge strategy is succeeding in buying time, not only for Iraqi political leaders to work out a compromise, but for Iraqi security forces to continue to train, draw equipment, increase proficiency, gain experience, and weed out infiltrators within their ranks who are more interested in tribal and sectarian loyalties than in a prosperous and stable Iraq.
This is a slow, often painful process. Insurgencies are messy affairs and there are no quick solutions. What we are doing now is working militarily, with American casualties for October at the lowest level in nearly two years. That’s quite a drop from what we’ve experienced before, and a casualty rate of less than one per day in the middle of a violent war is historically low for American conflicts. Of course, each death is a tragedy. But the dead have not died in vain. Their efforts are reaping tangible benefits and the people of Iraq are more secure now than they have been in the past three years.
In order to sustain the gains we have made in the past four months, though, one of two things has to happen. Either Iraqi politicians need to put sectarian differences and personal power aspirations aside and work out a substantive compromise that will allow for national reconciliation, or Iraqi Army and police forces need to achieve a level of proficiency that will allow them to take over security operations from American troops.
So far there has been little to no progress on the political front, but the more stable security environment is still in its infancy. Opposing factions will be understandably cautious and it will likely take some time to get everyone to the bargaining table. We can provide that time for a little while longer, but we cannot do it indefinitely. At some point Iraqi security forces will have to take responsibility for their country, even in the absence of political accommodation.
There has been much criticism of the ability of Iraqi forces to take over security operations, and truthfully, their performance record has been mixed. But they are becoming more proficient each day, weeding out the bad actors and standing up for their country. But it takes time, and it is important to note that the training effort did not begin once the invasion of Iraq was complete. The training effort as it exists today is barely over two years old. The enormity of the task should not be underestimated, either. Training military forces to fight an insurgency is complex under the best of conditions, let alone in the middle of a vicious fight.
It is clear that progress is being made on the security front, and the training of Iraqi security forces continues in earnest while we push hard for the political reconciliation that will ultimately be necessary for a peaceful and prosperous Iraq. This war is not yet lost, and we owe it to the Iraqi people to provide them with as much time as we can, so that they are in the best position possible to save their nation.