The Iraq war has come down to a decentralized fight against clan or family-based terror networks supplied by Iran and Syria, against which more and more Iraqis are willing to fight, according to the description given by Gen. David Petraeus in a Thursday interview. This was the first time I’d met with Petraeus since he left to take command in Iraq earlier this year.
I’d met with Petraeus’ predecessor – Gen. George Casey – many times in Washington and Baghdad. Petraeus is a different sort. Casey always had a calm confidence undisturbed by a sense of urgency. Petraeus is a man in a hurry: confident in what he can do and well aware of the limits of what he can do to generate an Iraqi political resolution and to limit the actions of Iraq’s neighbors which may prove the biggest obstacle to his success. Petraeus – despite having spent an hour with the Pentagon press corps just before meeting with us, and hours of Congressional briefings the day before – still exuded energy. As in prior conversations, the general seemed anxious to not overstate either the successes or the failures in Iraq. He knows his position is perhaps the most politically sensitive generalship since Westmoreland commanded in Vietnam. Petraeus, unlike Westmoreland, seems determined to innovate and win.
The latest news from Iraq is mixed and the good seems to weigh as heavily as the bad. Petraeus said that the rate of sectarian murders in the Baghdad area had been reduced by two-thirds since January 2007. However, this success seems to have driven the terror networks to work harder at achieving mass casualties which they have in a number of horrific bombings. But those bombings seem to be making more mileage in the US media and Congress for al-Queda than in Iraq. Al-Queda’s indiscriminate attacks on Iraqi civilians is creating a backlash of support for the government forces. (That does not equate to support for the Baghdad government) In some of what had been the most insurgent-sympathetic areas, such as Anbar province, Sunni Iraqis are now rebelling against al-Queda by volunteering to join the Iraqi security forces. In Western Nineveh province, local sheiks want their people in the Iraqi Third Division and in Diyala, sheiks “of all tribes” are pushing their people to join the fight against al-Queda. This adds up to a trend toward success in the classical counterinsurgency fight. But is the trend sustainable? No one can say yet.
Petraeus also said that there had been many successes — some in just the past few days – against the terrorist networks. He cited the capture of some suspected al-Queda leaders and the disarming of car bomb networks. Petraeus said that significant advances by US and Iraqi forces have been made against the Khazali and Shebani networks. Qais Khazali was a spokesman for Moqtada al-Sadr and hasn’t been seen in public since late 2004 (according to an AP report.) The Khazali brothers’ arrests should disrupt many of the cells using the Iranian-made “explosively formed penetrator” type of explosive device, the most deadly used against our troops. The “Shebani” network was also involved in smuggling and distributing the “EFPs” and it, too, has been hit. But those successes aren’t changing anything Syria or Iran are doing.
Petraeus described the continued fueling of the insurgency by Syria and Iran as “very unhelpful,” which is a masterful diplomatic understatement. We didn’t ask him if Nancy Pelosi’s “excellent adventure” in talks with Syria’s Assad had made Syria more approachable. We didn’t have to: Syria, as Petraeus explained, is accelerating its aid to the insurgency. (Nice job, Speaker Pelosi).
Syria is still the highway for foreign fighters coming into Iraq from all over the Middle East and North Africa. He said a few dozen come into Iraq each month across the Syrian border. Among them are most of the suicide bombers who end up driving the car and truck bombs that still kill many American troops and scores of Iraqis. Gen. Petraeus said that the car bombers were now truck bombers, using bigger and bigger vehicles to carry bigger explosive loads. He told us of one cement mixer truck that toppled over before the suicide bomber driving it could explode it. The driver was a North African who presumably came in through Syria.
Petraeus said – more clearly than any other commander or defense official I’ve interviewed since the 2003 invasion – that Iran, on its own soil, is training and arming terrorist fighters who are then sent into Iraq. What Petraeus said is redundant proof that Iran has been at war with us in Iraq almost since the 2003 invasion. To be more accurate – though Petraeus didn’t say this – Iran has been at war with us since 1979. It’s more than a little puzzling to see Secretary of State Rice racing around to sell the idea of negotiating with Iran. Iran’s interest – no matter what the half-Bakered “Iraq Study Group” report said – is not a stable, democratic Iraq. It is a partitioned Iraq, with at least the southern oil fields under Iranian control.
Petraeus is doing all he can, and more than anyone has done before. Few in the White House or Congress understand that when experts such as Petraeus say we have to achieve a political solution in Iraq, that they mean doing more than talking to the enemy. We are in an ideological war, not just a war of bullets and suicide truck bombs. We don’t fight the ideological battle nearly as well as the enemy does, through the internet, television, radio and word of mouth. Petraeus – who wrote the counterinsurgency manual – is trying to join this part of the fight in innovative ways, as we should have been doing since 2001.
Case in point: David Petraeus is our first “YouTube” general. Go to the website for Multinational Force Iraq and you’ll find this link to the MNFI “YouTube” page. Why is this there? Because for every snuff flick the terrorists use to recruit (showing their bravery in hacking off some handcuffed hostage’s head) there should be one showing the good guys winning. Petraeus gets it. Forget psychobabble about “hearts and minds.” Petraeus understands laptops and IPods. This guy gets it.
The worst news is almost the same that I heard when in Iraq in December 2005. The Iraqi government isn’t yet stepping up to its political responsibilities. The hydrocarbon law, designed to assure Sunnis a share in the principal national revenue source, still isn’t progressing through the Iraqi parliament. Petraeus has some sympathy for Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister. Remember, the general admonished, that Maliki has little real power. He cannot force parliament to act, and his government “ministers” aren’t even bound to him by some party loyalty. Rumors are circulating that the Iraqi parliament is about to take a two-month recess. If they do, the Iraqis will burn up the last vestiges of American patience with their politics. If they don’t care about their political progress, it will be hard for us to care, either.
The issue for Petraeus, unstated in this meeting, is time. He’s already planning how to measure the progress, or lack of it, in the promised report to Congress later this year. Will Congress even give him that much time, and will the Iraqis – by their parliamentary negligence – deprive him of it?
The war supplemental appropriations bill passed by the House and Senate will land on the president’s desk next week for the expected veto. But after that, what? The Democrats have no Plan B, and the president’s team seems to be at loose ends. Gen. David Petraeus and the troops he commands deserve a chance to make it work.
As we left the meeting, I asked Petraeus if the political shenanigans in Washington were affecting troop morale, and he said he hadn’t seen that happen yet. But I thought I saw a flicker of doubt in his eyes. How long can we ask our best to give their all in a fight the Democrats want to lose?