SAMARRA, IRAQ: In January of this year, General David Petraeus was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate to take command of multinational forces in Iraq. With him was to come a ‘new direction’ in the postwar effort there. Following on the heels of the failed strategy of General George Casey, now Chief of Staff of the Army, Petraeus brought with him a new approach to the fight to secure Iraq from the insurgent and terrorist population which had taken hold there. In a nutshell, a ‘surge’ in troops — 30,000 more — would be needed, the main effort of which would be to secure Baghdad, and the rest of the combat power in that country, which had been pulled back to a small number of massive bases, would once again be moved out amongst the population, living in the sectors in which they were operating.
Though Congressional Democrats immediately attempted to undermine it — from making public claims that the strategy had "failed" to implementing the appallingly-named "slow bleed" strategy for gradually defunding the soldiers in Iraq — the new direction put in place militarily by Gen. Petraeus has shown real results in an amazingly short period.
In April and May of this year, and again from the beginning of August through the present, I have been embedded in some of the most dangerous combat zones in Iraq observing Gen. Petraeus’s strategy from the ground level, and have seen clear signs of the strategy’s effects on the situation there. Security has been improved, as has quality of life for the Iraqi people – many of whom have access, via the coalition, to things like quality medical care that they have never had before, under Saddam or since his fall.
The fact that increasing the coalition troop presence, and moving the troops back out into the communities they are responsible for securing — as well as moving soldiers into areas that were abandoned by the coalition after the initial invasion of 2003 — has resulted in increased security and more insurgents killed and captured is an outcome that even those with no knowledge of military operations or of the situation in Iraq should have been able to predict.
Actual combat troop strength is, in reality, still far too low to clear, hold (read: secure), and build — the three pillars of counterinsurgency — the entire country (let alone to nation-build successfully, including leaving behind a functioning, autonomous government); in essence, fewer soldiers than it would take to fill up Washington, DC’s RFK Stadium (the actual percentage of the 140,000 total troops here in Iraq, the majority of which are support troops who rarely leave their FOBs) have been asked to secure and patrol a nation of 27 million people, which is the size of California, while also training Iraqi Security Forces and performing reconstruction projects. However, the troops who have been asked to take on this massive task — while being targeted by terrorists who would rather slaughter their own countrymen in the process of fighting the coalition than actually stand and fight an army toe-to-toe — have stepped up, despite an inhospitable environment and the strain of extended combat tours, and done an admirable job.
However, the job is far from complete. There is still a persistent terrorist population in Iraq — both foreign and home-grown — and, though many Iraqis have shown amazing courage, not only by providing an ever-increasing number of tips to coalition forces regarding insurgent activity, but also by putting their lives on the line, despite never being able to be sure if their American protectors would even be here in the near future, to fight insurgents themselves. Much, much more of this needs to happen for Iraq to even have a chance at a brighter future, but at this point progress is inarguably being made.
What remains is a very long and difficult struggle, and it is very likely that the coalition’s goals — and it’s definition of ‘victory’ — will have to be revisited. Successful and stable nation-building, after all, is a very different — and infinitely longer and more difficult — undertaking than ‘simply’ waging a counterinsurgency (a long and difficult undertaking of its own). Amidst the real but exceedingly fragile gains made by the ‘Surge’ and its accompanying strategy, there are no guarantees about long-term stability and effectiveness. While the ‘Surge’ is almost inarguably working militarily in many different areas of the country, the fact is, this is still a very broken country, with a great deal of instability, unrest, and upheaval — and, were we to leave at any point in the near-term future, the vacuum that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke of in the very recent past (which his imperialistic Iran would love to fill) would most certainly become a reality. While social, governmental, and security services are being developed and improved here (albeit at a pace that would make even a snail seem quick), the fact of the matter is that, at this point, the coalition — led by the U.S. — is the glue holding a humpty-dumpty nation together. A situation resembling stability and security is achieved only as long as US units make their daily and nightly trips ‘outside the wire’ and into their sectors, and should our forces depart — or even pull back to any of the handful of obscenely big "Super FOBs," as they did under General Casey — then I fear that the fragile bit of security and stability which has been achieved will simply crumble, almost immediately.
For the short term, from my own eyewitness experience, things are looking up, and are heading in the right direction. Given more months (or, better, years), and the combination of a continuous and active coalition security presence and the continuation of intensive, ‘quality-first’ training of Iraqi Security Forces (Iraqi Police, National Police, and Iraqi Army), then it is entirely possible that this country could one day be in a state resembling that of security and stability — if still home to a very prominent US presence. If the US were to leave, even a year or two from now, though, then, based on my time here and observations, I cannot foresee there being anything remotely resembling a positive outcome in the region. In fact, the chaos of an imminent vacuum in the area is far more likely
Re-fighting 2002 through 2006, while apparently a worthwhile cause to some so-called "Progressives," is neither productive nor worth the time and energy spent on it. Though history is an extremely important learning tool, the situation here in Iraq is what it is — and, for the sake of Iraq (and its people), and of the US, the focus must be on where to go from here — be it changing certain aspects of the current strategy, or maintaining what is at the moment the most successful direction taken in this country yet — need to focus on rather than wasting time and energy on things that simply cannot be changed.
The future will be difficult enough, without dwelling on the past. General Petraeus, in his testimony before Congress this week, will highlight both the positives and the negatives from this country. For the sake of Iraq, and of both the security and the reputation of the U.S., we need to listen to everything that he has to say, and to accept his recommendations for what they are: the honest opinion and analysis of the man wrote the book on counterinsurgency, who has the most information of anybody on what is really going on in Iraq, and who only months ago was entrusted by the Senate — by unanimous vote — with the task of winning the fight in Iraq.