Petraeus Assessment Realistic and Hopeful

On Monday, General David Petraeus, commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, testified before two House of Representatives committees to provide his long-awaited Iraq war assessment.  He provided plenty of evidence that the security surge is working and painted a complex threat picture that includes a more aggressive Iran.  The general finished by tossing the Congress a political football by recommending a force reduction and mission shift plan that begins this month but stretches out for unspecified years to come. 

Petraeus’ sober testimony about conditions in the war zone was supported by thirteen charts loaded with numbers, graphs and maps.  He outlined the nature of the conflict, summarized surge results, identified trends, provided a perspective regarding the Iraqi security forces and outlined his recommendations.

The general described the nature of the conflict using a map of Iraq titled “Major Threats to Iraq” with arrows indicating that foreign fighters were coming from Syria and “Lethal Aid, Training and Funding” were flowing from Iran.  Petraeus said the “fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources.”  He concluded that competition will continue to be violent and is exacerbated by a lack of adequate governmental capacity, lingering sectarian mistrust and corruption.

Last December, Petraeus reminded the committees, then-US commander General George Casey and US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalizad concluded that the coalition was failing to achieve its objectives.  That assessment persuaded President Bush to change strategy from hunting down insurgents to primarily protecting the population.  Along with the new strategy the President hired Petraeus to lead the security effort and Ryan Crocker for ambassador.

In January, President Bush gave Petraeus five more brigades and two Marine battalions to bolster the new strategy.  By mid-June, those Army brigades and Marine battalions joined the coalition in a series of offensive operations across Anbar Province, Baquabah, Baghdad and the so-called “belts” around the capital.  Those operations did precisely what was intended — they secured large swaths of the population, denied the enemy sanctuaries and killed and captured thousands of insurgents. 

Petraeus’ testimony outlined some impressive security results.

·         The number of attacks has decreased significantly, declining in eight of the past 12 weeks, with the level of incidents in the past two weeks the lowest since June 2006.

·         Civilian deaths have declined 45 percent since the height of the sectarian violence in December and 70 percent in Baghdad alone.

·         Iraq-wide, the number of Ethno-Sectarian deaths has declined 55 percent and in Baghdad the number is down 80 percent since December. 

·         So far in 2007, surge forces have found and cleared over 4,409 caches, which is nearing twice the number found in all of 2006.

The coalition has been especially successful against al Qaeda.  Coalition operations have closed down former al Qaeda sanctuaries, detained or killed nearly 100 key leaders and 2,500 rank-and-file fighters.  Petraeus points out that this success is the result of the synergy of actions by conventional forces that deny terrorist sanctuaries, intelligence efforts to find the enemy and special operations units that conduct targeted raids.

The success against al Qaeda is in part the result of a radical change in the security situation in Anbar Province.  Petraeus showed a chart with monthly attack levels in Anbar declining from 1,350 in October 2006 to nearly 200 in August.  That dramatic decrease reflects the significance of the local rejection of al Qaeda and the newfound willingness of some 20,000 locals to volunteer to serve in Iraq’s security forces.

While the surge has put al Qaeda on its heels, the coalition has also targeted a growing Shia militia problem supported by Iran.  Coalition forces have captured Shia militia leaders as well as the deputy commander of Lebanese Hezbollah Department 2800, the organization that supports the Iraqi Shia militia with training, arms and money.  Petraeus believes the Iranian Republican Guard Corps’ Qods Force seeks to turn the Iraqi militia groups into a “Hezbollah-like force to serve Iran’s interests and fight a proxy war against Iraqi” and coalition forces.

The general was upbeat about Iraqi security forces.  They are growing in their capabilities, shouldering more of the burden and despite a variety of problems Iraqi forces are fighting across the country, Petraeus testified.  Specifically, he noted that 140 Iraqi security battalions are in the fight and 95 of those are capable of taking the lead in operations.  He also noted that the force’s current strength stands at 445,000 individuals on the payrolls of Iraq’s interior and defense ministries and that force is expected to grow by 40,000 this year alone.

Two weeks ago, Petraeus provided his chain of command with recommendations on the way ahead in Iraq.  He recommended that the Marine expeditionary unit scheduled to depart this month not be replaced and a brigade combat team could withdraw in mid-December without replacement.  However, he wants to wait until mid-July before downsizing the force by four more brigades to the pre-surge level of 15.

Petraeus refused to recommend further reductions beyond next summer.  Projecting “too far into the future is not just difficult, it can be misleading and even hazardous,” Petraeus said.  He explained that in January during his confirmation hearing no one would have forecast that Anbar Province would have been transformed in just six months.  Nor, he cautioned, could anyone have appreciated the extent of Iranian involvement in Iraq. 

“I believe Iraq’s problems will require a long-term effort,” argued Petraeus.  He warned that there “are no easy answers or quick solutions.”  Further, he agreed with the findings of a Defense Intelligence Agency report that a rapid withdrawal of US forces from Iraq could release “strong centrifugal forces” that could lead to the disintegration of the Iraqi security forces, al Qaeda regaining lost ground, a marked increase in violence and the exacerbation of regional dynamics, “especially with respect to Iran.”

This was a soldier’s report to his masters.  He provided a fact-based, thoughtful and rational assessment.  He is accomplishing his mission — buying time for Iraq’s politicians to work on tough issues like reconciliation and oil wealth sharing.  Now it’s up to the President and Congress to decide whether Iraq will be given more time at America’s expense to resolve its many complex political differences.