Petraeus Returns

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, Multi-National Force — Iraq Commander General David H. Petraeus will again testify before Congressional armed services and foreign affairs committees on the status of the situation in Iraq and specifically the progress of the on-going surge. 

General Petraeus returns to Washington during what could be described as a political hurricane. With a Presidential campaign underway, fierce political fighting about Iraq, Afghanistan and the future of our military are all playing out on Capitol Hill. And it comes at the time of a battle over Iraqi strategy taking place in the halls of the Pentagon. 

Walking into this political perfect storm, General Petraeus will have to craft a message that explains to Congress and the American people that progress is being made in what can only be described as a very complex situation.

The General’s mission this week is no different than it was when he testified last September: to explain the progress made in the mission he’s been assigned. The counterinsurgency he leads is aimed at buying time in both Washington and Iraq to achieve the political and military progress necessary to aid Iraq in becoming a secure and functioning state. 

What he will do is explain the facts. What he will not do is put lipstick on the proverbial pig. He will call it as he sees it, and let the political chips fall. Petraeus is not political: he’s military. Which means, I’m sure, he’d rather be with his troops than listening to long, heated speeches in which members of Congress call him everything except a gentleman.

General Petraeus will report progress is being made in decreasing all forms of violence, that the Iraqi government is capable of achieving political progress, that the events in Basra last week actually show hints of Iraqi political and military progress, and that the best way to solidify gains and to further success is to keep force U.S. force levels above 140,000. He will, almost certainly, say that plans for further troops withdrawals must be delayed until a reassessment of the situation is made this summer.

Petraeus is sitting on a lot of strong data that show a dramatic downturn in violence. Weekly attacks across Iraq, civilian deaths, U.S. military and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) deaths, high profile explosive attacks, sectarian violence, and even IED attacks are all trending downward — dramatically so. Despite the recent uptick in violence last week (which was to be expected, as the insurgents are mindful that General Petraeus is to testify this week, and it is in their interest to try to diminish his impact by increasing violence), one cannot argue that the surge has succeeded in creating space for political progress.

But is that political progress taking place?

General Petraeus will undoubtedly have to address concerns about a lack of political reconciliation, accommodation, and general progress. 

To that end, he can point out that the Iraqis have made progress at the national level. In December, the Iraqi government passed the Pension Law, a provision that allows tens of thousands of Sunnis to collect the retirement benefits that they earned under the Saddam regime. In January, they Council of Representatives enacted the de-Ba’athification law, allowing mid-level Baath party members to participate in government activities — a right that has been denied to them since the days of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). In February, the Iraqis passed their budget, funding the government and providing monies to ministries, reconstruction activities, and the provincial governments. 

Perhaps most importantly, leaders recently reached an agreement on the provincial powers law, an important piece of legislation that delineates the relationship between the central government and Iraq’s eighteen provinces and lays down the groundwork for provincial elections this fall. These elections may prove critical in that they will allow those who boycotted the last round of voting to participate, thus providing a more a representative voice to the citizenry of the provinces.

While the Iraqis have not achieved success in all 18 of the benchmarks leveled at them by the U.S. Congress at the beginning of last summer’s surge, they can point to forward movement. Considering how slow the U.S. legislative process moves in the relative safety of Washington D.C., the Iraqis can be proud of pulling together some rather important legislative initiatives.

At the local levels, Iraq has benefited from the rise of the “Sons of Iraq” — local militiamen who are pledged to creating stability in their communities. The Iraqi government, for its part, is taking steps to integrate the Sons of Iraq into the ISF. The stability provided by the Sons of Iraq is enabling increased participation in local civic life. A friend of mine who recently returned from an assignment on a U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team says that he is encouraged by what he witnessed during his year-long assignment in the Al Anbar province, namely local citizens participating in civic activities ranging from trash removal, to neighborhood watches, to area beautification — all unthinkable during his previous tour to the same province.

The bottom line here is that General Petraeus can point to some important progress at the national level as well as unexpected gains at the grassroots level.

On a sour note, General Petraeus will have to address the performance of the Iraqi military during last week’s activities in Basra. While it is commendable that the Prime Minister Maliki’s government took the initiative to restore order to Basra by engaging Shiite militiamen (mainly Mahdi Army elements belonging to Moqtada al-Sadr), it is undeniable that the Iraqi military did not perform as well as one might have wished.

General Petraeus will have to account for the ISF and point out that what happened in Basra still shows progress. 

To be sure, it is no small thing that the Iraqi government showed initiative in taking on criminal elements in this important southern province. 

The Iraqi Security Forces simply needed a deliberate plan that turned political strategy into military strategy. Proper planning could have ensured a better pre-positioning of military forces and resources to the target area by way of phased delivery of military elements currently engaged in both Baghdad and Mosul. 

All of this can be done. And furthermore, it is far more likely now than it would have been just 12 months ago. The news is not all bad here, folks.

Lastly, to achieve success on the battlefield that is Washington, General Petraeus will have to conclude his testimony by showing the need to keep U.S. force levels at 140,000 or higher. 

Political leaders in both the Senate and the House will be expected to argue that the improved Iraqi security environment, the gains in Iraq’s national and local political arena, and the events in Basra all highlight Iraq’s fragile nature. 

General Petraeus should agree with them — as it makes his case for sustained U.S. force levels.

The message: gains have been made; stability is returning; the ISF is not perfect, but it is getting better; let’s consolidate those gains and not upset the apple cart by doing anything drastic in terms of too rapid a withdrawal of U.S. forces. 

The argument that the General must make needs to steer clear of the political minefields that have been emplaced all over Capitol Hill and focus on the task at hand: to make the argument to continue using U.S. and coalition forces to provide security for the Iraqi population to create space for forward Iraqi political movement.

When it comes right down to it, General Petraeus is going to have to continue to make a case for more time. As a Navy SEAL buddy of mine (with numerous combat tours) stated, “it is important to continue to remind the American people and Congress that this is very long process and a very complex problem.” 

Long and complex: an understatement if ever there was one.