Petraeus report to Congress – upbeat but still a long way to go

Croker and Petraues

General Petraeus is a cautious man. In reporting to Congress on the success of the US troop surge in Iraq he could have been assertive and almost triumphalist. The crude figures, after all, are dramatic. In December 2006 over 2000 Iraqi civilians a month were being killed in sectarian fighting, over 1,500 of them in Baghdad alone. At the end of March this year the total figure was less than 200 nationally and only just over 100 in Baghdad. Significant bombings have fallen in the last year from 130 a month to around sixty. Car bombings, suicide bombings, individual bombings with ‘suicide vests’ are all down, though there has been a recent spike upwards in the last two weeks, thanks largely to the offensive of the Iraqi Prime Minister against the Shia militias. Nevertheless, the surge has delivered a window of relative stability on the streets and a breathing space for Iraqi political reconciliation

The Petraeus assessment, however, and that of Ambassador Ryan Crocker, was sober and only marginally encouraging; certainly not what Congress would have preferred to hear. The five combat brigades that had made up the troop surge should be withdrawn – as they always would have to be to maintain a sustainable US ground force overall – and around 140,000 US troops will remain indefinitely, pending another review in July as the next rotation takes place. ‘This approach’ said the General, ‘does not allow [the] establishment of a set withdrawal timetable’. This may have suited Republican presidential candidate McCain a good deal more than Senator Clinton or Mr. Obama, both contending for the democratic nomination on a platform of some kind of rapid drawdown of forces.

So the US is still stuck in Iraq, certainly until well into the term of a new US president. The surge has been valuable, of course, not just in the impact the extra numbers have had on public order in and around Baghdad, but also in the better tactics embraced by US troops (a notable effect of Petraeus as US commander), and a more coherent political strategy which has bought off local Sunni leaders and recruited others to the government cause. For the time being, the US has succeeded in halting the Sunni-based insurgency and kicking Al-Qa’ida out of most of Iraq. These gains, said Petraeus, are ‘fragile and reversible’ but his comments make clear that the US is, gratefully, back to square one in Iraq: where it should have been in December 2003.

All this leaves the US in a better position than many forecast a year or more ago, but with some $24 billion spent on training Iraqi security forces, the fact remains that the US still has no workable exit strategy other than to hope for the best and be prepared to exploit whatever favourable opportunities might arise. One favourable possibility is that the training has begun to pay off to such an extent that with the suspension of the Sunni insurgency, the Iraqi Government is now capable of taking on the Shia militias, extending a workable deal with the Kurds, and imposing legitimate security on the country as a whole. Then some genuine inward investment could be attracted and proper economic reconstruction could effectively begin. If that were the case then history would judge that while the time bought by the surge was not well-used by Iraqi politicians to foster reconciliation and progress – indeed it was effectively squandered by all the country’s political leaders – at the last gasp, Prime Minister Maliki stood up to the factions and asserted some control over the country that laid the basis for political progress.

That is the favourable interpretation. The less favourable one is that, pending the Provincial elections in October, Maliki is locked in an intra-Shia battle for control of the bulk of the country, the outcome of which will determine which way the Sunnis and the Kurds decide to jump when the time comes. In this version of the scenario, there is far less scope for favourable opportunities the US might exploit to engineer a successful exit from its Iraq entanglement.

US commentators, and some commanders, have been critical of Britain’s reducing military role in the South. The New York Times last week reported the Maliki offensive against the Mahdi Army in Basra as an essentially US military problem. The British presence at Basra air station was reported almost as an afterthought; certainly peripheral to the outcome. This week, retired US General Jack Keen, a veteran of US Balkan operations among others, was explicit in his view that the effects of British withdrawal from Basra had been negative and had created, he said, a ‘vacuum’ for the Iranian-backed Shia militias to exploit that now had to be addressed. But critical as US thinking might be, the fact remains that the US is now in a similar situation in Iraq to Britain. Even with its 140,000 troops committed there indefinitely, as opposed to Britain’s 4,000, the US can do little to affect what happens next in Iraq. The presence of US and Coalition troops can keep a certain degree of order in Iraq – with a surge, quite a lot of order in some of the most troubled areas – but that presence cannot create the political or social momentum that is the pre-requisite for a viable country. Only the Iraqis can make Iraq work. The past five years contained too many Coalition mis-steps which may have made the job more difficult for them. Looking forward, the immediate benefits of some recent strategic coherence in the whole ‘surge’ approach will need to be sustained for a lot longer before Iraq can be said to be ‘working’ and Coalition forces can leave with honour.

Professor Michael Clarke, Former Director of RUSI

Further information

War Without Consequences - Iraq’s Insurgency and the Spectre of Strategic Defeat


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