Debate on Iraq surge's effectiveness heats up

Gen. David Petraeus treads cautiously in public, while two Brookings Institution scholars draw fire from the left for saying that the surge should be extended.

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Cairo – Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, is treading cautiously in public, a month before he and US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker are expected to make a case to Congress that the military surge in Iraq, the recent buildup of US forces there, is getting results, the Associated Press reports.

In an Associated Press interview in late July in his office at the U.S. Embassy, Petraeus betrayed no sign of anxiety, except perhaps a hint of worry that he might tip his hand too early, thus opening himself to challenge from critics before he has fully armed himself with credible arguments for why the buildup is working.
… his tone was flat, almost a monotone. He chose his words carefully. Only when he got to the subject of the sacrifices made in this war by soldiers and their families did he get animated.
"This is too important to always turn the other cheek, shall we say. I think sometimes you have to have straightforward conversations," he says, adding: "I think I owe that to 3,600 families in the United States and the 160,000 coalition forces who are soldiering their hearts out. I take that responsibility very, very seriously."

While Petraeus and other commanders have hinted in the past that they are likely to recommend extending the surge in the September report, he has also said that the key to the plan is providing enough security so that political reconciliation – the key to ending Iraq's war – can take place.

In a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, Brookings Institution scholars Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack argue that the US is "finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms" and the surge should be extended.

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For now, things look much better than before. American advisers told us that many of the corrupt and sectarian Iraqi commanders who once infested the force have been removed. The American high command assesses that more than three-quarters of the Iraqi Army battalion commanders in Baghdad are now reliable partners (at least for as long as American forces remain in Iraq).

But the two also note that political progress has been slim.

In the end, the situation in Iraq remains grave. In particular, we still face huge hurdles on the political front. Iraqi politicians of all stripes continue to dawdle and maneuver for position against one another when major steps towards reconciliation — or at least accommodation — are needed. This cannot continue indefinitely. Otherwise, once we begin to downsize, important communities may not feel committed to the status quo, and Iraqi security forces may splinter along ethnic and religious lines.

The opinion piece has generated heavy criticism from opponents of the war, who charge that it is boosterish and results from a very brief trip to the war zone. For instance, the Think Progress blog reports that Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha said: "I dismiss it as rhetoric."

"In my estimation, the things I measure — oil production, electricity production, water — only 2 hours of electricity! I don't know where they were staying, I don't know what they saw… It's not getting better. It's rhetorical, is what's getting better," Murtha said. "It's an illusion."

However, Col. Pat Land (ret.), a former head of Middle East intelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency, who has been a frequent critic of the conduct of the war on his blog Sic Semper Tyrannis 2007, said the piece reflects an improved understanding by American commanders of "the kind of war they are in," while also noting that long-term success there is still questionable. He approvingly comments on the two men's recent appearance on Fox News Sunday (FNS).

Towards the end of the FNS interview both men said that in the part of (counter-insurgency historian Bernard) Fall's formulation that concerns PA (political action) there has been NO, ZERO, NOTHING. In other words the Maliki government has not made any progress at all towards national reconciliation. They further say that they see no prospect for movement towards national reconciliation in Iraq under Malikis rule but that it would be folly for the United States to attempt to cause his removal.
In other words, they and I have much the same opinion. People on the left who greeted the NY Times oped with great agitation were mistaken in their reaction. The piece and the FNS interview today should be seen as deserved praise for long awaited comprehension of "this kind of war" by the US military. At the same time the esoteric meaning (attention straussians) of their exposition is that without an Iraqi government that wants inter-communal reconciliation there will be no peace in Iraq.

The prospect for that sort of reconciliation is precisely what seems to have receded in recent weeks, judging from the recent withdrawals from the national unity government of many secular and Sunni Arab officials.

The Washington Post reports that the five ministers from the Iraqiya coalition headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi suspended their participation in cabinet meetings on Monday, following the withdrawal of the six ministers from the largest Sunni Arab block in parliament last week.

Legislators loyal to Allawi said the ministers would continue to run their ministries but not attend any cabinet meetings. They cited as reasons for their action a lack of progress on issues such as the status of Iraqi detainees, the repatriation of displaced Iraqis and the return of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to government jobs.
"This act is not an escalation, but it is an objection to what the government is doing," Alia Nusaiyef Jasim, a legislator in Allawi's secular Shiite al-Iraqiyah bloc, told the al-Jazeera television network. "The Iraqiyah bloc participated in the government on the basis of sharing in the decision-making, but the bloc is marginalized in the government"

By Middle East historian Juan Cole's count, on his blog Informed Comment, 17 out of 38 cabinet ministers have now either resigned or suspended their membership, meaning, in his analysis, that "it is no longer possible to speak of (Prime Minister Nuri) al-Maliki's as a national unity government."

In his blog, Abu Aardvark, Marc Lynch, a political science professor and Middle East expert at George Washington University, says he sees a hardening of sectarian politics in recent events that bodes poorly for security and stability in Iraq.

Maliki doesn't seem particularly frantic, and it's understandable why. His government won't fall as long as he maintains the support of the Shia bloc (and the Parliament isn't in session anyway to carry out a no-confidence vote). He probably likes seeing Sunnis running around all pissed off better than he likes seeing them around the table at Cabinet meetings. He certainly would rather lose his Sunni cover in the Cabinet than actually make any concessions on the sectarian policies which are kind of the raison d'etre of his government (as if he'd really move against Shi'a militia penetration of the army at a time when, in his view, the Americans are arming Sunni militias in a parallel security force).
It's just reported that Allawi is out… that leaves Maliki with a purely sectarian government, with sectarian-minded Shia allied with the Kurds.

Meanwhile, the decision of Iraq's parliament to go on vacation as the ruling coalition has tottered, and with little progress so far on key legislation, has been roundly criticized by American politicians, The New York Times reports.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and several members of Congress already have expressed disappointment with Iraq's 275 lawmakers for recessing when roughly 160,000 U.S. soldiers are enduring Iraq's blast-furnace summer to secure the country - ostensibly to make political progress possible. It did not help that the need for a break was among the only things that the warring factions could agree on.

This political cartoon from mid-July summed up the mood.

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