When Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker give their progress report on Iraq to Congress Monday, much will be said about US military gains since President Bush announced the "surge" of 30,000 additional troops in January.
But the main question for US policymakers in judging the surge strategy remains a political one: Did Iraqis use the period of intensified American action to make political gains, especially to further the reconciliation goals for ending sectarian violence?
With even General Petraeus saying in a letter to his troops that in this political objective the surge "has not worked out as we had hoped," the debate in the days ahead will revolve primarily around the Iraqis' political shortcomings and what that should mean for US policy.
That debate falls broadly into three camps:
1) The political failures show that Iraq is in a civil war the US cannot stop, so US troops should come home.
2) US security interests are served by the surge's military successes, and the rug should not be pulled out from under local Iraqis, such as the Sunnis of Anbar Province, who are starting to act without the central government.
3) As a "middle way," the US should begin a token troop drawdown in coming months to pressure the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make political progress and to get the US on the road to an orderly disengagement.
President Bush plans to address the nation this week, probably Thursday night, when he is expected to offer his vision for the way forward after hearing the Petraeus-Crocker comprehensive report. Mr. Bush, who must deliver an Iraq progress report to Congress by Saturday, is expected to conclude that recent military advances should permit a small drawdown of troops to begin early next year. Petraeus has hinted at a reduction of a brigade, or about 4,000 combat soldiers.
Biggest worry: Iraq's political inertia
The underlying issue, though, remains Iraq's political inertia and what to do about a central government that many officials and experts in all camps have concluded is dysfunctional.
At the outset of the surge, 18 benchmarks, including some for the Iraqi government to meet, were suggested by the White House and endorsed by Congress for weighing progress. Now, as multiple reports explicitly or implicitly deliver failing grades – in particular for benchmarks directly related to national reconciliation – it's clear that the Iraqi government hasn't met expectations. The question now becomes whether it is even possible to translate US military advances into political progress by the Iraqi government.
"The real issue hanging out there is the question of the role of the central government in relation to the rest of the country," says Ken Pollack, an Iraq expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The central government is hopelessly deadlocked at the moment, and while there are local areas of progress, in every case they are being undermined by the conflicts going on in Baghdad in the central government."
The central government's "negative impact" has led Iraqis and an exasperated Bush administration to weigh the merits of encouraging a replacement to Mr. Maliki, and to efforts by the US and some Iraqis to decentralize power in Iraq and reduce Baghdad's role.
Turning up the pressure a notch on Baghdad to move forward on national reconciliation is the idea behind the proposal by some US lawmakers for a small drawdown of US troops before the end of this year. Major benchmarks in this area include passage of legislation to equitably distribute Iraq's oil revenue, so-called "de-Baathification" measures to allow a return of mostly Sunni former Baathists to government employment, provincial elections, and constitutional reform.
Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, a key proponent of the small drawdown approach, believes such a move would convey to Baghdad that US patience is wearing thin.
Wrong signal, some senators say
But other senators, mainly Republicans who back the surge, say that approach is risky because it signals to principle US foes in Iraq – the Sunni insurgency, sectarian militias, and Al Qaeda in Iraq – that the US is switching to a withdrawal footing.
"I disagree with Senator Warner because the audience for statements made in Washington is not just Maliki's government," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina told the Monitor last week. "Any effort by Congress [to force a drawdown] will be misinterpreted not as a pressure device on the Maliki government, but as a lack of will."
Senator Graham says a recent visit to Iraq demonstrated to him that local-government and grass-roots efforts at intersectarian cooperation are growing – and can spread from the local level if the "improved environment" resulting from the surge is not cut short.
"I'm predicting that this attitude of making gestures toward each other is going to lead to national reconciliation," Graham said at a speech at Washington's American Enterprise Institute (AEI) last week. The result, he says, is that in "the next weeks, not months, there will be major breakthroughs in the benchmarks regarding political reconciliation."
Too much stock put in benchmarks?
Other surge advocates say the benchmarks, which reflect US goals of a year ago, should be revised in light of current conditions on the ground or dismissed, but should not be allowed to determine the future US course.
Using the benchmarks to judge the surge at this point in time would ensure US defeat, argues Robert Kagan, a military historian at AEI and an intellectual architect of the surge strategy. "What's not natural is [holding up] this list of benchmarks drawn up in the middle of last year [and saying] we're not meeting them, so to heck with it."
Mr. Kagan is part of a team of Iraq experts who say the "middle way" of beginning a US drawdown soon – before military progress is cemented by further political advances – risks reversing any gains against Islamist extremists and other insurgents.
Other observers, however, say a consensus is beginning to form – among the White House, various factions in the Pentagon, and proponents of a "middle way" in Congress – that the surge's military results allow for and political realities in Washington and Baghdad require some sort of move to begin drawing down US troops by early next year at the latest.
One element of that accommodation will be a plan that allows Bush – who realizes he need no longer fear a Congress bent on a timetable for completing a US withdrawal – to feel he is setting down the plan as he sees fit, some experts say. But another will be acceptance of the reality that Iraq is unlikely to emerge from its political stalemate any time soon.
Noting that "mainstream Democrats aren't talking about pulling the plug either," Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador and now director of Brookings' Saban Center for Mideast Policy, says the US "middle ground" must work with "the basic reality that what we have here is a 10-year conflict between Sunni and Shias." That means, he adds, that for some time to come Iraq's political factions "won't be amenable to a broad comprehensive fix."