The latest intelligence assessment of the military and political situation in Iraq offers a mixed picture, providing both critics and supporters of President Bush’s “surge” strategy with ammunition to espouse their respective positions.
On the one hand, the National Intelligence Estimate (as the intelligence assessment is officially known) concludes that the Iraqis are falling short of expectations for political reconciliation among the various sectarian groups. This is true particularly at the national level where Prime Minister Maliki has proven unable to forge political unity among the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds and the Iraqi parliament left town for a month’s vacation without reaching agreement on any significant issues.
The defeatists in Washington are seizing on this finding to argue that the war effort is a failure. They will press this fall for a vote in Congress to cut our losses and force us to leave Iraq as soon as possible. But they overlook the part of the intelligence assessment that points out how security conditions have improved in Iraq and how changing the current mission would “erode security gains achieved thus far.” If we leave too soon, the country will implode into even worse sectarian violence than before.
Gen. David Petraeus will be providing his military status report to Congress in mid-September. It won’t be all rosy to be sure, but General Petraeus is expected to point out two significant measures of improvement since the surge has been underway that are also reflected in the intelligence assessment findings: (1) the number of violent extremist attacks has gone down; and (2) the number of local Sunnis who turned against al-Qaeda, which had come to dominate the Sunni insurgency, has gone up. This second measure of improvement is especially important, but is at risk of being reversed if the defeatists in Washington force a premature withdrawal of our troops from Iraq.
Al-Qaeda has clearly failed to win the hearts and minds of the local populace whom the terrorists have been killing in the name of Allah. Indeed, al-Qaeda’s brand of Islamic fanaticism did not sell to their fellow Muslims who should have been an easy source of recruits for the Islamic terrorists’ cause since many local residents had started out hating the American ‘occupiers.’ The intelligence assessment points out that the Coalition forces – working with Iraqi forces, tribal elements and Sunni insurgents – have succeeded in reducing al-Qaeda’s capabilities, removing its freedom of movement, and denying it grassroots support. The Iraqi citizens turned on al-Qaeda when they experienced first-hand their evil acts – the beheadings, the murder and rape of women and children, the conscripting of forced labor and the destruction of the Iraqis’ own livelihoods.
In short, al-Qaeda managed to alienate the local Sunni Muslim population all on its own. We turned out to be the more attractive alternative. This in itself represents a major victory over al-Qaeda’s claim to represent pure Islam against the infidel Western invaders. Now the cut-and-run crowd in Congress wants to throw all this progress away and create a vacuum that al-Qaeda will quickly fill again and exploit for propaganda purposes.
Seizing on the intelligence assessment’s grim outlook for political progress in Iraq, the war’s opponents, who want to set a firm date for withdrawal of American troops, say that our mission in Iraq has failed. Only if the defeatists have their way will their gloom and doom turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy and surrender Iraq to the terrorists, just when we have succeeded in marginalizing them.
There are also significant diplomatic developments happening behind the scenes that will fizzle if we remove the Coalition’s security blanket prematurely. Ironically, they involve France and the United Nations, where opposition to the U.S. decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein by force was at its strongest.
Earlier this month, the French foreign ministry said that France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, visited Iraq “to express a message of solidarity from France to the Iraqi people and to listen to representatives from all communities." Kouchner (the co-founder of Doctors without Borders and former UN administrator for Kosovo) has many contacts in Iraq across the political and religious spectrum and has considerable credibility with all major factions. He can serve the “honest broker” role that the United States cannot perform on its own. The fact that France had vociferously opposed the war in the first place adds to that credibility. In sending Kouchner to Iraq, French President Nicolas Sarkozy – fresh from his visit with President Bush in the United States – was signaling France’s willingness to put aside former President Chirac’s petty squabbles and provide constructive assistance on the political front. France has also indicated a willingness to provide unspecified assistance to Iraqi troops and police.
Kouchner arrived on the fourth anniversary of the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad that killed UN special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, a friend of Kouchner’s, and 19 other people. Describing as "unacceptable” the sectarian violence in Iraq that has prevented political progress, Kouchner said: "We want to be at the side of this large and important country at the birth of its democracy…One part of the fight against violence and the restoration of peace and democracy in the country lies with the United Nations. France approves this path and we will assist in this direction.”
Shortly before Kouchner’s visit with Iraqi leaders, the United Nations agreed to expand its mission in Iraq. The UN Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 1770, which calls for the UN mission to "advise, support and assist" the Iraqi government on a wide range of political, economic, legal, and human rights issues. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised this action. In doing so, he resisted the call from his own staff not to deploy any additional UN personnel to Iraq and to remove those already there until the security situation improves.
“Promoting and encouraging political facilitation and dialogue among different factions and ethnic religious groups – this will be one of the important areas where the United Nations will be engaged,” Ban said. This is a far cry from the days of Kofi Annan, who spent much of his time excoriating the United States for starting what he called an “illegal” war in Iraq.
The U.S. ambassador to the UN and former ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, promised that the United States "will do its part to ensure that the UN security and resources needs are met." Behind the scenes, in recognition of how Ban Ki-moon is sticking his neck out on Iraq by bucking his own bureaucracy, Khalilzad has moved to ease U.S.-UN tensions in other areas. For example, Khalilzad has cut the Secretary-General some slack on how he handles the fallout from a scandal involving the UN Development Programme’s North Korean operations.
These are not coincidental events. It should be obvious to all except the most ideological foes of the Bush administration that a concerted effort is being made by the administration to engage our allies and the United Nations in the difficult job of nation-building while we continue to supply the military security that is vital to their success. The leaders of France and the United Nations are far more amenable to playing a constructive mediating role in Iraq than their anti-American predecessors. But they will not take the risks necessary to play this role if we remove protection for them and for the increasing numbers of Iraqis who have risked their own lives by turning against the extremists.
It is ironic that those who have most vigorously criticized the Bush administration’s disregard for our allies and the United Nations in the past are willing to pull the rug out from under France and the United Nations just as they are taking an active part in helping the Iraqis solve their political problems.
Of course, none of these diplomatic efforts will succeed if Iraqi’s political leaders continue their squabbling. While the intelligence assessment is grim on how these leaders have behaved to date, one hopeful sign is a meeting held recently in Cairo among several of the most senior Iraqi Sunni and Shi’a religious leaders, in which they agreed to “end terrorist violence, and to disband militia activity in order to build a civilized country and work within the framework of law.” They reportedly intend to issue a joint Sunni-Shi’a fatwa to the Iraqi people, putting their moral authority behind reconciliation and against terrorism. What a powerful rebuke this would be to the al-Qaeda pretenders to Islamic purity.
Back in December 2004, Osama bin Laden called Baghdad “the capital of the caliphate” and said of the war in Iraq, “[T]he whole world is watching this war and the two adversaries; the Islamic nation, on the one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other. It is either victory and glory or misery and humiliation.”
The Iraqi people are rising up against the terrorists. With the benefit of the security we have been providing, they are courageously delivering a humiliating blow to al-Qaeda’s standing in the Muslim world. However, if the defeatists in Washington prevail and cause us to surrender our troops’ hard-earned gains, the terrorists will prevail by forfeit.