Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, commander of the Multi-National Corps in Iraq, appeared in Washington this week to deliver his assessment of the military and political progress in Iraq.
Cautiously upbeat, Odierno noted some signs of major progress. For example, he pointed out that violence has dropped significantly, particularly in Baghdad, always al-Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) major target area because of the capital’s international media visibility. Earlier, al-Qaeda terrorized the city with murderous abandon. No longer. Baghdad neighborhoods that had been under AQI's Taliban-like control for more than a year have now been liberated. Seen against the backdrop of these developments, the fact that AQI's recent Ramadan offensive was a singular failure is proof of the organization‘s growing weakness.
Outside of Baghdad, too, there are signs of improvement. Cities that were once wracked by constant fighting -- Ramadi, Fallujah, and al-Qaim -- have been freed from al-Qaeda control. An American trooper stationed in Ramadi, once the scene of especially brutal fighting, recently told Odierno that today he could today through the streets "naked" (i.e., without a weapon) and not fear attack. Before the surge, that would have been unthinkable.
A major reason for this dramatic reversal is that Sunni tribal sheiks have come to recognize that their future lies with the government of Iraq, not with al Qaeda. Odierno pointed out that while al-Qaeda is still dangerous, it is "losing its support" because of its "indiscriminate targeting of civilians." The endless stream of foreign suicide bombers exploding automobiles in crowded marketplaces finally convinced the Sunni sheiks that all AQI has to offer Iraqis is a legacy of death. That should come as no surprise. Reports coming out of AQI occupied cities and from Baghdad neighborhoods detail unspeakable horrors inflicted upon the hapless populace in the name of Wahabbist ideology.
With the weakening of al-Qaeda, the reconstruction effort has taken off in earnest. In some outlying areas, troops are no longer fighting a counter-insurgency, and can focus on their efforts on rebuilding the country. This is a significant departure from the intense combat that raged in some of the contested Sunni areas as recently as six to eight months ago.
But it is too early to declare victory. Odierno cautioned that America is not yet where we want to be in that country. "It is very tempting to overestimate progress," the general said. He warned that "irreversible momentum" toward victory will come only with time, patience, and continued support from the American people.
According to Odierno, it will not be enough to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq. Also required is a deliberate, careful shift of security responsibilities to Iraqi forces, something that has been happening on an accelerated basis as a result of the spring-summer reinforcement of troops through the surge. Along with military stability, strong economic growth, particularly in the private employment and start-up business fields, is vital to success. Most important, Iraq’s ethnic and religious communities will have to choose between further bloodshed and political reconciliation.
In Odierno's opinion, the Iraqi people are already in the process of making that choice, and they have decided on peace. By way of illustration, he cited the sheiks in the highly fractious Sunni areas. "The sheiks have made their decision to support the Iraqi government," Odierno explained, “and we are now seeing similar decisions at the grass roots level in Shi'a neighborhoods, particularly in Baghdad's notorious Sadr City.”
Equally critical to the current success is the bond that has been forged between American troops and their Iraqi counterparts. Odierno made a special point of praising the Iraqi security units that moved six to seven additional battalions into Baghdad to coincide with the surge. At least one joint security position has been up and running successfully in Sadr City and "there is an excellent relationship between the Iraqi security forces and U.S. forces at the joint planning and operations level." Based on this success, Odierno plans to implement half a dozen more joint security positions quickly.
Odierno was especially pleased with the collegial relationship between Iraqis and Americans. The coordination is informal but the results are nothing short of amazing. "When I drive or fly over Baghdad," Odierno said, "I am pleased by what I describe as a return of normalcy." He noted that traffic is managed better and services such as electricity and water have improved enormously. Markets now protected from AQI suicide bombers are growing rapidly and mundane but important indicators such as youth soccer games suggest a measurable improvement in security. "I see hundreds of soccer games being played at all times of the day and night, in areas that previously people feared to congregate because of al Qaeda attack,” Odierno observed.
Yet Odierno is a realist. "There is more to do here especially in view of jobs and economic growth," he said. He cited the progress being made by the U.S. Agency for International Development in setting up job training programs in "hard skills" training -- plumbing, electrical, carpentry, masonry -- but noted that much more effort is needed. While government-sponsored programs are a short-term fix, he said that Iraq won't see gains on the employment side until the private sector takes over. He was confident that it would happen, but he said that it will require years of effort.
Nor does Odierno ignore the continuing threat from outside Iraq. While AQI infiltrators continue to come in through Syria, the primary problem is Iran. "Most of the training of Iraqi bad guys by Iranian forces is done inside Iran," Odierno observed. "So our job is to catch them as they return through the key border points." To that end, Coalition and Iraqi forces are placing more emphasis on interdiction.
Another matter of pressing concern for Odierno is the need for stable political guidance, both in Baghdad and in Washington. "Observers in the U.S. complain that the Iraqi government is feckless and fractious," he said. He added, with a hint of bitterness, that this is just what outsiders see when they look at American politics. "I need to know just what support I have over here long term," he stated. "It is vital because decisions I make now are based on whether we will have a U.S. presence here two, three, or more years out." But as the country braces itself for a contentious presidential primary process, asking for steady leadership from Washington increasingly seems like a tall order.