WITH Gen. David Petraeus returning to Capitol Hill tomorrow, I
asked a senior Coalition officer in Baghdad late last week what key
trends he sees in Iraq. I suspect my friend's views resemble those of
the general, so I'll let him speak for himself:
"Overall, civilian deaths remain substantially below those at the
height of the sectarian violence. Security incidents were [down to]
levels not seen since early 2005. Thanks to help from local civilians
[in] former al-Qaeda-in-Iraq safe havens, we've found more arms caches
so far this year than were found in all of 2006."
My old comrade went on to lay out the beating that al Qaeda's
getting up in Mosul - the last major city where the terrorists have
much influence. "There has been a significant chipping away at the
leadership and operators of al Qaeda . . . at their safe havens and
caches. In the past week, special-operations forces detained one of the
top al Qaeda leaders in the city, along with a number of his
subordinates and fighters.
"The Coalition and Iraqi forces are also putting considerable
pressure on the networks that support the foreign-fighter flow . . .
Helping in all this are tens of thousands of so-called 'Sons of Iraq,'
who secure their local areas to keep al Qaeda out. The progress against
al Qaeda is a key reason for the significant reduction in civilian
But what about the recent fighting in Basra, portrayed as a
disaster by the media? "The Iraqi Security Forces conducted a number of
targeted operations, took over the ports [key prizes that had been
funding the militias] and are in the process of reestablishing
checkpoints and security positions in the city.
"The Iraqi operation did reflect a willingness to take tough
decisions about tough problems. It also displayed the Iraqi capability
to deploy two brigades' worth of conventional and special-operations
forces on less than 48-hours' notice, with another brigade following.
That would not have been possible a year ago."
My source acknowledged that "the planning for Basra was incomplete
and some of the local forces were incapable of standing up to the
Iranian-supported rogue-militia elements." The quality of Iraq's
security forces remains uneven - but he sees them as remarkably
improved, in general. Their performance in Basra was more impressive
than feature-the-bad-news reporting implied.
This officer doesn't paint over the cracks in the Iraqi house, but
he's convinced that the Basra operation did "reflect a determination of
a Shia-led government to deal with Shia extremist challenges."
For myself, I watched the Basra dust-up from Panama, amazed at the
willful obtuseness of "war correspondents" who still refuse to
acknowledge basic military realities. They demanded a level of
effectiveness from Iraqi troops that the British had been unable (and unwilling) to deliver over the last five years.
Unlike the Brits, who faked it, the Iraqis went into the city and fought. Was their performance perfect? Of course not. But this is where the punditry got really interesting.
Many of the critics had previously lavished praise on the
counterinsurgency manual that Petraeus midwifed. One of the most-quoted
maxims from that document was T.E. Lawrence's admonition that it's
better for our local allies to do something imperfectly themselves than
for us to do it perfectly for them.
Well, the Iraqis stepped up to the plate. A few units folded.
Others fought ferociously. They did what we said we wanted - and the
critics raised the bar again. (Unfair criteria for success now may pose
a greater obstacle in Iraq and Afghanistan than do al Qaeda or the
And, by the way, it was Moqtada al Sadr, not the Iraqi government,
who requested a cease-fire - after being urged by the Iranians to opt
to let those militias live to fight another day.
Partisan critics refuse to accept that war is tough and results are never
perfect. They want it all wrapped up neatly at the end of the two-hour
movie so we can all walk out of the theater feeling good.
When Petraeus gets to the Hill, he'll answer every question honestly. A disciplined soldier, he'll refrain from responding: Senator, that is a phony question - and why haven't I seen your well-padded butt in Baghdad?
He'll speak soberly - detailing the indisputable gains on the ground,
while acknowledging that many difficulties remain. He'll warn that the
progress to date could still be reversed.
But the truth won't be enough in an election year. The theatrics
won't come from the general, but from histrionic legislators. (That
said, Sen. Hillary Clinton, having been caught in her lie about dashing
through sniper fire, is unlikely to reprise her accusation that
Petraeus is weaving fantasies.)
The general will also be needled about the recent mortar attacks on
the Green Zone and on Iran's role in the Iraqi muddle. We'll have to
wait and see how he responds tomorrow - but my contact had this to say,
after I mentioned that the real target of those mortar rounds seemed to
be media headlines:
"The attacks on the Green Zone were carried out by the
Iranian-trained, Iranian-equipped, Iranian-funded and Iranian-directed
Special Groups . . . They prompted many Iraqi leaders to take a hard
new look at their neighbor to the east, especially in light of promises
by President [Mahmoud] Ahmedinejad to stop the flow of lethal
accelerants into Iraq."
Iraqi legislators, who also inhabit the Green Zone, were incensed
that many of the "rockets and mortars fell short or wide and killed or
wounded innocent civilians."
That last point is a good note on which to end as we await the
congressional circus. Anyone who's served in the Army or Marines knows
that, while mortars require skilled operators to deliver accurate fire,
they're among the easiest weapons to use if all you want to do is make
a noise and get attention.
In other words, those mortar attacks on the Green Zone were the
equivalent of the questions Gen. Petraeus is going to face: Full of
sound and fury, signifying nothing.