The Armchair General’s Surrender

On April 20, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) stated, “I believe myself that the secretary of state, secretary of defense and — you have to make your own decisions as to what the president knows — [know] this war is lost and the surge is not accomplishing anything as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq yesterday.” The senator’s statements were hardly surprising, coming after extensive Congressional maneuverings to cripple or at least denigrate the administration’s strategy for Iraq. Still, Reid’s candid admission of defeat (not his defeat, mind you) should shock a level-headed observer of the ongoing conflict in Iraq. The shortsighted statement betrays a refusal to acknowledge moderately encouraging signs in the field. Additionally, it contradicts the studied opinion of the unanimously confirmed and almost universally respected General David Petraeus, America’s commander in Iraq. Finally, Reid’s remark demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of how insurgencies work and how they are defeated.

First, the administration’s continuing efforts and new strategy have produced very encouraging signs of progress in Anbar Province, the Sunni “Wild West” that stretches along the Euphrates River. In particular, the city of Ramadi has recently enjoyed a renaissance relative to its moribund state just months ago. Several factors have combined to produce this remarkable result, foremost among which has been the successful effort by the American and Iraqi governments to get tribal sheikhs in the province onto the side of the multinational forces. A number of these sheikhs have formed the Anbar Salvation Council, a body that is dedicated to fighting Al Qaeda’s efforts in the province. While many of the Council’s leaders were formerly hostile to the United States and the Shia-led central government, they also had irreconcilable differences with the ideological extremists of Al Qaeda. On April 29 the New York Times related the origins of this falling-out: “The sheiks were part of a relatively moderate front that sought to drive the Americans out of Iraq…But Al Qaeda wanted to go even further and impose a fundamentalist Islamic state in Anbar…Al Qaeda’s fighters began to use killing, intimidation and financial coercion to divide the tribes and win support for their agenda…For all the sheiks’ hostility toward the Americans, they realized that they had a bigger enemy, or at least one that needed to be fought first, as a matter of survival.”

With the tribes’ support, thousands of local security personnel have materialized to help in the struggle to defeat Al Qaeda in Anbar. It should, furthermore, be noted that the policies associated with the American troop surge have also been at play in the Anbar turnaround. According to the Times article, “American and Iraqi forces have been conducting sweeps of insurgent strongholds, particularly in and around Ramadi, leaving behind a network of police stations and military garrisons, a strategy that is also being used in Baghdad…as part of its new security plan.” The results of the Americans and Iraqis’ effort have been as plain as day: “Violence has fallen swiftly throughout Ramadi and its sprawling rural environs, residents and American and Iraqi officials said. Last summer, the American military recorded as many as 25 violent acts a day in the Ramadi region, ranging from shootings and kidnappings to roadside bombs and suicide attacks. In the past several weeks, the average has dropped to four acts of violence a day, American military officials said.”

Meanwhile, results have also been observed in Baghdad, the centerpiece of the surge strategy. General Petraeus discussed strategy and progress in Baghdad at the April 26 press briefing that followed his presentation before Congress. According to the general, “Baghdad is the main effort, and we continue to establish joint security stations and combat outposts in the city and in the belts around it.” In addition to the creation of such positions, the construction of barriers around markets and neighborhoods is an essential, ongoing element for the suppression and exclusion of extremists. So far, there is reason to be encouraged by developments in the Iraqi capital. Petraeus explained, “The presence of coalition and Iraqi forces and increased operational tempo, especially in areas where until recently we had no sustained presence, have begun to produce results. Most significantly, Iraqi and coalition forces have helped to bring about a substantial reduction in the rate of sectarian murders each month from January until now in Baghdad, a reduction of about two-thirds. There have also been increases in weapons caches seized and the number of actionable tips received.” Additionally, the erection of barriers has elicited a generally positive reception from Iraqis: “In most cases, actually, the neighbors welcome that kind of barrier plan or walls or what have you…Now [local residents] are actually walled off from bad guys, from extremists, and that is what it is that we are trying to wall off.” Of course, these positive signs are no excuse for complacency, but they must be acknowledged in an honest appraisal of our strategy in Iraq.

Besides disregarding Petraeus’ presentation of some heartening preliminary results, Senator Reid’s outburst that “the surge is not accomplishing anything” flouts the general’s calls for patience and prudence. Petraeus believes that September is the optimal date for a full and frank evaluation of the surge’s success or failure. To prematurely declare that the strategy has failed allows insufficient time for the deployment of American and Iraqi forces and the continuation of the political process. As the general explained in the press briefing, there are further military and political developments planned for the coming months: “[September] will be a time at which we will have had our additional forces on the ground for several months, all of them operating in the areas in which we intend to deploy them. We will have seen additional Iraqi security forces…graduate from this greatly expanded institutional training capacity of the Iraqis…So they will have been, you know, beefed up continually during this time. There’s additional equipment continually flowing to them…And then on the Iraqi governmental side, they will have had a number of additional days — meetings of the Council of Representatives. Our additional Provincial Reconstruction Teams will have been at work, the budget execution focus, the Rule of Law Task Force, and so forth.”

Finally, Reid’s assertion that the “extreme violence in Iraq yesterday” proves the surge’s failure is beside the point. Incidents of extreme violence in and of themselves do not prove that a society is irredeemable. Indeed, any society, at any time, is vulnerable to the horrific machinations of extremists and madmen. Does the Oklahoma City bombing or the recent shooting at Virginia Tech mean that law enforcement in the United States is a lost cause? Of course not. Even though such spasms of terror are experienced here, a fundamental confidence in public order and general good faith among the population allows life to continue as usual almost all the time. Similarly, we must not expect Iraq to be free of spectacular acts of savagery in the foreseeable future. Al Qaeda will continue to use chlorine gas, car bombs, and the like to massacre innocent people ——particularly when prominent Americans cite these attacks as evidence of defeat. What is achievable, as Mario Loyola of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies argues, is the creation of a sense that the Iraqi government and its foreign allies will not back down in the face of such attacks, no matter how barbaric. As part of this effort, a decrease in the frequent, smaller-scale acts of violence that plague Iraq (such as sectarian murders) is also achievable. Indeed, General Petraeus has testified to preliminary success in Baghdad in this regard. When, God willing, Iraqis have confidence in the permanence of their government and feel safe from “common” violence, Al Qaeda’s massacres will be defeated, even if they continue sporadically.

Of course, nothing is certain in Ramadi, Baghdad, or elsewhere in Iraq. As Petraeus put it, “The operational environment in Iraq is the most complex and challenging I have ever seen.” But just as surely as we cannot discount defeat in the theater, we cannot discount victory.

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