The Illusion of Success in Iraq

conason gen david petraeu The Illusion of Success in IraqFollowing two days of carefully staged theatrics on Capitol Hill and cable television, the essential facts about Iraq remain unchanged. Despite the big charts and the blustering fanfare highlighted by Fox News, neither Gen. David H. Petraeus nor Ambassador Ryan Crocker could convincingly claim that the American military escalation in Iraq is achieving its stated goals.

Having assured us last spring that we would learn by September whether the so-called surge is a success according to those benchmarks, the general and the diplomat now ask us to disregard the original measures, look elsewhere for wisps of hope, and give the Bush plan still another six months.

By then, of course, there will not be enough troops left in the American armed forces to support the escalation. While General Petraeus sought to portray the unavoidable withdrawal of several brigades as the result of “success,” the truth is that the Army, Marines, and National Guard will soon reach the breaking point no matter what happens in Iraq.

Meanwhile, as they await the inevitable, the soldiers and marines face a continuing stalemate on the ground, where they remain caught in a slow-moving civil war whose casualties can be measured not only in the dead and the wounded but in the dispossessed, by the hundreds of thousands. In many communities where the Pentagon claims that measurable violence has diminished, especially in Baghdad, the underlying reason is simply that either Shia or Sunni families have been forced to flee by death squads, militias or even the corrupt, sectarian national police.

Rather than confront the dismal facts on the ground, both General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker sought to extrapolate a more uplifting assessment from recent developments in Anbar Province, as expected. The ambassador had no choice but to confess his deep “frustration” over the Iraqi government’s daily failures, yet he professed to find hope in the Anbar experience and the government’s response.

In Anbar, as everyone must have heard, American commanders have exploited a rupture between local Sunni tribal leaders and their former friends from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. During the past few years, the insurgent sheiks have become increasingly disillusioned with the jihadis, many of whom are foreigners, over their proclivity for carrying off local young women for forced marriages, killing recalcitrant young men who display insufficient zeal for Salafist Islam and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

Indeed, General Petraeus noted that the tribal leaders had shifted their allegiance against Al Qaeda as long ago as last January, during his Senate confirmation hearings, when he said “right now there appears to be a trend in the positive direction where sheiks are stepping up and they do want to be affiliated with and supported by the U.S. Marines and Army forces who are in Anbar Province.” Open warfare between the jihadists and the sheiks happily coincided with the arrival of additional U.S. forces in Iraq over the coming months, although those changes in temporary alliances had little or nothing to do with the surge. General Petraeus cleverly dispatched 4,000 of those troops to Anbar, and proceeded to take credit for a trend that was already under way.

Mr. Crocker’s role in the political exploitation of that coincidence was to cajole the Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad into pretending to be delighted with the new alliance between the Sunni sheiks and the U.S. Army. The honest response of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his ministers to this development was closer to pure horror, and a threat to transfer his own party’s loyalties even more firmly to Iran.

Regardless of these unsettling nuances, Mr. Crocker made the very most of the Anbar situation in his House testimony on Monday. Confessing that he didn’t expect the Baghdad government to fulfill the benchmarks set forth last winter as the reasons for the surge, he swiftly turned to those hopeful signs from west of the capital.

“I frankly do not expect that we are going to see rapid progress through these benchmarks,” admitted the ambassador. “It is important to remind ourselves that the benchmarks are not an end to themselves; they are a means to national reconciliation. And I think it is very important that we maintain a sense of tactical flexibility and encourage the Iraqis to do the same, to seize opportunities to advance national reconciliation when they arise, as we have seen in Anbar and as we have seen in the government’s response to Anbar, through distributing additional budget resources to this province and bringing in its young men into security forces. So while I would certainly share disappointment that progress has been slow on legislative benchmarks, that, to my mind, does not mean there has been no progress toward reconciliation. There has been.”

In other words, we should forget about all the national benchmarks and gaze upon this wonderful faked reconciliation tableau set up in Anbar.