Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were impressive in last week’s hearings regarding the current situation in Iraq, a year-plus into the “surge” and a few months into the inevitable drawdown of the additional troops provided by the surge.
Their sober demeanor, stressing not only the reality but the fragility and reversibility of improved conditions in Iraq, contrasted with the almost Pollyannish optimism of some Republican senators who see from a Beltway perspective or parachute in for a day or two.
Both representatives on the ground acknowledged that not all the improvements are attributable to the surge in troops and the change in strategy. Although Petraeus and his troops exploited the situation skillfully, the “Anbar Awakening” of Sunni tribal leaders becoming disillusioned with al-Qaida in Iraq and changing sides began before the surge. The decision of militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to order his “Mahdi Army” guerrilla band to observe a truce was taken independently of the surge and, as we have seen in the past several weeks, was subject to change when militias ostensibly representing the shaky Iraqi government attacked.
Perhaps most important, while Petraeus and Crocker noted a few steps in the direction of political reconciliation by Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraqi government, they said that progress has been slower than they had hoped — and further political progress is more important than military progress.
Petraeus’s recommendation — that after the surge drawdown is completed in June or July there should be a 45-day evaluation period before further troop reductions — is a tactical holding action rather than a strategy for victory, which the administration has still not defined.
One senator who moved beyond a partisan response, Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, put it best: “We cannot assume that sustaining some level of progress is enough to achieve success … We need a strategy that anticipates a political end game and employs every plausible means to achieve it.”
Whether that strategy involves announcing that U.S. troops will be withdrawn soon (with or without a timetable) to prod the Iraqi government, stressing bottom-up rather than top-down reconciliation, or talks with Iraq’s neighbors, it must come soon. Simply holding on and hoping for the best is not good enough.