Today’s edition of Real Clear Politics offers links to a pair of contrasting views on the current troop surge in Iraq. “Understanding General Petraeus’ Strategy” was originally posed by the Weekly Standard; it’s a summary of testimony by historian and military analyst Dr. Fredrick W. Kagan, delivered to the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday. The other piece at RCP: “In Iraq, Operation Last Chance,” is an attempt by Time’s Joe Klein attempt to analyze Operation Arrowhead Ripper, against the backdrop of dwindling political support, and Petraeus’ scheduled report to Congress in September. Both are important reads, but for vastly different reasons.
In his appearance before the House Committee, Dr. Kagan cautioned that the new strategy remains in its early stages. The last “additional” combat brigade entered Iraq just this month, and the highly-publicized Arrowhead Ripper marks the first major operation will all surge forces in place. According to Dr. Kagan, American and coalition forces are only in the “second phase” of kinetic operations that will eventually extend a security presence from the outlying provinces to Baghdad’s toughest neighborhoods. And he cautioned that current operations–while clearly important–do not represent the decisive phase of the campaign:
But even this operation–the largest coordinated combat operation the U.S. has undertaken since the invasion in 2003–is not the decisive phase of the current strategy. It is an operation designed to set the preconditions for a successful clear-and-hold operation that will probably begin in late July or early August within Baghdad itself. That is the operation that is designed to bring security to Iraq’s capital in a lasting way that will create the space for political progress that we all desire.
Kagan also warned against a rush-to-judgement on the effectiveness of current operations, and the ultimate military and political outcomes in Iraq:
“The U.S. has not undertaken a multi-phased operation on such a large scale since 2003, and it is not surprising therefore that many commentators have become confused about how to evaluate what is going on and how to report it…To say that the current plan has failed is simply incorrect. It might fail, of course, as any military/political plan might fail. Indications on the military side strongly suggest that success–in the form of dramatically reduced violence by the end of this year–is quite likely. Indications on the political side are more mixed, but are also less meaningful at this early stage before security has been established.
In fairness, we should point out that Dr. Kagan has a clear stake in the success of our revised strategy. He is often credited as one of the “intellectual architects” of the surge, which was first outlined in a report Kagan produced for the American Enterprise Institute. He obviously believes the plan will work, although critics would say that Kagan’s optimism (and analysis) is tinted by his own involvement with the plan.
Joe Klein offers the contrarian view in “Last Chance,” based on his recent visit to Iraq. Judging from his account, it seems that the Time columnist received extraordinary access during his time with U.S. forces. He spent part of his time accompanying General Petraeus, who allowed Klein to sit in on briefings, where the commander “whispered little addendums for my benefit.”
Comparing Klein’s account to those of other journalists who covered Arrowhead Ripper(including blogger Michael Yon and Michael Gordon of The New York Times), it appears that Petraeus and his staff rolled out the red carpet for the Time representative. At a time when many journalists (and bloggers) were scrambling to reach the battlefield, Klein’s escorted tour was clearly no accident; senior commanders and public affairs officers decided that the man from Time needed a front-row seat, so he could explain the operation to his magazine’s vast audience. The resulting assessment is decidedly pessimistic in its tone:
Operation Phantom Thunder, the nationwide offensive launched by U.S. and Iraqi troops in mid-June, may well be the last major U.S-led offensive of the war. “We couldn’t really call it what it is, Operation Last Chance,” says a senior military official. There is widespread awareness among the military and diplomatic players in Baghdad that, with patience dwindling in Washington, they have only until September — when Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are due to give Congress a progress report — to show significant gains in taming the jihadist insurgency and in arresting the country’s descent into civil war.
Petraeus has been careful about claiming success, or even optimism, in the nearly five months since he returned to Baghdad. He has said a military victory isn’t possible, that Iraq can be stabilized only through a political solution that honors all sides in the conflict — Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. But his own staff is skeptical that a political deal is still possible. “This is going to be the first Shi’ite-dominated Arab government. Period,” a senior military official told me. “And the Shi’ites are not inclined to be generous toward the Sunnis.” The fact is, most of the important decisions in Iraq are now beyond American control.
“The vision thing is really important,” Petraeus told his commanders in Yusufia. “You have to visualize what security here should look like when you’re gone.” Petraeus was among the first to have the vision thing in Iraq, in Mosul in 2003, but the experiment was abandoned — there was a lack of sufficient troops — after he left. McCain and others believe, with some justification, that if the Petraeus counterinsurgency tactics had been adopted three years ago, the U.S.-led coalition might have had a shot. But now it seems likely that Petraeus will suffer the same fate in Baghdad as he did in Mosul. The various clocks are very much on his mind, but so are the daily sacrifices, the brilliant improvisations and occasional neighborhood victories of the troops he leads. “He doesn’t want to be the fall guy,” an aide said. And he doesn’t deserve to be. It is hard to imagine, though, how this can turn out any other way.
So, from Joe Klein’s perspective, the Petraeus strategy is doomed, and the general will become a scapegoat for our failures in Iraq. After the article makes the rounds in Baghdad, we wonder if the PAO in charge of Klein’s visit will get an “attaboy” for his efforts. Truth be told, the current situation in Iraq is somewhere between the analysis of Kagan and Klein. The outcome of the surge is hardly pre-destined, although many in Washington (hellooo Senator Reid) have already reached their conclusions, and plan to use the upcoming reports by General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to renew their push for an American pull-out. Not surprisingly, Mr. Klein’s reporting meshes with the low-ball expectations for Iraq that keep reverberating in the nation’s capital.
And sadly, the forecast of more doom-and-gloom is having the desired effect. Two “moderate” GOP senators broke ranks with the White House this week, calling for a new approach, based on the rejected Iraq Study Group (ISG) model. At this rate, it won’t matter what General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker say in September; much of official Washington is apparently ready to throw in the towel, despite genuine prospects for success, as suggested by Dr. Kagan and others.
All observers can agree on one thing: the critical variable in this equation is time, and unfortunately, that is in short supply. Supporters of the surge would likely prefer an extension, but no one in Washington has the capital–or the resolve–to support such an effort. If our schedule for leaving Iraq hasn’t already been determined, it will almost certainly be shaped by the events of the next eight weeks, during the run-up to those Congressional updates by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. In that environment, Petraeus and Crocker have virtually no margin for error–an unrealistic expectation for any military/operation, particularly in Iraq.
Contrary to press reporting, much has been accomplished in Iraq–the remarkable turn-around in Al Anbar is just one case in point. And much more can be accomplished before Petraeus and Crocker return to Washington in September. But even examples of measurable progress are unlikely to satisfy Congressional critics, who have cast their lot with the strategy of withdrawal and defeat. The Klein article is a template for what we’re likely to hear from the Democrats and the chattering class for the rest of the summer: the surge was too little, too late, and it’s time to implement a new strategy.
A better approach would be to push back the deadline for the military and political updates from September to November. As Bill Roggio notes in his most recent analysis of the ground situation in Iraq, coalition forces are actually engaged in multiple, complex operations across multiple fronts. It will take several weeks for those battles to fully materialize, and set the stage for crucial, clearing operations in parts of Baghdad late this summer. Given those realities, it would be logical to delay planned updates back in Washington. But then again, politics always trumps logic on Capitol Hill, particularly if the “assessments” from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker can be used as evidence of “defeat,” and hasten our departure from Iraq.