Iraq Benchmark Report – Security
Several news stories have come out this morning (WaPo, NYT, AFP, Blogs) about a report to be issued this morning by the White House providing its preliminary assessment of progress toward 18 benchmarks announced by the president himself to measure our progress in Iraq.
That report, under the title Initial Benchmark Assessment Report, is now out. I’ll likely have more on it later as I have time to digest it but this section of the executive summary is interesting enough to comment on now:
Security: The security situation in Iraq remains complex and extremely challenging. Iraqi and Coalition Forces continue to emphasize population security operations in Baghdad, its environs, and Anbar province to combat extremist networks, and create the space for political reconciliation and economic growth. As a result of increased offensive operations, Coalition and Iraqi Forces have sustained increased attacks in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, Diyala, and Salah ad Din. Tough fighting should be expected through the summer as Coalition and Iraqi Forces seek to seize the initiative from early gains and shape conditions for longer-term stabilization. These combined operations — named Operation Phantom Thunder — were launched on June 15, 2007, after the total complement of surge forces arrived in Iraq. The full surge in this respect has only just begun.
These new operations are targeting primarily al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) havens in Baghdad, Babil, Diyala, and Anbar provinces. While AQI may not account for most of the violence in Iraq, it is the organization responsible for the highest profile attacks, which serve as a primary accelerant to the underlying sectarian conflict. We presently assess that degrading AQI networks in these critical areas — together with efforts to degrade Iranian-backed Shi’a extremist networks — is a core U.S. national security interest and essential for Iraq’s longer-term stability. Since January of this year, AQI has proven its resiliency and ability to conduct high-profile, mass-casualty attacks, mostly targeting Shi’a population centers through suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIEDs) attacks. The number of suicide and SVBIED attacks in March and April approached all-time highs, further exacerbating sectarian tension and making political deals more difficult to close. These incidents have shown a decrease in May and June, which may be the result of aggressive Coalition and Iraqi operations into former AQI havens. The surge of additional U.S. forces into these areas allows us to better combat AQI and other terrorists. We should expect, however, that AQI will attempt to increase its tempo of attacks as September approaches — in an effort to influence U.S. domestic opinion about sustained U.S. engagement in Iraq.
In Baghdad, an overall decrease in sectarian violence is due in part to intensified Iraqi and Coalition operations focused on population security. An apparent decision earlier this year by the Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) militia to largely stand down its operations appeared to have a temporary effect, but a breakdown in Muqtada al Sadr’s ability to control JAM — or elements thereof — coinciding with the return of JAM fighters from Iran after receiving training in combat and explosives has spawned a recent increase in attacks on Coalition and Iraqi forces. Iran continues to train, fund, and equip extremist groups, both Shi’a and Sunni, that attack Iraqi and Coalition forces in and around Baghdad and the provinces in southern Iraq. JAM “secret cells” are a major recipient of that assistance — and are responsible for some of the most sophisticated attacks on Iraqi and Coalition Forces. As stated in the President’s January 10, 2007, speech announcing the New Way Forward: “We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.” Operations against these networks are ongoing and will continue.
In Anbar province, the local population is turning against AQI and seeking support from the Coalition. At the same time, U.S. military operations and cooperation with local tribal leaders have created openings for local political compromise and more effective civilian assistance. To reinforce these early signs of success, the President ordered additional U.S. military and civilian resources to Anbar. The trends have remained positive. The provincial government — for the first time in a year — is now able to meet in the province and recently approved a comprehensive provincial budget that appropriates virtually all of its $107 million allocation for capital expenditures. Attack levels have reached a 2-year low and some families that had fled Anbar are beginning to return. These developments have been noted in other primarily Sunni areas of Iraq, such as Salah ad-Din province, and areas around Baquba, in Diyala province, where efforts are underway to build on the Anbar experience.
The ISF continues to show slow progress. ISF capability is increasing, but further ISF proficiency, improved logistics, and expanded forces are needed in order to assume more responsibility from Coalition Forces. Comprehensive data and statistics on the ISF — including its projected growth — can be found in the report Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq, submitted quarterly to Congress by the Department of Defense, pursuant to Section 9010 of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2007 (Public Law 109-289). It should be noted that Iraqi Security Forces bear the brunt of attacks from insurgents and terrorists. Despite casualty rates two to three times that of Coalition Forces, Iraqi Security Forces continue to fight bravely for their country.
So, essentially, despite AQI comprising something like five percent of the insurgency, we have diverted most of our resources to combating it. And we’re failing. Not only is AQI stronger but, as another report being released today suggests, al Qaeda in general is enjoying a resurgence.
Meanwhile, the ISF continues to be an undependable, lackluster fighting force four years into the game. That, despite their training having been headed up by the counterinsurgency guru who’s now in charge of the whole shebang.
To be fair, the full complement of troops that made up the Surge are just now coming into place. When this was announced, President Bush warned that we would not see immediate results:
This new strategy will not yield an immediate end to suicide bombings, assassinations, or IED attacks. Our enemies in Iraq will make every effort to ensure that our television screens are filled with images of death and suffering. Yet over time, we can expect to see Iraqi troops chasing down murderers, fewer brazen acts of terror, and growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad’s residents. When this happens, daily life will improve, Iraqis will gain confidence in their leaders, and the government will have the breathing space it needs to make progress in other critical areas. Most of Iraq’s Sunni and Shia want to live together in peace — and reducing the violence in Baghdad will help make reconciliation possible.
Let me be clear: The terrorists and insurgents in Iraq are without conscience, and they will make the year ahead bloody and violent. Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue — and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties. The question is whether our new strategy will bring us closer to success. I believe that it will.
Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship. But victory in Iraq will bring something new in the Arab world — a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties, and answers to its people. A democratic Iraq will not be perfect. But it will be a country that fights terrorists instead of harboring them — and it will help bring a future of peace and security for our children and our grandchildren.
At the same time, the Iraqi government is, by the White House’s own admission, making essentially no progress on any of the meaningful milestones. It has long been an article of faith among both supporters and critics of the war that it would not be won militarily but politically. There’s not much sign that either are happening.