Iraq War Progress Report: A Matter of Time
Thomas Ricks is embedded with the 101st Airborne in “the forwardmost American position in the so-called Triangle of Death southwest of Baghdad.” He has a long page one piece in today’s WaPo arguing that the war has gone through three distinct phases and remarkably different that three years ago, substantially better in some ways and worse in others.
Several aspects make this third phase different from the war of a year or two ago:
- The U.S. effort now is characterized by a more careful, purposeful style that extends even to how Humvees are driven in the streets. For years, “the standard was to haul ass,” noted Lt. Col. Gian P. Gentile, commander of the 8th Squadron of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, which is based near a bomb-infested highway south of Baghdad. Now his convoy drivers are ordered to move at 15 mph. “I’m a firm believer in slow, deliberate movement,” he said. “You can observe better, if there’s IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on the road.” It also is less disruptive to Iraqis and sends a message of calm control, he noted.
- U.S. commanders spend their time differently. Where they once devoted much of their efforts to Iraqi politics and infrastructure, they now focus more on training and supporting the Iraqi police and army. “I spent the last month talking to ISF [Iraqi security force] commanders,” noted Gentile, who holds a doctorate in American history from Stanford. “Two years ago I would have spent all my time talking to sheiks.”
- Real progress is being made in training Iraqi forces, especially its army, according to every U.S. officer asked about the issue. One of the surprises, they say, has been that an Iraqi soldier, even one who is overweight and undertrained, is more effective standing on an Iraqi street corner than the most disciplined U.S. Army Ranger. “They get intelligence we would never get,” noted Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East. “They sense the environment in a way that we never could.”
The biggest difference in Baghdad from two or three years ago is the nearly total absence of U.S. troops on its streets. In a major gamble, the city largely has been turned over to Iraqi police and army troops. If those Iraqi forces falter, leaving a vacuum, U.S. pressure elsewhere could push the insurgency into the capital. “I think they’re going to go to Baghdad” next, worried [Maj. Daniel] Morgan [a battalion operations officer]. But other U.S. officers argued that such a move is unlikely because it is more difficult to intimidate a city of 5 million than a rural village.
The streets of the capital already feel as unsafe as at any time since the 2003 invasion. As one U.S. major put it, Baghdad now resembles a pure Hobbesian state where all are at war against all others and any security is self-provided.
Army Reserve Capt. A. Heather Coyne, an outspoken former White House counterterrorism official, said, “There is a total lack of security in the streets, partly because of the insurgents, partly because of criminals, and partly because the security forces can be dangerous to Iraqi citizens too.” When this reporter was permitted to review an in-depth classified intelligence summary of recent “significant acts” occurring in the capital, it appeared surprisingly incomplete, generally listing only two sorts of events: anything that affected U.S. troops, and the killing of Iraqis. Other actions affecting Iraqis — kidnappings, rapes, robberies, bombs that don’t kill anyone, and a variety of forms of intimidation — don’t appear to be on the U.S. military’s radar screen. As one soldier put it, that’s all “background noise.”
The last year plus has focused on getting Iraqi forces ready to handle their own security. They’ve had excellent training under the supervision of General Abizaid. While they are becoming much more professional and are much less apt to cut and run than in the early days, they are still not up to the rather daunting job ahead of them, it appears. The one Iraqi battalion deemed fully capable of fighting on its own has been downgraded, although several have moved up to the tier just below that.
According to the congressionally mandated Iraq security report released Friday, there are 53 Iraqi battalions at level two status, up from 36 in October. There are 45 battalions at level three, according to the report. Overall, Pentagon officials said close to 100 Iraqi army battalions are operational, and more than 100 Iraq Security Force battalions are operational at levels two or three. The security force operations are under the direction of the Iraqi government
The combination of this upsetting news and the potential disaster sparked by last week’s mosque bombing has many war proponents in deep dispair. Conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. has deemed the war a failure. Even leading neo-con Bill Kristol is throwing his hands up in disgust.
This thing is still winnable, in my view, but we’ve known for some time now that it was not going to be won by U.S. forces but by Iraqis. There’s not much time left before they are going to have to do it on their own. If civil war breaks out, we can not fight it for them.
We accomplished our short-term objective, regime change, in three weeks and at a cost of fewer than 200 American dead.
We accomplished our second objective, which was to lay the ground for and hold democratic elections.
The ultimate goal, though, was much more than that: a thriving secular Iraq that would be a catalyst for an Arab Middle East hostile to terrorists. Success looked like a distinct possiblility mere months ago; it’s not looking very likely now. That could change rapidly, too, if the current ceasefire holds. Indeed, the havok of the last few days could be an eye opener in the way that the Cuban Missile Crisis was for both sides in the Cold War and cause everyone to back away from the edge. It could, just as easily, be the precursor to civil war.