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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. ken says:

    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.

    In your dreams perhaps.

    James, a question: what ever made you think that you could invade and destroy a country and then sit back to be rewarded with a ‘a thriving secular Iraq that would be a catalyst for an Arab Middle East hostile to terrorist?

    I don’t think for a moment you thought that up yourself. I think you let Bushco do your thinking for you and they planting this ridiculous proposition in your mind and being a loyaly conservative your accepted it on faith.

    Am I right?

  2. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Ken, you are not only not right, you have never been right. Why is it idiots like you insist we have done the wrong thing, when real evidence, not that presented by the anti-Bush MSM, suggests that the world is a better place, post Saddam. Is it because you are so anti republican that you are also anti american? At what point, do you cowards fight? Must you let a monster become full grown before you are willing to do anything about it? If Bush said Democrats should not jump off cliffs, would you be the first in line to jump because you so oppose Bush that much? I hope so.

  3. Anderson says:

    Jack, you do so much to make people loathe Republicans. Is Howard Dean paying you?

    Contra Ken, while I concede that invading a country in order to democratize it is a high-risk endeavor … and one that wasn’t necessary for U.S. security in the case of Iraq … it *could* have been done with competence, and might’ve had a shot at working.

    Remember the *days* of looting after we took Baghdad, & Rumsfeld’s shrugging it off? That was when I realized that we had entrusted our policy to fools–not just alarmists, but pure fools.

    It went downhill from there, of course. Now, 3 years in, we are FINALLY doing things, like “not running over Iraqis who get in our way in traffic,” that should’ve been done from day one.

    Too little too late I fear. I would really like things to turn out well in Iraq, but it seems that if it happens, it will be despite our postwar endeavors as much as because of them.

  4. I remain incredulous that anyone expected the liberation of Iraq to go smoothly or that anyone is ready to throw up their hands in disgust and abandon the Iraqis because we haven’t reached Nirvana yet. The biggest difference I can see in the liberation of Iraq from almost all previous wars is that it is the protestors that are now fighting the last war instead of the military, which has moved on rather dramatically to a new set of meta-tactics to address a new kind of war and a new kind of enemy.

    In most repects, Iraq is still at the tip of the spear of the GWOT. And if the GWOT isn’t going to be over for the forseeable future, why should we expect the difficulties in Iraq to be over so soon? By any non-utopian measure, what has been done, and what is being done, in Iraq is nothing short of incredible and those who have done it,and are doing it, deserve our respect and admiration. Of course it remains quite difficult and there are tragedies on an almost daily basis. But if there is one aphorism that fits this best, it is still that the perfect remains the enemy of the good. Any criticism predicated on perfection is profoundly ahistorical and unserious.

  5. Anderson says:

    I remain incredulous that anyone expected the liberation of Iraq to go smoothly

    Like Richard Cheney? or Paul Wolfowitz? or …?

  6. ron says:

    reading his articles on a iraq buckley should not be called a war proponent.

  7. So Cheney and Wolfowitz were “wrong” too. Such an overpoweringly clever retort, but, hey, wait a minute, I don’t remember arguing that it mattered if Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz had been right (or wrong) all along. I’d go further into leadership being about accomplishing goals and so on, but what’s the point?

    It has been said that in Vietnam we declared victory and went home. That so many people still want to declare defeat and go home in Iraq is strange and absurd.

  8. Yhoi says:

    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.

    We’ve also accomplished creating a chaotic security situation which has resulted in at least 30,000 innocent civilians being killed.

  9. anjin-san says:

    I guess the moral position of the “tip of the spear” folks is that it is ok for us to turn an entire nation with millions of citizens, 99.8% of them who just want to live their lives, into a giant killing field, because it might, just might, make it safer for folks like Charles to sit on the couch and watch American Idol.

    Never mind the innocents in Iraq who are killed, hey Americans are the only ones that count.

    If this it the moral position of our country…

  10. ken says:

    Never mind the innocents in Iraq who are killed, hey Americans are the only ones that count.

    If this it the moral position of our countryÂ…

    This is exactly the position, immoral as it may be, of conservatives.

    It is not however the position of most Americans, who are basically good people.

    That is a distinction worth keeping in mind.

  11. G A Phillips says:

    Charles, you are trying to hard to reach these Pokemon players, They have traded all there good cards away, but yet they continue to show up for their beatings, And what in the great blue donkey flamer hell do any of you Libs know About morality, and where did you get the stats that 99.8% of us whatever, From? Put the donkey poll down M.J., I think that there is a law against that, and oh let me think, we go over there and free up a crap load of Muslims and now we have chaotic security situation, hm mm, Dude, every god blessed place in this whole Monkey loving world that Muslims live in, we have chaotic security situation! wake up and smell the flowers while you still have heads to sleep on, and smell with.

  12. LJD says:

    Yeah, we should have stayed out of their business, because if we really wanted them tortured and/or dead, Saddam was already doing a pretty good job.

    …and we all know no one is better at killing arabs and muslims than other arabs and muslims. So why stop at 30,000 dead because “the infidels invaded a country”. We could just pull out and see of they can go for 100,000 or more.

    American idol, indeed…

  13. Alan says:

    > We accomplished our short-term objective, regime
    > change, in three weeks and at a cost of fewer
    > than 200 American dead.

    We accomplished regime REMOVAL in three weeks. The old regime has yet to be replaced by a functioning new gov’t.