If we are to believe the majority leadership in the House and Senate, an overwhelming percentage of the MSM, and the polling data collected from the citizenry in the US, the war in Iraq is lost. The conventional wisdom is not without many truths—inept decision-making in the early years of the war, tragic loss of life among our troops and the Iraqi citizenry, intra-Iraqi violence on a significant scale, and little political progress. If we are to believe usual suspects, virtually nothing has gone right, we’ve made few, if any, gains, and we should leave in defeat at the earliest possible time.
In today’s New York Times, Michael E. O’Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution (a well-respected liberal think tank), self-described as “two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq,” have recently returned from Iraq and state: “we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily ‘victory’ but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.”
Whoa! "Sustainable stability?" It's just not possible, is it? It runs counter to the prevailing narrative, and yet, O’Hanlon and Pollack suggest there may be reason for hope.
Everywhere, Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi population, working with Iraqi security units, creating new political and economic arrangements at the local level and providing basic services — electricity, fuel, clean water and sanitation — to the people. Yet in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to the specific needs of the community. As a result, civilian fatality rates are down roughly a third since the surge began — though they remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done.
In Ramadi, for example, we talked with an outstanding Marine captain whose company was living in harmony in a complex with a (largely Sunni) Iraqi police company and a (largely Shiite) Iraqi Army unit. He and his men had built an Arab-style living room, where he met with the local Sunni sheiks — all formerly allies of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups — who were now competing to secure his friendship.
In Baghdad’s Ghazaliya neighborhood, which has seen some of the worst sectarian combat, we walked a street slowly coming back to life with stores and shoppers. The Sunni residents were unhappy with the nearby police checkpoint, where Shiite officers reportedly abused them, but they seemed genuinely happy with the American soldiers and a mostly Kurdish Iraqi Army company patrolling the street. The local Sunni militia even had agreed to confine itself to its compound once the Americans and Iraqi units arrived.
We traveled to the northern cities of Tal Afar and Mosul. This is an ethnically rich area, with large numbers of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. American troop levels in both cities now number only in the hundreds because the Iraqis have stepped up to the plate. Reliable police officers man the checkpoints in the cities, while Iraqi Army troops cover the countryside. A local mayor told us his greatest fear was an overly rapid American departure from Iraq. All across the country, the dependability of Iraqi security forces over the long term remains a major question mark.
But for now, things look much better than before. American advisers told us that many of the corrupt and sectarian Iraqi commanders who once infested the force have been removed. The American high command assesses that more than three-quarters of the Iraqi Army battalion commanders in Baghdad are now reliable partners (at least for as long as American forces remain in Iraq).
Later in the article O’Hanlon and Pollack address an issue that is anathema to those who insist the we should leave Iraq immediately
In war, sometimes it’s important to pick the right adversary, and in Iraq we seem to have done so. A major factor in the sudden change in American fortunes has been the outpouring of popular animus against Al Qaeda and other Salafist groups, as well as (to a lesser extent) against Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
These groups have tried to impose Shariah law, brutalized average Iraqis to keep them in line, killed important local leaders and seized young women to marry off to their loyalists. The result has been that in the last six months Iraqis have begun to turn on the extremists and turn to the Americans for security and help. The most important and best-known example of this is in Anbar Province, which in less than six months has gone from the worst part of Iraq to the best (outside the Kurdish areas). Today the Sunni sheiks there are close to crippling Al Qaeda and its Salafist allies. Just a few months ago, American marines were fighting for every yard of Ramadi; last week we strolled down its streets without body armor.
Wretchard of the Belmont Club cites the same article and then comments.
Interestingly, al-Qaeda chose to make Iraq its decisive arena of confrontation with the United States. The US came to Iraq primarily to topple Saddam Hussein and remove one "state sponsor of terrorism" but it was Al-Qaeda that rushed in to stake its reputation there. A networked insurgency with followers in many Muslim countries could have chosen to attack America elsewhere. But instead it decided to focus its efforts on driving the US from Iraq. For that purpose its leadership established al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and funneled recruits into it from all over the world. This force was tasked with the explicit political goal of creating a Islamic Caliphate that would provide a prototype for a future Islamic state after the hated Americans had been driven out. Therefore much of the post-Saddam violence was probably the consequence of al-Qaeda's decision to flood all the resources of world terrorism into Iraq. Clearly Zarqawi's clear intention from the Samarra mosque bombing onward was to incite as much violence as he could. Given that al-Qaeda made Iraq the center of its global efforts, O’Hanlon and Pollack's admiration of MNF-I's decision to focus against it seems perplexing. Surely Petraeus had no alternative? Surely he was simply picking up the gauntlet? But that would not quite be true. Through much of 2005 and 2006 a variety of lines were suggested. Some argued that the US should lash out against Syria or Iran for allowing "militants" to transit their borders. Some believed Shi'a militias should be the primary target operations. Until recently many argued -- and still argue -- that al-Qaeda didn't exist in Iraq at all; so how could MNF-I focus against what was not there? So while taking on al-Qaeda now seems the obvious choice, in retrospect there were many other candidates vying for the title of Center of Gravity. Those bad guys still remain, but MNF-I saw al-Qaeda in Iraq as the key to the position and that choice, according to O’Hanlon and Pollack, appears to be the right one.
al-Qaeda wasn’t the reason that we went into Iraq, but in an odd way, our blundering approach in past years has placed al-Qaeda in harm’s way in Iraq – and it appears that they are losing, not winning. Sure, horrific bombs are still detonated and people die, but these Islamofascist thugs have shown their true colors to Iraqis and the populace has turned on them. That is a major strategic achievement for the US, even if it happened accidently.
Of course, if we are to listen to the usual suspects—every Democratic presidential candidate, the Congressional leadership, and much of the MSM—we should leave post haste – the war is lost. But Brooking’s O’Hanlon and Pollack are the antithesis of neo-cons, and they appear to see something that the usual suspects refuse to see.
The usual suspects are willing to guarantee a major strategic defeat for the USA. A defeat that invariably will strengthen every one of our Islamist enemies from Iran to Gaza to Indonesia. They are willing to risk a blood bath that will result in the murder of Iraqis who’ve helped us and an all out civil war that could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. I suppose if you’re unwilling to examine all of the the facts on the ground, you’re equally unwilling to look into a future that precipitous withdrawal will assuredly bring.
Thankfully, O’Hanlon and Pollack have the honesty and integrity to report things as they’ve seen them, rather than through a warped ideological filter. Maybe we should take a breath and listen to what they have to say.
Not surprisingly, the O'Hanlon and Pollack report has become the focus of debate on both the Left and the Right. Although the veracity of the authors’ contentions can be debated, it appears that some on the Left cannot bear to even consider that maybe, just maybe, some progress is being made in Iraq, and the cause is not entirely lost. Michael Barone reinforces this sad reality when he writes:
Their [O'Hanlon and Pollack] argument is one many Democrats in Congress don't want to hear. Literally. This is the transcript of the response of freshman Rep. Nancy Boyda [a Democrat] of Kansas at a House Armed Services Committee hearing last Friday to the optimistic testimony of Gen. Jack Keane, one of the original advocates of the surge:
And I just will make some statements more for the record based on what I heard from—mainly from General Keane. As many of us—there was only so much that you could take until we in fact had to leave the room for a while. So I think I am back and maybe can articulate some things—after so much of the frustration of having to listen to what we listened to.
But let me first just say that the description of Iraq as in some way or another that it's a place that I might take the family for a vacation—things are going so well—those kinds of comments will in fact show up in the media and further divide this country instead of saying, here's the reality of the problem. And people, we have to come together and deal with the reality of this issue.
Read that last sentence again. "And people, we have to come together and deal with the reality of this issue." The reality, that is, of how she sees it. Which is, apparently, that Iraq is a totally lost cause. She can't bear to hear anyone say anything otherwise.