Petraeus Overplays His Hand
"The reality is, it is hard in Iraq."
That statement by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker pretty much sums up what he and Gen. David Petraeus presented to Congress yesterday. Iraq is hard, but we are making headway; victory is possible, if we only persevere.
Except that in making this pitch, Petraeus and Crocker overplayed their hand. They overstated the threat posed by al-Qaeda in Iraq in an effort to justify the mission -- a mindset that has generated a deeply flawed strategy. They also overplayed the surge's success -- downplaying or discounting factors that likely did more to create today's improved security conditions. While their "Anaconda" strategy looks cool on a PowerPoint slide, it confuses the issues of control and influence, putting too much stock in America's ability to engineer success in Iraq. And, perhaps most tellingly, the two men made the case for perseverance without placing Iraq in the context of vital U.S. national interests, offering only apocalyptic predictions of what would happen if we don't stay the course.
The AQI threat. According to Petraeus and Crocker, the real threats in Iraq are al-Qaeda and other sinister forces originating in Iran and elsewhere. Blame for all of Iraq's bloodshed lies with these parties.
It makes for a neat narrative. It's also wrong.
The vast majority of Iraqi violence over the past five years has been caused a) by ethno-sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites; b) intra-sectarian fighting amongst Sunnis and Shiites; c) fighting over scarce resources (oil, fuel, water, food, control over ministries with responsibility for the same); and d) fighting by Iraq's homegrown Sunni insurgency and homegrown Shiite militias. AQI has played an important role as catalyst and spoiler -- stoking the fires of sectarian violence (as with the 2006 mosque bombing in Samarra), and keeping them going whenever peace threatened to emerge. But that is a supporting role, and it is a mistake to cast AQI in the lead role and to characterize U.S. efforts in Iraq as a counterinsurgency against AQI.
Clausewitz once wrote that the most important challenge for a commander was to visualize the battlefield -- because all plans and actions flow from his understanding of the situation. Our skewed visualization of Iraq -- and overemphasis of the AQI threat -- has pushed us to adopt an extremely risky strategy of standing up Iraqi security forces and local partisans that will, if we ever withdraw or downsize our forces, create the conditions for a massive civil war. Our singular focus on AQI has also caused us to neglect other important strategic imperatives -- such as reforming the rotten Maliki government and improving the ability of its ministries to govern the country.
Other Sources of Success. As a factual matter, there is no question that security in Iraq is improved. But Petraeus and Crocker downplayed the many reasons why this is so.slides, Petraeus depicted the changes in the Baghdad population since the height of sectarian violence in 2006. It's clear that the Shiite vs. Sunni battle for Baghdad has produced a city that is more homogenous, less integrated, and less dense than before. But what about the rest of Iraq? What about the massive flows of displaced people? And what to make of the relative importance of the political deals with Sunni and Shiite political leaders that have kept their partisans out of the fight? These have all had a massive impact on the security situation -- probably more of one than that exerted by U.S. military forces. Petraeus and Crocker hinted at the importance of these factors, but gave them scant attention, possibly to stress the continued importance of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Control vs. Influence. On slide 9 of his briefing, Petraeus described the "Anaconda" strategy for crushing AQI. It's a great metaphor and a good conceptual model. But, again, it focuses too narrowly on just one threat to Iraq's stability. And, more problematically, it buys in to the idea that we can actually control events and engineer success through the application of enlightened counterinsurgency doctrine. That's wishful thinking.
At this point in the war, with the forces we have deployed, we don't control much of anything -- except those few locations where we dominate the ground by sheer presence. Mostly, we influence events, acting indirectly through Iraqi proxies and other mechanisms.
It's hard to fault Petraeus and Crocker for their relentless optimism; after all, they are commanders who must lead and inspire troops in combat and express public confidence in their mission. But here, I think they are expressing too much confidence in their strategy and its ability to achieve victory (whatever that means). Counterinsurgency is a messy business, and even the best strategies often fail to produce success.
Seeking a Strategy. So what is our strategy in Iraq? And for that matter, what is "victory?" How does a "victory" in Iraq relate to America's larger national security interests? Petraeus and Crocker effectively punted on these grand questions, as they did last September, offering only that we needed to persevere and succeed to avoid vague Somalia-like predictions of what might happen if we don't.
That's not a good enough answer for me. I don't think that Petraeus and Crocker justified our enormous investment of blood and treasure with their testimony yesterday.
But I also think that responsibility is above their paygrade. The real answers to these grand questions must come from the White House and Pentagon -- and they must be argued convincingly enough to earn the support of the American people and their elected representatives.
Yesterday's testimony highlighted our strategic drift, and how Sisyphean our efforts in Iraq have been for the past five years. We owe something more to our men and women serving in Iraq, and to the Iraqis.
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