Petraeus Looks Back

Today’s New York Times has an article on Iraq by Dexter Filkins. The peg? The state of Iraq as General David Petraeus prepares to leave his post as commanding general there. According to Filkins,

[t]he surge, clearly, has worked, at least for now: violence, measured in the number of attacks against Americans and Iraqis each week, has dropped by 80 percent in the country since early 2007, according to figures the general provided. Civilian deaths, which peaked at more than 100 a day in late 2006, have also plunged. Car and suicide bombings, which stoked sectarian violence, have fallen from a total of 130 in March 2007 to fewer than 40 last month. In July, fewer Americans were killed in Iraq – 13 – than in any month since the war began.

Mr. Filkins rightly reminds us just how bad things were when General Petraeus took command:

When he arrived 18 months ago, the American project in Iraq, then led by General George W. Casey Jr. and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, was in serious trouble, with sectarian violence spiraling across the country… “The fact is that General Casey and Zal Khalilzad signed an assessment in December, early December of 2006, that said the strategy is failing,” General Petraeus said.

Violence, indeed, had reached anarchic levels: By February 2007, Sunni and Shiite insurgents were carrying out close to 1,500 attacks against Iraqis and Americans each week, and each month were killing as many as 2,500 civilians, who were often the victims of hideous, sectarian-driven slayings. In Baghdad alone, 40 to 50 people were being kidnapped each day. The Iraqi security forces, charged with keeping order, were carrying out some of the most egregious acts of crime and sectarian killings.

Filkin’s article also presents a sophisticated analysis of the strategy behind the surge and why it succeeded:

The crisis gave an opening to a handful of senior officers and military policy analysts in Washington to push for an American-heavy strategy of putting troops in Iraqi neighborhoods around the clock – which had not been done on a large scale – while isolating and attacking the main catalysts of the sectarian violence.

General Petraeus, with other commanders, like then-Col. H. R. McMaster, had for years been pushing the Army to change its focus from killing the enemy to helping ordinary Iraqis cope with insurgents – the essence of modern counterinsurgency strategy.

… As fresh troops arrived, the generals began deploying them across Baghdad, mostly in small outposts called joint security stations. The stations were seen as the key to securing the capital; for the first time, Americans could credibly promise that they would protect Iraqi civilians from the insurgents. The extra troops also allowed American commanders to initiate a series of offensives last year against the strongholds of Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia and other Sunni extremist groups in and outside of Baghdad and then, in 2008, against the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia.

“We started putting joint security stations right in the heart of Al Qaeda‘s areas,” General Petraeus said.

At first, the surge was accompanied by a rise in American deaths. The three deadliest months for American soldiers in five and a half years of war came from April through June last year, as the added soldiers took to the streets. In those three months, 331 Americans soldiers and marines died. “We said it was going to get harder before it got easier,” General Petraeus said. “And it did. We took very tough casualties.”

For years, he said, the Americans and the Iraqi government had been locked in what he described as a “downward spiral”; as the violence raged, ordinary Iraqis were often too frightened to cooperate with either the Iraqi security officers or American troops. Good intelligence was thus hard to come by, which meant that military operations often missed their marks. The insurgents were free to intimidate, threaten and kill civilians, government officials or anyone who refused to do their bidding.

It was the spectacular bombings, like the destruction of the Askariya shrine in Samarra in 2006, which prompted ordinary Iraqi Shiites to accept the protection of militias like the Mahdi Army. Those militias, in turn, began carrying out massacres of their own, against Sunni civilians in their own neighborhood.

Dismantling Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, General Petraeus said, took away the rationale for the Mahdi Army. “As the Al Qaeda threat is gradually degraded, the reason for the militia is no longer there,” he said. That, in turn, helped civilians in both communities who wanted to join the government or cooperate with the security forces. And that allowed the Shiite-dominated government of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to purge the ranks of the state security services of sectarian killers, and finally take on Mr. Sadr’s militia.

The other noteworthy thing in the Times piece is the parting advice by General Petraeus:

“I don’t know that it was a death spiral, but I mean it was a pretty dire situation,” General Petraeus said, referring to the situation upon his arrival here as the senior commander in Iraq in February 2007. “There have been very substantial gains at this point. Don’t take any of this to imply that we think we’re anywhere near finished.”

“It’s not durable yet. It’s not self-sustaining,” he added. “You know – touch wood – there is still a lot of work to be done.”

Tremendous progress in Iraq, yes–but self-sustaining and durable progress, not yet. Petraeus’s words should serve as a rebuttal to critics who first insisted we should leave Iraq because the war was lost and now insist we should leave Iraq because the war is won. The reality, which at this point ought to be obvious, is that the success we’ve had during the Petraeus Era has been spectacular but can be undone, and having come this far, only a fool (or worse) would undermine a winning strategy.

The Times article begins by describing Petraeus as looking drawn and exhausted. “There is not much in the tank at the end of the day,” he tells Filkins. It’s not hard to understand why. Like his fellow warriors, he has given all he has to protect America and save Iraq. In the process, he has at times grown weary, which makes his achievement all the more admirable. But Petraeus can take some comfort in knowing that what he has done–taken a losing war and turning it into one we can win–now places him along side the greatest military leaders in our history. And he’s not done yet.