Dispatch September 2007

Will the Petraeus Strategy Be the Last?

Bing West, a Marine officer in Vietnam and former assistant secretary of defense, offers a view from Iraq's restive Anbar province on Congress's recent Iraq hearings

It would not be surprising if Petraeus’s rate of withdrawal (30,000 troops by July ’08) accelerates. Two congressmen asserted that Admiral William Fallon, the head of the Central Command and Petraeus’s boss, was urging for a faster withdrawal rate, a view Petraeus did not deny. (Fallon is also the commander who would recommend whether to strike the Iranian facilities exporting explosives into Iraq. While Lieutenant General Odierno, Petraeus’s deputy, has repeatedly charged the Iranians with causing the deaths of Americans, Fallon remains silent, fueling speculation that he does not want to take retaliatory action.)

 
Second, a strategy for curbing the Mahdi (JAM) militias that control most of the streets in Baghdad was not discussed in the hearings. JAM has emerged as the major threat to stability in Baghdad. 
 
“After the hearings,” a key adviser to Petraeus told me, “a comprehensive anti-JAM strategy is high on our agenda. We know it’s needed.”
 
Petraeus is waiting to see which way Sadr, currently in Iran, is going to jump. Sadr has ordered JAM to suspend attacks for six months while he sorts out whether he’s going to fight, with aid provided by Iran, or join the political fray as a nationalist. Under pressure from American commando units, the Iranian Quds special forces have pulled back to Iran, calculating that it’s safer to train Iraqi Shiite extremists there. So while JAM must be curbed, it’s not yet clear how extensive the effort must be.

Third, the surge strategy failed in its primary objective, of changing the political dynamics. The Iraqi leaders failed to reach reconciliation agreements, despite the reduction in violence. No national leader has emerged from the sectarian ranks in Baghdad.

Crocker was tepid in his defense of Prime Minister Maliki, whose truculent, secretive management style has antagonized a range of Iraqi leaders. Crocker and Petraeus repeatedly referred to “frustration” about not moving forward. While there is no sign that the administration is trying to force Maliki out, his leadership is shaky. If he doesn’t manage his alliances better, he may be voted out long before his four-year term expires.

In the absence of an Iraqi central leadership, Petraeus has introduced a “bottom-up” model of achieving stability, pointing out at the hearings that the Anbar tribal revolt against al-Qaeda in Iraq had spread to other provinces. Instead of fighting the Americans, Sunnis were turning to them for aid and advice.

“The way to leave is to stabilize the situations in each area,” he said, “and each will require a slightly different solution. In some cases, literally using cement T-walls to secure neighborhoods and then to establish a sustainable security… that Iraqis can take over by themselves.” 
 
The bottom-up movement began with Sheikh Sattar in Ramadi in September 2006. On September 13,, barely a week after Bush’s visit, Sheikh Sattar was assassinated by a roadside bomb in Ramadi, the first such attack in months. Most likely his route was betrayed by some trusted aide. Al-Qaeda in Iraq immediately claimed responsibility. Sattar was a true leader whose model was widely copied. He radiated genuine charisma, had forged a link with Maliki, was feared by al-Qaeda, and had reached out to the Shiite tribes, determined to bridge the hostility between Sunni and Shiite. He was the genuine article. His older brother has taken over, at least temporarily, the “Awakening Movement,” but Sattar’s leadership and vision will be sorely missed.
 
Sattar gave impetus to the bottom-up model. Once the American forces have driven AQI out of an area, an Iraqi battalion serves as a perimeter defense. Local Sunnis are then recruited and paid to provide a home guard in their own neighborhoods. The final step is to persuade the Interior Ministry to hire the Sunnis as legitimate police assigned to their home areas, while the Americans withdraw. 

At the hearings, Senator Biden didn’t buy the bottom-up approach. Instead, he urged a return to General Casey’s 2005 strategy of pulling back U.S. troops and quickly transitioning responsibilities to the Iraqi forces. Petraeus repeatedly demurred, saying the timing was premature and risked all the gains achieved.

In sum, we learned from the hearings that Petraeus has established a new model that hinges on local police control, a goal that I advocated several months ago in The Atlantic. This approach has been bringing security to the Sunni areas. To prevent a flare-up of sectarian killings in Baghdad, though, the rogue JAM elements that have burrowed into the social fabric of the majority-Shiite areas must be removed.

The Democrats don’t have the votes to force a rapid withdrawal. That the Iraqi politicians will have reached reconciliation agreements by March, mollifying the Democrats, seems highly unlikely. Yet when Petraeus testifies in March, if progress on the military front has continued and he recommends further withdrawals, the Democrats will be hard pressed to urge an even faster pullout. It seems likely that the presidential debate about Iraq will then focus on past mistakes, not on an immediate drawdown.

The intent of the hearings was to drive a wedge between the military and the administration. ”We trust the military to tell the truth, but not the administration,” was the message of the Democratic leadership. Apparently not understanding that, some questioners proceeded to challenge the veracity and independence of the witnesses. Many of the “questions” during the hearings were rants, with the questioners coming across as self-absorbed whiners who diminished their political cause. 

President Bush was also opportunistic. In his television address on September 13, he  advanced his policies as if they’d been designed by General Petraeus. While President Bush has the virtue of wanting to prevail, spare us from politicians of both parties who seek partisan advantage by wrapping themselves in the flag.

Insisting that a professional soldier—and a professional diplomat—testify, and then attacking the policies they did not create but were duty bound to carry out, sets a terrible precedent. This hearing, with its querulous, self-pitying tone, was a bad idea badly executed. It should not be repeated in March. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is the proper official to defend administration policy.

Our military should be kept separate from political debate.

Bing West, a Marine officer in Vietnam and a former assistant secretary of defense, recently returned from his 13th visit to Iraq.
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