A reader writes:

I do respectfully disagree with your opinions about the failure of the Iraqi surge and the current assessment that the trend-lines are going downward. I have deployed both to Afghanistan and Iraq with my most recent stint a 14 month tour in Kirkuk, Iraq so I feel have I have a perspective that I would like to offer.

A) Factually, the number of attacks in Iraq is down to minimal levels.  More important are the types of attacks.  Paradoxically, the best indicator of the current health of government control is not the spectacular suicide bombings (unless you are having a high tempo of them) but how many smaller IED and direct/indirect fire attacks.  The first problem set indicates that you have a terrorism problem, the second indicates that you have lost support of a significant portion of the population to the point that they are willing to take up arms against the central government.  There is no denying that Iraq has a terrorism problem that they will have to contend with for years to come.  However, I think the real figure to watch is the tempo of the other types of attacks and the level of sectarian reprisal killings, something that was a huge accelerator of violence during the horrific period of 2005-2007.  So far, I don’t think we are seeing that.

B) The potential delay in elections and the public statements are not as worrying to me.

One lesson that I learned in my time in Iraq is that all sides in Iraq typically make maximalist and sometimes alarming statements in the media as a matter of course.  Sometimes, those statements can be pretty dramatic and outrageous (one leader we worked with once said in the press he was going to cut off the head of an opponent during a particularly heated moment.  Needless to say, no such thing happened and both sides worked through the issue to a favorable and reasonable outcome).  However, those statements are meant for domestic consumption and for influence building within their various coalitions that these politicians belong.   It is typical Middle-Eastern bargaining and posturing and when the camera is off, these folks are generally a lot more reasonable and professional.

I am in no way suggesting that the problem of Kirkuk or the elections are not important or fraught with mid to long term problems.  However, I am stating that in the 14 months I was in Kirkuk, not a single week passed by without someone asking if Kirkuk was getting ready to burn down and the fact was that Kirkuk was a fairly stable and never as tense as others thought it to be.  As far as the elections, I think we are still seeing a work in progress and the jockeying for advantage is still occurring but ultimately it is a healthy process that I predict will result in elections if not in January, than within the first 90 days of 2010.

In conclusion, I think that my problem with your current line of argument is that regardless of the wisdom and rationale of this war, it shouldn’t cloud a more clear analysis of where we actually are in Iraq versus where we were.   Respectfully, I detect a distaste of previous policy and leadership as a driver for your assessment.  I think we are still on track and I think that the President is keeping to his word and his timelines and doing so in a realistic and measured fashion.  I also believe that Iraq is navigating this current political process better than I expected.  I would suggest that observing this process over the course of the next several months and comparing with previous Iraqi political processes would likely result in a more nuanced view.

I'm most grateful for the email and the valuable perspective it contains. And I sure hope my reader is right. I didn't foresee the success of the surge in tamping down violence so it is perfectly possible I am not seeing its success in forging political reconciliation. All I can say is that I remain worried about the near future, and distant future, but will observe this process over the next few months to see what transpires. The acid test will be what happens after US forces have left. And in all this, of course, I am in no way impugning the courage and skills of the US military in attempting to pull off something this astonishingly difficult. I am in awe of them, in fact, and wish their sacrifices had been met by better political leadership these past few years.

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