Michael O'Hanlon writes: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq
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.
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).
In addition, far more Iraqi units are well integrated in terms of ethnicity and religion. The Iraqi Army’s highly effective Third Infantry Division started out as overwhelmingly Kurdish in 2005. Today, it is 45 percent Shiite, 28 percent Kurdish, and 27 percent Sunni Arab.
In the past, few Iraqi units could do more than provide a few “jundis” (soldiers) to put a thin Iraqi face on largely American operations. Today, in only a few sectors did we find American commanders complaining that their Iraqi formations were useless — something that was the rule, not the exception, on a previous trip to Iraq in late 2005.
Michael O'Hanlon, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and a Visiting Lecturer at Princeton University, served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Congo Kinshasa. Read more.
Phillip Carter writes: Why O'Hanlon's latest good news from Iraq doesn't matter
In 1975, Army Col. Harry Summers went to Hanoi as chief of the U.S. delegation's negotiation team for the four-party military talks that followed the collapse of the South Vietnamese government. While there, he spent some time chatting with his North Vietnamese counterpart, Col. Tu, an old soldier who had fought against the United States and lived to tell his tale. With a tinge of bitterness about the war's outcome, Summers told Tu, "You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield." Tu replied, in a phrase that perfectly captured the American misunderstanding of the Vietnam War, "That may be so, but it is also irrelevant."
Today, in Iraq, we face a similar conundrum. Our vaunted military has won every battle against insurgents and militias—from the march up to the "thunder runs" that took Baghdad; the assaults on Fallujah to the battles for Sadr City. And yet we still find ourselves stuck in the sands of Mesopotamia. In a New York Times op-ed published Monday, Brookings Institution scholars Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack argue that "[w]e are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms." They go on to describe the myriad ways the surge is succeeding on the security front. But in emphasizing this aspect of current operations, they downplay the more critical questions relating to political progress and the ability of Iraq's national government to actually govern. Security is not an end in itself. It is just one component, albeit an important one, of a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. Unless it is paired with a successful political strategy that consolidates military gains and translates increased security into support from the Iraqi people, these security improvements will, over time, be irrelevant.
O'Hanlon and Pollack report progress from several diverse Iraqi cities, including Sunni-dominated Ramadi, Arab-Kurdish-Turkman Tal Afar and Mosul, and Shiite-Sunni Baghdad. Curiously, the scholars' dispatch ignores Baqubah, Samarra, Kirkuk, and the areas south of Baghdad—places with the highest sectarian tensions, worst fighting, and least progress.
The short, selective itinerary raises questions about who planned the trip, whom O'Hanlon and Pollack were able to talk with, and what they actually saw—as opposed to what they were briefed on during visits to U.S. bases. At best, these two men saw enough of Iraq to get a glimpse of reality there. At worst, they saw a Potemkin Village of success stories, not unlike the picture shown to visiting congressional delegations, that left them with a false vision of progress. Read more.
Read more about RPCV Michael O'Hanlon.
Read more about RPCVs and Iraq.