Advocating on Behalf of the American Military and Defense on the War on Terror
It's shocking, but in today's NY Times, An Op Ed by two liberal war critics from the Brookings Institution have been to Iraq -- and are suitably impressed with progress!
New York Times
July 30, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor
A War We Just Might Win 
By MICHAEL E. O'HANLON and KENNETH M. POLLACK
Washington
VIEWED from Iraq, where we just spent eight days meeting with American
and Iraqi military and civilian personnel, the political debate in
Washington is surreal. The Bush administration has over four years lost
essentially all credibility. Yet now the administration's critics, in
part as a result, seem unaware of the significant changes taking place. 
Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are
finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two
analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration's miserable
handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the
potential to produce not necessarily "victory" but a sustainable
stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with. 
After the furnace-like heat, the first thing you notice when you land in
Baghdad is the morale of our troops. In previous trips to Iraq we often
found American troops angry and frustrated - many sensed they had the
wrong strategy, were using the wrong tactics and were risking their
lives in pursuit of an approach that could not work. 
Today, morale is high. The soldiers and marines told us they feel that
they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are
confident in his strategy, they see real results, and they feel now they
have the numbers needed to make a real difference. 
Everywhere, Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi
population, working with Iraqi security units, creating new political
and economic arrangements at the local level and providing basic
services - electricity, fuel, clean water and sanitation - to the
people. Yet in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to
the specific needs of the community. As a result, civilian fatality
rates are down roughly a third since the surge began - though they
remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done.
In Ramadi, for example, we talked with an outstanding Marine captain
whose company was living in harmony in a complex with a (largely Sunni)
Iraqi police company and a (largely Shiite) Iraqi Army unit. He and his
men had built an Arab-style living room, where he met with the local
Sunni sheiks - all formerly allies of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups
- who were now competing to secure his friendship. 
In Baghdad's Ghazaliya neighborhood, which has seen some of the worst
sectarian combat, we walked a street slowly coming back to life with
stores and shoppers. The Sunni residents were unhappy with the nearby
police checkpoint, where Shiite officers reportedly abused them, but
they seemed genuinely happy with the American soldiers and a mostly
Kurdish Iraqi Army company patrolling the street. The local Sunni
militia even had agreed to confine itself to its compound once the
Americans and Iraqi units arrived.
We traveled to the northern cities of Tal Afar and Mosul. This is an
ethnically rich area, with large numbers of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and
Turkmens. American troop levels in both cities now number only in the
hundreds because the Iraqis have stepped up to the plate. Reliable
police officers man the checkpoints in the cities, while Iraqi Army
troops cover the countryside. A local mayor told us his greatest fear
was an overly rapid American departure from Iraq. All across the
country, the dependability of Iraqi security forces over the long term
remains a major question mark. 
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. 
The additional American military formations brought in as part of the
surge, General Petraeus's determination to hold areas until they are
truly secure before redeploying units, and the increasing competence of
the Iraqis has had another critical effect: no more whack-a-mole, with
insurgents popping back up after the Americans leave. 
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. 
Another surprise was how well the coalition's new Embedded Provincial
Reconstruction Teams are working. Wherever we found a fully staffed
team, we also found local Iraqi leaders and businessmen cooperating with
it to revive the local economy and build new political structures.
Although much more needs to be done to create jobs, a new emphasis on
microloans and small-scale projects was having some success where the
previous aid programs often built white elephants. 
In some places where we have failed to provide the civilian manpower to
fill out the reconstruction teams, the surge has still allowed the
military to fashion its own advisory groups from battalion, brigade and
division staffs. We talked to dozens of military officers who before the
war had known little about governance or business but were now ably
immersing themselves in projects to provide the average Iraqi with a
decent life. 
Outside Baghdad, one of the biggest factors in the progress so far has
been the efforts to decentralize power to the provinces and local
governments. But more must be done. For example, the Iraqi National
Police, which are controlled by the Interior Ministry, remain mostly a
disaster. In response, many towns and neighborhoods are standing up
local police forces, which generally prove more effective, less corrupt
and less sectarian. The coalition has to force the warlords in Baghdad
to allow the creation of neutral security forces beyond their control.
In the end, the situation in Iraq remains grave. In particular, we still
face huge hurdles on the political front. Iraqi politicians of all
stripes continue to dawdle and maneuver for position against one another
when major steps towards reconciliation - or at least accommodation -
are needed. This cannot continue indefinitely. Otherwise, once we begin
to downsize, important communities may not feel committed to the status
quo, and Iraqi security forces may splinter along ethnic and religious
lines. 
How much longer should American troops keep fighting and dying to build
a new Iraq while Iraqi leaders fail to do their part? And how much
longer can we wear down our forces in this mission? These haunting
questions underscore the reality that the surge cannot go on forever.
But there is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today
that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008. 
Michael E. O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Kenneth M. Pollack is the director of research at the Saban Center for
Middle East Policy at Brookings.