The Unsurge

Gen. David Petraeus says the drawdown means military goals have been met in Iraq, but critics paint another picture.

During a two-day marathon testimony before Congress in September, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said the tactical military objectives of the troop surge largely have been met. But many say troops must begin returning home because the Army will run out of brigades to send by next spring, not because of any measurable successes in Iraq.

Petraeus pointed to a number of measures of progress: a sharp downturn in insurgent attacks, civilian deaths and sectarian killings; the killing or capture of large numbers of al Qaeda in Iraq fighters; and Sunni tribes' turn against al Qaeda and support of U.S. troops in western Iraq's Anbar province. The general said all combat brigades that were part of the surge will be out of Iraq by July 2008, when American troop levels in Iraq will return to the pre-surge norm of 130,000.

Unquestionably, Petraeus' strategy for securing the Iraqi population has made substantial progress. Dispatching an additional 24,000 American troops and 30,000 more Iraqi troops to patrol Baghdad's streets markedly improved security. In 2006, violence escalated in the Baghdad region after the Army replaced its 3rd Infantry Division, which had garrisoned the capital city, with a smaller division spread over a larger area. American troops simply were spread too thin, Army officers on the ground complained.

While the surge has been under way for only a few months, a number of troubling developments bode ill for the future of the American effort in Iraq. The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has not taken advantage of the improved security situation to make any of the difficult political decisions needed to create national unity among the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities. Maliki's government is becoming increasingly irrelevant as power devolves from the Green Zone to Iraq's cities and tribal lands and the armed militias of various competing factions. Also, the U.S. military's new policy of arming the three competing factions in Iraq is unlikely to aid efforts to forge a national army.

The drop-off in violence, measured by civilians killed and weekly attacks, is inconclusive. There is almost always a decline in insurgent attacks following a major U.S. offensive. Since they can't match American armor and firepower, insurgents usually blend into the surrounding population and wait out the offensive. Sunni Arab insurgent groups have codified their strategy, called "recoil, redeploy and spoil," of intermingling with the population and returning once American troops depart. If the decline in insurgent attacks is due primarily to additional U.S. troops, who cannot be maintained beyond the spring, then violence is sure to increase when they begin withdrawing.

Critics say Petraeus and his team are reacting to tactical circumstances on the ground, rather than dictating strategic events-an indication that U.S. influence in Iraq is on the wane. The much-touted Sunni tribal awakening in Anbar province is a good example. Only 5 percent of Iraq's population lives in Anbar province, where Sunni sheikhs reacted to a local challenge to their authority by al Qaeda in Iraq. In traditional tribal fashion, the Sunnis shifted alliances and joined with a stronger player-the U.S. military-to eliminate a rival. The awakening picked up steam in the spring and early summer when the U.S. military began to funnel tens of millions of dollars into the hands of Sunni tribal sheikhs to pay fighters who signed up for "neighborhood watch groups."

The money spent by local military commanders was in addition to the more than $100 million in development aid dispatched to Anbar province this year. Former militants who sign up to join the security forces receive the two most coveted items necessary for survival in Iraq: a weapons card and a paycheck. After four years spent fighting an intractable Sunni insurgency in Iraq, military commanders there have found their most effective counterinsurgency tool is the American dollar.

The U.S. military presence in Iraq had been deemed vital to prevent the overthrow of the Shia-led government by the Sunni insurgency. Then in late 2005, International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based nonprofit think tank, issued a report saying the insurgency had begun to shift its focus from the U.S. military, which they considered they had beaten, to the Iranian-influenced, Shia-dominated government.

By backing the Sunnis and portraying the Shia militia as a growing threat, as Petraeus did in his congressional testimony in September, America's new strategy might undo initiatives that were at the heart of the Bush administration's push to create a democracy in the heart of the Middle East-including the ratification of the Iraqi constitution in October 2005, which marginalized the Sunnis, and the elections in December 2005, which cemented the Shia hold over the Iraqi government.

"I think we are at the point that as long as our departure is on the calendar, the Shias and Sunnis will embrace strategies which accelerate that eventuality," says a military intelligence officer now in Baghdad. "If we say . . . we are here for the long term, both sides will raise levels of attacks in order to hasten our withdrawal."

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