Iraq’s Hopeful Numbers

Nov 1, 2007 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

November 1, 2007
Number 11/01 #07

The casualty figures from Iraq, both military and civilian, over the last couple of months have shown a major improvement – involving an overall decline of more than 50% and in Baghdad, over 80%. Nor is this only the US government’s figures; the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has also noted and welcomed the major reductions in casualties. This Update is devoted to analysis and discussion of these positive numbers and their significance.

First up, Pete Hegseth, a former US army officer, points out the positive numbers are the result of changed tactics more than troop numbers. He also notes that it has been driven in part by an explosion in intelligence tips to US forces, which are essentially votes of confidence by Iraqis to the coalition. He says the important thing to understand is that the situation in Iraq has now changed and can no longer be considered anything like a civil war. For his complete discussion, CLICK HERE. Hegseth notes that the attack on the Golden Mosque of Samarra in Feb. 2005 was a major trigger for the deteriorating situation – here’s a report on increasingly effective Iraqi security forces thwarting an attempt by al-Qaeda in Iraq to again detonate another major bomb there.

Next up, Middle East scholar Michael Ledeen says the coalition is now in a position in Iraq to ask a once unthinkable question – is it time to declare victory over al-Qaeda in Iraq? He also points to changed tactics as the key to the much better casualty numbers, but argues that unless the problem of Iranian support for insurgents is tackled,  the problem cannot be fully resolved. For Ledeen’s analysis of the situation, CLICK HERE.

Finally, we offer a thought-provoking opinion piece on the situation in Iraq, especially in terms of the continued limited effectiveness of the Iraqi government, by Dean Barnett. He argues that not only are the media and critics downplaying the story of the improving military situation inside Iraq, they are also missing a larger story about how the Iraqi people, at a grassroots level, are opting for and acting on the values of a peaceful and tolerant democracy, even if the central government has not yet been able to live up to these values. For this interesting argument that it will soon catch up, CLICK HERE. Barnett had an earlier article bemoaning the inadequate media coverage of the recent positive trend from Iraq, which you can read here.



New York Post, October 23, 2007 —

 THE former top commander in Iraq – Army Lt.-Gen. Ricardo Sanchez (ret.) – recently called the situation in Iraq “a nightmare with no end in sight.” Citing insufficient prewar planning and a strained military, he painted a dismal picture of American prospects there.

War critics painted a similar picture when violence in Iraq peaked in ’05 and ’06 – using terms like “civil war” and “sectarian violence” – as they pushed for a rapid draw-down or immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces. An Iraq “at war with itself” shouldn’t be America’s problem, they argued. In fact, the existence of a “religious civil war” remains the chief antiwar talking point to this day.

Problem is, the new U.S. strategy has changed the facts on the grounds.

A year ago, the assertions of Sanchez and the antiwar critics were an accurate description of the violence throughout Iraq: Armed death squads freely roamed the streets in Baghdad and outlying areas, responding to massive bombings committed by al Qaeda. And vice versa. Each week saw hundreds of innocent Iraqis – the victims of sectarian attacks and reprisals – kidnapped and killed. Worst of all, compromised members of the security forces (Iraqis in uniform) were complicit in many killings.

I was in Samarra on Feb. 22, 2005, the day al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents destroyed the dome of the Golden Mosque, and am very familiar with the violence that followed. That event was a catalyst for widespread violence in Iraq. Destroying a Muslim place of worship was indicative of al Qaeda’s overall strategy: foment violence, maintain instability, and intimidate the local population. And it worked.

The critics had a point: American soldiers were simply caught in the middle – not permitted to take action to stop the violence, and yet still very much in harm’s way. But what the critics failed to see was that it didn’t have to be that way – that what the troops lacked was an adaptive strategy that recognized and addressed underlying causes of the violence.

Enter Gen. David Petraeus and a strategy that did just that. (The term “surge” is far too simplistic, as it implies simply throwing more forces at the problem, when Petraeus’ changes in tactics are even more important).

The new counterinsurgency approach – namely, to take territory from al Qaeda, hold it, secure it and empower tribal sheiks to work together and rebuild their communities – finally provides an effective “counteroffensive” to the chief tactics of al Qaeda militants and Shiite death squads.

America’s enemies in Iraq, radical insurgents living and fighting among the general public, understand that they can’t continue their fight without capitulation from ordinary Iraqis. Finally, after almost four years, the U.S. military understands this as well.

Whereas we used to emphasize overwhelming firepower (even when I was there in 2006), we now emphasize firepower as a last resort. Whereas we used to rush to the scene after the violence occurs, we’re now there to repel it or deter it altogether.

This commitment – up and down the chain of command – has made a major impact on the tit-for-tat death toll that was threatening to tear the country apart. Sectarian violence has been severely curtailed.

Since last December, sectarian deaths throughout Iraq have dropped over 50 percent; overall attacks against civilians are down 50 percent. In Baghdad – the focal point of Petraeus’ strategy – sectarian deaths are down almost 80 percent in 10 months and large al Qaeda-style truck and suicide bombings have dropped over 50 percent.

Moreover, ordinary Iraqis are providing far more tips and other information. We now get some 23,000 tips a month, four to five times the level of a year before. This measure – which directly correlates to the trust and support of the population – is promising.

These are significant and consequential numbers and indicate real successes in stomping out the civil war. But it’s not just numbers that make the case that the civil war is ending. Look, too, at what the new strategy lets commanders do in their now-daily discussions with ordinary Iraqis.

Petraeus reports that foreign (non-Iraqi) recruits conduct over 80 percent of al Qaeda’s attacks; and therefore, by refocusing local tribal leaders on this fact, American commanders are making a convincing argument to the sheiks: Why launch an indiscriminate reprisal against another sect, ratcheting up the level of violence, when you can simply tell us and Iraqi security forces where the foreign insurgents are and we’ll go get them? The numbers say that’s exactly what’s happening.

A people drowning in sectarian violence and warped by perpetual vengeance aren’t going to immediately engage in political reconciliation. Security improvements must first dampen the violence, lower tensions and restore humanity. This is exactly what Petraeus has done, and we have finally begun providing the tangible security improvements necessary for lasting political solutions at the local and national levels.

Although many hope to convince America otherwise, the Iraq war has fundamentally changed in ’07. It’s not a civil war anymore. It’s the people of Iraq vs. al Qaeda and Iranian proxies, with the U.S.-led Coalition helping the Iraqi people swing their sword of sovereignty.

That’s the kind of good news that people on both sides of the aisle should appreciate.

Pete Hegseth, a first lieutenant in the Army National Guard, is executive director of Vets for Freedom. He served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from September ’05 to July ’06.


Victory Is Within Reach in Iraq

Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2007; Page A11

Should we declare victory over al Qaeda in the battle of Iraq?

The very question would have seemed proof of dementia only a few months ago, yet now some highly respected military officers, including the commander of Special Forces in Iraq, Gen. Stanley McCrystal, reportedly feel it is justified by the facts on the ground.

These people are not suggesting that the battle is over. They all insist that there is a lot of fighting ahead, and even those who believe that al Qaeda is crashing and burning in a death spiral on the Iraqi battlefields say that the surviving terrorists will still be able to kill coalition forces and Iraqis. But there is relative tranquility across vast areas of Iraq, even in places that had been all but given up for lost barely more than a year ago. It may well be that those who confidently declared the war definitively lost will have to reconsider.
Reconciliation: Shiite leader Ammar al-Hakim, left, and Sunni sheik Ahmed Abu Risha in Ramadi, Oct. 14, 2007.

Almost exactly 13 months ago, the top Marine intelligence officer in Iraq wrote that the grim situation in Anbar province would continue to deteriorate unless an additional division was sent in, along with substantial economic aid. Today, Marine leaders are musing openly about clearing out of Anbar, not because it is a lost cause, but because we have defeated al Qaeda there.

In Fallujah, enlisted marines have complained to an officer of my acquaintance: “There’s nobody to shoot here, sir. If it’s just going to be building schools and hospitals, that’s what the Army is for, isn’t it?” Throughout the area, Sunni sheikhs have joined the Marines to drive out al Qaeda, and this template has spread to Diyala Province, and even to many neighborhoods in Baghdad itself, where Shiites are fighting their erstwhile heroes in the Mahdi Army.

British troops are on their way out of Basra, and it was widely expected that Iranian-backed Shiite militias would impose a brutal domination of the city, That hasn’t happened. Lt. Col. Patrick Sanders, stationed near Basra, confirmed that violence in Basra has dropped precipitously in recent weeks. He gives most of the credit to the work of Iraqi soldiers and police.

As evidence of success mounts, skeptics often say that while military operations have gone well, there is still no sign of political movement to bind up the bloody wounds in the Iraqi body politic. Recent events suggest otherwise. Just a few days ago, Ammar al-Hakim, the son of and presumed successor to the country’s most important Shiite political leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, went to Anbar’s capital, Ramadi, to meet with Sunni sheikhs. The act, and his words, were amazing. “Iraq does not belong to the Sunnis or the Shiites alone; nor does it belong to the Arabs or the Kurds and Turkomen,” he said. “Today, we must stand up and declare that Iraq is for all Iraqis.”

Mr. Hakim’s call for national unity mirrors last month’s pilgrimage to Najaf, the epicenter of Iraqi Shiism, by Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni. There he visited Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shiite cleric. The visit symbolically endorsed Mr. Sistani’s role as the most authoritative religious figure in Iraq. Mr. Hashemi has also been working closely with Mr. Hakim’s people, as well as with the Kurds. Elsewhere, similar efforts at ecumenical healing proceed rapidly. As Robert McFarlane reported in these pages, Baghdad’s Anglican Canon, Andrew White, has organized meetings of leading Iraqi Christian, Sunni and Shiite clerics, all of whom called for nation-wide reconciliation.

The Iraqi people seem to be turning against the terrorists, even against those who have been in cahoots with the terror masters in Tehran. As Col. Sanders puts it, “while we were down in Basra, an awful lot of the violence against us was enabled, sponsored and equipped by. . . Iran. [But] what has united a lot of the militias was a sense of Iraqi nationalism, and they resent interference by Iran.”

How is one to explain this turn of events? While our canny military leaders have been careful to give the lion’s share of the credit to terrorist excesses and locals’ courage, the most logical explanation comes from the late David Galula, the French colonel who fought in Algeria and then wrote “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice” in the 1960s. He argued that insurgencies are revolutionary wars whose outcome is determined by control of, and support from, the population. The best way to think about such wars is to imagine the board game of Go. Each side starts with limited assets, each has the support of a minority of the territory and the population. Each has some assets within the enemy’s sphere of influence. The game ends when one side takes control of the majority of the population, and thus the territory.

Whoever gains popular support wins the war. Galula realized that while revolutionary ideology is central to the creation of an insurgency, it has very little to do with the outcome. That is determined by politics, and, just as in an election, the people choose the winner.

In the early phases of the conflict, the people remain as neutral as they can, simply trying to stay alive. As the war escalates, they are eventually forced to make a choice, to place a bet, and that bet becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The people have the winning piece on the board: intelligence. Once the Iraqis decided that we were going to win, they provided us with information about the terrorists: who they were, where they were, what they were planning, where their weapons were stashed, and so forth.

It’s easy to say, but quite beside the point, that any smart Iraqi would prefer us to the terrorists. We’re short-termers, while the terrorists promise to stay forever and make Iraq part of an oppressive caliphate. We’re going to leave in a few years, and put the country in Iraqi hands, while the terrorists — many of whom are the cat’s-paws of foreign powers — intend to turn the place into an alien domain. We promise freedom, while the jihadis impose clerical fascism and slaughter their fellow Arab Muslims.

But that preference isn’t enough to explain the dramatic turnaround — the nature of the terrorists was luminously clear a year ago, when the battle for Iraq was going badly. As Galula elegantly observed, “which side gives the best protection, which one threatens the most, which one is likely to win, these are the criteria governing the population’s stand. So much the better, of course, if popularity and effectiveness are combined.”

The turnaround took place because we started to defeat the terrorists, at a time that roughly coincides with the surge. There is a tendency to treat the surge as a mere increase in numbers, but its most important component was the change in doctrine. Instead of keeping too many of our soldiers off the battlefield in remote and heavily fortified mega-bases, we put them into the field. Instead of reacting to the terrorists’ initiatives, we went after them. No longer were we going to maintain the polite fiction that we were in Iraq to train the locals so that they could fight the war. Instead, we aggressively engaged our enemies. It was at that point that the Iraqi people placed their decisive bet.

Herschel Smith, of the blog Captain’s Journal, puts it neatly in describing the events in Anbar: “There is no point in fighting forces (U.S. Marines) who will not be beaten and who will not go away.” We were the stronger horse, and the Iraqis recognized it.

No doubt Gen. David Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno know all this. It is, after all, their strategy that has produced the good news. Their reluctance to take credit for the defeat of al Qaeda and other terrorists in Iraq is due to the uncertain outcome of the big battle now being waged here at home. They, and our soldiers, fear that the political class in Washington may yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They know that Iran and Syria still have a free shot at us across long borders, and Gen. Petraeus told Congress last month that it would not be possible to win in Iraq if our mission were restricted to that country.

Not a day goes by without one of our commanders shouting to the four winds that the Iranians are operating all over Iraq, and that virtually all the suicide terrorists are foreigners, sent in from Syria. We have done great damage to their forces on the battlefield, but they can always escalate, and we still have no policy to direct against the terror masters in Damascus and Tehran. That problem is not going to be resolved by sound counterinsurgency strategy alone, no matter how brilliantly executed.

Mr. Ledeen is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His book, “The Iranian Time Bomb,” was recently published by St. Martin’s Press.


The Real Iraqi Miracle

Opting for tolerance.

by Dean Barnett

The Weekly Standard, 10/31/2007 11:14:00 AM

IN THE FACE OF MEDIA indifference, the facts on the ground in Iraq have changed–dramatically and for the better. The deaths of Iraqi civilians over the past two months have declined precipitously. Before the surge and its accompanying change in tactics took effect, often 3,000 Iraqis would die violent deaths in a month, directly victimized by the sectarian violence. In September, that number dropped below 900. In October, the plunge continued to below 700, the lowest figure for any month at any point during the war.

One of the fears regarding the surge is that its change in tactics, a wholesale transformation that would put greater emphasis on engaging the enemy and less emphasis on force protection, would bring with it intolerable American casualties. Not intolerable to the men and women who have chosen to go to Iraq and want to win there, but surely intolerable to certain elements of our media and political establishments that would opportunistically seize on each piece of bad news as another reason to end “George Bush’s war.” Happily, this scenario hasn’t transpired. American fatalities due to hostilities have declined each month since May. In October, there were fewer than thirty American hostile fatalities, the lowest such figure since February 2004.

Yet war opponents and President Bush’s foes are nothing if not determined. They’re not likely to take this good news lying down. In the past, the media and the Democratic party have preferred to paint Iraq as an irretrievably violent place where we’ve already lost. The New York Times not long ago infamously editorialized that genocide was preferable to our current situation.

Even for lefty dead-enders, this narrative has become increasingly untenable. In order to avoid embarrassing themselves, the war’s opponents in the press and politics will have to make a tactical adjustment of their own. Look for them in the coming weeks to try to shift the debate to the one area where Iraq has not progressed dramatically since the start of the surge–its stumble-prone central government.

If they are allowed to do this, then the American people will miss the real miracle that has occurred in Iraq over the last several months. Peace is breaking out through Iraq and the sectarian violence declining because that is the demand of the Iraqi people. Iraqi society has tired of bloodshed, and has opted for tolerance. It is the most amazing and inspiring story of the admittedly still-young 21st century. And yet few in the media have deigned to tell it, and many in our body politic refuse to hear it.

A FEW YEARS AGO, conservative commentator and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote an article that harshly responded to President Bush’s idealistic second Inaugural Address. Noonan posited that Bush was overreaching in trying to eradicate tyranny, and even argued that tyrants have their proper role in history.

“Certain authoritarians and tyrants whose leadership is illegitimate and unjust have functioned in history as–ugly imagery coming–garbage-can lids on their societies,” she wrote. “They keep freedom from entering, it is true. But when they are removed, the garbage–the freelance terrorists, the grievance merchants, the ethnic nationalists–pops out all over. Yes, freedom is good and to be strived for. But cleaning up the garbage is not pretty.”

Noonan’s imagery was no less repulsive because she acknowledged its ugliness. Dismissing entire populations as “garbage” who need tyrants to keep them in their place is not the sort of language that her former boss, Ronald Reagan, would have countenanced.

Noonan was every bit as misguided in terms of realpolitik. By the start of this century, the age of the “successful” tyrant had long since passed. In Saudi Arabia, in spite of a ruthless, illegitimate regime that attempted to smother its society, a movement led by an embittered millionaire had “popped out” and toppled America’s two tallest buildings. Long before then, our tyrant in Iran, the Shah, lost his place atop Iranian society. The totalitarian Fundamentalists who replaced him have been killing Americans and other free people for over a generation now.

It’s important to note that the regime that replaced the Shah was popular; thirty years ago, it reflected the will of the Iranian people. Surveying the rest of the Islamic world after 9/11, we had and still have cause to fear the rise of more regimes cut from the Iranian cloth. Brutal Wahabism dominates Saudi society; the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood is ascendant in Egypt.

President Bush’s plan regarding the Iraq war was audacious and risky. He wanted to prove that an Islamic country could be peaceful and democratic. In order for the project to succeed, the demands for peace and tolerance had to necessarily flow from the Iraqi people.

It’s amazing how poorly our media and politicians have grasped that last point. It’s also more than a little odd. On the left, the most political muscle currently originates with the progressive “Netroots,” a group that endlessly extols the importance of “people power.” And on the right, the notion of an all-powerful central government dictating the way a society should function has long been anathema. And yet on all points along our political spectrum, there’s an often explicit agreement that unless the Iraqi government rapidly transforms itself into an Arabic-speaking version of our Constitutional Congress, the surge will have been for naught.

This is rubbish. Indeed, it’s un-American rubbish. Imposing a strong central government that would have served as a “garbage can lid” on Iraqi society would have been a lot easier than what the Bush administration is on the verge of accomplishing. We could have easily replaced a hostile SOB (Saddam) with one who had a more pro-American outlook. We could have left the Baath infrastructure intact, and with 150,000 American troops on the ground, our SOB would have had an easy time keeping a veneer of order and lawfulness in Iraq.

But in the end, that would have been a hollow “accomplishment.” Unless the people of the Islamic world decide to look past their “grievance merchants” and “ethnic nationalists,” we are in for a war without end.

SO WHAT’S HAPPENED the past several months? One thing’s for sure–you wouldn’t know the story by reading the New York Times.

While the military progress has been undeniable, the leaders of the American mission in Iraq continue to under-promise and over-deliver. Indeed, the contrast in the cautious rhetoric issued by the Petraeus/Odierno team could hardly differ more from the statements that their predecessors made. The administration in its rhetoric now allows for the fact that the enemy gets a vote. The possibility of counter-offensives by Al Qaeda or Shiite militias can’t be dismissed.

But the greatest progress hasn’t been on the military front, impressive as those strides have been. The real breakthrough has been with the Iraqi people. Throughout Iraq, Iraqi citizens have decided that the fighting must end. They have tired of the sectarian strife that made swaths of their country a killing field. Having sampled something that could be called a civil war, they have collectively decided that they would rather live in a peaceful society. This means that each sect will have to tolerate the other sects’ presence.

Throughout Iraq, ordinary citizens have tipped off American troops to the presence of not only al Qaeda forces but members of their own sect bent on violence. They have also tipped off American troops to the presence of hundreds of IEDs, saving countless American lives. And they have done all of this knowing that they were risking death by doing so.

Although grassroots politics in America is of a less perilous sort, this too is a form of grassroots politics. Ordinary people have involved themselves with the fate of their nation, and made an enormous difference. While the Iraqi government remains mostly dysfunctional and enmeshed in squabbling, the Iraqi people have chosen the course their country will take.

Over the coming months, congress will be debating Iraq. It is too late for the American left to acknowledge victory or even progress there. For years now, Iraq as a latter-day Vietnam has been a fixed part of the left’s conceptual software. In the Democratic party’s efforts to sell the case for Iraq being a failure, they will settle on the central government as their target of choice.

It may take a little time, but a democratic Iraqi people will someday get a government that reflects their new, hard-earned values. While it has been an often bumpy road, the Iraqi experiment now looks like it has a real chance of success. Hopefully George W. Bush, before his time in office expires, will be able to travel to Baghdad and deliver a speech that publicly recognizes the Iraqi people’s will to join the family of civilized nations. Yes, American blood and treasure have given Iraq its freedom, but Iraqis have had to bleed to keep it.

When George W. Bush addresses a free Iraq, a heterogeneous Islamic nation that America freed and that the people of their own volition opted for a peaceful and tolerant democracy, it will represent one of America’s greatest accomplishments. Iraq will truly serve as a beacon to other nations of the region. Its very presence will strike perhaps the lethal blow in the war of ideas we are fighting with fanatics across the region.

Not acknowledging the progress the Iraqi people have made is unconscionable. Abandoning them would be unforgivable.

Dean Barnett is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.



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